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Van Dyk Diary: Ramadan in Peshawar

October 18, 2006

Street Scene in Peshawar, Pakistan.
Photo by Maxence Tombeur

[Click here for a map of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border regions.]

 

Situated on the Afghan border, Peshawar, capital of Pakistan's famed, rough Northwest Frontier Province, is the area where many people believe that Osama bin Laden is hiding. Today it is a partly modern and partly ancient city. A city of mosques so crowded that men pray on straw mats in the streets outside, of teeming bazaars with narrow, winding streets and old wood houses with lattice trim, of Japanese cars, three-wheeled taxis, packed, pinstriped-painted buses spewing blackened smoke, and slow moving horse-drawn carts. A city of eucalyptus trees, of birds calling, and horns blasting.

When I first came here as a young reporter in 1981 to cover the Afghan-Soviet war, I took the train up from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. It is an artificial city, like Washington, D.C., Brazilia, or Canberra, carved out of farm land in 1965. Today, there is a modern, crowded highway with tollbooths, and the journey takes three hours. Then the train took half a day; dust blew in from open windows and mud baked villages came and went as the train chugged on. It was more romantic then. War was far away.

When we arrived in Peshawar in 1981, I walked, following other passengers into the small city, to Deans, an old hotel built by the British. It was single-story, made of stone and wood and the dining room was dark and empty except for a few foreigner aid workers and thin, erect Pakistani waiters, in white frayed jackets, who served us at tables set with thick white linen and heavy silverware.

Developers razed Deans a few years ago. Now there is a modern, cold, glass and steel highrise in its place. But when I ride by in the back of a taxi or a rickshaw, I can see the outdoor tea stand which is still there across the street and which serves hot "mixed tea" so delicious here, made of black tea, water buffalo milk, and sugar, boiled together. I used to sit at a table drinking tea, enjoying the morning sun. I don't sit there anymore. It is not good for a foreigner to draw attention to himself in Peshawar these days.

Today is the 21st day of Ramadan, the holy month of Islam, when the faithful fast from sunrise to sunset. During Ramadan, the city is quieter than normal, as people have less energy and walk slowly, under lazy overhead fans, in the autumn heat. But as sundown approaches, and a siren sounds, ending the fast, a feeling of energy, and hunger fills the air. Soon the rush is on and people walk quickly, the men in baggy salwar kameez, the women veiled or with just their heads covered, in sandals, shawls and pantaloons, and the traffic becomes like Manhattan's at six p.m. as people rush home or to restaurants.

It is time for Iftar, the evening meal, which breaks the fast. I noticed in my hotel that breakfast, in English, is listed as Break Fast, which of course, is true. Dinner, in most restaurants, is a buffet, so common in Pakistan, where people crowd around an array of dishes, trying to be polite, but desperate to eat. I read some years ago that Egypt consumes more rice during Ramadan than in any other month, as people eat through the night.

Here it seems that people are too religious, too self-denying. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, religious political parties came to power, in democratic elections, in the Northwest Frontier Province, and now are a majority in the provincial assembly. Sharia, or Islamic law, is now in effect. Still, taxi drivers play music on occasion and I know a married journalist who still carries on affairs with different women. An antiques dealer I met asked me to come by at night for some vodka. Many people seem to lead two lives here, public and private, as they do elsewhere.

The other night, I sat with a group of men in the back of a store, where I had gone to buy an Internet card for my laptop. Peshawar, by the way, a city of three million now, and the largest Pashtun city in the world, is filled, it sometime seems, with computer shops; although, in case you are interested, it takes half an hour to get online in the small Internet cafes that dot the city. I noticed in one cafe that those before me who had used the same computer that I did had focused almost exclusively on porno sites.

The men in the store talked quietly, as they passed the time, with their stomachs full and the air conditioning flowing. The man on my right, with a thick moustache and wearing a blue golf shirt, said he was an emergency room doctor in a hospital. I asked him what was the most common form of violent injuries. I thought it would be gunshot wounds. Men are allowed to carry rifles openly in the tribal areas, a few hours drive away. He said the main problem was traffic accidents. Except during Ramadan.

The main problem now was violence as a result of hypoglycemia. Another man, a heart surgeon, who sat on my left, explained. "People go 12 to 14 hours without eating or drinking every day, for thirty days. It is hot and Peshawar is crowded. Their blood sugar goes down and they become so agitated that they lose control and get in fights." This is the Northwest Frontier Province of history: Men with rifles shooting it out, over land, money, women; and now, because their blood sugar has gone too low. Road rage exists in Peshawar, not just Los Angeles. The modern world has come to the Afghan border.

The Koran, according to Muslim belief, began to be revealed to the Prophet Mohammed during the month of Ramadan, which means, in Arabic, "Month of Blessing." A pious friend noted one day that there is another Arabic word for this month: Sayam, or "Month of Fasting." Sayam is a time of cleansing.

The Muslim world operates on the lunar calendar and so Ramadan, like other months, comes at a different time every year. It begins and ends with the sighting of the new moon. During this month, the faithful rise before dawn to eat Sehri, their pre-dawn meal, which is as hearty as they can afford. Then a siren sounds, which means Sehri is over, and then there are morning prayers, after which people go back to bed or as is generally the case, begin their day. Islam, which means "submission to God," can pervade every part of a person's life. Years before, I could hear music at night in the streets. Not now.

The purpose of Ramadan is to go without and thus be forced to think of those who are poor who must go without all year long, and to draw closer to God. The mother of a journalist friend here, who lives with him and his family, as is the custom—for there are no homes for the elderly here, that is a Western custom—has decided this year, to go into Etikaf, or isolation, for the last ten days of Ramadan.

To enter Etikaf, as my friend put it, is "to boycott yourself from business and all social affairs. She wishes to know God better." During this period, my friend's mother will not talk to others, not even to her beloved grandchildren.  She will stay upstairs and, like a nun, pray continuously in order to receive the blessings of God and to draw closer to Him.

It is impossible, I believe, for Westerners in secular North America and Europe, or for people in China or Japan, or South America, to understand the depth and power of Islam, and the importance of God, in a place like Peshawar. "Life is pointless without religion," said my friend, as we sat on thick red carpets in his house eating our Iftar dinner of delicious pilaf, vegetables, bread, tomatoes, cucumbers and yogurt.

He and another reporter, an Afghan from Jalalabad, prayed before we ate, thanking Allah for our food. We stopped during our meal for evening prayers, and prayed again when we finished, thanking God again for our food, all while his young sons and daughters played around us. His oldest daughter, who is 11, and his wife, in keeping with Pashtun custom, ate alone. I know men in Peshawar, all college educated, ages 40 to 60, who have known one another for years and who have never seen, let alone met, each other's wives. They are just friends, not members of the same family, so it is not done.

After dinner we went outside and sat at a wrought-iron table on the lawn. We were in a quiet, more upscale part of the city. The yard was surrounded by flowers and bushes and a high wall, as is the custom for those who can afford it in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We drank green tea and ate grapes and small delicious bananas. "These are not like your giant American bananas," said my friend. Those in New York, which I buy from Pakistanis manning fruit stands on the streets, taste like cardboard in comparison.

The sky was clear and the stars bright. The smell of eucalyptus, that tree imported by the British from Australia, and of bougainvillea, filled the air. Two bearded men came through the gate and joined us. They were Afghans, one large and burly, with curly hair and sad, watery eyes, the other slight, with intense blue eyes and a gray beard. We exchanged pleasantries and the older, much smaller man, a chemistry teacher, whom I will call Amin, looked at me intently, his eyes neither warm nor cold. "How long do you think the Americans will last in Afghanistan?" he asked. I said I didn't know exactly, but I knew that it would be for at least a few years. I explained why. It was as if he didn't hear me.

"We fought Genghis Khan and we fought the British," said Amin. "The more the Americans and coalition forces continue their brutality, the more we will hurt them. We will hurt them worse than we hurt the Russians. We will defeat them as we defeated all our enemies." However, although the Afghans certainly put up a fight, I knew that they didn't defeat Genghis Khan, who had laid waste to Herat and other Afghan cities as he made his way down towards Baghdad and Damascus.

I had been in similar countless conversations years ago both here in Peshawar and across the border in Afghanistan, where I watched men like Amin fight the Soviets. "Once, Americans were our friends," he continued. "They helped us fight Russians. Now they have become like the Russians. We will defeat them. Afghans do not like foreigners on their land."

I wanted to say that Afghans were noted for their hospitality, but decided that now was not the time. I quoted an Afghan proverb. "It is easy to enter Afghanistan, but very hard to leave." The Americans, and their NATO allies are learning this.

Only after Amin left later that night did I learn that he was no longer teaching. He was once again a "commander," an Afghan term for a guerrilla leader, as he had been during the 1980s, when he had fought the Russians. He lived in Peshawar and crossed easily over the border. There are more Pashtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. For them the border, called the Durand Line, drawn by Mortimer Durand, British Raj foreign secretary, in 1893, does not exist.

When I came here in 1981, the Mujahideen had just set up their headquarters, creating what would become, in its intrigue, a modern Casablanca, but without nightclubs or women in high heels and men in white dinner jackets. It has become that again. But now the intrigue centers on al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who are not, to us in the West, romantic figures.

I had written a book about my time with the Mujahideen, these men who had fought so courageously against the Red Army. Over two million Afghans died during that war. Millions more were maimed. In the end, with C.I.A. help, they prevailed.

A new, reprinted copy of this book [In Afghanistan] lay on the table in front of us. Our host, my friend, had brought it out from his bookshelf. The two men looked at the pictures and commented on men they knew, some of whom today are leading the fight against the Americans and their allies. The big man, named Badruzzaman Badr, took out a book from a bag and placed it on the table. It was in Pashto, with its Arabic script.

"My brother and I wrote this book," he said. On the cover was a picture of roped and hooded detainees at Guantanamo and U.S. soldiers. The title of the book was The Broken Chains of Guantanamo.

"I was a prisoner there for three and half years," said Badr. His surname referred to the famous early battle of Badr in the history of Islam when Mohammed's badly outnumbered forces defeated the Quraish, Mohammed's tribe, which then ruled Mecca. He smiled when I made reference to his name and the battle, and then quickly became serious.

"My brother and I were at Guantanamo together. It was terrible."

He had a soft, educated voice. Badr had a master's degree in English literature and had been sold, he said, by Pakistani intelligence, to the Americans. General Musharraf, in his book, In the Line of Fire, writes of the United States giving $500 for every al-Qaeda member and others that the Pakistanis captured for them.

Badr said that it took him three and a half years to prove his innocence. I looked at the photographs in the book, all taken by U.S. soldiers and felt a knot in my stomach. In one, a soldier held a pistol to the head of detainee, whose eyes were wide with fear; another showed a soldier, his rifle ready, kicking a hooded, naked man in a courtyard. It reminded me of pictures I had seen of soldiers in Nazi concentration camps.

As Badr told me stories, I watched the other men watch me. I felt ashamed. What had America become? Two weeks before Pakistani intelligence had thrown his brother, also a writer, into prison. Once again, he was behind bars, this time for writing about what the Pakistanis had done to them. Badr said his brother had translated the entire Koran from Arabic into Pashto while at Guantanamo and had written numerous poems and short stories, a total of 25,000 lines. The Americans, he said, destroyed everything the prisoners wrote.

"Only a good Muslim can survive such a prison," said Badr. The others all nodded. It was the power of their faith in their lives. "The M.P.s kept saying you are guilty until proven innocent," he said. "I would like to visit the US., to get to know what the real America is like. It can't be all Marines and MPs."

His book is in its third printing. My journalist friends said it was the most popular book among Afghans in Kabul. "Everyone wants to read it," said my host. Badr asked if I could help him find an American publisher. I said I would try.

(A few weeks before I came to Pakistan, a friend in New York offered to help me find a literary agent. She contacted her agent in Washington, D.C., a famous man who worked with famous people, helping them with their large book and television contracts. She told him that I was going to be spending time with the Taliban. He said I would be committing a felony.)

I told the smaller man that I didn't feel that there was much difference between the Mujahideen, who had once been America's allies, and the Taliban. He brought the fingers of two hands together. "They are the same," he said. He pointed to his head. "The culture and the thinking are the same." Only America has changed.

The 21st day of Ramadan is an especially important day for Shiite Muslims. It was on this night that Ali, also known as Ali bin Abi Talib, first cousin and son-in-law to the prophet Mohammed, the man to whom Shiite Muslim look to as the rightful heir of the Prophet, died from being struck with a sword two nights before, while he prayed in a mosque.

The Taliban, like the Mujahideen before them, like most Muslims in Peshawar and along the Afghan Pakistani border, are Sunni, as are most Muslims in Pakistan, and in the Muslim world. We didn't talk of Sunnis and Shiites as we sat outside under the stars, but mainly of the war that rages, in their minds, between the West and Islam. "There has been so much misunderstanding," said Badr. "I was never pro-Taliban. I was anti-Taliban. I was a university lecturer."

Now he is a hunted man. The authorities have not found him yet. "I saw no moral authority in Guantanamo," he said. "To be a real Christian, just as to be a real Muslim, you have to draw close to God. I couldn't have survived in Guantanamo without God." Twice he said it.

We bid one another good night and they left. The streets were empty. It was getting close to midnight and in a few hours they and my host would rise to eat and to pray again, before the sun rose.

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