Pakistan: Beasts and Hellions

Young Muslim men chanted, "Crush, crush, USA!" and inclined their torsos with each syllable for emphasis. Hasan and I waded into the throng, smiling politely. We found a spot at the edge of the crowd of 6,000 protesters, directly over a trickling open sewer and in front of a dental clinic advertised by a ghastly smiling mouth.

I’ve stuck out in crowds all my life, but nothing compares to being the tallest American at a Death to America rally.

Street demos were a standing Friday afternoon assignment for journalists bivouacked in the border city of Peshawar, Pakistan, during the fall of 2001 after the attacks of September 11. At the conclusion of afternoon prayers, students streamed out of mosques and into the streets to hear fiery speakers damn the Pakistani and American presidents.

It was my first Friday in Peshawar, a teeming border city of smugglers, refugees, and exiled warlords located at the historic Khyber Pass on the Afghan border. The city, whose ethnic Pashtuns deeply empathized with their kinsmen across the border, was aflame with anti-American sentiment. US warplanes were pounding the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Pakistani newspapers ran daily pictures of bombed civilian houses and bleeding Afghan children. The images had electrified Muslims who swore to join the Taliban and help defend Islam. A few Pakistanis actually did. Untrained and ill equipped, they were slaughtered by battle-hardened Tajiks of the US-backed Northern Alliance. But mostly the jihadi wannabes stayed in Pakistan, where they fulminated at rallies like this one, then went home and studied their physics textbooks.

"We welcome terrorism in all its forms," read a placard in blood-red Arabic. The scene couldn’t have been more different from my assignment a month earlier at ground zero in New York City. At the Jacob Javits Convention Center, I interviewed a rescue captain from the Baltimore Fire Department who, blinking back tears, told me of finding a group of dead NYC firefighters, their arms linked around each other as the second tower collapsed on top of them. New Yorkers uttered the name Osama bin Laden as though it were a strain of hemorrhagic fever. Here on the other side of the globe, his face was plastered on T-shirts under the slogan "Osama, the Great Mujahid [holy warrior] of Islam."

Far at the front of the assemblage, a speaker was bellowing into a cheap microphone that distorted his voice so much, it reminded me of the punk rock bands I used to hear in Austin. "He is saying America is the worst terrorist in the world," Hasan said as I scribbled in my notebook, "and that Afghanistan will be their graveyard."

I noticed then that a pudgy, flush-faced student had hoisted a homemade sign directly over my head that read "Americans Are Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions." It was printed in English, no doubt for the benefit of CNN.

"Hasan, tell this man to take his sign down," I said.

"Just ignore it, John."

"It makes me nervous."

"No one will hurt you. It’s okay."

I stared at the student and he stared back at me, expressionless.

"Then tell him I really like his sign and I’d like to have it," I continued.

"What?" Hasan glanced at me.

"Ask him if he will give it to me as a gift."

I’ll never completely understand why the student complied. Perhaps he wanted to show me he was neither beast nor hellion like my countrymen, or maybe he thought I needed to meditate further on his message. For whatever reason, he rolled up the posterboard and handed it to me with a smile.

And then he said, "You are our brother, no problem." He extended his hand to shake mine. "You are our friend, no problem."

"I am your brother?" I asked.

"Yes, you are our brother," he repeated.

Dumbstruck, I wanted to visit further and find out why he was so friendly, but a crowd had gathered around us — never a good idea at an emotional rally. Hasan said it was time to leave. I followed his bobbing head through the swarm and back through the narrow streets of the Khyber Bazaar, where boys hawked plugs of sugarcane and cups of green tea.

"Hasan, what just happened back there?" I asked.

"Muslims hate US foreign policy," he explained patiently, "but people of the Northwest Frontier Province are very courteous to foreigners. We are Pashtuns. Our tradition is hospitality."

After that unexpected encounter, I spent the rest of my six-week assignment in Pakistan trying to understand the Pashtuns and their tribal honor code of Pashtunwali. My guide through Pashtun culture was Hasan Khan, a 28-year-old Pakistani journalist who held a master’s degree in English literature from Peshawar University. His favorite author was Emily Brontë. He was so blond and blue-eyed that he would have been mistaken for a westerner were it not for his salwar kameez, the loose-fitting tunic and trousers favored by Pakistani men.

Hasan was the perfect fixer. He seemed to know someone everywhere we went, from plainclothes policemen to real estate agents to industry officials to expert sandal makers. His gentle, self-deprecating humor was a welcome antidote to the constant zealotry around us. On a warm, late-November afternoon, at another emotional rally in the frontier town of Mardan, Hasan translated the speaker: "Satan depends on technology; God depends on the faith of Muslims . . . Death to USA . . . Long live Islam. Those who are friends to America are traitors." Without missing a beat, he shot me a grin and added, "I am one of them, John."

In Peshawar, the beehive was the Pearl-Continental Hotel. The lobby was decorated like a Raj-era palace, with the syrupy sixties hit "Love Is Blue" playing on a tape loop. Pakistani spooks and wishful fixers hung out in overstuffed chairs.

On any international story, the hacks try to situate themselves as close to the action as possible, but not so close that they can’t get cocktails after deadline. The PC, as the Pearl was known, had the only semipublic bar in the city — the sign next to the door stated, "Non-Muslims & Foreigners Only." My first visit convinced me the tavern was meant as a punishment for infidels who desired a fermented beverage. It had all the charm of a shipping container. The only beer available was a watery brew called Murree’s, made at a 140-year-old brewery originally established for thirsty British troops when Pakistan was part of the empire. I asked the bartender who his clientele was today, and he replied contemptuously, "Christians and Sikhs."

The Peshawar press corps tended to separate into peer groups, which I suppose is human nature. It happens on every story. The Japanese keep to themselves and possess a knowledge of the story that is inversely related to the number of pockets on their khaki photojournalist vests. The European journos hang out together drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and never seeming to have deadlines. American and British correspondents, bound by a common language, tend to socialize together.

The starkest divisions between journalists are not over nationality but medium: There’s TV, and there’s everybody else. One veteran hack I know defines a story’s critical mass as the point "when TV comes." In Peshawar, Japanese TV crews paid $300 for a room that had been $85 the previous week.

The advent of 24-hour news networks has created a new breed of television reporter — the "dish bunny." Attractive, dashing, and mellifluous on camera, in practice, he or she rarely leaves the sweeping vista of the rooftop live shot. Instead, the dish bunny allows field producers to gather footage and take the tenor of the streets. Once I was eating with colleagues in the hotel restaurant when a correspondent for an American network whose name rhymes with "pox" pulled up a seat and unloaded, "I’ve been on the fucking roof for a week, so what’s going on in this country?"

News gathering is sausage making — not for the squeamish. In the PC lobby one afternoon, I overheard a breathless British television cameraman, a red kaffiyeh rakishly wrapped around his neck, who’d just returned from an Afghan refugee camp. "The last shot is fucking incredible," he said to his colleague. "He’s got flies in his mouth and his eyes. He looks dead, but he’s alive. Incredible, man."

Journalists try to convey reality but invariably we distort it, none more so than photographers and videographers. In the Pearl bar one night, I mentioned this observation to a friendly Irish TV cameraman as we sipped Murree’s.

"I know what you mean," he said. "I spent five years in Northern Ireland. We’d wait two hours through a peaceful demonstration for one car to be burned. TV loves a burning car. But it gives the impression that burning cars are all over Ulster, and they weren’t."

I described my experience at the anti-American rally, about how the protestor had given me his sign and warmly shaken my hand. I filed an audio postcard on the experience for All Things Considered, and the response I received was overwhelming. Our listeners appreciated having their stereotypes of crazed militants exploded. According to TV images, all of Pakistan was a powder keg, which it wasn’t. A Peshawar matron told me she and her neighbors were so frightened by the pictures on Pakistani evening news that they were afraid to go to the bazaar.

"So what do you want, pictures of picnickers in the park? You just don’t get it, mate. This is TV," said the Irishman.

Ever since arriving in western Pakistan, I had been curious about the role, or lack of it, of women in Pashtun society. Everyone had seen pictures from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in which women were forced to wear the head-to-toe, sacklike garments called burkas. But I was surprised to see virtually every woman in the streets of Peshawar wearing a burka. Journalists took to calling them BMOs — blue moving objects. The only women’s eyes I saw on the street were on the backs of rickshaws.

When I asked Hasan why women voluntarily wore burkas, he told me airily that no one forced women to don the garments; they chose to wear them out of modesty and to protect family honor. But if the burka was supposed to douse male sexual attraction, it seemed to have the opposite effect. Hasan and our driver Mushtaq, a meek Pashtun who became predatory behind the wheel, picked me up one windy morning and announced that this was their favorite kind of day. Why would they say that, I asked, with all the dust and fecal material flying through the air?

"Because the wind shows a woman’s form under the burka," Mushtaq replied gleefully.

Pashtun men considered the reputation and chastity of Pashtun women to be inviolable. They reserved their lust for western women, or, lacking that, Punjabi women from eastern Pakistan. The video stores did a brisk business in DVDs featuring chunky Punjabi women in thick black eye makeup, waggling their enormous bottoms at the camera.

Journalists covering the guerrilla war against the Taliban made the same observation of the Muslim Tajiks of the Northern Alliance. To reach the battle front, reporters had to travel for three days over the rugged Hindu Kush mountains to a remote mud-brick village where the Northern Alliance had set up its field camp. In order to ease the privations, a savvy engineer for an American TV network showed Northern Alliance officers how to position their satellite dish to download Russian porn from the Hotbird satellite network. From then on, the engineer always had a seat on a chopper to visit outlying war camps.

Tired of the stifling Pearl pub, I set out one night to find the American Club, which supposedly had a proper bar and would admit credentialed US correspondents. I flagged down a rickshaw and climbed into the back, and we lurched into traffic. The driver, a hook-nosed Afghan in a traditional white cap and vest, began to sing. Ten minutes later, he was still singing. Twenty minutes later, he continued spinning off verses, one after another, mournful, beautiful, and numberless. I started my tape recorder.

When we arrived at the American Club, an officious Pakistani guard at the entrance told me I couldn’t come in because I didn’t have embassy security clearance. At that moment, a corpulent, pink-skinned man in a polo shirt walked into the bar, stopping briefly to look me up and down. Suddenly, I realized I would much rather listen to the singing taxi driver than join a table full of American consular officers. I ran out to catch the musical cabbie before he left. On the way back to the PC, I recorded another 20 minutes of his soulful singing.

The next day I played the tape for Hasan and asked him what the words meant. He told me it was a tappa, an improvisational Afghan folk song sung in Pashto, the language of the Pashtuns. "All Pashtuns are poets," Hasan said, enjoying the tape as much as I was. "The driver is singing to an imaginary girl: ‘I am from Kandahar, and I love you. Let us go out together hand in hand. If our love succeeds, then we will live together forever. But if we die, we will be together in death forever.’" 

The lovers’ death was a reference to the Pashtun practice of honor killings. Under the code of Pashtunwali, a man and a woman who have a love affair or even marry outside of an arranged marriage must both be slain. In practice, it is usually the woman who is murdered in cold blood.

Human rights organizations estimate that every year, hundreds of Pakistani women are victims of honor killings. The Pakistani government publicly condemns honor killings, but in practice, the crimes are seldom investigated or solved. The barbarous practice has spread to Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, the West Bank, and India; but it remains particularly entrenched in the Pashtun homelands of western Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan.

In Peshawar, the capital of Northwest Frontier Province, the most prominent feminist was Musarrat Hilali, the local director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Not being Pashtun herself, she dared to wear lipstick and a flowered hijab and sit with me — a man not her relative — in a hotel lobby. "Mr. Burnett, you don’t have to go to Kabul to find the Taliban," she began. "The Taliban are living all around us."

She looked around the lobby at the well-dressed Pakistani men, smoking and drinking tea, then began to recount a recent honor killing that had made the papers. The daughter of a provincial minister was caught in an affair with the family’s driver. To protect the family name, the minister authorized his brother to kill his love-struck daughter. She was shot with a Kalashnikov. The driver was pushed from the third story of a building, though he lived. In what was considered a step forward for the movement to abolish honor killings, the authorities jailed the uncle and charged him with murder. The girl’s father was never charged.

Hilali related this story matter-of-factly, without emotion. I asked her what it was like fighting for women’s rights in the land of the Pashtun. "In Peshawar, a lady drives a car and people stare. Why?" she said, raising her voice. "Is it more difficult than having a baby?" Several men looked our way and gave her dirty looks.

What I learned in Peshawar was that the Taliban did not invent its mistreatment of women — keeping them housebound, uneducated, and cloaked under blue polyester. It comes directly from Pashtunwali, the ultraconservative code of morality and honor that defines the Pashtuns and regulates nearly every aspect of their behavior. Anyone who asks for refuge must receive it, whether he’s a visiting sheik or camel thief. Hospitality must be lavished on anyone who steps on a Pashtun’s property, which explained how all my interviews were accompanied by steaming cups of frontier-style green tea spiced with cardamom. But the central pillars of Pashtunwali are honor and revenge.

To better understand Pashtunwali, I sought out an American woman, Nancy Hatch Dupree, a renowned expert on Afghan culture, art, and history. She reminded me of Katharine Hepburn: white hair and an aged face etched by intelligence, kindness, and adversity. Dupree received me warmly, eager to vent her frustration over the images she was seeing on television. "I hate to see the Pashtun being portrayed as these fanatic rag-head turban wallahs with the big unkempt beards, with fire in their eyes. They can get that way. But they are gentle people, really, until you touch their honor. Once you touch their honor, they go off," she said, making a gesture like an exploding bomb. "This idea of honor, it permeates everything."

I told Hasan I wanted to meet someone from the tribal areas — the frontier no-man’s-lands on the Pakistan-Afghan border that’s ruled by guns, contraband, and Pashtunwali, and where Osama bin Laden is reportedly hiding out. The next afternoon, I found myself in the home of Mohammad Akbar Nikzad, an elder of the Mangal tribe of Paktia Province, Afghanistan. His black-and-gray turban, white beard, and glasses gave him the demeanor of a Koranic scholar. We sat crosslegged on his floor, eating a typical Afghan repast — a greasy stew of meat and potatoes, mopped up with unleavened bread and washed down with Pepsi. After lunch I asked if I could thank his wife for preparing the meal. The question was ignored. Five minutes later I asked again. Hasan’s sharp glance told me not to ask further. She apparently would not be permitted out of the kitchen to meet the guests.

It was clear that Akbar wanted to impress upon a visiting American journalist that he was a modern man. He told of having studied engineering in Japan, of his brother who lives in Virginia, and of his hatred of the Taliban. Though the Taliban were also ethnic Pashtuns, their brand of Puritanism had gone too far even for deeply conservative Pashtun tribesmen. The Taliban had outlawed music and dance at wedding parties; they had banned kite flying and egg-cracking contests; and, worst of all, they had invited Arab outsiders — al Qaeda fighters — into Afghanistan and fallen under their influence.

I had begun to grow impressed with Akbar’s enlightenment — until the topic turned to Pashtunwali and women. "If you just touch her in a sex way and people see it, it has shamed both your families," he said with a sigh of resignation.

"Would you kill your own daughter?" I asked him.

"Of course," he said, surprised at my question. "Yes, yes. I am open-minded, but I live in my tribe. How can I live in my tribe if everyone says, ‘Look at Mohammad, his daughter was like this.’ It’s better that I die, because I can’t face my tribe."

Hasan, also a proud Pashtun, then spoke up. "If he didn’t kill his daughter who has dishonored him, he cannot go to the jirga [tribal counsel], he cannot talk to any person, he cannot talk loudly in public," he said.

"Hasan, you too?" I asked incredulously.

"We are doing this only to secure our pride," he said. "Even your wife will tell you to kill her daughter. And it’s not just the women. If I touch a woman who’s not my wife in a bad sense, I will be killed, too. Her family has the right to kill me, and my family will have no right to take revenge. I may be a prominent man, but that doesn’t matter here. If I’m Pashtun, I have to follow the traditions."

Reprinted from: Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions: Travels with an NPR Correspondent by John F Burnett © 2006 John F Burnett. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher by calling at (800) 848-4735. 

Author John F. Burnett has been in the midst of the biggest news stories of our age, and 2005 marked his 20th year reporting for National Public Radio. He is the recipient of a 2004 Edward R. Murrow Award for Investigative Reporting and a 2003 National Headliner Award for Investigative Reporting. He lives in Austin, Texas.