Abdur was in the midst of one of his fierce and passionate rants, “Ian, you are from New Zealand. We like New Zealand, it is a good part of Europe. We like Germans too. We hate American and British people. America is the devil. And we love Hitler.”
So there I sat one fine evening, cross-legged in a small grassy field, in a circle with five members of the Taliban and absolutely ecstatic that I had chosen to introduce myself as Ian from New Zealand.
The evening had begun innocently enough when I left my hotel in search of some food in the northern Pakistani town of Chitral. It was a cool evening in this mountainous border region and I had barely eaten during the impossibly long two day journey to reach this town. As I passed one small restaurant, a very pleasant young man, speaking a non-coherent Chitrali-English mix, came running outside, trying to energetically persuade me to enter. Without even waiting for my decision, he quickly escorted me to an empty chair at an otherwise crowded wooden table.
My new eating companions, a group of middle-aged men, barely even looked up from their meals, offering me only a slight nod of acknowledgement As I watched their long, dark beards collect more food crumbs with each bite, I realized that their supreme focus at this very moment was on devouring their massive plate of meat in world record time.
On the opposite side of the restaurant sat a dozen elderly and chiefly-looking men, sitting on a long raised, wooden platform along with an endless collection of plates full of kebabs, rice, breads and curries. I caught the eyes of one of these men and before long they were all staring over at me, waving vigorously with their mouths full of food.
As uncommon of a sight as I may have been in this area, I apparently still could not keep their interest for very long, as these men soon returned their attention to the television screen hanging in the corner of the room. Noticing that every single person in the restaurant was watching the television to some degree, I stretched my neck around the wall next to me to see what was the program of choice in this remote region of the world.
To say that I was surprised, even shocked by what was on the television, would be a vast understatement as I watched a body slam followed by a pile driver. It was the World Wrestling Federation Royal Rumble from 1990. My mouth fell open as the headlocks and drop kicks of Hulk Hogan against Mr. Perfect drew more cheers and jeers here in the mountains of Pakistan than from the massive audience actually watching the event from inside the arena in Orlando. Noticing my justifiable surprise, the elders simply laughed and pointed repeatedly to the screen, yelling out, “Good, good” in their best English.
In utter disbelief I turned away and began silently eating the cold beans, salted spinach and stale bread that had somehow ended up on my table without the involvement of any menu or order-taking.
Hunger satisfied (to an extent), I met some new friends.
During my post-meal tea, one of the elders from the raised platform/WWF fan club area, walked up to my table and sat across from me. With a narrowing of his thick eyebrows, he asked, “May I talk with you?”
In broken, but reliable English, the man introduced himself as Abdur, a local merchant, businessman and politician. He seemed a prominent figure in town, greeting everyone that entered the restaurant while sporting a neatly trimmed grey beard, an immaculately clean and pressed shalwar kamiz and a beige turban flawlessly wrapped around his head.
However, for some reason, and despite his genuine friendliness, I chose to rely upon my well-tested travel wits and introduce myself as Ian from New Zealand. I spent a few minutes engaged in the usual introductory conversation, answering questions about my travels, what I thought of Pakistani women and how much money I earn.
Then suddenly, Abdur stood up and practically demanded that I meet his friends before I left. Grabbing my arm, he led me through the back door of the restaurant and into a patch of soft green grass surrounded by colorful flowers and dimly lit by three hanging gas lamps.
Five men were sitting together on the ground and Abdur introduced me to each of them. During these introductions, my eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, allowing me to see that each man was dressed in a black shalwar and turban and that they each had an automatic rifle draped across their lap. Nonetheless, I reciprocated their warm traditional greetings and took a seat.
Within seconds, Abdur was flooded with questions from his friends regarding my marital status, occupation and whether or not I was armed. Abdur acted as translator as I responded as best and wisely as I could. And based upon their constant laughter and shaking of my hands, everyone seemed quite satisfied with my answers.
Abdur announced that it was time to ‘hear a story’ and he began with some strong words: “We love Hitler and we hate the Jews. That’s the problem with you young people in Europe. You don’t like Hitler.” This story opener pretty much eliminated any last remaining hope I had that the guns in front of me were used for elk hunting. Within minutes I had been informed that these five men were regular Taliban fighters, having returned only two days prior from fighting in Afghanistan.
Throughout the two hours I spent with these rough yet oddly affable guys, I listened to a variety of disturbing beliefs and declarations. Abdur and his friends constantly repeated their fondness for Hitler and their hatred for America while seeking my opinion on the matter on several occasions.
I certainly never agreed with them and I just tried to explain that I do not hate Americans and Jews. I suggested that they could do some reading that might show them why their hatred was not necessary. But alas, it wasn’t the most intelligent conversation I’ve ever had as they would typically respond to my question of “Why is killing the Jews good?” with “We need to kill the Jews.”
Nonetheless, we sort of had a conversation about the topics that came up and despite my (light) protests, at no point did they aim their guns at me. I considered that a major success.
Most of my non-aggressive attempts at gaining a further understanding of their mindset and trying to get them to understand mine were met with vague statements that lacked anything in the vicinity of a sound argument. Nobody could really tell me why they hated America.
But I can tell you this…these uneducated Taliban members listened to what I said, or at least tried to. They heard me out, smiled when I gave my opinions and engaged in a discussion.
While their views were obviously difficult to digest, it didn’t make them bad people. In fact they were overly kind and gentle, humorous and generous.
Had I grown up in that very same town, where a lack of education and an extremely remote location dictates what you learn, there’s a chance I would have believed the same.
Although, they did have a weakness for hashish that was a bit much. I swear they passed around at least a dozen of the thickest joints imaginable during my visit. My initial, polite refusals were met with some harsh words from Abdur, who accused me of rejecting a gift that his friends had so honorably offered. I could tell he was serious and so I decided to play it safe and join in the smoking, a choice that instantly appeased these armed men.
Unfortunately, and despite my most concentrated efforts, the effects of this hallucinogenic inhalant led me to begin losing consciousness. The light around me began to dwindle and I started hearing only part of what Abdur and his friends were saying – “Hitler”, “Kill”, “Americans”, “Jews”. When I realized that I could not hold out any longer and that the last sliver of awareness was about to disappear, I remember wishing myself ‘good luck’.
But ha! Never in my life would I have imagined that the sight of five Taliban staring directly into my eyes from only a few feet away, hooting and hollering and pointing their guns in the air, would bring such a large smile of relief to my face. I was alive and unharmed. I had no idea how long I had passed out for and frankly I didn’t care, as I was more than satisfied that these men were still treating me as their friend.
Upon my return to consciousness, Abdur had declared, “We are happy you are ok. My friends thought you will not wake up. This is strong hashish. If you keep smoking like us, you will have long and healthy life.”
I nodded in complete heartfelt appreciation of their concern for my well-being and after succumbing to a mounting urge to yawn, heard the words that I needed to hear: “You are tired my friend,” Abdur spoke while putting his arm around my neck, “It is late, you must get sleep. A healthy man also needs sleep.”
We all stood up and my new Taliban friends took turns embracing me and shaking my hands. I thanked them for their hospitality in my best Urdu, sending them into another fit of laughter and endless hand shaking.
Abdur walked with me as we left the other men behind and we headed in the direction of the central market. It was an eerie walk through an eerie town at an eerie time of night and only a handful of people, wrapped up tightly in their thick mountain blankets, quietly passed us by. Abdur did not speak a word. I could not help but wonder if I was being led to a cliff where Abdur would whisper “I knew you were an American Jew the entire time” and shoot me dead.
Instead, and much to my relief yet again, Abdur stopped in front of a small, dimly-lit wooden building, “This is my shop,” he proudly announced, “I must close it and go home now.” We embraced and shook each other’s hands as I received one final reminder of his global affairs theory, “Remember, America is the devil.”
Before we parted he handed me a bottle from the small refrigerator in his shop, “Here, this is free, for you my friend.” I glanced at the label and with a chuckle turned towards my hotel. In my hand I held a bottle of Coca-Cola.