More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 78

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

It’s strictly a man’s world around here. Gun culture reigns supreme in the border badlands of northern Pakistan. It is here that the so-called tribal territories of the northwest frontier meet the terminally fractured land of Afghanistan.

Thirty miles or so down the Khyber Pass from the border at Torkham is the Pakistani frontier town of Peshawar. Here, prolonged exposure to gun culture has bred a certain lighthearted phlegmatism. There is a tombstone in the heavily overgrown British cemetery at Peshawar: ‘Here lies Captain Ernest Bloomfield. Accidentally shot by his orderly, March 2nd 1879. “Well done, good and faithful servant”.’

Peshawar is a frontier town with more than an air of the Wild West. It is in what is known as a Settled Area and lies just beyond the lawless tribal territories, the land of the Pathans. The women move silently – and shapelessly – through the bazaars in their dark burqas. Antique dealers and carpet salesmen eagerly tout for business anxious to offload old and beautiful items of doubtful provenance, many of which look as though they should actually be gracing the sanctuary of a museum or gallery. Some once did. And there are the impoverished refugees from Afghanistan who live outside town in vast camps still recruiting grounds for the training of international terrorists.

Tribal men newly arrived in town walk confidently in the streets with their carelessly shouldered AK-47s expansively greeting urbanised relatives: Yusufzais, Wazirs, Afridis, Ghilzai, Mohmands, Mahsuds, and representatives of a dozen other tribes. Each of these tribes enjoy historically established ‘specialisations’ – not least in the lucrative drug and gun trades.

One tribe, for example, are the smugglers. Other tribes grow the opium poppies, another processes the opium into heroin in caves in the mountains. And so they live in an uneasy alliance. As the seasoned traveller, Geoffrey Moorhouse, observed: “The North West Frontier has been a permanent battlefield since man first settled on it, not only because of regular invasions and struggles against periodic imperialisms, but because the tribes have never ceased fighting each other on any pretext or none at all.”

The agents of a myriad range of Western intelligence and drug control agencies attempt to move anonymously through the dust, the noise and colour of the narrow streets and alleyways around the bazaar area. From time to time, a mysterious Westerner without identification is found inexplicably dead in his room at nearby Green’s Hotel, a somewhat faded establishment ($12 a night), but one where nobody enquires too much of your business.

I decided to stay there. I knew I was literally following in the steps of Osama bin Laden. The rooms are basic, the corridors bare but you don’t need much imagination to speculate on the intrigue the hotel has seen. And it serves the best tarka dhal (black lentil) curry I’ve ever had anywhere.

A rundown arcade of shops below the hotel sells faded and slightly crumpled postcards bearing the legend, ‘Greetings from Afghanistan’, which are most useful for impressing the folks back home. The hotel electrician was un-phased by my problems in setting up a satellite telephone in my room. He turned out to enjoy a surprising command of modern technology as if he did that sort of thing every day. On reflection, he probably did.

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