pakistan chronicles

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Peshawar & Vicinity, continued

Pakistan: Typical storefront in DarraThe other important side trip was to a town called Darra Adam Khel. Darra doesn't get talked about in any grade-school geography books. Twenty-five miles south of Peshawar, the guidebook referred to it as the "gun 'factory' of the tribal areas." It also stated plainly that Darra, like the Khyber Pass, was closed to foreigners, but Jim couldn't resist asking Moghul about it.

Darra? No problem.

We were escorted to a different set of buildings for the permit to Darra and shuffled back and forth among 3 offices signing papers and providing information. We got our permit, but our bodyguard didn't join us till we arrived at the town about an hour later.

Darra is a surrealist cartoon, all the more bizarre because of its air of sweet normalcy. It might be an amusement park — one of those village museums showing you the crafts of yore — except for the tension in my body and the voice in my head saying, Have we seen it all yet? Have we seen enough? Can we go? Now?

Pakistan: Darra gunsmithThe dusty village streets were lined with tiny open air workshops, each with brightly handpainted signs advertising machine guns (or handguns or rifles) as if they were tasty fried cakes. Men and boys sat on the floors of these workshops (not a table or chair in sight) making guns from scratch. Their special skill was in taking an assembly-line-produced weapon (Smith & Wesson, Lee-Enfield, Kalashnikov) and reverse engineering it so that they could reproduce it by hand. They used primitive lathes, mud furnaces, anvils, hammers, bow drills and other modest hand-tools. Gun manufacture has little tolerance for error and Pashtuns have little tolerance for exploding weapons, so the Darra craftsmen are experts (even down to reproducing meaningless serial numbers and trademarks).

They've been at it a long time. The story goes that the British established the "factory" in 1897, preferring that the Pashtuns make their own inferior weapons rather than steal the British weapons. Then, by allowing the illegal trade, the British secured their own safe passage through tribal territories.

It's all still illegal. Anyone who purchases arms there must then hire a smuggler to move their weapons past the government checkpoints and into the tribal villages or across the border to Afghanistan.

And there we were, in the middle of it. Smiling our taut smiles, sweating like hogs, touring the town like a regular pair of arms dealers, with our proud guide Moghul and with our armed bodyguard.

Pakistan, Darra: AK-47 porter... boy of 7Someone offered to have us try out their latest and greatest: an AK-47. Jim forked over some money for ammunition and we headed behind some buildings with a small entourage of townfolk, the most prominent being a small boy who had the privilege of carrying our massive weapon.

The men gave Jim a lesson in shooting. As he blasted rounds into the side of a cliff, they coached him in how to keep the barrel from flying upward and braced his back against the powerful recoil.

Every boy's fantasy. Shooting off a barely controllable weapon to the delight and cheers of onlookers. I took pictures. I pulled out my micro-recorder to capture the sounds. Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam. I spoke into the recorder. "So, this is a Russian AK-47?" The man next to me answered, "Ya-a-as. Russian AK-47." Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam.

I had to take my turn. It was not thrilling. It was monstrous and overpowering. The men all laughed. I smiled. Fine. I did it. Now, let's get the hell out of here.

Our entourage marched back to one of the shops where I was served tea while the men continued to confer with Jim. Perhaps he wasn't in the market for an AK-47 or a bolt-action rifle, but here was something he couldn't resist: a single-shot 32-caliber pen pistol. They showed him how it worked, shooting it into the street.Pakistan, Darra: why not just drink tea?

He showed me the gray steel "fountain pen." I rolled my eyeballs. "We can pass this around when we show our slides," he said. "Don't you think that'd be interesting?" I was already thinking of the six airport security checks we were facing in the next few days. "How do you think you're going to get that home?" I asked. He scowled at me and paid them his Paki equivalent of five bucks.

Our business deal complete, we headed back to Peshawar. Our bodyguard stuck with us till the first checkpoint on the highway.

When we got back to Dean's, I asked Jim again how he thought we were going to get the tiny pistol home. No problem. Jim stuck his souvenir into a dark blue zippered bag with some other trinkets and buried it in his suitcase.

Finally, it was time to go home but Jim had just guaranteed that our adventures were not ended.


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