“When I was in college, my friends and I, we used to go to Afghanistan and live like kings!” This was Hafeez, my Pashtun taxi driver, recalling his youth as he drove me back to Brooklyn.
Hafeez grew up in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. The NWFP – recently rebranded “Khyber Pakhtunkhwa” – was created in 1893 when the British carved the southern border of Afghanistan with a treaty known as the Durand Line.
But international borders have a way of turning treaty-makers into fools. Today, 28 million Pashtuns live on the Pakistani side, and 12 million live on the Afghan side, and neither group recognizes the border. “We are all one,” Hafeez explained, “My mother is Afghan Pashtun, my father is Pakistani Pashtun.”
[near Peshawar, 1878]
That solidarity means that Pashtuns flee Afghanistan and find easy refuge among their brethren in the NWFP, where tribal identity trumps national identity, and where pashtunwali–an ancient code of honor and hospitality–means that all are welcome.
But not all Pashtuns went to college like Hafeez. The Taliban–that beacon for the poor and the uneducated–is largely comprised of Pashtuns, and they dream of restoring their tribe to an earlier way of life, real or imagined, that existed before the upheavals of the modern era. NWFP locals are obliged by tribal code to welcome Taliban Pashtuns into their province, regardless of whether they share their beliefs.
Meanwhile, NATO forces have their own traditions to obey. Determined to build a modern state, they must respect international borders even when locals do not, and they are unable to follow insurgents into the region without igniting a firestorm with Pakistan. And so the NWFP has become a secluded hideaway for insurgents who re-group, re-train, and recruit amidst its hills.
[NWFP, 2007. Creative Commons photo by Steve Evans.]
During school holidays, Hafeez used to ride the bus across the border, from NWFP to Kabul, with his friends. “You wouldn’t believe, one Pakistan rupee was worth 37 times in Afghanistan! Oh, we used to have such a good time in that city!” he exclaimed, eager to share the sweetness of a previous life.
But that was forty years ago, before Afghanistan’s monarchy collapsed, before the Russians came, before the Taliban came, before the Americans came–and before Hafeez was a father in New York.
Now, Hafeez runs a corner store in Staten Island in the daytime and drives a taxi in the nighttime. His carefree days as a college student are a thing of the past, and so too is the peaceful Afghanistan he once enjoyed. A generation later, his home province has become the most important geopolitical real estate in the War on Terror.
But today, he said, his only job is to make a good life for his family. “My kids, they eat the food I cook and then they leave the dishes in the sink,” he said, laughing. “I come home from driving my taxi and I am so tired. But still, I clean their dishes, I dry their dishes, I put their dishes away. And that’s the way I want it to be. When they are adults, they can work hard, and they can take care of me. But right now, it is their job to have fun and it is my job to work.”
Some day, in the not-too-distant future, Hafeez will retire and the joys of peace will come again.