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A Bazaar Display of Arms in 'Rambo' Land

VACATION MEMORIES: This is one of a continuing series on Memorable Vacations that appears from time to time in the Travel Section.

February 21, 1988|DIANA REYNOLDS CHAMBERS | Chambers is a Los Angeles free-lance writer. and

The pilot announces: "Inshallah, we will soon be landing in Peshawar, capital of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province."

My husband looked at me inquiringly. Inshallah means "God willing," I explained. He rolled his eyes, retightening his seat belt. I smiled and shrugged. Maybe the best way to approach our visit here is with similar fatalism.

We'd come to research a screenplay but were aware of the difficulties ahead. It was a monsoon-less summer and the crowded streets are fiercely hot, the fighting next door in Afghanistan even hotter.

We'd be a mere 30 miles from the famed Khyber Pass leading to that mountain nation. I wanted to go there for our story, but the pass was rumored to be closed to foreigners due to tribal dissension, smuggling, kidnaping and war.

By the time we taxied from the airport and checked into the Pearl Continental Hotel our apprehensions dimmed. They faded entirely as we were charmed by the energy and humor of everyone we met in the course of our work. We were encouraged to attempt the pass.

Cool and Comfortable

The next morning we hired a car from our hotel's transportation desk and shook hands with our tall, easygoing driver, Jhan. He wore a loose, long-sleeved tunic and pants. These pajamalike garments are cool and comfortable and worn by most men here.

We were soon driving through the cheerful chaos of Peshawar. Traffic that Saturday morning was hectic after Friday's Islamic sabbath. Passing us were psychedelically painted trucks, scooters, bicycles, motor rickshaws, horse-driven tongas and bullock-drawn carts, all accompanied by horns beeping and bells ringing.

The population is equally eclectic. For thousands of years this frontier town has been a melting pot as waves of invaders and traders passed en route to the riches of India.

After driving along the green boulevards of the old British district, we headed west on a busy industrial highway. Soon the city was behind us. We saw pearl-gray mountains in the distance as we crossed dusty, golden plains.

In Tribal Territory

Jhan told us we'd entered tribal territory. "In parts of Northwest Frontier province, government controls only main roads," he explained. "All other land ruled by local chiefs, paid baksheesh to keep peace."

During their rule here the British began paying baksheesh (bribery) to control the rebellious Pathan tribesmen. The system continues. The turrets and gunholes of the mud compounds we passed illustrate the tribesmen's defiant independence.

We approached the Jamrud checkpoint. Its two red gates slammed shut. Three armed guards approached us; only the red badges on their dark caps denoted officialdom. We could not pass without "special permission." Apologetically, they explained that this is a Pakistani rule, not theirs. They are Pathans, tribal police.

We took a few Polaroid snapshots before leaving, and one of the guards, Hassan, cocky and arrogant, selected the best one for himself. We chatted a bit, then Farouk, the quiet leader, invited us to take some food. Unwilling to impose and knowing my husband's obsession with hygiene, I declined regretfully. Hospitably, he pressed us: "Some tea?"

Reclining Like Pashas

Impulsively I accepted, despite my husband's raised eyebrows. Perhaps this would be our entree to the Khyber Pass. Farouk sent a boy for tea, then took us to a lean-to attached to the guard shack. He placed bolsters on one of the facing charpoys, wooden frame beds with hemp webbing. Like pashas we reclined, cooled by a gentle breeze.

Our hosts were charming and fascinated by me. In this culture, men view an unveiled Western woman as intriguing yet disturbing. Gallantry and sexuality become inextricably mixed in their behavior.

As Hassan looked at me with his strange grin, I recalled the young Englishwoman kidnaped by just such a grinning tribesman in the 1920s. The British then declared tribal areas off limits for civilians. A sign is still posted just past this checkpoint: "Foreigners are asked not to leave the highway in the Khyber Pass."

Suddenly I was panic-stricken. Then I came to my senses and realized that these are men honor-bound to protect a guest. We were in no danger here.

The boy returned with a tray bearing four small cups and a cracked blue enamel teapot. Ceremoniously, Farouk poured a little tea from the pot into one cup, swirled it around and poured from that cup into each of the others. The local green tea, gehwa , is mild and delicious. Sugar is a sign of hospitality. The more sugar, the more honor to the guest. Ours was very sweet.

A Jaunty Salute

While we drank, the gates opened continuously for overloaded cars, buses and trucks. Each was decorated more vividly than the last with flowers, animals, mountains and valiant warriors.

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