Tea and Heroin with a Tribal Chief in Al Qaeda Territory

There’s something about the title tribal chief that evokes images of grey beards, charismatic eyes, and charming smiles. I’d been expecting Gandalf. But this chief is waddling towards me, eyes drooping in a somnolent haze, a goatee failing to take the attention off plump cheeks. We’re somewhere near the Afghan border, nine police roadblocks from Peshawar, beside a smugglers bazaar and surrounded by a dozen armed guards. Oh, and as I arrived, the chief was about to snort an immense line of grade A crystal heroin.

“I am the tribal chief” he says, holding out a stubby hand “you are late.” Three hours to be precise, but this is Pakistan and keeping to the same day is a triumph in punctuality. This man is the legally recognised chief of an area that includes almost 200,000 people and the Kyber Pass, the major mountain road that links Pakistan to Afghanistan. He barely looks 30, but he’s number one in the supply chain. According to my guide, the chief has 118 bodyguards and regularly dines with both the US military heads and Al Qaeda.

I’ve clearly interrupted his veracious drug consumption and as I take a seat the chief gets back down to business. It’s corner to corner of a soft porn magazine, all professionally mopped up with a rolled up $50 and a portentous snort. And as I look closer and consider whether I see an erect nipple or a crystal that missed the nostril, the chief strains his eyes into focus and confirms the itinerary: “now we see guns…”

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In nearby Peshawar the outlaying streets resemble a war zone. Guards man innumerable checkpoints and the buildings have a sorry look of dilapidation. Nobody appears in a hurry to decorate when suicide bombings come at a rate of one a week. Yet the old pedestrianised town is something from a lost tourist brochure. Peshawar used to be one of the great Silk Road cities.

In the narrow alleys the skyline is magnificent. Buildings lean into each other, each one revealing another story in the city’s history. Moghul architecture, British colonialism, the influences of Hinduism, Sikhism, and Islam, and when the urban jungle rescinds I find the grand courtyards of traditional tea houses. The tea is still being served, each cup meticulously prepared and then downed in one or two boiling gulps. From the courtyard doorways lead into dozens of rooms which once served as sleeping quarters for the trading caravans. Camels would be herded into the ground floor rooms while traders slept together on the floor upstairs.

Despite the rush of caffeine and sugar I’m still apprehensive and constantly imagining the sound of explosions in the distance. My guide Kauser tries to reassure me: “The suicide bombings are against government targets like police stations. They’re not against normal people.” Despite dreaming of visiting Peshawar for years I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Kauser and Prince. They’ve been guiding foreigners around their home town for over a decade and the service leaves nothing to chance, including meeting me at the airport and giving me a traditional shalwar kameez to wear. It makes me look like a lost boy in oversized pyjamas. I’m not sure if it makes me look normal.

From the truck factory we travel into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). At one checkpoint a very obvious bribe is paid on my behalf. At another I must quickly walk through a market and meet the vehicle and driver on the other side. FATA is a semi autonomous region that straddles the Pakistan Afghanistan border. It has its own legal system and is governed by a series of elders and chiefs. It’s also officially out of bounds to foreigners although bringing me here is relatively simple for Kauser and Prince. Their tour company Untamed Borders also run expeditions to Somalia and ski trips to Afghanistan.

On a stark wasteland 40,000 refugees live in limbo, somehow surviving by moulding clay bricks. Like most of the refugees Mohammed Nayim came here in 1978, when the US funded Taliban were at war with the USSR. “My children and grandchildren were born in Pakistan so this is our home” says Mohammed. “In Afghanistan we have no home, no jobs, no peace.” Rather unexplainably, most of his children have bright ginger hair. 70 family members live in this damp three roomed house, but Mohammed doesn’t hesitate to provide a cup of his finest tea. All of which makes us late for the chief. He seems to enjoy visits from foreigners. A recent copy of British lads magazine sits on the table and souvenirs cover his walls; a rugby ball, a home photo of an American college cheerleading team, one of those novelty oversized foam hands. From the outside his home is basic, other than the armed guards. We’re on the edge of the Smugglers Bazaar, a market where just about anything in the world is available. Walking through I’d seen nothing but knock off electronics and jewellery. But a bodyguard explains that this is a major trading post for weapons and huge quantities of Afghani heroin.IMG_5354

Right on cue the guns are presented and gleefully introduced by the chief. Among them are one of Osama bin Laden’s old rifles and an original Soviet Glock which he claims cost US$500,000. Feigning a certain adoration I smile and pose with the weapons, careful to present myself as a gracious guest. I’d never held a gun before, never appreciated how cold and emphatic it felt, or how the polished black metal seemed so solemn and absolute. While the chief and his guards are anything but amiable the sheer size of his entourage continues to jangle nerves, especially when a bodyguard explains the local operation.

The chief has sent out a warning forbidding suicide bombings on the Kyber Pass, the main passage between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Americans can freely use the pass to bring supplies into Afghanistan and in return they turn a blind eye to the mass amounts of heroin and hashish that arrive at the Smugglers Bazaar.

It seems a little farfetched and egotistical but the chief surprises me with a politician’s diplomacy. “You must understand that I don’t buy or sell anything illegal. But you must understand that all traders must respect the chief.” Sensing I’m not convinced a bodyguard emerges with evidence, handing me bags of different substances. Grade A heroin crystals; grade B, which has a duller colour but still looks remarkably potent; and brown grade C, which the bodyguard describes as “the shit we sell to Africa.” Now comes the hashish, different bags presented with their different price tags. Amongst them is the “chief’s special hashish” an oily concoction with a heavy price tag.

Now I’m suitably impressed and my eyes betray me. Picking up on my interest the chief asks if I would like anything to go with my tea. Well, seen as your asking…A bodyguard is called and expertly concocts a joint of the special hashish, passing it to me with pride and graciously receiving my praise of the roll. Within five tokes the room is spinning, yet there’s something moorish that keeps me smoking. Initial paranoia soon subsides and I begin to float on a serene high, the hash befitting its price tag.

Satisfied that I’m enjoying myself, the chief gradually loses interest in me and turns his attention to the lad mags and MTV music videos. More words of wisdom don’t seem too forthcoming and I can’t think of any more inquisitive questions. Yet the tea seems to relax me and I sit in peace, silently laughing at the juxtaposition between tea cups and AK47s. Suddenly the chief faces me. He stares intently, as if deciding whether I’m some kind of secret agent. Maybe I shouldn’t have accepted that joint? Then he points at the TV and blurts out “do you also like Beyonce…?”

Words by Stephen Bailey

Cover Photo by  Ian M. Terry