Batting for PakistanPurchase 'Batting for Pakistan'
3 - Drugs, Guns and Cricket
Even doing the simplest of things can make an impression on you. I needed to find somewhere that would make a cd from my digital camera photos. In one shop I ventured into, it felt like a royal visit. I was courteously escorted downstairs for a guided tour of the company premises. Green tea was served and, of course, we got around to discussing cricket.
Hussein's words rang out in my head,
"I think maybe you like cricket too much!" He knew me too well already. Sadly, he was not the first person to have said such words to me.
Hussein was a man who I met, as I was drowning in the congested bustle of Peshawar's old city. It was the daytime crush to get to the main mosque for lunchtime prayers, and limbs of bodies were being scrubbed and washed clean with purposeful ferocity.
I seemed to be in everyones way as I was being distracted by a strange noise. The mosque announcer was, rather amusingly, having a coughing fit. The microphone kept crackling sharply, as he spluttered his way through. It diminished the authority of his message in a country renowned in places for its religious severity.
Hussein mimed a throttling action with his hands, struggling to contain a laugh.
"Someone is throttling him so he cannot speak!"
Hussein had some friends who ran a carpet shop. It was in the Ali market, above the jewellery quarter. I had to go there. Here, traders from Turkmenistan had made their economic mark.
In true carpet shop owner tradition they bent over backwards to welcome across the threshold in spite of my firm and repeated insistences that no purchases would be made. Once that declaration had been rolled out everything was most civil and tea was taken.
"You know, Pakistan, India and England all same country." Hussein announced.
I looked at him in an understandably confused manner.
"Before 1947." he belatedly added.
The creation of Pakistan's boundaries as a nation state had come about, to some extent, as a result of the British successfully playing off different tribes against each other. And when they left, the borders of Pakistan were really no more than arbitrary lines drawn on maps in places.
Mohammed Ali Jinnah was the man who oversaw Pakistan's independence in 1947. The country was originally split into West and East Pakistan (Bangladesh). Jinnah was regarded as the father of the nation, Pakistan's Gandhi.
Since 1947, when the split between India and Pakistan had been described as the most complex divorce in history, hundreds of thousands had been killed in the Punjab region alone. Around six million people had migrated in each direction. In Peshawar thousands of people had died after a soldier's gun had gone off by accident.
In Pakistan, there had been many army coups amongst one or two civilian governments. For over half the period since 1947 the country had been ruled by military dictatorships. It was almost like a period of alternate rule between the military and the mullahs.
"You know how to tell difference between mullahs and army," he whispered to me.
"Mullahs have beards and army have moustaches."
This wasn't a fertile country for a razor blade salesman.
Islam had established a firm presence in this part of the world since 711 AD, when the Umayyad empire expanded from Damascus to reach and conquer the Indus valley, which was previously Buddhist. The Indus valley was where the very first civilisations of the world were nourished.
The oppressiveness of obedience was evident in many ways, like the burkas and long beards. But it had also penetrated in other more covert ways. Perhaps the most frightening thing has been the quietness of the drift to extremism. Sharia law in this part of Pakistan meant that films had been banned. Failure to pray sufficiently might result in punishment. Non-Islamic music was frowned upon. Male doctors were not supposed to examine women they did not know intimately. Men could not even tailor clothes for women. A woman could not make a sustainable allegation of rape without at least three male witnesses.
There are tens of thousands of madrassas in Pakistan. Inside them boys thirstily imbibe the Koran and learn how to become mini-jihadists. It certainly represented a different form of education than young people doing degrees in media studies at De Montford university. I wonder how long it will be before we start churning out graduates with qualifications in celebrity studies. Maybe this exists already. Which poses a greater threat to society's long term well-being? Someone qualified in Islamic radicalism or someone with a valueless degree in media studies. Discuss.
Like most men in Peshawar, and indeed Pakistan, Hussein and his friends were wearing a shalwar khameez, a long shirt over loose trousers, which predictably got quite grubby from all the fumes and city dirt, and open toed sandals. They sometimes wore black leather jackets over their shalwar khameezes, which made for a strange combination.
Even stranger was when pairs of sunglasses were inserted on if we walked anywhere outside. The top half was Marlon Brando, and the bottom half was like the flowing skirt of an Edwardian lady.
I was reacquainted with another of Hussein's friends, who I recognised by the expression of permanent surprise engraved across his face. He was always excited to see me. Somehow, hard as I tried to feign it, I could never quite requite his affection with my own, because deep down we both knew that he wanted me to buy some carpets from him. This was a road I made very clear I had no intention of going down. No amount of green tea poured down my throat would alter this resolution.
Between bursts of hospitable energy towards me, there were arguments and disagreements amongst the others in languages I had no hope of understanding. It was quite remarkable though, how frequently voices got raised, but how infrequently tempers were visibly lost. Even a trivial decision such as deciding where to take me to eat necessitated a prolonged, exhaustive discussion of various options. In the end we found somewhere suitable&food delivered to the carpet shop to supplement the inexhaustible supplies of tea.
Further down from the jewellery quarter and the Ali market was a large sprawling fruit and vegetable market. It sold every fresh and edible fruit and vegetable you could imagine. There were improbably balanced mountains of dates, nuts and sweets. Men served up revitalisingly fresh juices from pomegranates, oranges and lemons.
I needed to find some news from the internet, as I was still largely in the dark as to how England had contrived to collapse and lose the first test match against Pakistan after it seemed that they should have won.
Yet, for some reason, the dusty underground internet basement place I squeezed my way into could only serve up news from the BBC site, which was four days old. I tried the Times site, but its date somehow went back even further, to February 18th 1980!
It was an interesting thought. What if the world were deprived of the internet for a day? There would be a revolt. No wonder there were still shops in Peshawar doing a brisk trade in International Type Writers.
Walking around the area near my hotel, I turned a corner and was aware of a group of schoolboys. They seemed to be larking about in the way schoolboys did. As I approached them, out of nowhere, one of them suddenly thrust a live snake into my face. It took me totally by surprise and I became quite angry. Their idea of a joke didn't seem too funny to me. After I gave them a verbal lashing, they quickly scampered.
The big bearded old man from my hotel had offered to take me to the Khyber Pass. He didn't really seem to grasp the fact that I had just come down it from inside Afghanistan, where beards were even bigger and the faces much friendlier than his. Why would I go back up it again from inside Pakistan and pay him an extortionate amount of money to drive me there as well? Hussein warned me off him.
"This man, I do not think you can trust him. He wants a lot of money off you."
One place I did want to go to, however, was somewhere called Smugglers Bazaar. Hussein said he would take me, but we would have to be very discreet, or 'hide' as he described it.
"With wrong and bad people, this can be very dangerous place for foreigner to be." he forewarned me, before breaking into a smile.
"But if you know the right people, no need for special permission."
So I met up with him a safe distance from outside the front of my hotel. He immediately spotted me standing around with very indiscreet awkwardness and wasted no time in shepherding me into the back seat of a very small waiting car.
Hussein insisted I put on a traditional white Pakistani hat and also, the rather less fetching and uncomfortably hot cardigan. This was my cunning disguise for when we passed through the police checkpoint on the edge of the city. And to round things off, I was handed a local newspaper printed entirely in Urdu to put my head down into and read. We were en route to the Smugglers Den.
Also out the same way was Kachi Gahi, believed to have become one of the largest refugee camps in the world and home to a million and a half displaced Afghans. A few years after the fall of the Taliban, more vehicles and people were slowly returning back over the border to Afghanistan.
In fact, according to Hussein, the trade in guns and drugs was very healthy, or unhealthy, depending on which was you saw it. Hussein had a quietly defiant pride in the country where he came from.
Pakistanis tended to regard Afghans as traditional to the point of being backward, and comparatively impoverished. They also saw them as violent.
"War is our national sport of Afghans." Hussein joked to me. For their part, as I had sensed from my time in their own country, Afghans mostly looked at Pakistan as a hybrid non-country.
As a police checkpoint loomed ahead of us, I never quite knew when it would be safe for me to look up or stop "reading" my Urdu newspaper. Our small car came to a halt and the front windows were cranked down. I didn't dare to look up.
Later, I learnt that Hussein had had to pay a larger than normal bribe to the policeman. And initially, this was to secure passage into what looked like an ordinary, if slightly ramshackle, collection of old stores on some dusty streets. But as we ventured closer, a powerful stench of hashish pervaded everywhere. This was indeed Smugglers Bazaar. People came here to buy drugs and guns.
The English word 'assassins' derived from the Arabic word, 'hashishiyun', or smokers of hashish.
"No rules here," Hussein told me with a glint in his eye, "this is not law of Pakistan here."
In such a supposedly illicit place of sin, where many laws were being casually broken almost by the second, religion had intruded. I had to wait before seeing anything of note, because all the various proprietors were finishing their lunchtime prayers. Who said drugs, guns and religion were not compatible?
Repeatedly, I had to bat away questions about which drugs, or indeed weapons, I would like to buy. Typically, I would say,
"It is kind of you to offer, but no thank you." to which the reply would be,
"So how many do you want then? Hashish? Guns? How many you looking to buy? We make very good opium here."
I was still coming to terms with how ridiculously simple and effortless it would have been for me to buy huge quantities of powerful guns and hard drugs here.
"No really, I am only a tourist." I protested.
"This hashish is very good. The best you will find in Pakistan."
I sought refuge in another sip of green tea.
"I'm sure it is, but I am only here to look."
"OK let me show you some guns. Hand made guns. Very good, the best guns."
He showed me a plate full of bullets. I don't think anyone, except Hussein, understood why I would come to Smugglers Bazaar only to look and leave empty-handed.
But one shop owner returned from prayers to proudly show me his wares: A small bucket of pure, extremely strong smelling hashish and a golf ball sized chunk of opium, which he said he would sell for around twenty dollars. This was a good thirty times less than it would sell for on the streets of a UK city. He told me it was better to eat this stuff than smoke it.
Then he proceeded to show me a rather heavy pen. Except it wasn't a pen, it was actually a small gun, I realised as he unscrewed one end and showed me a tiny hidden bullet. The pocket clip turned out to be the trigger and the bullet could be fired from up to thirty metres away. Now I could see why they loved their paperwork so much in this part of the world. The pen was truly mightier than the sword.
From the pen gun, after being shown an old bayonet, we made quite a leap up to an AK47 and a loaded Kalashnikov rifle. The Kalashnikov was described as the Rolls Royce of guns. It operated with great efficiency and was in many respect flawless. Apart from its regrettable habit of killing people.
Deadly weapons were made by hand with tender loving care and detail in the same way that a skilled and dedicated artist might put the finishing touches to an oil painting. Everything was so laissez-faire, but potentially lethal at the same time.
I didn't know whether to admire the manufacturing workmanship, or be disturbed by the reality that hundreds of weapons like this were being produced every single day in this part of the world. It was perfectly normal to own a gun, and perfectly normal to carry it around with you.
Guns were traded like we would exchange cars, but at terrifyingly cheaper prices. Less than a hundred pounds for a reliable Kalshnikov. And a few hundred more might leave you in possession of a rocket launcher, which might have been a tad tricky for me to smuggle through airport customs so I gave it a miss. Although the thought of producing a rocket launcher after being asked if I had anything to declare was mildly amusing.
I was encouraged to have a go at firing some rounds off. So off we all went outside to find a suitable place to do so. I tried to stress quite heavily that my preference would be for an area without human bodies in the way, or anywhere in the vicinity, but I didn't really have a say in the matter. It seemed the only really suitable place to fire in such a built up area was upwards into the air.
We walked towards the end of the bazaar, passing a collection of old, small similar looking shops. They had the faded labels of spirit bottles displayed in their windows. All of a sudden, we came to the large open courtyard of a lavishly decorated white property. It was a brash, gaudy mansion which reeked of new drug money. Standing outside this property were two men, Ali and Noor, who introduced themselves to me. I couldn't properly establish if they were drugs barons, or gun barons. Both probably.
These two men were completely off their heads laughing, as they smoked. Whether this was caused by the absurd ease with which such wealth could be flaunted so openly, or the fact that I had just been entrusted with a lethally dangerous live weapon, which I didn't quite know how to hold correctly, it was hard to say.
Not really sure what to expect, I eased back, ensuring for the fourth time that there was no one remotely with potential range in front of me, and began to blast away into the sky. The thundering bang of the first shot I was sure had made me deaf in my right ear, while the thunderous vibration of such a powerful weapon shuddered through right down to my toes in no time at all. A few onlookers did nothing so much as stop to stare at me more than the amunition I was propelling into the dusty air.
After a couple of adjustments, I shamelessly sprayed off some more rounds. There was something very satisfyingly masculine about the whole process. And I realised something quite scary, as I effortlessly fired off another violent volley. These ridiculously powerful weapons were too easy to propel. As easy to propel, as they were to buy and sell.
When I had finished, the hysterical laughing of Ali and Noor behind me had not subsided. It had intensified. They kept wanting to shake my hand, telling my how good they thought my country was, even though I reminded them that their country had just beaten my own at cricket. It was just about impossible to get anything serious or meaningful out of them. But Noor did confide to me that 'business was very good'. He didn't have to tell me. There was plenty of evidence all around me.
"You want to try rocket launcher. We have also." I wondered how far this might take me. From pen to rocket launcher, what next? A nuclear weapon tucked away somewhere?
"No thank you. I think I'll just stick to the Kalashnikov for today, thanks."
"These people, lots of money, very rich." Hussein whispered to me. "Maybe best to leave now while everyone is happy."
Smugglers Bazaar was one of those places and situations, that I only properly considered the dangers well after I had left. The industries in this part of the part had a determined and purposeful dynamism. And the casual normality of it all was faintly reassuring at the time, but far less so afterwards.
Much safer to seek out the relaxing, peaceful harmony of an afternoon cricket game in Peshawar, surely? Well, maybe not. The Temuhr Khan park on the city's outskirts was brimming with fast and furious cricket games.
Not just one or two, but literally hundreds all being acted out in nothing less than full flow, side by side, wickets of rocks by other wickets of bricks, on a sizeable patch of dustbowl sprawl. As roughed up pitches and sticky wickets went, this took some beating.
Forget firing off loaded weapons in the company of irrational drugs barons. Try negotiating your way through this enthralling congestion of swinging bats and hard flying cricket balls. Cricket, the game that's never done.
It was difficult to know which direction to walk in. Something dangerous lurked from every impossible and unlikely angle. I saw one of the largest slip cordons I had ever seen, while in a neighbouring game there must have been at least forty-three men patrolling the covers. Sixes sailed repeatedly from all sorts of directions and improbably angles.
It was places like this - on the streets and in the parks - where the young man I had met previously, Umar Gul, had learned his trade. Until the age of sixteen he had never played with a real cricket ball, only with the white taped ball. A few months after I met he was plying his trade for his country against England at the home of cricket, Lords.
I was rescued from this strangely enthralling minefield by Farid, from the proper cricket stadium, which was over the wall next door to the dustbowl.
"Mister Alistair John," he announced, having memorised the first names from my passport. "Bad environment for you here. Very dirty." He seemed impatient to drag me away.
After all, I was slightly late for our agreed cricket rendezvous.
"Maybe I fine you match fee for being late." he joked.
Before long though, I was on another mini tour, this time around the practice ground, being introduced to all and sundry. Lots of handshakes and nodding of heads.
"This is Mister Alistair John. He is from England. Very good cricketer."
More handshakes and nodding of heads. In depth cricket statistics and promising player profiles were being bounced into me with the same velocity as a Freddie Flintoff over. Briefly, I longed to be back in a small car with an Urdu newspaper to regain some anonymity.
At one point, it seemed embarrassingly possible, that he might even temporarily call a halt to a schoolboy game taking place in the middle of the pitch, just to allow me to demonstrate my batting prowess. I hated to disappoint him, so this idea was averted by my request for some green tea.
The schoolboy game was evenly poised, which made for pleasant viewing in the late autumnal afternoon sunshine, as a close finale unravelled. It was probably a good thing that the batting side wrapped things up as swiftly as they did, since clouds of swirling dust were beginning to drift over the wall from next door. As shadows on the outfield lengthened, the dust clouds encircled the playing area. Rain and bad light can always stop play, particularly in England. But dust stopped play? It didn't quite sound right.
However, it made a terrific excuse for me to decline Farid's enthusiastic offer to get padded up with a helmet and even a box to protect my private parts, so I could face some of his up-and-coming young bowlers. I had noticed them limbering up during the game and this reaffirmed the sanity of my desire to keep all bodily parts intact. Or maybe it was still the potency of the wafts of hashish from Smugglers Bazaar, which had dimmed my appetite for activity.
Instead, I opted to go back to the other side of the wall, where the real cricket action seemed to be taking place. Stray balls from games far, far away repeatedly intercepted my path. Balls flew past my head. Every now and again, I witnessed heated arguments over a debatable catch or a close lbw shout.
I took many photos of various games here and there. And on one occasion, I used my digital camera to adjudicate where the ball had hit the batsman. It was like a small miniature Hawk-eye TV replay.
Further out of the dusty park, on slightly greener pitches, yet more endless games of cricket were in full, passionate flow. Bodies were flung around. Sinews were being strained. Brows were drenched in sweat. Every boy and man, batting, bowling and fielding for Pakistan. If anyone still thinks cricket is boring, sedate and dull, they should come to Pakistan. It is the game with vibrant life and purpose, the game that's never done.
Which other countries could you seamlessly be transported within a matter of hours from guns and drugs to cricket? Pakistan was the only country I could think of that lived on guns and cricket. And Allah as well of course, but that was another story.Purchase 'Batting for Pakistan'