"I bet you wonder what kind of place we've brought you to?" she laughed.
"I've been in desolate places before. Remember, before I lived in Pakistan I spent much time in Afghanistan. This reminds me of Afghanistan." I told her.
It should have. At most we couldn't have been more than a few hours walk from the Afghan border. Tribal Territory is a shadow zone between Afghanistan and Pakistan, administered to by Pakistan, inhabited by tribal Pathans. The Pathans living in Tribal Territory owe their first allegiance to their respective tribes, and follow the law of the jirga - a group of tribal elders. Many are fugitives and outlaws. The government has no power in Tribal Territory, at least not off the few paved roads. If the government comes in the locals shoot them. They don't keep heavy caliber machine guns mounted in their towers for nothing. Until now the government tolerates them, a somewhat uneasy status quo.
In front of the fort was a sitting area, surrounded by six foot high stone walls, with a few well-placed shooting loopholes. In the center of this outdoor guest room grew a dry gnarled tree covered with a grape vine. A young boy brought out two charpoys and some pillows. The uncle wasn't home yet, but he should be home by evening the boy, his son, informed us. We sat on the charpoys and drank tea.
The brother excused himself and went inside the fort to attend to some family matters. Nasreen and I sat on a charpoy. Several younger children kept their distance, silently watching us. The boy went off and killed a black crow with his slingshot. He took his kill and went up on the roof of a building inside the fort, hanging it from a pole sticking out of the roof. He and the younger children seemed to think it greatly amusing to watch the other birds come and pick at the freshly killed corpse. Then he disappeared into the fields, later returning with two small sparrows he had killed with his sling. I asked Nasreen if they were edible. She said she would cook them for me, getting up and taking them inside the fort.
The brother came out and we chatted. There was one sparse cornfield behind the fort. There was another field with the dry stubble of the already harvested wheat crop, looking toward the barren mountains of Afghanistan. Five donkeys were grazing in it. There was no irrigation.
"If it doesn't rain, the crops will burn (die)." he told me, looking toward the corn field. "All our water here comes from wells. Very deep wells. Ours is one hundred and twenty feet deep. Dug by hand. The well in that fort is three hundred feet deep." he said, pointing with his hand.
I noticed that the boy was calling the brother Noor Gul. Not unusual in a suspicious land as this, that he would originally come to my house in the guise of another name.
Noor Gul went inside the fort. I chatted with the boy.
"What is your name?"
"Abidullah." he stated.
"Are you in school?"
"I'm in the second class." he told me.
He was probably twelve years old, but in Tribal Territory, there is much needed to be done around the fort. Especially for an eldest son.
"My school is an hours walk from here. It has four rooms." he boasted. Then he continued in thickly accented English, "Cat -bat - rat - won - tuo - tree - fuor. Look," he said, picking up a stick he scratched in the dirt, ABIDDLAH, in crooked English. I picked up the stick and corrected his spelling. He smiled.
"What is Noor Gul's relation to you?" I checked.
"And the girl?"
"She's also my cousin. His sister."
"Noor Gul lives here with you?"
"No, he lives in Mardan, with his wife and children."
I asked more personal questions, but all of his answers were correct. Nasreen came out with the two sparrows skewered and roasted on a gun cleaning rod. Noor Gul brought me a lota of water to make uzu for prayer. He told me he had already prayed inside. I prayed with Abidullah. When we were making uzu he told me it was guna because I hadn't quite gotten the very ends of my toes completely wet. My prayers would not be valid, he told me. True in Muslim rules, but then I personally am not sure how God feels about it. But then every bit learned is another bit learned. It fits the form. God is inside. People and forms are outside.
After prayer food was brought. A few eggs cooked in grease. Spinach and course home cooked roti. Noor Gul said he was sick and not so hungry. He did eat a few bites with me so that I wasn't eating alone. For some reason it relieved me that at least he ate something with me. In this culture you don't break bread with someone you intend to kill. Inside I knew I couldn't trust Nasreen as far as I could throw her, though I would have rather gone on hearing her lies than to go on without her...
The uncle never showed up. Noor Gul and I planned to sleep outside. When night came we were listening to what sounded like thunder from across the mountains. He told me they must be fighting in Afghanistan. Then a dust storm blew in. We hastily retreated into the fort's hujra.
In the morning Nasreen brought me chai and parattas. When I told her I had ventured out to the field at dawn to go to the toilet, she said,
"I'm afraid to go out at night. The dogs will eat you!"
We spent most of the day sitting on charpoys outside the fort in the rock walled sitting area. Nasreen and I discussed our wedding plans and the future. Talk about being in heaven. Temporary heaven.
We could get married, then apply for her visa for America. We would stay part time in the fort in Bajaur, and part time in my house in Peshawar. Then we would go to America and spend a year or so there. Let things cool down in Pakistan.
Noor Gul and I talked about payment plans for the two lakh rupees. If I couldn't get all of the money right away I could give him one lakh now and marry her, and pay the remaining lakh in six months to a year. Or if that was a problem I could pay fifty thousand rupees now, to assure that they wouldn't marry her off to the suitor in Mardan, and after I got another fifty thousand to them I could marry her. He was rather sure their uncle would agree to those terms.
Nasreen and I sat and watched the gray-brown mountains and dry fields. In the distance we could see men working in their fields, rifles or machine guns slung over their shoulders. We sent Abidullah off to the store for cigarettes and matches. In Pakistan, in these backward rural areas, stores are just a front room of somebody's house, selling a small handful of sundries and essentials. We laughed that we had to smoke Red and White, the more expensive Gold Leaf cigarettes we used to smoke in Lahore not available in remote places such as this. Nobody wants to spend 20 rupees on a pack of cigarettes.
He returned an hour later. Nothing is close here. I noticed my ten rupees change in his top shirt pocket. When he saw I didn't ask for it, he made a casual, yet noticeable effort to hide it. Maybe not unusual for a young, dirt poor kid, but rather unusual treatment toward a guest in Pathan society.
Noor Gul was not to be seen most of the morning. Nasreen said he was sick and sleeping. Shortly after noon she disappeared inside the fort. It was Juma and the closest neighboring fort, approximately two furlongs away had a mosque built into it. The Juma prayer was starting, and the beginning sermon was broadcasting from a scratchy loud speaker perched on the roof of the fort's tower.
Abidullah came out with a lota of water to make uzu. He said we should pray here as the mosque would be filled with stupid people who would be suspicious about why I was here. Now because of the situation of Nasreen and I, I didn't think it was all that unusual that they were trying to hide what was going on. We made uzu, the water running off and soaking into the fine dry dust covering the dirt. When the final Azan sounded, just before the congregational prayer was to start, Abidullah went scampering off across the field of dirt clods and dust to the mosque. Little punk. Left alone and not knowing if it would blow things by following him, I prayed alone. It didn't really matter where I prayed.
A little girl maybe eight, and another younger boy with a shaved head, were playing near by. Their faces were snotty and dirty. So were their clothes. I tried speaking to them but they acted as if they were deaf or mute, staring at me stupidly.
"Tell the girl Nasreen to come here." I told them. Still they ignored me.
"Nasreena!" I finally shouted.
She came out, bringing me lunch. She was wearing a blue shawl, wrapped around her shoulders and over her hair.
I ate sitting on a charpoy under the dry grape arbor. Nasreen sat and kept me company, smoking cigarettes. She looked so thin and dark, her dark brown eyes flashing and shining. While we sat there Abidullah returned. I finished eating. He took away the plates. She took a fresh cigarette from the pack and lit it. She handed it to me.
More talk. I told her more of how crazy I had become when I had found out that she left Lahore. Of my craziness during Ramazon. Of chasing her shadow in Dubai. Of my crazy wife search in Peshawar. And back to the marriage.
"We will get married here, in Agency." she repeated.
"The people from here will not go to Peshawar. They won't go further down-country than Gandao. And anyway I'm afraid to get married in Peshawar. I'm afraid to go to the courts... What is wrong with that? People here have plenty of guns. They will come across the fields from neighboring forts. There will be much firing. Better than Peshawar!"
"But my lawyer said we must do it in the courts for it to be legal. And I need to tell my friends. They should come."
"I'm afraid of courts. Don't tell a soul. After we're married we can go to Peshawar, tell your friends, make my American visa. Then we can go to America, or anywhere."
"Don't say 'umm' Noor Mohammad. You want to marry me. Here is a good place. A free place. Later we will tell people."
I had heard it before.
Noor Gul came out and we went over the financial arrangements again. He agreed with Nasreen that it was important to do the marriage out here. He said he liked me, that I was already like his brother, and for that reason he would talk their uncle into letting him take part payment now, and the rest later. He told me when their uncle arrived I shouldn't let on I've known Nasreen from before.
The story would be that I've known Noor Gul for two years. He knew I wanted to marry a Pathan girl, so he brought Nasreen to my house in Peshawar for me to meet her. Now we had come to Bajaur to discuss it with the uncle. Supposedly the uncle didn't know what Nasreen had been doing in Lahore. Just your average unmarried cigarette smoking Pathan maiden.
At dusk we heard the sound of a vehicle on the dirt road running near the fort. It stopped. A man carrying a Kalashnikov machine gun, and wearing a bandolier packed with two extra clips (that's 96 rounds!) and six Russian hand grenades, walked into our little walled sitting area.
I was sitting on a charpoy with Noor Gul. Nasreen was sitting on a charpoy across from us, smoking a cigarette. She pulled her shawl up over her head, and stood up, with her we've been caught smile, as if to go inside the fort. The uncle motioned her to sit back down. She did, throwing her half-finished cigarette in the dirt.
He strode up to me...
"I'm Sabut Mafhrul!" he boasted.
"I'm Noor Mohammad. Were you in Peshawar?" I asked. He was a day late.
"I said I'm mafhrul! I don't go to Peshawar!" he sneered. "Pakistan is my enemy. Look at my bombs!" (mafhrul-Pashtu for fugitive. Many people hide from the government in tribal territory, where there is no government law).
Nasreen was looking at me and smiling. The uncle looked like a typical backward, rustic, Pakistani farmer. In his mid-fifties, hair and beard black-brown slightly flecked with gray. Five foot five and wiry, with hollow, sunken eyes. Wearing a course olive green shalwar-kameez and the same color rough wool pakul cap. So this is Nasreen's mother's brother? I'd better get on his good side. If I could find one. Nasreen flashed me her silvery smile, got up, and went inside the fort.
Uncle and I walked out to the field behind the fort. Noor Gul and Abidullah brought a large rug and spread it out on the dirt. They arranged two charpoys on either side of the rug, along with some pillows. Uncle started preparing a chillum, taking tobacco from a wooden box about the size of a cigar box, and packing down the clay bowl with his dirt hardened hands. As we smoked, and coughed, I told him the old story of how I'd become a Muslim, and of my time in Afghanistan. How I had ended up in Pakistan, my house, and my recording studio business.
Abidullah appeared from the fort with the beginning plates of dinner. He came around to each of us with an aluminum lota of water for us to wash our hands with. He poured the water over our hands and handed us a well used towel for drying.
We got down off the charpoys and sat on the rug to eat. Abidullah sat close by, not eating, but listening to our talk, and on hand in case anything was needed of him. Proper behavior for a young Pathan boy. He went inside and reappeared with a tray of tea and a plate of sweet gor. We washed our hands and drank tea. After dinner and another chillum Noor Gul said he wasn't well and excused himself to go inside the fort to sleep. Uncle and I made uzu and prayed, our qibla the two jagged breast like peaks separating us from Afghanistan. The air was cool, a pleasant respite from the hot summer nights Peshawar was still in. After prayer we shared the chillum again. Uncle told me not to wander around as there were many scorpions at night. A dog was barking off in the corn field.
"Don't wander in the corn fields either. The dogs don't know you. They will eat you. Good night." He laid down, putting his cap over one of the end posts of the charpoy. He pulled his blanket over his head.
"Good night." I lay back and watched the stars playing hide-and-seek with the clouds, and thought of Nasreen, this uncle, and his fort.
Later the moon came out, beating the stars at their own game, it's silvery light adding light to line the clouds. Lightning flashed from behind the mountains. I awoke as dawn was just starting to light the mountains to the east. I took the lota and walked down the side of the corn field. After going to the toilet, I made uzu on the side of the corn field, near the rug. Finishing my morning prayer, I had a hit of nuswar and lay back on my charpoy to watch the wispy remaining clouds change colors with the idly rising sun. Uncle got up and prayed. Then he went inside. Noor Gul and Abidullah brought out tea and parattas. Nasreen came out and sat with me. The uncle came back.
"You two go inside." he commanded us. "Some neighbors are approaching. It's not good that they see you. They are suspicious people. They'll ask questions."
We went inside the fort. Nasreen told me to go inside the hujra.
"Give me your shirt." she said. I had spilled chai on it. "The milk will stain. I'll wash it for you."
"Taking the shirt off my back, as usual." I said in English.
"What?" she looked at me quizzically.
"Nothing" I replied.
She went behind the hujra to the family cooking area, near the back wall of the fort.
The hujra had sacks of wheat and barley piled in the center. It had eighteen inch thick mud walls, and a ceiling supported by four rough hewn wooden pillars. There were a few charpoys. On one wall were some old black and white family photos. Men posed in front of painted backdrops of mountains and gardens. The Taj Mahal. Noor Gul in a turban. All men. On another wall were two posters of Jamiat Islami Afghanistan. Two of the walls had small openings, about seven feet up, eight by twelve inches, serving as windows. They had hinged wooden coverings.
I sat in the hujra until Nasreen brought me lunch. Then Abidullah brought us tea. Nasreen told him to bring the cigarettes. We decided it was time to talk to the uncle about money. She went out and didn't return. I was sitting on the charpoy, looking out the door of the hujra at the front gate of the fort, thick rough wooden planks held together with rusty steel plates and bolts. A big rusty chain hung from it as a latch. An old hag hobbled up to the gate and glanced out to make sure nobody was looking. Back and forth she craned her gray wizened head.
Then she hobbled back into the hujra on her gnarled stick. Her clothes were patches and rags, covered in dust. Her hair hung disheveled in dusty gray ropes, her face hung in leathery time worn wrinkles. She looked at me with wild bloodshot eyes, raised her wrinkled hands and said in a low horse whisper.
"Ubasa, ubasa! Otarel. Ohzah!" (Get out, get out. They'll tie you. Get out!)
The movie was just beginning.
I went outside the fort. Nasreen, Noor Gul and the uncle were sitting under the dry grape-less arbor.
"What is going on?" I asked.
Noor Gul told me the uncle had accepted the terms we had arrived at yesterday.
"Good." I say to the uncle. "Then I want to go to Peshawar. I'm already a day late. I want to start raising the money"
"I want to talk to him and her some more." the uncle says, "Go inside. We'll drink tea. Then Noor Gul will take you as far as Gandao. The way is dangerous. People here shoot at strangers."
I decided to have some tea and went inside.
Abidullah brought in tea, poured it, and left. I waited but no one showed up. I drank alone. Getting tired of waiting I went outside. Nasreen, Noor Gul and the uncle are still sitting under the arbor. They were arguing.
"Two years ago this loafer, her brother, got three and a half lakh rupees from me." the uncle said, glaring.
That is a lot of money in Tribal Territory, where ten thousand buys a Kalashnikov.
"He bought two trucks. Then he sold them, and he ate my money. I never got any of it." he raged on.
"What does that have to do with me?" I asked. "I just want to go to Peshawar to get the money to marry her. You can take it, I don't care. It's between him and you."
"No! I want my money back. I want it now. He did this to me. Her brother. None of you leave here until I get my money."
We said the obvious. How could we get him any money here? Noor Gul said the man who had bought one of the trucks owed him the final payment now. If he could go to Mardan he could get one and a half lakh. I said if I could go to Peshawar I could raise part of the two lakh now, and the balance shortly after.
"No, I don't trust him anymore. I won't trust him to go to Mardan." the uncle said of Noor Gul.
"Can him and I go inside to talk?" Nasreen asked, pulling me with her eyes.
"Okay. But nobody is going anywhere until I get my money back from your brother, the damn thief."
Noor Gul shrugged his head and remained sitting on his charpoy. Nasreen and I went into the hujra.
"This is great." I say, "Why didn't you tell me about this?"
"How should I know? I was in Lahore when this happened. Noor Gul never told me. This is the first I've heard of it also."
"I can raise the money. You know for you I will. Maybe I can raise all of it. Noor Gul can pay me back. But I need to get to Peshawar. I can't do anything here."
"I know. We'll have to talk to him. Maybe he'll let you go, if we stay here until you get back... How soon can you get back?"
She lights a cigarette and hands it to me.
"I'm not sure yet. But I'll come back soon with some money, and news as to when I can get the rest. What did Noor Gul do with the money anyway?"
"I don't know. Let's go talk to uncle. I'm sorry."
The uncle comes into the room before we can finish our cigarette. He sits on a charpoy across the room from us. He rocks back and forth, hitting his head with his hand,
"I'm sick. Her brother has made my head hurt." he moans.
Nasreen and I look at each other. This is getting weird.
"He stole my money. The loafer. Her brother. Botal Gul! My family doesn't have food to eat and he ate my money." (Botal Gul being a Pashtu term of insult-something to do with, how can I say, bottles?)
He starts pacing in front of us, waving a long handle axe. I exchange looks with Nasreen. We hear the sound of a machine gun bolt being pulled and snapped into place. A Kalashnikov appears in the doorway. The wooden butt is touching the ground, the barrel pointing to the sky. Someone is obviously squatting just outside the doorway holding it, but the person is blocked by the thick mud wall. Only the machine gun can be seen framed in the doorway, like a metal insect crouching in the fading light of dusk.
"What's the point of that?" I ask.
He doesn't say a word. Taking a child's sling, hanging from one of the pillars, he walks up to her and ties her hands together in front of her. We look at each slightly laughing, not believing what is happening. It's like a movie. Or some kind of joke. Then he ties my hands behind my back and sits me in front of her on the charpoy, tieing my hands to hers. So here I am with the woman I've been going crazy trying to find for the last seven months, tied together on a charpoy. Life can be strange. Got to remember to watch those desires. He goes out of the room, bolting the door chain from the outside. She starts to cry into her chaddar.
"He's not really serious. He's trying to scare us. Look how loose the knots are. He's a stupid man." I pull on the cords, loosening them and making them more comfortable on our wrists. I could completely undo them, but I don't want to upset her uncle. I want to get out of here with her. I want to marry her.
"He's crazy." she says. "I didn't know about any of this."
"Well it's nice to finally meet your mother's side of the family." I tell her, "Thanks."
"I'm sorry. How did I know that Noor Gul did these things? How will we get out?"
"God knows. At least we're alone together. And not in Lahore."
In a few hours the uncle comes back and unties me.
"I don't trust this girl's brother. The liar. The loafer. He's no good. You I trust."
"Good, if you trust me, then untie her."
He screws up his face thinking. He unties her. Then he leaves the room again. We sit for awhile, then Nasreen says she's going out to check on Noor Gul, disappearing into the dark night outside the door. Soon she reappears at the door, looks around, and comes in.
"We were lucky" she says, "Noor Gul is tied to a charpoy in a room with no light. He is tied very tight."
The uncle comes to the door.
"What are you two talking about?"
"Can he see Noor Gul?" she asks the mad uncle.
She leads me across the dark yard by the hand, to the stone tower in the corner of the fort. The uncle comes up holding a lantern. Inside a dark stone room is Noor Gul. He is on his side, with his arms bound securely behind him. One leg is chained to the charpoy he's on.
"See, we were lucky." she tells me. Then looking at the uncle with her eyes she continues, "Tell him to untie Noor Gul."
"Why don't you untie him, mama." I say, "You have him locked in the room from the outside. He can't go anywhere."
A new fellow appears with a Kalashnikov and pulls me away,
"He'll be untied when he gives the money." he grunts.
"And like this, where will the money come from. The sky?" I say. Nasreen laughs.
Back to the hujra. The boy Abidullah brings me tea.
"My father beat Noor Gul. He's very mad. Noor Gul is crying. Did he beat you?"
"Drink tea." he pours the tea.
"No. I'm not drinking your tea. Tea is for guests. I'm not a guest. I'm a prisoner. What kind of Muslim is your stupid father?"
"He's a good Muslim. A strong Muslim." he gives me a stock answer.
"He's a Muslim?" I laugh. "He talks about hospitality. It's a sin to make a guest a prisoner."
Until now the boy has been my friend. I can tell my talk is upsetting him.
"I'll talk to my father. It's Noor Gul that he is mad with. You didn't do anything. He'll let you go tomorrow. Now drink tea."
"I'll drink your tea tomorrow then."
"He will let you go. Someone will take you to the road. It's dangerous to be on the road alone here."
In Tribal Territory government control ends three feet off the paved road. Or is it three yards? I wasn't worried if it was feet or yards. I was, I reckon, approximately ten miles off the paved road. When I got back to Peshawar I was told that Tribal's will shoot people on the road, and then drag the body off the road and out of government jurisdiction. I was also told that nobody would have found my bones there. Not even birds.
"I'll bring you dinner." Abidullah says.
"No. Tell the girl Nasreen to bring it. I want to talk to her."
Earlier the uncle had told me because I was his guest he would halal a chicken in my honor. Nasreen comes in the room, followed by Abidullah carrying an aluminum bowl. He places it on the table in front of me. In it is one chicken leg, swimming in soupy grease. He looks down at it smiling. Nasreen puts a cloth on the table with some large flat roti wrapped in it.
"Did the chicken get away?" I ask, looking in the bowl. She laughs.
Even the poorest people, when they halal a chicken for a guest, serve at least two pieces of the chicken. Usually half the chicken, if not the whole thing. After dinner the uncle comes back in the room. He says he's sick. He's acting crazy. He's calling Noor Gul all sorts of foul names. He wants to chain me to the charpoy for the night.
"Why do you want to chain him?" Nasreen says. "Noor Gul took your money. He didn't know anything about it when he came here with us."
"He's your no-good brother's friend. I'll chain you too, just as your brother will remain chained."
"You say I'm your guest. You say you trust me. This is how much you trust me?" I say, pointing at the three-foot length of chain. "Three feet of trust? I trust on God. If you want, it's your choice. God knows all choices. But first I want to make uzu and say my night prayers.
While I'm praying he ties Nasreen's hands in front of her again. It all just seems a bit too showy for me, but I don't want to blow my chances at getting Nasreen. It is quite a movie. He's tapping his axe over his shoulder. I know it can invalidate my prayers, but I keep watching him out of the corners of my eyes. Maybe he's joking, maybe not. I don't want him to start swinging on her. As I finish he tells Nasreen to leave the room. He looks over his shoulder, then whispers,
"I trust you. You are an honest man. But I don't trust them. Her brother is a liar and a thief. I won't tie your hands."
"Thanks." I say, as he shackles my leg to the leg of the charpoy with a three-foot length of chain and an antiquated heavy padlock. "Thanks for small kindnesses. So this is how much you trust me? Three feet? Well, I guess it's more than one foot of your trust."
"Untie the girl." I yell as he leaves the room. "It's her brother you're mad with. And besides, she won't go away at night. She's afraid of the dogs."
He chains the door from the outside.
The next morning Nasreen and I are sitting in the hujra, drinking chai and eating smoky tasting parattas. Our legs are free. The mad uncle had made her sleep with one leg shackled to her charpoy also. Noor Gul had been tied up in the dark room in the tower all night, she tells me. At least the hujra had a dirty light bulb hanging from two spider-web encrusted twisted bare wires. Albeit the power sputters and at times completely goes, (depending on how much power the power station is generating, or on how much the locals are stealing), but it is light. We're smoking and talking when Noor Gul comes in the room. He comes up to me, taking my hand in supplication,
"Noor Mohammad, please accept my apologies. I am so sorry. He is a bad man. He's insane. This isn't your fault. It was mine. He had no right to tie you... Last year he fired on his own mother."
"Was she injured?"
"No, he missed. Al-hamdu-lillah."
That day we discussed. Noor Gul and I. Nasreen and I. Noor Gul, Nasreen and I. Them and uncle. Uncle and I. All four of us. I was starting to realize this was my big Pashtu exam, and to pass it would mean to get out of Bajaur. To get out with Nasreen, that would be the trick.
"You've waited two years. What's another month?" I tell the uncle.
"No, I can't wait another day. I should kill him." he growls, pointing his gun at Noor Gul.
"The Quran Sharif says, 'Allah loves the man who is forgiving'." I say.
"If you let me go to Mardan, I can get the half lakh from the man I sold the truck to. Or if not, I can get two lakh from the man who wants to marry Nasreen." Noor Gul argues.
"I don't want to marry anybody else." Nasreen says, looking at me.
"No," Uncle says, "he's cheated me already. He can't go. I don't trust that he'll come back."
"I can to go to Peshawar to arrange the money. Remember, I want to marry her. I'll come back." I tell him in the chance this is true. I don't want Noor Gul bringing the two lakh of Nasreen's supposed suitor.
"I don't know." says the uncle. "I don't trust them."
"What about me Uncle?" I say. "I might only be a Muslim convert, and maybe I've only completely read the Quran Sharif in English, but I do know It says that 'God loves the man who is patient'. You've waited two years? You can't wait one week more? No, five days. I can go to Peshawar, start arrangements for all the money, and come back in five days with at least fifty thousand rupees. I can get twenty-five thousand on a bank card, and I do have fifteen thousand in the bank."
The uncle looks at me as I speak.
"The other ten thousand I can borrow from a friend, no problem..."
"No! Nobody leaves here! Maybe I'll kill you also." he says toward me and Nasreen.
"Is that the Islamic way?" I ask.
"Abidullah can take a letter to Mardan, and bring money back." Nasreen puts in.
"I don't know. I'll think."
"Can you write a letter to your lawyer in Peshawar? Ask him to send the money?" Uncle asks me "But write it in Pashtu... no, I won't be able to read it. We'll borrow a tape recorder. You can make a cassette in Pashtu to send to him."
"And just who will take it to Peshawar, Uncle? You're afraid of Peshawar."
"I'm not afraid. My brother is a pole-it-ical, in Islamabad. I'm not afraid of anyone. One day I will come to your house in Peshawar. I will drink tea in your house."
"Insh'Allah. But please don't bring your bombs." I answer him. "We don't like bombs in Peshawar."
At dusk Noor Gul comes in the hujra. I'm sitting with Nasreen.
"We need to talk." he says.
"Okay, talk." I'm ready.
"We need to run away tonight. To escape. I'll go to Mardan. I can bring the one and a half lakh. That will hold Uncle off until you can raise the rest." he explains to me. "Nasreen will stay."
"No I won't go. For one thing, I gave Uncle my word I would not leave without his permission. Also I won't leave Nasreen with that mother shooting nut." I tell him. "And besides, how can we get out? He has us locked in at night."
"The one guarding us is my friend. He will let me out. Then I'll let you out."
"And what's he want?"
"He wants ten thousand rupees. You can bring it from Peshawar. He will do it just before dawn. We'll run across the fields. We'll reach the road by sunrise."
"No, I won't leave Nasreen here with that ignorant crazy fool."
"I'll be all right." Nasreen says.
"He shot at his own mother, didn't he? No. It's too dangerous for you here alone."
"He's right." Noor Gul admits, "we'll have to think of something else."
"At least we're together." I tell her.
"Yeah," she laughs, "with Uncle."
After dinner the four of us reach an agreement.
Uncle says because of Noor Gul his family doesn't have clothes or decent food to eat. He needs to buy good seeds for the wheat, he only has the old poor quality Pakistani seeds. He says he doesn't have a rupee in his pocket. I can't resist the temptation. I always have a few one-rupee notes, for beggars, in my upper vest pocket. I find two rupees and press them in his pocket. I look over his shoulder to catch Nasreen snickering.
We decide on me personally going to Peshawar in the morning. Noor Gul would escort me as far as Gandao. Uncle had decided to trust him that far. I couldn't go alone. I would go to Peshawar. In Peshawar I would get him some instant cash to hold him over. Money for clothes, food, and seeds. With my card, my bank account, and friends, I could get him fifty thousand rupees in a few days I told him. And I would start making arrangements for the rest. That information I would also give him in a few days. Then I would bring the money, alone, to Gandao. I would give him the money, and he would release Nasreen and Noor Gul to me.
I promised not to cheat him, if he promised not to cheat me.
"I'll come back for you." I told her.
"Are you sure?"
"I'd follow you to hell." I laugh. I already had.
Noor Gul said it would be too dangerous for me to come back to Gandao. That somebody should meet me in Peshawar in a couple of days. Uncle didn't think he would let Noor Gul go to Peshawar, but in two days I was to go to Pandu Chowk, outside the walls of Peshawar, at 1 P.M., and somebody would approach me. He would say he was from Khan Mama. He would have my picture for identification (Nasreen had a photo album with my picture in it). I would give him the money, and the information as to when I'd have the rest. If I didn't fulfil my end of the bargain, then they could get the two lakh in Mardan and marry Nasreen to someone else.
In the morning I was saying goodbye to Nasreen. The uncle and Noor Gul came in the room. Abidullah was carrying what appeared to be a Quran Sharif wrapped in cloth. The uncle wanted me to swear on The Quran that I wouldn't cheat him and run away to America. In return Noor Gul wanted me to have Uncle swear that when I gave him the money he would turn Noor Gul and Nasreen over to me, in safety, and let us go. Abidullah stood and beamed.
"Didn't I tell you that my father would let you go?"
I've been in Pakistan long enough to know that so many times, when somebody pulls out the Quran Sharif to swear on, it's a sure sign they are going to cheat you. I looked at Nasreen, wondering if I'd ever see her again, and quietly said,
"I love you." which God knows was true. But I realized I must get away from her now at all costs. If what happened here was true, then I would see her again, insh'Allah. If it wasn't true, if it was a play? I could play too. But for now, to get away.
Nasreen and I shake hands.
"I will see you, Insh'Allah."
"Khuda hafez." she says.
Uncle and Abidullah walk out to the road with Noor Gul and I.
Noor Gul and I walk down the road for half an hour. A Datsun comes by carrying men, children, and a few women completely hidden under their burkas. We climb in. I'm trying to pay attention to land marks. Maybe I will have to find this place on my own. Our Datsun drives us past the Mohmand Rifles check post, and lets us down at the junction on the main road. Noor Gul again impresses on me to keep my talking to a minimum.
We get another Datsun, and ride packed in the back to Gandao. We reach Gandao at eleven o'clock. Noor Gul decides to accompany me on to Peshawar as we are so early. He says it will do his heart good to see me safely all the way to Peshawar. Also, he will be able to get some vegetables in Peshawar to take back with him.
We decide to take a mini-van from Gandao to Peshawar. Relative cramped comfort compared to the hard narrow wood benches lining the back of the pickups. He tells me that all night Nasreen prayed nefil prayers that I would come back and save them, that she and I could get married, and we could escape from Pakistan. I had known her almost four years. Her praying all night? I found it hard to believe. But God knows better. In Shabqadar I saw a signboard on a shop. Kaka Khail Motors. It reminded me Nasreen was of the Kaka Khail tribe.
"What is your tribe?" I ask Noor Gul. Maybe I can find a slip.
"Kaka Khail." he answers.
He asks that if I marry Nasreen, can I also get him a visa for America. Would he be able to find work in America? We arrived in Peshawar and took a rickshaw to Ganta Ghar. He said he would try to get the uncle to let him come to Peshawar in two days, but he didn't know if the uncle would trust him. I thought, if the uncle trusts Noor Gul to come to Peshawar on his business, it would prove that all things were not as they had tried to make them appear.
When Nasreen had washed my shirt up at the fort she must have left my keys lying by the well. I had forgotten them. Now I needed a locksmith to get into my house. Noor Gul and I shook hands and parted.
I went off to Pepal Mandi to fetch the locksmith.
I was ready to bet fifty thousand rupees on the game. On Nasreen. I figured I would need to anti-up in order to stay in the game. Now to think of a way to stay out of Bajaur, and still get her, if I could.
Arriving back in Peshawar, I looked like an Afghan refugee. My clothes were dirty, wrinkled, and travel stained and I hadn't shaved in a week. I had my chaddar wrapped around my head in an impromptu turban replacing my cap that had blown off my head while riding in the back of the Datsun on the way back to Gandao. My chappals were caked with mud and dust.
I told the locksmith I had just returned from Bajaur. He looked at me, as if understanding my appearance. The boy from the locksmith's followed me home and opened the large padlock on my outer door. Shah Hussain wasn't in the house. He must have had gone somewhere with his friend Mr.Laywa Nay.
I heated a bucket of water and took a bath, peeling off the caked dirt. I changed my clothes and chappals, put my 32 bore pistol in my pocket, and went to the barber shop for a shave. Then off to Shiraz Gul in Sarafa Bazar (money changer bazaar). I wrote him a check for six hundred dollars, just about all that was left in my Grindley's dollar account. He gave me fifteen thousand rupees in hundred rupee notes. It was too late to go to the Bank of Oman, the only bank giving cash advances on credit cards, but I would do that tomorrow. The other ten thousand I had in my house.
I consulted a close circle of friends.
First I called Asadullah in the United States. We talked for over an hour. More than a hundred dollar call. If I'm kidnaped to Bajaur, who cares about phone bills? Besides, somebody in America had to know what was happening. And people in these movies seldom worry about mundane things such as eating, sleeping, paying phone and electric bills, or extending expired visas. Mine was expiring any day. A visa would have no meaning in Bajaur, anyway.
I walked down to Kabuli Bazar, to Arif's shop and told Arif, Anwar Khan, and Mukhtiare where I had disappeared to and what was happening. They had been worried because I hadn't shown up at the shop in five days. Anwar Khan thought it was a terribly exciting love tragedy drama, but a very dangerous development.
Arif told me the story of Azer and Israiel;
"Azer was very afraid of Israiel, the angel of death. One day Azer was visiting King Suliman. Now that very day Israiel was journeying a very long distance, to the place of the farthest winds. God had told him that a man would be waiting for him there, but he couldn't imagine how a man would get to such a far off place as that.
"As he flew past King Suliman's palace he thought he would stop in to 'salaam' the great Suliman. He could spare the extra minute.
"He flew into Suliman's throne room and 'salaamed' Suliman the great. Then he flew on his way.
"Azer said to Suliman 'Who was that, who just 'salaamed' you?'
Suliman answered, 'That was Israiel, the angel of death'.
"Azer said, 'Oh, from him I am too much afraid. Oh respected Suliman, you have the power of the winds. Please transport me to the 'place of the farthest winds.' I want to hide from Israiel.
"In the blink of an eye Azer was there. And he was waiting there when Israiel arrived there, and he took him...
"Oh, Noor Mohammad" Arif implored, "don't go back to Bajaur, like Azer went to the place of the farthest winds. Don't go there to wait for Israiel."
From Arif's I walked down to Dabgari Bazar to see Gulzar and Master Ali Haider. The entire band was there.
"You're crazy, Noor Mohammad." Master said, "Mister crazy."
"Maybe." I smiled.
"Yeah, I guess so. In this, crazy is fun."
Gulzar looked at me with his melancholy deep brown eyes and sighed.
"Do you really love her that much?" Maz Khan, the tabla player asked. He didn't know any of the details of her story.
"Taqriban (approximately)." I answered seriously.
"I love her enough to bet fifty thousand rupees on her." I said, pulling out the wad of hundred rupee notes, held together with a rubber band. Everybody looked at me like maybe I really was crazy. When I pulled out my pistol, that cinched it.
Gulzar's friend, a lawyer, who also spoke English, was there.
"You talk with him in English. Maybe in English you can reason with him." Master asked him. But to no avail. My mind was set. The lawyer agreed with me that if I loved her so strongly, I should take a chance. It is all God's will. He quoted Rahman Baba,
"Che po meena ki, Majnoon ghunday, sadiq vee...
Che Layla po darwaza ki, darbon neeshta." (Rahman Baba-'When you are in love like Majnun, when Layla is at the door there is no guard')
Master was really upset with me. I'd never seen him like that with me. He got up and sat on the other side of the room, refusing to talk any more with me.
They warned me not to go to Bajaur again.
Shakeel, my dearest malangi brother said, "Who is this brother and uncle? I am from Chowk! I fuck them!... Noor Mohammad, you don't go to Bajaur alone."
Haji Mahboob, my dear friend and pharmacist, said, "Noor Mohammad, just show me this 'Bombuna Mama', I shall tell him, 'just who do you think you are, bugger.' I will take him by his bandolier of bombs and I will 'open the fire'."
Talking to my lawyer friend Atique, I asked him,
"Don't you think it strange how I was able to meet and be friends with a Pathan girl like I was with Nasreen?... It was in Lahore, right? She worked as a dancer in films. Her family weren't such good people." I couldn't have put it more polite, under the circumstances, that she had been a working girl.
Atique told me not to exchange any money outside the courts or alone. For some reason he didn't think that the Bajauris' would kidnap me because I was an American. He seemed to overlook the fact that I had just returned from being kidnaped there once.
The general consensus was that I would be foolish to give them any money. And to wait on a corner for some unknown Bajauri, with fifty thousand rupees in my pocket, was utter insanity. In Agency you can hire an assassin for a mere five thousand rupees. And Pandu Chowk is outside the city walls, and a good location for murders and kidnapings, with a clear run to tribal areas in three directions. People felt fairly certain that I'd be killed, or kidnaped for more ransom, or at best they'd take the money and I'd never see them again.
I guess you can say that Bajaur has a certain less than savory reputation. Only Atique didn't agree on the fact that if the Bajauris' wanted to get me, they could take me if I came to Gandao with the Army, or if I was in lockup in Kabuli police tanna.
That night, after Shah Hussain went down to his floor to go to sleep I sat up, smoked and thought. It was strange how when the uncle first arrived, although supposedly I had only just met Nasreen, we were permitted to sit together. I've been in the Frontier long enough, and have had enough highly chaperoned meetings with prospective brides, to realize the way I was permitted to be with Nasreen at her uncle's house, under normal circumstances would never have happened.
But just what if it were true? By morning a plan had come to me. I walked down to Arif's shop for breakfast tea and talk, as usual. Walking the streets freely, not knowing what was going to happen, the clear sky above me was a certain thrill. Moment to moment, feeling alive and free.
At lunch with Mahboob, he kept saying, "Bring that Bombuna Mama here, or Nasreen, and I will talk to them. We will get that Bombuna Mama and bring him here in chains."
I hadn't the nerve to tell anyone, except Shah Hussain, that he had tied us up. People would have been too outraged. At 1:00 P.M. I didn't go to Pandu Chowk. I was at home with Shah Hussain, waiting by my telephone. Whoever it was that was coming to meet me would have my phone number. In case there were any mix-ups. I had thought of a story. Something that would give them leeway if they were being honest with me.
The phone never rang.
At 3:45 my door bell rang. A familiar ring. Noor Gul's ring. It had to be him. Who else could have been sent to do the job? Shah Hussain looked out the third floor stair's window.
"Who's there?" he called out ascertaining I wasn't alone. He looked at me. It was Noor Gul. So? The crazy untrusting uncle got trusting very soon. It didn't look good for Nasreen. Noor Gul was at my front door, hardly wanting to come in.
"There are some problems." I told him. "You need to come in and talk." As I shook his hand I brushed the small plastic bag he held. No gun. (I foolishly failed to check under the chaddar hanging over his shoulder.)
"Look. I couldn't get the money. And I have a problem with the police. I told you that the bank closed at twelve o'clock. Well yesterday we arrived too late for me to go. And today, the Special Branch police came to my house at ten o'clock. They said that the I.A. wallahs (Intelligence Agency) spotted me at the Charsadda bus stand getting on a mini-van headed to Gandao. Then they came to my house every morning, I wasn't to be found. They wanted to know why I had gone to Agency.
"I told them I had gone to Bajaur to visit a friend. They told me if I had a friend in Bajaur, he must come here to visit me. That as a foreigner I wasn't allowed to go into Agency.
"They said my visa was expired and if I didn't rectify it immediately they would deport me. I told them I was making my marriage arrangements and I can't leave Pakistan.
"They asked if I were making my arrangements in Bajaur. I told them, no, in Mardan. They said don't marry in Bajaur. And if I was, have the girl brought to Peshawar, or I would be arrested and deported. We will be watching you, they told me.
"They didn't leave me alone till after 1:00 P.M.. I was afraid I might have missed whoever was coming to meet me at Pandu Chowk. So I waited by the phone."
A very possible story and giving them a chance if they were being honest and if I were truly 'the only man' she wanted to marry, as Nasreen stated.
"How's your crazy uncle?"
"A bit better."
"Things are a little better now. He's not as crazy."
I told him that tomorrow I would have to go take care of my visa problem, and the next day I would go to Grinleys and get the money. Once Noor Gul had heard about the police though, he just wanted to get out of there. He said he would call me in two days. Before leaving he told me that he had a friend who would buy my house, if I signed it over to them. I said that I was ready, but that it would take at least half a day in the courts to arrange the papers. Mention of the courts seemed to greatly discourage him.
Shah Hussain said that he was sure that Noor Gul's Pashtu was Bajauri. He said when he had heard Nasreen, the first time, her accent was definitely of Hashtnaghar.
"Very sweet Pashtu." he said.
I kept seeing Arif and Anwar Khan, Shakeel, and Mahboob, as was usual. And watching over my shoulders wherever I went. People told me not to go in open places, or to wander at night. Mahboob kept telling me that he would bring this bloody Bombuna Mama bugger to Peshawar in chains.
In Arif's shop I overheard Anwar Khan discussing with Takhar Khan, Khan Abdul Wali Khan's cousin, and look-a-like, "they don't want him to tell anybody. They don't want to go to the courts. They want him to come alone. What is this nonsense, a Pathan marriage, or a heroin deal?"
When I dressed each the morning I made sure I put on clothes that would be best to be kidnaped in. Every time I left my house I found myself wondering if I would end up in Bajaur this time. What were they planning? What if it was true? How could I leave Nasreen there? Unfortunately it seemed highly doubtful she wasn't in on it.
That day there was no call from Noor Gul. I had decided I must try to see her again. I wanted to tell her I was open and ready if she ever wanted to come to me. And at least tell her I had enjoyed being with her, and thanks for the movie she had made for me.
Juma morning, at eight o'clock, the phone rang.
"Who is it?" I asked.
"It is I." Noor Gul's voice said.
"Where are you?"
"I'm close. Can you come see me?"
"No." I answered. "You come see me."
"I'll call you back in half an hour."
Forty-five minutes later he called again. I had Shah Hussain answer the phone so Noor Gul would know I wasn't home alone.
"I want to talk to Noor Mohammad Khan." he said to Shah Hussain. When I picked up the phone again he asked, "Can you come see me? She's with me."
"Where are you?"
"Outside Gunj Gate."
Another excellent kidnaping spot like Pandu Chowk, especially on Juma morning, when it would be fairly deserted.
"No. There's a lot to talk about. She's a woman. How can we talk at Gunj Gate in the open? Bring her here."
"Can your friend leave?"
"No. He'll be in his room downstairs. He's like my brother. We don't need to keep any secret from him. Are we talking about a clean Muslim marriage or are we talking about a heroin deal?" A bit of inspiration from Anwar Khan. I heard some muffled talking in the background.
"Okay, we are coming."
"Me and my friend."
"Which friend?" I knew he was at a PCO. He wouldn't use her name in public.
"The same one I was with the last time."
"Okay. You and her can come, but don't bring anyone else."
"We will be there in under an hour."
If she were with him, he would bring her to my house, or at least she would speak to me over the phone. She knew that she could wrap me around her little finger. Also Noor Gul would only say she was with him, if she wasn't, if he was prepared to kidnap me back to Bajaur.
Shah Hussain and I sat by the phone and waited. He held my 30 bore in his hand and the 32 bore was in my pocket, ready. I wanted to talk to Nasreen again. Maybe even keep her in my house. We waited.
They never came.
End of September, 1991
I was walking with Shah Hussain on the road coming out of Afghanistan, heading toward Momad Ghat, the junction leading north to Bajaur Khar and south to Halki Gandao. Behind us the jagged, broken toothed mountains leading up the Nawa Pass, out of Pakistan into Afghanistan.
"Are you afraid to die, Noor Mohammad?" he was saying.
"Sometimes," I answered.
"Yes, I am also afraid to die, sometimes. I am afraid to die in a car accident, or a house fire. But to die while your enemy is shooting you, and you are shooting your enemy, that is beautiful. To have your blood running in the dust and mixing with your enemy's blood, that is not a bad way to die."
"I know. That is why I wish we would have brought some guns." I replied.
"Yes, if he is shooting us and we don't have any gun to shoot back, that is a problem."
The previous morning we had left Peshawar for Bajaur. We had taken a minibus from the Charsadda bus stand to Halki Gandao, via Shabqadar.
In the bus I was careful to keep the conversation light and mumble the words I knew I mispronounced under my breath. It couldn't be known I was a foreigner. The government doesn't allow foreigners in tribal territory. Especially now, at a time when the Mohmands and the government are fighting. And on the road to Momad Ghat, which only goes to Afghanistan? No way! I also knew it would be easy to be arrested as a spy, checking on the movement of Afghan refugees or on the amount of weapons being smuggled out of Afghanistan. Shah Hussain was worried if it was known I was an Englaise, locals could try to kidnap me for ransom. Mainly, I was worried that if Noor Gul heard my kind of Englaise was snooping around tribal territory, he would get suspicious and hide.
At Gandao we got down at the bus stand. Scanning the faces at the bus stand, it felt strange to see the mud wall where Nasreen and I had squatted, drinking a Rooh Afza with the boy Qadeer. Shah Hussain and I walked up and down the bazaar, looking for a familiar bearded face. We went back to the bus stand and sat in a tea house, ordering a pot of tea. We drank our tea and went out on the road to try to catch a vehicle heading toward Bajaur Khar.
We found a Datsun leaving for Nawagai, and because there were no women to sit in the front seat, for eight rupees extra, apiece, we were able to procure seats inside the cab next to the driver. I wanted to be able to see where we were going, which I knew would be difficult sitting in the back bed, with dust swirling and filling our eyes.
Leaving Gandao, we passed the bulldozed bazaar. (Pakistani Army, operation cleanup). I had seen it two weeks previously with Nasreen and Noor Gul. The problem had progressed. There had been fighting on the road for the last four days. It had just opened that morning.
Before reaching the first government check post, just before the Nahakki Mountain Pass, we had passed two tanks, over a dozen armored cars, and several heavy pieces of field artillery. The government soldiers were armed with semiautomatic G-3 assault rifles, apparently able to out shoot the Kalashnakovs the average tribesmen are armed with. At the check post there were tripod mounted BMR machine guns dug into the earth on either side of the road. Also, armored cars had their machine guns leveled at the parked pick-up. The government didn't want any more trouble. Normally tribals are permitted to carry arms, but right now only the Army could.
Our driver told us the Mohmands had come down at night and attacked the army. Eight people had been killed. The Mohmands are supplied with arms from the Communist regime in Kabul, to help stir up trouble for the Pakistani government - a definite bone of contention for the Pakistanis.
"It was a very beautiful fighting." the driver smiled, "The locals fought very beautifully. The government troops also fought very beautifully. Nobody in my family was injured, al-hamdu-lillah." he boasted. He looked at Shah Hussain, "You said you are a Mohmand also, did you not, brother?"
"Yes, though nobody in my family was injured also. Al-hamdu-lillah." Shah Hussain gave me a wink. We both knew damn well his entire family had been sleeping safely in their village in settled areas, near Mandani.
Twenty minutes up the pass.
At the top another government check post.
Mostly checking for heavy weapons.
Twisting back and forth down the pass we could see the lunar landscape of Agency. Mud and stone forts dotted the land. Besides the blue sky, the predominate color was the gray-brown of the rocks and dirt and forts. We passed the petrol station were Nasreen had handed me the grapes. An hour and a half after leaving Gandao we passed a junction.
"What is the name of this place?" I asked the driver.
"Momad Ghat" he told me.
"Does that road lead into Afghanistan?"
"Yes" he affirmed.
Shah Hussain and I looked at each other.
"Bombuna Mama" I whispered under my breath.
Fifteen more minutes and we arrived in Nawagai. As in Gandao, we walked up and down the bazaar once, looking in the open shop fronts and on the street for that familiar face. We went to a tea house and ordered a pot of tea. As we drank, we watched people walking by on the street and the faces filling the backs of the pickups passing by. We found a Datsun leaving for Bajaur Khar and climbed in the back. Almost an hour more and we arrived in Bajaur Khar. We made our usual round, trying to casually look at every face in the bazaar, and then found a tea house cum restaurant and had a lunch of greasy meat qorma, sliced raw onions, and hot roti. It was after three o'clock and we wanted to eat before finding our hosts, as to not imposition them.
We were hoping to stay with a teacher friend of Shah Hussain's, from Shabqadar who taught at the government school in Bajaur Khar. The school hostel was slightly out of town, in the surrounding fields. Like all buildings in Agency, even the hospital, the school was built with loopholes for shooting in the outer walls and in the walls encircling the roof. As we walked along the inside veranda, I saw a place where the cement was broken out around the lower portion of one of the classroom's door jams. The teacher told us that during examinations, some student had hidden a grenade there.
After the dusk prayer, we sat around in our host's room, waiting for dinner and chatting with three students from Bajaur College, slightly further up on the road leading to Timagura. I tried to keep my part in the conversation minimal, which wasn't difficult as Shah Hussain and one of the students dominated the conversation, the two other students also being quiet. They wanted us to come visit their village the next day, but on finding out it was north, and not in the direction we were interested in we declined, saying we had a friend we wanted to visit in Nawagai.
The next morning, after morning prayer and tea, we caught a Datsun for Nawagai. We shared the back bed of the pickup with students on their way to school and men carrying metal cans of milk to the Nawagai bazaar. Our blankets, wrapped around us, flapped in the chilly morning air. The rising sun lit the clear sky in crisp tones of morning blues. Nawagai town is a cut in the mountains, essentially separating Mohmand Agency in the south with Bajaur Agency in the north. The word nawagai in Pashtu actually means small rain-spout. A fitting name.
In Nawagai some people, especially a group of raggy barefoot boys, looked at us suspiciously. Even at Shah Hussain. We decided we were just a bit to clean to quite fit in properly. I put a wad of nuswar in my mouth. As we were walking toward the head of the Nawagai bazaar, a fellow came right up to me. His skin and hair were as light as mine. He looked at Shah Hussain briefly, but stood directly in front of me.
"Asalaamo aliekum" he said, fixing his gaze upon my face.
"Wa-aliekum asalaam" I replied.
Then we exchanged a list of standard Pashtu greeting questions and answers.
"Where do I know you from?" he said suspiciously, "I've seen you somewhere before."
"I don't know. I've never been in Nawagai before."
"But I've seen you." he went on, looking me in the eye curiously, "Maybe not in Nawagai... Oh, now I remember." he said. "I saw you in Peshawar, about seven months ago. At Sherbaz Music Studio. At a Farzana recording session. You're a friend of Master Ali Haider, are you not?"
"Yes" I smiled, relieved, him now also looking vaguely familiar to me. We laughed. Pakistan is a small country, and the Frontier province even smaller. Many times and in many places I run into people I know. Sometimes too often.
Amir Jan has a small medicos shop at the head of the Nawagai bazaar, where the road comes in from the south, from Gandao and from Momad Ghat. A good vantage point for us. We sat in Amir Jan's shop and watched the road, drank tea, and listened to an old beat up tape player play a wobbly cassette of Gulnar Begum,
"Rashah ashna, rashah ashna, sta dedan dapara naray sturgu torauma, ashna." (Come on darling, come on darling, for your rendezvous I've made my narrow eyes black [with surma]).
I had been using surma to darken my eyes and they were narrow from the glare of the sun. Well, I'm waiting here, come on darling.
Shah Hussain was telling Amir Jan that we had come up to Bajaur to visit his friend, the teacher. Also that he, Shah Hussain, was a Mohmand, and he wanted to see his family lands. I said I had seen much of Pakistan, but I had never been up in Agency before, so I was taking advantage of the situation. Having spent so much time in Afghanistan before the war, the area brought back nostalgic memories.
Amir Jan invited us to come with him to his village after lunch, and spend the night. It was south of Nawagay, but to the east of the main road. We declined the invitation as politely as possible. It seemed it would serve our objective no purpose. I told him I wanted to go hang out at Momad Ghat.
"Why? There is nothing there." he said. "It's just the junction to Afghanistan."
"I'm looking for a friend from Afghanistan. I thought just maybe I might run into him there." I answered rather lamely.
"It's a small chance."
"I know. But it's a chance. Insh'Allah. Also being from noisy, Peshawar, it will be nice just to be somewhere that is quiet."
He looked at me strangely,
"Noor Mohammad, you are an interesting man. Why are you in such a dirty, backward place as this?" he asked.
"Har cha ikhpul waton, Kashmir day" I answered him, an old Pashtu proverb (Everybody's own country is Kashmir). "Pakistan has become mine."
"Besides, this is a simple country, and I am a simple man."
"Every man has his own fate, I hope to see you again."
"Yes, insh'Allah, we will see you again. Now we go."
"Okay friends, goodbye for now, go with God."
"Thank you, Khuda hafez."
All the vehicles leaving Nawagai, heading south, were going at least as far as Gandao. Nobody wanted two riders who were only going as far as Momad Ghat, just a meager two rupee distance. We decided to walk.
It took an hour to reach Momad Ghat. On the way we passed two huts selling scrap metal. Besides the usual rusty truck and tractor engine parts and old metal drums, were relics from the war across the border. Smashed missile launchers and half a tank. By a stone wall on the side of one of the huts was a well. Beside it on two forked poles of wood was an old bent spoked bicycle wheel with a handle coming out of the center. You cranked the handle and it wound up the frayed and knotted rope bringing up a bucket made from old truck tire rubber. The water tasted rubbery and dirty, but it was wet, and we were thirsty. On the road Shah Hussain was complaining about how hungry he was.
"How can we ever find anything to eat in this arid deserted area? Here only owls sing."
"This is nothing compared to when we were riding from Chitral to Gilgit. Ask Habibullah. I imagine we will be able to find something at Momad Ghat." I told him.
"Momad Ghat! We're on foot Noor Mohammad, not in the Flying Coach. And this isn't G.T.Road. I can't wait."
He saw a broken piece of biscuit in the dirt on the side of the road and picked it up, looked at it, and ate it.
"I can wait until Momad Ghat, my brother. Especially since you finished the cookie, khorghod."
Momad Ghat is the only junction in the road running through Agency. It juts off to the west, through the mountains via the Nawa Pass to Afghanistan. For the first fifty meters lining the road are rectangular spaces surrounded by three foot high stone walls. A few had canvas tops, held up by cut and dried branches. These were stores selling cigarettes, hard candies, or nuswar. One had a hand-pump kerosine stove, and some metal enameled teapots. It was a tea house. Some were empty. Just places to squat and wait, out of the sun, wind, or dust.
We walked around some, sat a bit, walked some more. Had a tea. It tasted lioke kerosine.
"I want to see this Bombuna Mama," Shah Hussain kept saying.
We paid the chai wallah and left. We started to walk down the road to Afghanistan. There were a few government buildings behind sparse trees, but no one in sight around them. No one was walking. Some Datsuns and gaily painted transport trucks were on the road. Men standing around dust covered pickups, loading, going south to Gandao and Peshawar and north to Nawagay and Bajaur Khar, or west to Afghanistan. A few buses with ragged Afghan refugees, heading home, their belongings bundled in old tattered rugs tied to the roof.
"There should be a Mohmand Rifle check post about a quarter of a mile from here," I was telling Shah Hussain. "It's just past where the road turns. I can't believe I am actually seeing those two mountains again."
"I want to see Bombuna Mama's house." he was laughing. "Noor Mohammad... don't go to Bajaur." Something I had heard from all my friends in Peshawar.
With the government check post in sight Shah Hussain suggested we leave the road, and circle around the check post.
"What's the point of that? They've probably already spotted us. And besides," I added, scanning the barren landscape, "where would we hide, unless we could make it to those mountains to the north."
"But to make it to those hills without locals shooting us, that is the question." Shah Hussain pointed out.
"Are Pathans really as good marksmen as I've always read?" I asked him. "I've seen people test firing weapons in Darra, and in Peshawar people only shoot off of their roofs. I've never seen folks just practicing shooting. Oh well, I have seen a few, though not shots to brag about."
"Noor Mohammad, in my own village there was an old man who wanted revenge, but his enemy would not come out of his fort. He was a clever fellow, he had a well inside the fort, for water. When the old man would come, he would sit up in his tower and shoot through a small hole.
"One day the old man came with his son. He had his son run into his enemy's field. Then the old man watched the hole. When his enemy stuck his gun barrel out the hole, the old man shot him. Yes. If people in these backward places are one thing, Noor Mohammad, it's good shots. Now let's not talk overmuch. We're at the check post."
I wasn't as paranoid as my companion, about the check post. I had already been through this check post twice. As we passed, I had to pass within a few feet of one of the Levies, standing idly about. I couldn't help but say,
"Wa-aliekum asalaam" he answered.
I could feel Shah Hussain holding his breath.
We walked on, ever closer to those two jagged mountains. They were waxing close, when on our right hand we came to a woodcutter's hut. On the left, a dirt road ran off, through the fields.
"This is Bombuna's address. It was down that road we went. Their fort is maybe ten kilometers down this road. Shall we go down it?"
"Don't go off the paved road in Bajaur, Noor Mohammad...," he voiced local well-known and oft repeated advice.
"Yeah, they also said 'don't go to Bajaur'."
"Yeah, don't go to Bajaur, Noor Mohammad." he chuckled.
We started walking down the road.
"I want to see Bombuna Mama's fort." he said again.
Down the road, about two furlongs, was the first fort. Further down the road was the large fort I remembered from the last time I had been out there. It must have a housed large family unit, with many families living in it. It looked like a mud castle, with it's many towers.
"You go around that bend, past the big fort." I pointed with my hands. "There are more average size forts and gullies'. Dried and dusty fields."
"Don't make hand signals." Shah Hussain told me. "Here people have enmity. That is why they live in such remote places. They sit up in their towers with looking-glasses. And big LMG machine guns. Like that Bombuna Mama... and don't bring out your pocket mirror. If it looks like we're signaling, someone could start shooting us... Don't go to Bajaur, Noor Mohammad." he repeated.
Less than a furlong from the fort we decided it would be wise, being unarmed, not to go any further. It wouldn't do to just stroll past the first fort, then turn around and stroll back. Surely too spy like to any prying eyes. I couldn't help thinking that without guns, if Bombuna should happen by in a Datsun full of people, he could just stop and say,
'He's an Englaise. He came to my fort and insulted one of my women'.
I would say, 'no, they kidnapped me'.
Who would they believe? I don't think it would be me.
We walked back to Momad Ghat, making all sorts of wild plans of how we were going to get back there to visit Bombuna.
Right before Momad Ghat, on the road back to Nawagai was a small pond where on our way out we had seen Koohie women, in their gaily patterned and colorful clothing, filling water pots and watering a few gangling cows. Now there was no one there and we decided to sit by the side for a while. The edge of the pond was about forty feet from the side of the road. We squatted by the side and watched the calm still water reflecting the mountains. Occasionally a frog would pop out and plop back in, creating little ripples on the surface.
"There's your dinner." I told Shah Hussain.
"Before I was so hungry that I would have eaten it." he told me, "But now I've had tea and am full. Besides, I must save some room for dinner. Otherwise teacher will be upset. He's not like your friends. I think he may give us more than just one chicken leg."
While we sat a Datsun stopped and dropped off a fellow. He stood at the side of road and looked down toward us.
"Asalaam aleikum." we told him politely.
"Wa-aleikum." he answered. "What are you doing?"
"We're just sitting here and resting."
"Is there anything that I can do for you?"
The words were friendly but the feeling antagonistic. The intention was clear, "If you don't belong here, get out."
"What can you do for us?" Shah Hussain repeated his words, "Yeah, you can give us two Kalashnakovs!" he laughed. "From there he must not be able to see our mustaches."
"If we had Kalashnakovs he'd be seeing our own mustaches." (an old Pashtu expression for manliness) I said. "Let's go, before I piss in his pool."
"I mount your mother." Shah Hussain said under his breath, in the direction our friend. We got up to go.
We caught a Datsun at Momad Ghat, back to Nawagai. The sun was going down. We climbed in the back of another pickup for Bajaur Khar. The driver was an Afghan we had met in Amir Jan's shop. He warned us he had heard foreigner had been picked up by the government a couple of days ago, near Khar.
The following morning we decided to leave early for Momad Ghat. We wanted to get there early. If he were leaving his fort, he might just arrive at the junction early. After sunrise, we walked into Khar, and found a Datsun going to Nawagai. A militiaman sitting in the back of the pickup with us told us that yesterday a truck had come out of Afghanistan. It had stopped in Nawagai for some engine repairs. While it was being worked on and the driver and his mate were eating lunch, some militiamen found under the straw in the back two cases of land mines. The driver and his mate ran off leaving the truck and the bombs.
Reaching Nawagai we avoided Amir Jan's shop. We climbed into the first vehicle that would take us the distance to Momad Ghat. We couldn't afford to waste time drinking tea and visiting today.
At Momad Ghat we squatted off the side of the road and told each other stories in Pashtu and, when no one was near, in English. Trying to be inconspicuous. We joined several Mohmands about one hundred and fifty feet to the east of the road. They were talking about a man from Charsadda who arranged a marriage with some Bajauris. He paid 80,000 rupees bride price, but right after the marriage the bride ran back to Bajaur and there was nothing he nor the authorities could do. As I was discovering, you can't just go chasing after women in Agency.
At noon a Datsun comes up the road from down country. They turn west at Momad Ghat and stop in a cloud of dust. I think it's Bombuna I see sitting in the back but I can't be sure. He is facing away from me in the crowded bed of the pickup. I get up and start walking quickly toward the junction. As I cross the paved road I start running. I'm not sure what I will do but it doesn't matter. The truck is too packed to wait for any more riders.
They take off down the road in swirling clouds of dust. They're fifty feet away when I see the side of his face. His sunken eye sockets and hollow cheeks. It's him. He can't hear my voice over the sounds of the vehicle as they drive away in the dust.
Copyright © Noor Mohammad Khan.