Breaking Frontiers - Page 2
By Maliha Masood

The Steadfast Mountains of Afghanistan
More dusty barren streets and gun toting bazaars come into view. Children in tattered clothes wave gleefully and scatter like frightened rabbits to their mud brick huts in the refugee camps that extend in maze–like contortions. I sneak a glance at a smug–looking Ghafoor through the side view mirror. Apparently, the ceasefire has gone down well.

Road congestion picks up near the Pakistani/Afghan border at Torkham. We tail a truck decorated with a busy collage of flying partridges, Alpine snow–capped meadows and Quranic verses to ward off the evil eye. I expect to see caravans of Afghans trickling in from across the gate, but there is scant evidence of human traffic. After the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan absorbed some three million refugees into its northwest province. Along with the poor families and tribes came a culture of guns and drugs, plus the ensuing trafficking, corruption, and violence that have become emblems of all that is wrong with the country. This is not to say that Pakistan had no such problems before the Afghan crisis, but to consider the problems exclusively homegrown is to miss the bigger picture.

iStock photo © Danishkhan

When the United States requested Pakistan's help to ward off the Communist threat in neighboring Afghanistan, it nurtured a chummy alliance of self–serving interests. Pakistan offered local recruits, ably equipped with cash and weapons from Uncle Sam, to fight the infidels next door. General Zia's cooperation with the Americans made him quite a hero in the West. When the Carter administration offered a billion dollars worth of aid to alleviate the Afghan refugee situation, Zia made headlines when he smiled and said, "But that is just peanuts!" Perhaps he ought to have replied with a two–part question that history would answer in due time. Who was more in need of the other? And which one of us got the short end of the stick?

We halt near a large concrete customs building and dart inside to enjoy more sweet tea and biscuits in a stuffy room overlooking the border post. I walk up to the open window facing a wall of jagged khaki mountains and wonder what kind of fortitude it must take to cross over them lugging all your possessions in a cloth bundle.

Ghafoor comes up beside me. "What are you thinking?"

"It's such a desolate place. But I feel it has seen many survivors."

He smiles and motions me to join him outside. The three bodyguards spring to life, trailing us at a modest distance, Kalashnikovs in hand, nozzles pointing downwards.

"Don't worry about a thing," Ghafoor says reassuringly. "Yahan, meri hukumat hay!" (This is my turf.) He sweeps a welcoming hand, pointing out things I should notice, like the Welcome to Pakistan sign that shares the billboard with Khyber Rifles and Pepsi.

Once again, I find myself as the only woman in a sea of men. Camera in hand, I focus on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border checkpoint and click away at the moving festivity, willing my lens to catch something interesting. A conga line of trucks awaits inspection. Not allowed to go past the gate, I cross a narrow ridge over a gully and sink my feet into Afghan soil.

Ghafoor grins and points to my flimsy sandals. "Is that what you climb mountains in?"

I inscribe our names in Urdu on the gravely earth with the back of my chewed up Biro.

Just in time for sunset, Ghafoor decides to take us up to a TV tower, sensing my need to prolong the adventure. "There is a fantastic view of Afghanistan from the summit," he says. "But I don't think you are fit enough to climb all the way up!"

I stick out my tongue in retaliation. We pile back into his jeep. I am sandwiched between Ghafoor who drives and Anwar who is chain smoking Marlboros. Each time Ghafoor shifts gears, his hand digs into my waist and I cry aloud in fake torment that causes him to double over in laughter. The jeep lurches forward, tracing the curve of an unpaved dirt road. I watch the angle of the sky shifting at every turn, just like in an airplane.

Meaning in a Handshake
The TV tower perches up a steep incline. Fierce winds flap against my chador as I gingerly walk along the edge of a cliff. Honey colored hills spread out in all directions, making me momentarily forget the concept of flat land. Peering towards the horizon, I can only make out ring upon ring of bluish mountain ranges in the disappearing light. From this vantage point, Afghanistan looks serene and beautiful as if newly born and it is difficult to imagine the actual horror and destruction of the war torn country that lies beyond. It gives me some consolation that no amount of carpet bombing would obliterate the natural beauty of those mountains, nature's small triumph over man.

Ghafoor's bodyguards squat on their haunches smoking bedis. I walk up to one of them and ask to hold his Kalashnikov. He shrugs and making sure the trigger is in the locked position, cradles the weapon in my arms like a precious infant that weighs at least twenty pounds. I adjust my head scarf to cover my face and aim towards Kabul, while my onlookers laugh and urge me to find Osama Bin Laden.

"You'll be a rich lady if you find Osama," Ghafoor tells me in a serious tone. "And if we find him together," he adds, "We'll split the proceeds, 50–50."

"Do you know where he's hiding?"

"Only Allah knows," Ghafoor replies and glances at his watch.

"Come," he says. "Let us pray together."

We spread some jute rugs on the parched brown earth and turn toward Mecca. Maybe not so far away, Osama is praying in some cave. What connection do we possibly have? Granted, we are all Muslims, but certainly not of the same backgrounds and persuasions – a girl from America in search of her roots, a kindly bureaucrat who drinks too much tea and the world's most wanted criminal – all of us remembering God in the act of namaz, united in time by our actions, but in our minds, we may as well be galaxies apart.

You can tell a lot about a person by the way he or she shakes your hand. Typically, in Pakistan, men and women do not shake hands, except in business settings or in hip young circles. I often made the mistake of extending my hand in greeting to which I received at best a wishy– washy grazing of palms or simply a total lack of acknowledgement. Even among women, pumping hands is more a matter of a loose clasp. So when Ghafoor holds my right hand in a firm grip to say goodbye, I know right away why we hit it off. His handshake is sincere and honest. It seals our friendship. Ghafoor gives me his card inscribed with the quaint job title of tehsildar, which roughly translates as village administrator. We exchange e–mail addresses and phone numbers, planning to meet up next time he comes down to Islamabad.

Anwar and I drive back through the Khyber Pass in pitch–blackness, with the headlights of the Land Rover car guiding the way ahead. Only the wail of the Pashtun song on the radio keeps my thoughts from drifting. I keep thinking of that exceptionally warm handshake; the kind I had never before received in Pakistan.

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Photos by Maliha Masood except where indicated.

Maliha Masood

Maliha Masood was born in Pakistan and moved to the United States when she was 12. She is an award–winning writer in creative nonfiction and author of the book Zaatar Days, Henna Nights. With a masters in law and diplomacy from Harvard, she has worked in conflict resolution with the International Crisis Group and is founder of the Seattle–based workshop and seminar group The Diwaan Project.

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