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Buying guns in Pakistan’s Afghan hinterland


The wild wild west of Pakistan doesn´t look like it is made for the faint hearted. Standing on top of Khyber pass, one understands why so many armies made it into this barren rocky mountain landscape, but hardly any out. I would feel sorry for the US and NATO troops being stuck there now, if not someone with a wild beard and a Kalashnikov would approach me. I am used to that by now. One sees many guns in Pakistan. Different kinds of state police and security forces carry them. There is private security in form of an old man with an old AK47 on his lap sleeping next to the bank-machine, and there are plenty of Pashtun or tribal people carrying their own guns. After 4 weeks in Pakistan I know what the guy coming now wants. As the foreigner, the traveller, you are an easy victim. Coming from the west means you are rich. No better person to approach, invite to sit down and stay for a glass of tea. Life is very rural and orderly in everyday Pakistan. Poverty prevails. Tourists and travellers are rare, but carry a wealth of outside experiences. When the world thus comes to visit, you cannot leave without being plundered of stories to tell.

Bed with a view

The taxi driver is in a rush though. We need to go and see more things he urges. Down from the clear mountain air, the roads winds down into the dusty brown city air of Peshawar. Being the biggest city in the border region, it is refreshingly small. Thanks to the bomb blast the night before, however moving around alone was restricted. Besides, I would have gotten lost in all the backyards. It is there where Pakistan becomes interesting, though. The cities are old, run down, dirty and crowded. Nothing invites for a walk, there is not much to see, except people and litter. I did get reprimanded for this assessment by a city-planner I met on the bus from Islamabad to Peshawar. True, tourists always go to the old cities, and ignore that completely new and modern ones have been built next to them. But then, they are clean and dull, and offer an air-conditioned shopping mall to escape into. And is a Subway outlet worth the trip to Pakistan?

“Gul Arms Factory” reads the sign at the yard entrance where the driver stops. In the backyard some goats look at us, but in the backyard shack, only the factory owner comes to greet us. 4 old man look concentrated down on their work. The task is easy enough, the model to copy is only a cheap Chinese handgun, still it requires a passion for detail and precision in copying all the parts from it, to put them together as a working gun. A block of metal is clamped in a vice, and then filed into shape, to make the body or the moving part of each gun. 4 men are working here, and they produce about 30-40 guns each month. All the men are old. It must be require a mastership in artisan metalwork to work here. And patience. One of the man takes the part he is working on out of the vice, puts some bullets in, checks if they slide through smoothly, then put his piece of metal back and continues filing. The factory owner comes with a finished gun. He shows us the original, and the copies they make. I couldn´t tell the difference. 50 to 100 US-$ the gun will sell for in the end.

Across the road is a more upmarket factory. Garage with mats on the floor rather. That is the setup of a backyard factory. Berettas from Italy are being copied here. It is Saturday, a holiday, so nobody is here. But walking past the workplaces, the same sights. Metal puzzle-pieces lying around, that put together would make a gun. In a second workshop, pumpguns are made. For the barrel and the parts, there is machinery. I recognize some from the time I trained as a mechanic in a car-factory in Germany. Had I known what things one could make on those machines, maybe I would have continued the training there, instead of going to University instead. But then, I am not a man of patience.

Arms factory with Peshawar

The owner of this garage-factory, has got an office though, with a desk and a phone. He carefully unwraps one and hands it to us. 400 US-$ for the Beretta. My two travelmates have been to the army and check it out. Absolutely decent quality, they claim. For one dollar per bullet we are allowed to try it out. Quite expensive, but then, this is Pakistan. You can´t really waste money on going to the pub or drinking beer. On a warm February Saturday afternoon we bang around with a real gun in a Pakistani backyard. No police comes, no neighbours open windows to see what is happening. Here, the sound of a gunshot, is like the bark of a dog back home. A normal sound.

We thank the owner of the gunshops, and apologize for not buying a gun. They know we can´t as foreigners. A sense of pride is there, as they showed us their work, and deservedly. To put together out of handworked pieces of metal a gun that looks just like a machine made Beretta from a fancy factory, commands respect. I hope their business will go well, I find myself thinking. Strange thought for a longhaired pacifist. But then with America in the country next door, there is much more guns coming in now. Donations, stolen guns, cheaply bought guns from all over the world. Smuggling them to Pakistan ruins the local prices obviously. And then with global flows, the upperclass in Pakistan will want a real Italian Beretta, or a real Kalashnikov, rather than a copied one from home. Fashion rules, even in arms trade.

The next morning, I see guns again. My travelmates moved on, while I decided to stroll around a day in Peshawar. Streets are deserted. It is Sunday, a public holiday, for a Shiite festival is on, and bomb blasted out the security chief of the town, just two nights before, 500 metres down the road from here. I walk to buy an English newspaper, and while looking for the football results, I find myself standing next to a pile of sacks and a policeman grinning at me from behind over the barrel of a machine gun. His family has settled next to him, with food and tea.

They wave at me, to come and join them. Some youngsters are faster though. I end up sitting with a group of students on a rope-bed on the pavement. Makes more sense, since they speak fluent English. One studies political science. But as always in Pakistan, interest in politics is next to nonexistent. The military-government does not care about the people, and the people not about the government. Hardly anyone pays taxes. My new bedmates, claim, looking at the empty streets, that it is actually not really safe to sit around here all day. One asks, if I like music. Saying I do, I get dragged of into… another backyard.

BAE’s new competition

I try to explain, I didn´t even have breakfast yet, and no tea, and would like to read the paper rather. But that has only the result that someone gets tea, and when the lunch for the people in the backyard comes, I get handed a plate as well.

Rubab is the name of the instrument being made there. It has strings and the right size, so I try to play “knocking on heavens door” the only song I can play on a guitar. It does not work out though. I sound even worse than Bob Dylan himself. And i do not remember a guitar having 20 strings? My bedmate from the street takes the instrument and starts playing. Melody and rhythm can be played at the same time on the Rubab. It has two sets of strings. And he is a real master.

Someone brings a tabla and joins him. Afghani music they tell me, they are playing. It sounds like a playful ride through a stone-dessert, and invites to lean back and just daydream. A perfect Sunday afternoon live-music brunch. I sit on another bed, eat rice, drink green tea, some other friends and relatives build a joint, in a music shop in a backyard in Peshawar. It is another sunny day in Pakistan, and life goes by.

For 3 generations the shop exists, the owner tells me. All instruments are handcarved out of wood and decorated with seashell ornaments. Musicians often come and gather here to play. There is no cafés or clubs in Pakistan. No venues for band to play. I nag the musicians to go and play. In Berlin, I tell them, as good as you play, you could earn money. But no, they just do it for fun. With friends. Or to teach people who buy the instruments. A business card from Munich is shown to me proudly. Another German, I am told, stayed with them for 4 weeks last year. He is making flyers for the shop and a website. Apparently Wilayat Khan in Peshawar is a famous Rubab maker.

Not planning to stay for four weeks, I get on my way in the late afternoon. I decide to stay on the street this time. After all I still need to read the paper and get myself organised to travel on the next morning.

A handy gun for some

It takes three more cups of green tea to get out of an Afghani carpet shop. Walking out on the street some old man greets me. His dark wrinkled face forming a nice contrast to his white beard. I stop again, in this part of the world, age is respected, shake hands, thinking this lovely old man probably just came from prayers at the mosque and is doing his muslim duty to greet and enquire if the travellers need any assistance. Well, he asked if I want to buy hashish or heroine. I declined. He then offered tea. I can just come and sit in his job. But after about 8 cups in a day and nonstop talking to all sorts of people, i also thanked and declined. A bit sad he walked off…

It is evening in Peshawar. With the unread newspaper, I went to buy in the morning, I get back to my hotelroom. There is nothing much to see in Pakistan, but then there is so much…

Useful stuff:

For Khyber pass tours, to see arms factories, truckfactories, or whatever, allow to be contacted by Sohail Hussain, a journalist, photographer and tourguide. He will find you at the Rose Hotel, which for 5 US-$ is a good place to stay.

No idea which backyard exactely to find the Rubab shop in. Wilayat Khan, Rubab Maker, son of Samandar Khan. Dabgari Bazar near Chowk Namak Mandi, Shah Hussain Market, Peshawar. Ph: 091-214510.

Contacts: hang out at the rose hotel. Someone will turn up

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