Years ago, I met a guy who’d been to Afghanistan, and I was surprised to hear that the country really existed. I thought it was a mythical land out of a fairy tale, and I’d never heard of the Pashtuns. That was back in 1968.
With a pack on my back and a map in hand, I set out to see the world, starting in Norway and ending in Japan. In between I wanted to see Europe, the Middle East and India. With no time constraints and no fixed itinerary, it was a whimsical journey that crisscrossed parts of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. At the end of a year I set out for India, traveling east through Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey and Iran.
Istanbul and Tehran were modern cities, but as I progressed eastward everything seemed to get more primitive. And also more desolate. It was like going into the back woods, except that there weren’t any woods. I remember it as a dark, barren desert. Eventually I reached Afghanistan, and the first city I came across was Herat. Women there didn’t wear the veil; they wore the burqa, a garment that covered their entire body, almost down to the feet, with only a small screen over their eyes to peer out of.
Herat was a quiet, dusty town, even though it was the third largest city in Afghanistan. There seemed to be no more than half a dozen motor vehicles in the entire city. At the intersection of the two main streets there was a policeman, and I wondered why he stood there. Later that day I happened to see an automobile coming down the street. The policeman immediately came to life, blew his whistle and waved the vehicle through. Then I realized that he was a traffic cop. That was before the Russians, before the Taliban, before the U.S. invasion or any of that. The town might look different now, but the Herat I saw probably hadn’t changed much since the Middle Ages.
The travelers I met along the way were a good source of information, so I knew in advance there were a couple of hotels in Herat. As in other hotels I’d stayed at, I shared a room with half a dozen other foreigners, mostly British, some Japanese, one or two Australians, everyone traveling low budget. There were no beds; we rolled out our sleeping bags and slept on the floor.
Alexander the Great is said to have passed through Herat. At the time I wondered what could have brought him to a place like this. Herat seemed to me about the most remote spot on earth, but actually, it lies on an ancient trade route, making it an important center of commerce and culture. An impressive list of famous Persian poets came from this city.
The Afghans around Herat were Persian-speaking Tajiks. To the east of them lived the Pathans, tribesmen who’d earned fame for the bad times they’d given the British Empire. The English remembered them well and told many stories about them. One was from the First Afghan War of 1839. The British sent an army of 4,500 men to Kabul, and when the lone survivor eventually came straggling back to British India, he was asked, “Where’s the rest of the Kabul Expedition?” The soldier, whose name was William Brydon, replied, “I am the rest of the Kabul Expedition.”
These Pathans were also said to be remarkably gifted at gun smithing. Using only primitive tools, they were capable of producing functional copies of any sophisticated firearm they got their hands on.
After leaving Herat, I passed through Kandahar, Kabul, and then descended the steep Khyber Pass into Pakistan. Few Afghans spoke English; I met none who spoke it well enough to hold a conversation. But it was different in Pakistan, which had been part of the British Empire. There I encountered many who spoke English.
I was on my way to Peshawar, riding a bus, when a fellow sat down next to me. I continued to look out the window at the countryside, but when I glanced his way again, he had a pistol in a shoulder holster lying on his lap. He’d been wearing it all under his baggy shirt.
“This doesn’t disturb you, I hope?” he said in fairly good English.
“Oh no. It doesn’t disturb me at all,” I assured him.
Our conversation continued. He was traveling with his brothers, who were sitting across from us, and said that he found himself obliged to carry the pistol because of an ongoing disagreement with another group. At least one person had been killed.
I asked if he were a Pathan.
“I’m a Pashtun,” he corrected me.
The British called them Pathans, and so it was that they became known as Pathans to the Western world, but Pashtuns is what they called themselves.
By the time we reached the city of Peshawar, we’d become quite well acquainted. He and his brothers were continuing on northward to a certain village and invited me to accompany them for a visit. This I did and spent a couple of pleasant days with them.
A few days later, back in Peshawar, I met a student who showed me around his campus. He was also a Pashtun, and, like everyone else, wore an oversized khaki shirt that came nearly down to his knees. I jokingly asked him if he were carrying a pistol.
He looked at me strangely and said, “Why do you ask that?”
“It seems like everybody around here does,” I said.
Then he showed me his gun-belt.
“You too?” I said in surprise. “But why is a gun necessary?”
He assured me that his weapon was essential but didn’t say why. As we strolled around the campus he told me about student life. The school seemed much like an American one, and for a while they’d even held student body elections so they could learn the democratic way of doing things. But the school officials had ended that experiment a couple of years earlier, after the loser of a student election shot the winner.
While we were talking, we heard a gunshot. Across the courtyard from us were a group of students; they were playing around with a pistol, and it had gone off. Nobody hurt.
I asked my student friend about the famous gunsmiths of this region. I mentioned the stories I’d heard of the phenomenal gift these people had for making firearms. “Is it true, what they say?”
“Of course it’s true. Would you like to see a place where guns are made?”
Naturally I did.
It was a small workshop. Two or three craftsmen sat cross-legged on the floor, working with rather simple tools. One was making a shotgun, another a revolver.
I wondered about the metallurgy and the general quality of these weapons. On one occasion I saw a fellow attempt to fire a pistol in the air and it didn’t go off, so I must think that some were not too well-made. Presumably the craftsmanship varied from shop to shop.
The Pashtuns were an extremely interesting people, and I’ve often wished I’d stayed longer in that region. One thing that impressed me about them was that they were rather quiet, extremely gentle and courteous. In a land where many people carry pistols and are so ready to use them, I suppose people tend to be more polite.
Daniel Borgström is a member of Lake Merritt Neighbors for Peace.