Fall 2009, Volume 7

Fiction by David Pinault

Patti Smith Gets Me Busted in Peshawar

My Pakistani crew—Najeeb, Waqaar Shah, Gulbaz Bangash—and I are heading for the city in Waqaar’s old Hyundai.  Crazy tunes blare loud from the car’s cassette player.  A long drive from Lahore to Peshawar: five hours north on the Grand Trunk Road to Islamabad, then three hours west towards the Afghan border, risking our necks swerving around overloaded freight trucks.

Traffic at a crawl most of the way.  Me in a hurry as usual—let’s just get in and out and get my assignment done—and my crew as usual not showing much energy or rush for anything. 

We stop umpteen times in eight hours—tea, prayers, lunch, more tea, more prayers.  I stand around outside the road-stop mosques waiting while my guys do their thing inside.  I breathe dust and fumes and ammonia reek from the urinal-stalls and look again at my watch.

My crew: not much energy for anything.  Actually I have to take that back.  Just last month Najeeb exerted the initiative to email me a reminder: The next time your newspaper sends you back to Pakistan, Everett Sahib, remember to bring more of your lovely music.

Lovely music means a cassette assortment of his favorite singers—all female, all foreign, all rock.  Our first hour out of Lahore, we listen tamely enough to Hindi love songs on Waqaar’s tinny radio.  Then Najeeb says, “Enough” and says he wants to unwrap his presents.

“Now this is the kind of thing I like,” he announces, and he pops my first tape into the player.  

So Alanis Morissette sings us over the Margalla Hills.  Twilight, winter night coming on fast, and Janis Joplin keeps us company as we pass Attock Fort and cross the Indus River bridge into the North-West Frontier Province.  “Janis, my sweetheart,” says Najeeb, and he turns the music up louder.

The closer we get to Peshawar, the more nervous my other guys get.  The city’s just announced a ban on music, part of the local government’s latest piety campaign. 

Peshawar city limits.  A sign in Urdu and Pashto: Welcome to the town of hospitality.

Waqaar Shah the driver keeps looking at me in his rear-view mirror.  Sweet old man with a toothless sad smile.  He glances at Gulbaz Bangash beside him in the front seat.  Gulbaz is nodding off as usual.  Not the most confidence-building behavior you want to see in your armed guard.

I’m guessing Waqaar wants me to ask Najeeb to turn down the volume.  But Waqaar doesn’t say anything.  He speaks only Pashto, and my Pashto is zilch.  I talk to Najeeb in Urdu—my Urdu’s not great but I can get by, I’ve been to Pakistan often enough to function that much at least—and Najeeb translates my Urdu into Pashto any way he pleases.  He likes it that way.

Najeeb announces, oh he is so thirsty.  I remind him we stopped just an hour ago for tea.  But now he is tired, he explains, and he needs some soda pop to wake him up and freshen him so he can navigate us properly to our hotel.

No use arguing.  I tell him, “Make it a quickie.”

Najeeb taps Waqaar’s shoulder and we stop at a food-stall.  Najeeb bounces from the car.  The stall is haloed with a pale neon glow: fluorescent tubes strapped to smog-withered leafless trees.

Najeeb’s back fast.  He sits there with four cans of Mountain Dew on his lap and grandly offers them round.  Waqaar and Gulbaz the guard each take one.  Not me.  The stuff makes me agitated, especially at night.  And I’ve got enough on my mind to agitate me already: an appointment tomorrow afternoon with Mullah Azam Mahmoud Something Something.  Must check my notes for the name.  Head of a militant group banned by the government.  Holy Warriors of the Faith.  Or is it Servants of God?  Definitely should check my notes.  Must be tired.

Najeeb pops open his Mountain Dew and cranks up the volume.  A Sheryl Crow number: The Change Will Do You Good.  He gulps Dew and slaps his knees to keep time and announces he feels fine.

Now we’re bumper-to-bumper in traffic.  A donkey-cart and horse-tonga ahead have locked wheels.  Car horns honk. 

Najeeb picks this moment to roll down the window.  Says he wants a bit of fresh evening air.  What we get: soot, dust, exhaust.  Sheryl Crow flies out the window, plenty loud.

Waqaar and Gulbaz both turn in their seat looking worried and say something to Najeeb.  I don’t need to know Pashto to know they’re reminding him of the music ban. 

For reply he pops in another cassette.  Patti Smith.  Redondo Beach.  Top volume.  Men on foot stare as they walk by.  A cop in a black uniform sees us.

If my Urdu were better I’d tell Najeeb you know I like Patti Smith too.  Sinuous husky voice and all.  Very slinky.  But hey: a time and place for everything.  And now is not that time.  Not when I want to stay out of trouble long enough to get my militant-mullah interview and then clear the hell out of here.

What I do manage to say is: “Zara avaaz kam kijie”—Turn the sound down a bit.

Najeeb says, “Oh sure, Boss.”  Nice and obsequious. 

Too late.  The cop’s at our window now, looking us over, saying something.  Sounds angry.  I take it he’s not fond of Patti Smith.

Najeeb decides to argue.  Speaks in Urdu.  Points out the ban applies to public conveyances such as cabs and buses, and this is a private car and not a bus. 

The cop doesn’t like the back-talk and gets madder. 

Waqaar turns off the music.  He and Gulbaz sit silent and look scared.

Najeeb turns to me and says, “Boss, time for a payoff.”  I reach for my wallet.  He slips the policeman 200 rupees.  The cop stands there counting his money and staring at us as we drive off.

At the hotel I remind Najeeb he’s supposed to be my fix-it man and go-to guy.  He’s supposed to steer us around problems, not make them.

He says, “Okay, Boss” and heads for his room.  I hear the pop of his last Mountain Dew of the night.


With this fundamentalist government in power, people say you can walk around Peshawar all day and not see any women on the street at all.  Not so.  They’re there.  Mostly burqa’ed, true, but there: faces shrouded, ghosting by, heads down and silent.

If you long for the sight of a woman’s face in Peshawar, go to Qissa Kahani Bazaar.  TVs are sold there, radios, CDs, pirated DVDs.  There you can see women’s faces—young Hindi-movie stars, smiling from Bollywood film posters.  Taped up on the walls behind the sales counters.  Wearing bridal shawls, hands hennaed, ready for marriage, for love.  The ultimate in erotica.  You used to see them on Peshawar’s big streetside billboards, too, until the morality police tore them down.  Now you have to hunt for them in the bazaar.

Najeeb and I are killing time this morning wandering the bazaar until my mullah-interview.  His idea, not mine.  I keep asking is this locale safe and are we being followed and couldn’t we get kidnapped and what about terrorists and he just says, “Everett Sahib, we will be fine.”

He’s telling me all these Hindi-movie pictures have given him an idea for the next gift I can send him once I’m back in the States: posters of his favorite female rock stars.

I’m not paying much attention because I’m studying a movie poster that strikes me somehow as funny.  The hero: a big mustached muscle-man in a casino, surrounded by adoring simpering women.  He’s at a poker table.  The poster features a title in Hindi I can’t read plus a subtitle in English: Winning Hand.  Muscle-Man glowers in triumph and holds up the winning hand in question: a pair of kings.  The other cards in the deck lie face-down in a long row on the table and all show the same design—a plump cherub riding a high-wheeled bike.  The cherub grips the handlebars and has a blank angel-smile and a pair of wings that curl up just like the hero’s mustache.

Najeeb sees me smile and asks what’s the joke.  He’s always ready for a laugh.  I’m trying to think what’s the Urdu for cherub and wings and mustache but finally just say, “Voh tasweer kafi ‘ajeeb hay”: That picture’s pretty strange.

Above the picture the DVD seller has tacked up protection for his stall—a ceramic hand in blue, with calligraphic lettering on the fingers: Cheshme-bud dur.  May the evil eye be distant. 

Cold in here, with the tin roof overhead blocking out the winter sun.  Suddenly I shiver.

Speaking of eyes.  Some guy’s staring at me.  Stiff black beard, black long-tailed turban, the style Taliban-types favor.  I look at him and he keeps staring.

Najeeb says we’ve got time for lunch before my interview.


“So,” says my fix-it man.  “Those posters.  Can you get them for me?”

We’re eating our usual: beans and oily goat and watery yoghurt and heavy Afghan bread.  Usual accompaniment: noise and stale cigarette smoke, crowded tables and flies buzzing around the meat.

I have no idea what posters he’s talking about.  I say, “You mean the Hindi stuff in Qissa Kahani Bazaar?”

“No, Everett Sahib.”  Patiently he reminds me: his favorite female rock stars.  Janis and Patti.  Alanis and Sheryl.

Waqaar Shah and Gulbaz the guard sit facing us.  I’m in my favorite spot.  Back to the wall, so I can study the street.

Two tables away is that guy from the DVD stall.  Same turban, same stiff black beard.  At least I think it’s the same guy. 

Najeeb says ideally he’d like it if I could get each of the photo-posters autographed.  He says it would fulfill his ideal dream.

I almost say Janis Joplin’s been dead some years and so getting an autograph might be hard but I stop myself in time.  Why mess with someone’s ideal dream?

Blackbeard’s still staring.  He gets up suddenly and goes out to the entrance and pulls out a cellphone.  He jabs the air and stares back into the restaurant as he talks.

Lucky for me I always have an armed guard.  Trouble is Gulbaz has his nose in his plate and looks no more than half-awake.  I interrupt his eating, asking Najeeb to ask him if he’s carrying his firearm. 

We get a two-word reply. “ Zaroor, Sahib”: Certainly, sir.  Gulbaz wears a heavy sheepskin vest over his baggy-tunic outfit.  He pulls open the vest to show me a holstered forty-five.  He returns his attention to his goat and beans.

“And the posters,” Najeeb wants to know.  “You know all four of them are beautiful women.”

Blackbeard’s finished his call.  I’m pretty sure—no, I’m dead sure—he’s staring in at me.  Or maybe at Najeeb.  In fact I think he just nodded to Najeeb.  Maybe.  Hard to tell.  Blackbeard pockets his phone and walks off.

I realize Najeeb’s been watching me the whole time.  “The posters,” he says again.  “One of each of the four of them.”

“Absolutely,” I say.  “As soon as I’m home Stateside.”  I tell him first I’ve got this interview to do.

I’m trying to figure out why Blackbeard was nodding to Najeeb.

“And you won’t forget to get their autographs?”

I tell him I won’t forget to get their autographs.


At first the interview goes fine.  I sit alone with Mullah Azam in the reception room of the Holy Warriors HQ.  Servants bring us tea and cake and scurry to bring more every time the cleric holds out his cup.

For thirty minutes he answers all my questions.  A smooth customer.  Fluent English.  A young man, jowly, wondrously fat, with the ready self-assurance of someone who’s been fussed over all his life.  As he talks he fingers a wispy beard that sprouts from his chin.

Then he stands and says he has something to show me in his private office.  “Something special,” he says.  “Please follow me.” 

What with my being paranoid, this is where I wish I’d brought my guys in with me.  But the mullah said everyone else had to wait out on the street.

So I get up and say okay and follow him.

Lots of photos on the wall of his private office.  Mullah Azam preaching a Friday sermon.  Mullah Azam posing with youngsters holding Kalashnikovs.

Funny thing is that I recognize one picture.  It’s not a photo.  It’s a poster, a Hindi film poster, same as from the bazaar.  Winning Hand: mustached hero at a poker table, displaying a pair of kings in a spread of cards.

Mullah Azam is admiring the poster and saying something about how perhaps it’s a bit impious and perhaps he shouldn’t keep it but he likes it because the hero looks a lot like him.  Don’t I think so too?

I want to say the mullah actually looks more like one of the cherubs on the back of the playing cards.  Plump cherub on a high-bike.  Jowly mullah with a wisp-beard.

But I say nothing and stare instead at the other man who’s evidently been waiting for me in this room.  Black turban, black beard.  He’s been sitting at a desk reading a local paper.  The Frontier Post.  It carries the morning’s headline: U.S. Predator Drone Launches Hellfire Strike Against Taliban Forces on Afghan-Pak Border; Women and Children Among the Dead.

Blackbeard says nothing.  Just shows me the day’s headline.

“Those Hellfire missiles came from America,” says the mullah as he closes the door behind me.  “You come from America, too, don’t you, Mr. Everett?”

I decide not to answer that one.

The mullah asks whether I know what the Urdu word badlah means.

I’ve heard the word out here often enough to know: Reciprocity.  Retribution.  Revenge.

I decide this is the moment to remind my host I’ve got three back-up guys outside.

The man must be a mind-reader.  “Everything can be bought,” he announces.  “And I have bought up your friends.  Driver, guard, escort.  All of them.”

Blackbeard throws down the newspaper and comes around the desk.
Mullah Azam glowers at me like he’s the Wrath of God ready to let fly. 

My heart races and my throat goes dry and I’m scared as hell but still I can’t help thinking he looks like a jowly cherub on a playing-card bike.

“Winning hand,” he announces, tapping the movie poster.  “Two kings.”

Just as he says that the door opens behind me.

Najeeb the fix-it man, holding Gulbaz’s forty-five at arm’s length.  He’s got it cocked and pointed like he means business.  It’s pointed right at me.

“Hey,” I tell him.  “Wait a minute.”

Then he turns the gun on Azam and Blackbeard and tells them to sit quietly on the floor so he won’t have to shoot them.  His left hand clutches a fistful of cassettes.

From the floor an indignant Azam says he thought they had a deal and asks what in God’s name he’s holding.

“Janis and Sheryl,” explains my go-to guy.  “Also Patti and Alanis.  Four lovely queens.  Which beats your two kings any day.”


On the road back to Lahore.  I’m still sorting through the trembly aftershock-high you get with a near-miss that leaves you surprisingly still alive.

Gulbaz is asleep up front and Waqaar Shah’s just punched up the volume on another Patti Smith number.

Over the music I ask Najeeb how he’d like his four queens to inscribe their photo-posters for him.

To darling Najeeb,” he says, “from Janis, from Sheryl, et cetera.”  He tosses me a fresh Mountain Dew and laughs.  “And have them add With Love while they’re at it.”

I tell him no problem


BIO:  In addition to stories published in the magazines Realms of Fantasy and Tales of the Talisman, David Pinault has also written books on Arabic literature and folk rituals in Muslim countries. Currently he’s an associate professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University.