The wild wild west of Pakistan doesn´t look like it is made for the faint hearted. Standing on top of Khyber pass, one understands why so many armies made it into this barren rocky mountain landscape, but hardly any made it out. I would feel sorry for U.S. and NATO troops being stuck there now, if someone not with a wild beard and a Kalashnikov would approach me. I am used to that by now.
The rare traveller in Pakistan
One sees many guns in Pakistan. Different kinds of state police and security forces carry them. There is private security in the form of an elderly man with an old AK47 on his lap, sleeping next to the bank machine, and there are Pashtun or tribal people carrying their own guns. After four weeks in Pakistan, I know what they want. As the foreigner, the traveller, you are an easy victim. Coming from the west means you are rich – no better person to approach, invite to sit down and stay for a glass of tea. Everyday life is rural and orderly in Pakistan. Poverty prevails. Tourists and travellers are rare. They carry a wealth of outside experiences. When the world comes to visit, you cannot leave without being plundered with stories to tell.
It is there where Pakistan becomes interesting
The taxi driver is in a rush. We need to go and see more things, he urges. Down from the clear mountain air, the roads wind down into the dusty brown city air of Peshawar. Being the biggest city in the border region, it is refreshingly small. Thanks to the bomb blast the night before, moving around alone was restricted. Besides, I would have gotten lost in all the backyards. It is there where Pakistan becomes interesting, though.
The cities are old, run down, dirty and crowded. Nothing invites one for a walk, not much to see, except people and litter. I did get reprimanded for this assessment by a city-planner I met on the bus from Islamabad to Peshawar. True, tourists always go to the old cities and ignore the new and modern ones that have been built next to the old. But then, they are clean and dull, offering an air-conditioned shopping mall to escape into. Is a Subway outlet worth the trip to Pakistan?
Backyard in Peshawar
“Gul Arms Factory” reads the sign at the yard entrance where the driver stops. In the backyard some goats look at us, but in the shack, only the factory owner comes to greet us. Four old men concentrate on their work. The task is easy enough, the model to copy is only a cheap Chinese handgun. Still, it requires detail and precision to put all the parts from the model together into a working gun. A block of metal is clamped in a vice, then filed into shape, to make the body or the moving part of each gun.
Four men are working here, they produce about 30 to 40 guns each month. They are not young. It must require a mastership in artisan metalwork to work here. And patience. One of the men takes the part he is working on out of the vice, puts some bullets in, checks if they slide through smoothly, then puts his piece of metal back and continues filing. The factory owner comes with a finished gun. He shows us the original and the copies they make. I couldn´t tell the difference. The gun will sell for 50 to 100 U.S. dollars.
Across the road is a more upmarket factory, rather a garage with mats on the floor. That is the setup of a backyard factory. Berettas from Italy are being copied here. It is Saturday, a holiday, nobody is here. Walking past the workplaces, I see metal puzzle-pieces lying around, that put together, would make a gun. In a second workshop, pumpguns are made. For the barrel and the parts, there is machinery. I recognize some from the time I trained as a mechanic in a car factory in Germany.
The owner of this garage factory has an office with a desk and a phone. He carefully unwraps one weapon and hands it to us – four hundred U.S. dollars for the Beretta. My two travelmates have been in the army, they check it out. Absolutely decent quality, they claim. For one dollar per bullet, we are allowed to try it out. Quite expensive, but then, this is Pakistan.
While the Darra people proudly claim that for generations they have been able to copy any gun in the world in a matter of days, ammunition has to be imported and bought. You can´t waste money going to the pub or drinking beer in this country. So, on a warm February Saturday afternoon, we bang around with a real gun in a Pakistani backyard. No police come, no neighbours open windows to see what is happening. Here, the sound of a gunshot is like the bark of a dog back home – a normal sound.
We thank the owners of the gunshops for showing us around, apologize for not buying a gun. They know we can't as foreigners. A sense of pride is there, as they show us their work, deservedly so. To put together out of handworked pieces of metal a gun that looks like a machine made Beretta from a fancy factory, commands respect.
I hope their business will go well, I find myself thinking. Strange thought for a longhaired pacifist. But then, with America in the country next door, there are more guns coming in now – donations, stolen guns, cheaply bought guns from all over the world. Smuggling them to Pakistan ruins the local prices, obviously. With global flows, the upperclass in Pakistan will want a genuine Italian Beretta, or Kalashnikov rather than a copied one from home. Fashion rules, even in the arms trade.
Another day, another backyard
The next morning, I see guns again. My travelmates move on, I decide to stroll around in Peshawar. Streets are deserted. It is Sunday, a public holiday. A Shiite festival is on, a bomb blasted out the security chief of the town, two nights before, 500 metres down the road from here. I walk to buy an English newspaper. While looking for the football results, I find myself standing next to a pile of sacks. A policeman is grinning at me from behind the sacks, over the barrel of a machine gun. His family has settled next to him, with food and tea. They wave at me, to come and join them. Some youngsters are faster, though.
Iend up sitting with a group of students on a rope-bed on the pavement. Makes more sense since they speak fluent English. One is studying political science. As always in Pakistan, interest in politics is next to nonexistent. The military government does not care about the people, the people do not care for the government. Hardly anyone pays taxes. My new bedmates, looking at the empty streets, claim that it is not safe to sit around here all day. One asks if I like music. Saying I do, I get dragged off into – another backyard.
I try to explain, I didn´t even have breakfast yet, no tea. I would like to read the paper. That has only the result of getting me tea. When the lunch for the people in the backyard comes, I get handed a plate as well. Someone else reads the paper while I eat.
Rubab is the name of the instrument being made. It has strings and the right size, so I try to play “knocking on heavens door”, the only song I can play on a guitar. It does not work out. I sound worse than Bob Dylan. I do not remember a guitar having 20 strings. My bedmate from the street takes the instrument and starts playing.
Melody and rhythm can be played at the same time on the Rubab. It has two sets of strings. He is a master. Someone brings a tabla and joins him. They tell me they are playing Afghani music. It sounds like a playful ride through a stone dessert, invites leaning back and daydreaming. This is a perfect Sunday afternoon live-music brunch. I sit on another bed, eat rice, drink green tea, with a few friends and relatives – another sunny day in Pakistan, life goes by. For three generations the shop exists, the owner tells me.
Instruments are handcarved out of wood and decorated with seashell ornaments. Musicians often come and gather to play. There are no cafés or clubs in Pakistan – no venues for a band to play. I nag the musicians to play. In Berlin, I tell them, as good as you play, you could earn money. But no, they just do it for fun. With friends. Or to teach people who buy the instruments. A business card from Munich is shown, proudly. Another German, I am told, stayed with them for four weeks last year. He is making flyers for the shop and building a website. Apparently Wilayat Khan in Peshawar is a famous Rubab maker.
Not planning to be here for four weeks, I get on my way in the late afternoon. I decide to stay on the street this time. After all, I still need to read the paper and get myself organised to travel the next morning.
It takes three more cups of green tea to get out of an Afghani carpet shop. Walking out on the street, some old man greets me. His dark wrinkled face forms a nice contrast to his white beard. I stop again, in this part of the world, age is respected. I shake hands, thinking this old man probably came from prayers at the mosque, doing his Muslim duty to greet and enquire if the traveller needs any assistance. He asks if I want to buy hashish or heroine. I decline. He then offers tea. I can come and sit in his shop. After eight cups and nonstop talking with all sorts of people, I thank him and say I need to be going. A bit sad, he walks off.
It is evening in Peshawar. With the unread newspaper, I return to my room. There is nothing much to see in Pakistan and there is so much.
For Khyber pass tours, to see arms factories, truck factories, or whatever, allow Sohail Hussain, a journalist, photographer and tour guide help you. He will find you at the Rose Hotel, which for $5.00, is a good place to stay.