Cold weather came at last. I had hoped to visit the Golden Temple at Amritsar with my favorite NCO who was a Sikh and eager to show me his religion’s key temple. But alas, I was deemed too unpopular. So I was promoted instead and told to report for duty to Peshawar. So my Indian family packed up the bungalow which I refused to sell. I did agree to lease it for a tiny rental on the provision that if I or my Indian family ever returned we could reclaim it. I could be mulish. I never denied it. I had bought it too dearly!
We tramped east toward the Khyber Pass and the ‘City of Men’ as Peshawar was known. We arrived as a slight dusting of snow fell gently giving a frosted crystal elegance to the ancient city. Peshawar was reputed to greeted Alexander the Great howbeit no one knows if it greeted the mass murderer with open arms or not. Once it stood on the Silk Road that for centuries brought riches from China across desolate mountains to Arabia and Rome and the West. But nowadays this part of the extreme Northwest Frontier was populated only by the willful Pathans, a remains of a mythic empire that once straddled the ancient world and was known as the Parthian Empire that once stretched across Persia and Afghanistan and part of the Punjab. That was also long ago. Perhaps it was even only an memory of some ancient migration of Persian tribes across the desolate rocks of a rocky land. What empire there was had long ago vanished into the dust of history no more and no less than Alexander the Great.
Now the latter day descendants of those long ago mythic Ancient Parthian Persians were rough tribes of pale, lean, high cheek boned, grizzled men who feuded continuously, recording blood feuds going back centuries as if that was a sort of dubious honor worth boasting of. It was in fact. The Pashto speaking Pathans boasted an elaborate Code of Honor called Pashtunwali which enshrined personal and clan honor above all. A Pathan would kill for his Nang or honor. But a Pathan would also kill for Zan (women), Zar (gold) ad Zameen (Land) too. And a Pathan would kill for Revenge. A Pathan considered Hospitality sacred, a part of his and his clan’s Nang or honor. So naturally he killed for that too. Actually, a Pathan would find something to kill anyone over. Pathans viewed killing as an fine art. It was even money making! The Pathans did not pay taxes to anyone! But considered fines for murder an honor to pay! And they demanded danegold or bloodgold from anyone to not kill them!
A Pathan tribal elder or khan king, like some Ancient Greek, still employed poetic bards to compose great epic poems extolling their Nang or Honor as it was waged across the years in bloody feuds of heroic suicidal glory like some modern day Iliad. In fact the Pathans helped me understand the Iliad in all of it’s terrible majesty. Like the Ancient Greeks, they waged war at the drop of a hat over ownership of a woman. Nang Honor required no less. But Love had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with it. Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to bless the war. Pathans treated their women as totems of clan honor. They were enslaved , tolerated only as long as they dutifully mass produced continuous generations of little male murderers, then slaughtered, and yes, even offered as human sacrifices (called ‘Honor Killings) at a drop of a skullcap. But then the Pathan sang a love song it was a love song to Nang Honor or a fellow warrior or a boy lover. Like I said. The Pathan helped me understand the Iliad in all of it’s dire majesty.
The Pathans composed magnificent songs in their Pashto language and said no one who did not speak Pashto was worth knowing. They held court —be it a mud hut — like kings with elaborate rituals. They held Jirgas durbars as if Mughals even if they were poor as dirt. They held Hujras as if imperial powwows between monarchs on cloth of gold like old Harry the Eighth! But minus the cloth of gold or even the pearl carpet. They sang lamentations of ancient savagery and nobility no one remembered in this modern day. They danced obscure dances not even the Sufi understood thought the Sufi came closer to touching the Pathan spirit than any other human being. The Pathans were like the Ancient Greeks come back to life. But somehow living with reincarnated versions of Achilles and Hector and Ajax and Agamemnon was not as pleasant as merely reading about them from a safe distance! By the gods! I certainly would not want to be married to one! Or related to one either!
The Pathans waged fierce war, fought to the death, took no prisoners, tortured and killed anyone they captured, and lived and died rather like the Indian version of the American Indians — with us playing the role of the American Army. Their very wildness was so uncompromising you had to admire them. But their savageness revolted one too. No one could ride longer, fight longer, endue more, never complaining, than the Pathans. One had to admire them. But that did not mean one had to like them. They certainly did not like anyone!
You could tell a Pathan at one glance! He might be dressed in rags but he stood tall and arrogant! Intimidating everyone around him! Absolutely sure he was the absolute best! The Baluch with their long curly black hair as dandy as a girl’s ringlets and flowing full skirted white robes and gathered pajama trousers was nought a Pathan. A bejeweled Mughal was just some mongrel Mongol. A Punjabi, be he Sikh, Hindu, Rajput, or Muslim, was nought too. The Punjabis were the original native people of the Punjab which was the geographical crown of North India. The Pathans came in though the Khyber Pass and pushed them aside like chaff. Every other Human Being was nought but chaff to the Pathan. Including us British. Make no mistake! The Pathans thought they were demigods! Your only hope to survive was to be supernaturally heroic enough to almost qualify as almost worth knowing!
The most remarkable thing to me was that the Pathan, through converted to the Muslim Religion, did not consider it the core of their identity. They would kill for their Nang Honor or their Pashto Poetry or their Jirgas Clan Royalty or their Hujras Tribal Imperial Authority, or even Zan and Zar and Zameen more than their Muslim Religion with it’s mad Mullahs and irate Imams. The Green flag of Jihad only further blessed the Pathan Art of Murder, Rape, Rampage, Rioting, Marauding, Mangling, Looting, Butchering, Enslaving, Slaughtering, and did I mention Pillaging? The conversion to Islam postdated their National Identity and their Pashtunwali Code of Honor or even their Pashto Language. Mecca was Arabic. They were Parthian Persians. They might go to Mecca but frankly believed that like the mountain, Mecca should come to them!
So I came to Peshawar the City of Men and the bastion of the Pathan. And for the next few years my destiny orbited around the Pathan egomania!