Walnuts & Machine Guns: A Taliban Tale
A man with a machine gun has been following me for the last five days. His name is Zia, and he is very, very shy, especially for a man with a machine gun.
He first started shadowing me in the town of Chitral, near the end of my journey into Pakistan’s lawless Northwest Frontier—just a stone’s throw from Afghanistan. I’d come here in defiance of multiple travel warnings, determined to visit the fair-skinned, green-eyed Kalash Tribe—the legendary descendants of Alexander the Great’s invading army; lineage of the sick and wounded stragglers who were left behind for dead. The survivors created a unique animist civilization that miraculously lives on today, virtually untouched by time in an isolated valley of the Hindu Kush. While two of the tribal valleys are safe to visit, they’re precariously tucked in the Taliban heartlands, with volatile Swat and Dir to the east, and the insurgent border of Afghanistan to the west.
To make the situation even more perilous, I had come to Kalash to attend the Joshi Festival—a festival that would involve (in the Mediterranean fashion of their forefathers) drinking wine, dancing, and women showing their faces and forearms. To the furious Taliban, they might as well be Satan-worshipping prostitutes eating pages out of the Quran.
The Taliban demanded the infidels to desist and convert to Islam, but when the Kalash shrugged Muhammad off for another glass of Cabernet, the terrorists threatened to attack the festival (fundamentalist Grinches that they are).
Since the threat, the Taliban had kidnapped a Greek national in Bumboret village, and the divisional police weren’t taking any more chances with foreigners.
And thus, I give you Zia, my obligatory escort, grinning and bashful with his AK-47.
While Barbara, Eric, and Racquel (my three French and Spanish travel companions) resented their constant, armed supervision, it was pure, whimsical novelty to me.
“Zia! I’m going into this Internet Café to futz on Facebook for two hours. You stand guard for bad guys.”
“Okay, yes,” he blushed.
The road to Kalash was impossibly arduous; taking four days by bus and jeep over the Shandur Mountain Pass, which bridges the Karakoram with the Hindu Kush. By the grace of Tramadol tablets, we rumbled through foggy, high-altitude meadows dotted with yaks, past bullet-ridden walls of rustic villages, past bearded Pashtuns and women in burkas, into canyons shadowed by jagged, icy peaks wreathed in mist.
We stopped for a night in a small village called Mastuj, just south of the pass. In the candle-lit Police Station, we were forced to register in a tattered Transit Log—the back cover of which consisted of taped together Pokemon cards (I’m not kidding). According to the Log’s record, Mastuj hadn’t seen a single foreigner in over seven months—and accordingly, travel infrastructure was none existent. Bottled water was an alien concept to the village’s lonesome General Store, and I can now testify that brushing your teeth with Mountain Dew is a disgusting, self-defeating, and foamy process.
“Do you want protection?” asked the Deputy as we made our way out of the police station.
“No thank you,” Eric and I smiled. “We’re just staying the night.”
“Would you like gun?” he kindly offered.
The mountains of Afghanistan loomed forebodingly overhead as we made our final descent into Kalash. No one spoke; after constant military checkpoints, the exhilarating sense of peril had an almost narcotic effect. This was real adventure, I thought. Gulliver was a pansy.
By the time we saw our first Kalash woman, walking along the dirt road, swaddled in a technicolored, tribal dress, I counted our escort as no less than twelve armed guards: four in a truck ahead us, four following behind, and four crammed with us in our open-topped jeep.
The village of Bumboret was a rustic wood-and-stone affair, clinging precariously to the steep mountain face. Weathered, old women with more fingers than teeth swished about in vibrant, traditional costumes festooned with shells and tiny beads, and hemmed with tinkling, silver bells. Some were lugging wicker baskets of kindling on their backs, past windowless, timber huts with holes in the roofs, from which billowed fluffy columns of smoke.
It would have been a beautifully bucolic and nostalgic scene, if not for the several hundred Army and police officers milling around with assault rifles (and a few lucky rocket launchers). There were guns everywhere—filing through the narrow lanes, poking out of shrubbery, idling on the smoky rooftops behind sandbagged sniper posts.
When our motorcade roared into town, none of the villagers seemed to notice.
“It’s fun, isn’t it?” smiled Fahad, taking another sip of tea and gesturing to my escort.
“It’s fantastic,” I exclaimed, and Raquel rolled her eyes.
“You know, I’ve traveled all over the world as a photographer,” he said, “And my favorite trips are always, always, always the ‘dangerous’ ones.”
We were wiling away the afternoon over chai, with a slick, Dubai-based photographer we’d met, who had been sent to Kalash by an NGO. We listened like wide-eyed children as he described breathless adventures in war-torn Lebanon, of four-o’-clock curfews, and gun-fights with Somali warlords.
“That’s awesome!” I exclaimed, suddenly disappointed at my own exploits of waiting in line at the Taj.
“If the Taliban come,” he sighed, “Which I think they will… I bet it will be on the second day of the festival. That’s the main day, when all the villagers dance.”
Eric, Barbara, Raquel, and I fell silent for a moment, gazing off towards Afghanistan, as this reality sank in.
Finally, Fahad forced a smile. “But Steve doesn’t need to worry about that,” he chuckled. “You’ve already got the salwar, beard, and pakol. They’ll think you’re Afghani if you just keep your mouth shut and carry around a handful of walnuts!” he laughed.
Later that night, I procured a package of walnuts. It proved unnecessary, though.
That first night in Kalash, the border of Afghanistan was quiet and peaceful, glowing faintly under a million stars.
The festival began the next morning, with celebrations marked by people standing around, drinking milk, and quietly snacking on dried Mulberries and walnuts. Apparently it was a religious ritual, intended to purify the harvest. Either way, Allah must have been pretty sore about it, because the military presence had doubled.
“You’re very brave to come here,” nodded Hassan, after five hours of rampant dairy consumption. “You must think Kalash culture is extremely interesting.”
“Yes, it’s very interesting,” I assured, training my camera at a woman sitting on a bench, placidly sipping milk.
I noticed a sniper on a nearby rooftop start to doze off.
Hassan and his Pashtun cousins were visiting from Swat, and kindly invited us to join them for dinner and ~*~*~alcoholic drinks*~*~*~ at their guesthouse.
Around sunset, I was sitting on their porch with Hassan’s thirty-year old cousin, another Fahad, a dentist. He was explaining to me why Pakistani women stay at home, and why I can meet his wife, but I’m not allowed to meet Hassan’s or Ahmed’s or Irfan’s wives unless they first invite me, when I noticed him staring off at something behind me.
He was staring at the border.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I keep expecting to look up and see four-hundred Taliban marching down the mountain from Afghanistan,” he frowned.
“Oooh, that will never happen!” I uncomfortably laughed.
He shook his head. “Yes it will. You only say that because you haven’t lived it,” he muttered. “I’m from Swat. When the Taliban came in 2008, I had to leave my home. It was sudden. I only had a minute to look around my room and decide what to take. My parents were screaming…”
“That’s horrible…” I offered, fumbling for something to say.
“I had to leave my PS2, because there wasn’t enough time to unplug it.” He fell silent for a long moment, watching the sun sink behind the mountains.
I struggled to imagine being in that situation. I tried to imagine what I would do if that happened tonight. And then I imagined the Taliban breaking down the door of our guesthouse, only to find Eric, Barbara, Raquel, and a silent, pakol-wearing Afghan brother, stuffing his mouth with walnuts.
Suddenly, Hassan poked his head out onto the porch. “Guys, it’s a party! Let’s have wine!”
As if on cue, Ahmed appeared across the lawn, stalking towards us, looking pale and worried. He shouted something in Pashtun, at which Hassan’s face signaled that it was no longer a party.
Something had happened.
We stumbled from the guesthouse to find the main road calm and empty. The entire military force was nowhere to be seen.
Suddenly, a jeep thundered by, kicking up dust, brimming with soldiers, weapons, and neat coils of barbed wire.
“Zia!” I cried, “Kya wa?” I attempted. “Bahut police Afghanistan jaraha ho. Kya wa?”
Zia shook his head nervously.
“Did something happen?” I stammered.
He shifted his weight, before reluctantly nodding his head, yes.
My heart was pounding in my ears. “Taliban janaa?”
He looked away, before offering another guilty nod.
The Taliban were coming.
I looked to Eric, Barbara, and Raquel, then to our four guards, then to Hassan and his cousins. No one said anything for a long while. We had no jeep, and no means of fleeing if we needed to. It seemed that our worst fears had been confirmed…We then did the only thing one can do in such a harrowing and helpless situation.
We uncorked a bottle of wine and started aggressively drinking.
White wine, at first, then red. Then, when the power went out, we lit candles and switched to paint-stripping rice liquor.
“EAT THE CHICKEN!!” slurred Ahmed, to our cries of laughter.
By ten-o’-clock, we were all shitfaced. (Except the guards, despite our gleeful attempts).
“EAT THE CHICKEN!!” Ahmed insisted, thrusting a drumstick in Raquel’s face.
“I’m a vegetarian,” explained Raquel.
The Pashtuns howled. “A what?”
“I don’t eat meat.” She smiled.
They didn’t understand. “Just try a little!” bellowed Ahmed, practically forcing the chicken into her mouth, until she finally took a bite.
That’s when we heard the first gunshot. POP! You could hear it echo through the entire valley, even over the cacophony of our drool-faced booze fest.
POP! POP! POP! A volley of shots, followed by another, then another.
Then it went quiet.
Ahmed put down the chicken, and our guards’ Walkie-Talkies started to crackle with voices.
Hassan shouted something to them in Urdu, which I couldn’t understand, and after an awkward moment, Barbara’s guard, Rahmat responded calmly.
“He says it’s just the Border Police, that they’re just communicating with each other,” conveyed Hassan. “They’re making sure they’re all still awake. Everything’s okay.”
Twenty minutes later, another exchange of volleys sounded.
Then again ten minutes after that.
At midnight, our guards politely ordered us to return to our guesthouse, and after much unintelligible protest, we stumbled home in the dark.
No one spoke of the Taliban, or the gunshots. Because, as Rahmat explained, it was just the Border Patrol communicating.
“It was a group of university students celebrating,” said a Police Lieutenant the next day at the festival, when I casually asked for an explanation. “Pakistanis fire guns to celebrate. Even at weddings and birthdays,“ he chuckled.
In either case, the festival unfolded without incident. We ‘Ooh’ed and ‘Ahh’ed as the Kalash drank wine and danced, spinning in circles to the rhythmic beating of drums. Then they all shook tree branches over their heads, and when that was finished, they abruptly started throwing leaves at the women. Then they spun in circles again.
It wasn’t until one week later, when I was sadly saying goodbye to Zia as I boarded my jeep out of Chitral, that I bothered to bring up the gunshots we heard that night in Bumboret.
“I’ve been puzzling over this, and I can’t figure it out,” I said. “But why would the Border Patrol be communicating with gunshots when they all have Walkie Talkies?”
Zia said nothing.
“Also, why didn’t the Border Patrol communicate with each other on the other two nights? I mean, am I really supposed to believe that it was a group of university students? That anyone would be stupid enough to start firing guns in such a militarized area, and at such a tense time? Because, even if they did, there would be fifty soldiers upon them in seconds, which doesn’t account for why the we heard shots for forty-five minutes.”
Zia shifted his weight. Adjusted his watch.
“It was the Taliban, wasn’t it?”
He looked around nervously, before his mouth curled into a giddy, reluctant smile that said it all.
“Maybe…” he nodded, before bringing me in for a long, tight Mom-hug, and I boarded my jeep to Islamabad.
The road descended from the mountains to the Peshawar Plain, cutting south through Swat, a highly volatile and dangerous region of Taliban banners and anti-American slogans.
But I wasn’t scared.
I knew the inquisitive man sitting next to me was secret police—I caught a glimpse of his badge when he was paying the fare.
Plus, I still had a bag of walnuts in my pocket.