Shahjehan Afridi reflects all the stereotypes of the fierce Pathan tribesman. The hawkish nose, the piercing khol-rimmed eyes, the loosely bound turban and the battered but functional Kalashnikov.
Afridi is Shahjehan’s ‘tribal’ name, a clan that sits with ease astride that rough-cut border known as the Durand Line.
Afridis don’t recognise the Durand Line, it was a political slip of the colonial pen and best ignored. The Khyber Pass and the land surrounding it is subject only to Afridi law despite the border guards, but Afridi culture is changing rapidly and Shahjehan is worried.
I struggle off the Peshawar bus in a filthy shalwar kameez but Shahjehan wants to leave the city immediately. A further ten miles of bone-crunching bumps in a rusting jeep takes us home. Houses up here look like fortresses until you get inside, then fortress walls give way to pleasant courtyards of apricot trees and squawking chickens.
Shahjehan is complaining about the Arabs in Peshawar, they’re peddling smack and preaching trouble he tells me. He’s glad that the Russians have gone from Afghanistan but Peshawar, so often described as a frontier town, is still reeling. Refugees from the war have taken the low-paid work, taxi-driving and labouring are Afghan jobs now. No-one begrudges them but it leaves local youths unemployed and aimless.
Peshawar is awash with guns, it is also awash with journalists. Once again it is base camp in someone else’s proxy war. Once again the one-eyed leer of the camera pans across the creaking bazaars of the old city framing reporters against a backdrop of apparent chaos.
Shahjehan has seen it all before: political intrigues and international manoeuvrings have a long history here. But the last twenty years have altered its shape beyond recognition. Structural adjustment has shut secular schools and hard-line madrassas have replaced them. Religion and war or the diversions of smack are young men’s choices today.
Shahjehan’s fears for the future are not misguided. Passing through the city on my way back home, I am offered some smack, by a Saudi Arab.