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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

December 2005

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.Continuing the journal's series on the First Posts of our foreign affairs readership, we present these recollections of almost a half-century ago in a part of the world that had changed then relatively little since the nineteenth century. Ambassador Coon's account contains even more than those impressions: See her account of a somewhat curious incident in that remote regionremote geographically and temporally. Ed.

Before the Afghan War

It was the season for roses in Peshawar. At the old Peshawar club where I stayed, gardeners cultivated delicate English varieties transplanted long ago by British officers to this frontier town at the foot of the Khyber Pass. Next door, in the military cantonment, platoons of carefully pruned roses—pinks, yellows, whites—bloomed, upright, in disciplined rectangular plots. Native, climbing roses, untamed and thorny, clambered exuberantly over the compound walls outside. And in the old city of Peshawar, second and third story window boxes full of roses teetered alarmingly over the crowded, narrow streets, the fragrance deliciously mixed with dust, spices and dung.

The roses were an unexpected bonus on my first visit—now over forty-five years ago—to Peshawar and Pakistan's storied Northwest Frontier. I was young, wide-eyed. and living in Karachi, my first Foreign Service post. Pakistan provided a whole world to be explored—a world I'd read about and now could see and hear and smell. This was Kipling country and Kim had been my Harry Potter. Here in a Peshawar caravanserai, Mahbub Ali, the wily horse trader, entrusted Kim with secret letters revealing the plots of central Asian emirs. And just over the mountains in Afghanistan, the Man Who Would Be King had set up shop and met his bloody end. When Kipling wrote his tales of imperial India, British troops were still trying to keep the peace among the Pushtun tribes on this lawless frontier. Now, a decade after the end of the British Raj, the northwest frontier under Pakistan's rule was fairly quiet. The Afghan King sat placidly on his throne in Kabul; the Soviets were still safely north of the Amu Darya. And Peshawar was awash in roses.

Naturally, I promptly set out to explore the old city in a local taxi, an open, two-wheeled, horse-drawn vehicle called a tonga. Cracked pink plastic covered the passenger seat; the horse sported a generous garland of roses. I sat facing the rear, back-to-back with the driver; he flicked his whip and we trotted off to the Peshawar bazaar. Donkeys, tongas, honking lorries, supercilious camels, pushcarts, bicycles, bleating goats, fat-tailed sheep and men--some carrying rifles--all jammed the narrow streets we were attempting to navigate, bringing my tonga to a halt in one twisting alley. I had time to watch a barber, squatting on the pavement a few feet away, trimming the bushy beard of an aquiline, sinewy Pushtun tribesman. His long gray shirt hung over baggy pants, hitched up to reveal splayed, calloused feet shod in thick, rubber-soled sandals made from old truck tires. A bandoleer crisscrossed his chest and a hand-tooled rifle leaned against the wall behind him. Two red roses peeked out from the folds of at large black turban which sat on his knee while the barber expertly trimmed the hair in one ear. Catching sight of me in the tonga, the tribesman brushed aside the barber with one long arm, unfolded to his full, impressive height, blew his nose one nostril at a time into the street and stared at me, unblinking and unabashed, neither hostile nor friendly. The tonga finally lurched on, but roses or no roses, I was acutely aware that this was a man's world and I was a long way from home. Kipling began to dim before a less romantic reality.

North of Peshawar lay Swat, a small, semi-autonomous principality which I planned to visit with an English friend from Karachi. Swat, not yet a common tourist destination, mostly attracted trekkers or mountaineers. Its hopes of becoming a tourist Mecca, however, had recently been dampened by the robbery and murder of a young Italian woman trekker. John, my friend, and I had checked the map. Her camp had been a good dozen miles beyond the lodge where we would stay. Besides, we were day hikers, not serious trekkers. And, of course, we enjoyed the immortality of youth.

Karakorum mountain range
An ancient taxi took us to Swat. With radiator steaming, it coughed its way up the ever-sharper switch backs of the bleak Malakhand pass, which rose steeply from Peshawar valley like the huge, shaggy, brown hump of a camel. No roses here. The pass had been fought over in wars dating back to Alexander. A dun-colored, mud-walled fort seemed to grow naturally out of the barren, rocky terrain and the heights above it were studded with monuments to British regiments which had fought the tribesmen not so long ago. Swat was Pushtun territory and we had obtained special permits for the trip. At the top of the pass, a tribal policeman waved us to a halt with his old Lee Enfield rifle, checked our papers and entered our names in a worn ledger. From the guard post we looked down on Swat, a magical, green sliver of valley hemmed in by lower mountains on both sides and blocked at the north end by the massive, snow-capped Karakorum range.

Half way up the valley on the west bank of the Swat river lay our lodge, half hidden by a tangle of climbing roses. We were the only guests. Next morning, with cheese and flaps of Afghan bread stuffed into a day pack, we set off for an easy day's hike up the mountain behind the lodge. For an hour or more we climbed between tiny terraced fields that seemed to creep up toward an ever-receding skyline. Above the terracing, we traversed rocky mountain pastures denuded by grazing sheep and goats. Two young shepherds stood stock still and gaped as we tramped by. The well-worn path we were on was hollowed out by the bare feet of ragged porters, each bent almost double under a heavy log he was carrying down the mountain to a saw mill by the river. The source of those logs, a forest still far above us, lured us upward. We kept climbing, but in the mysterious way of mountains, our goal seemed to keep receding up the steep slope above us, slipping around each rise and disappearing over the next ridge line. The unfamiliar altitude had us gasping and we stopped frequently to rest.

It was late afternoon before we admitted defeat and turned to start down. The log carriers we met on our way up had now made their last trip of the day. The sheep and goats had been driven down and tethered safely in their pens. A dozen woodcutters scrambled past us, hurrying down the steep path to their homes in the valley. Now we seemed to be a alone except for two tiny figures, moving more slowly down the mountain far ahead of us. They each carried a gun, a common sight in tribal areas. The sun sets early in the mountains. Far below, already in the shadows, was the dark ribbon of the Swat river. We could just make out our lodge, huddled next to the only road leading up the valley. Across the river the setting sun still painted the steep, terraced hills a brilliant green and highlighted a spidery network of paths linking scattered homesteads, but shadows were already creeping upward in an irregular pattern inked in by the peaks behind us. The massive, snow-covered Karakoram towered impassively over the northern end of the valley and to the south stood the brooding brown massif of the Malakhand pass we had crossed the day before.

As the sun disappeared behind the ridge above us, John and I slowed our pace to let the two armed men get well ahead. They disappeared around a bend, reappeared farther down the path, but as shadows lengthened, the distance between us and the two men seemed to shorten. The men glanced back at us and almost imperceptibly slowed down. We paused, as if tired. They paused. I glanced at John, slight, bespectacled and a little wimpy in his proper English walking shorts and knee socks. I wondered who the Italian girl had been with on her trek. We started on down again and the men moved on, but even more slowly. We were close enough now to see that they were roughly dressed tribals, heavily bearded under unkempt turbans. Each cradled a long rifle.

The men reached a fork in the path and stopped, resting on their guns. To the left the path descended to our lodge. To the right, it disappeared around a hillock and dropped sharply down into a darkening side valley. There were no other choices. The men stood silent, waiting. One motioned to us. We slowly, hesitantly, moved down toward them.

They greeted us with a nod and a soft salaam aleichem. The older tribesman reached up abruptly, took a rose from behind his ear and handed it to me. They turned and quickly disappeared down the path to the right.


The author, a retired U. S. Foreign Service officer, was the American envoy to Bangladesh from 1981 to 1984. She began her foreign affairs career in 1951, served abroad at Karachi, Bombay, and New Delhi and later held appointment as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs.. She is a graduate of the College of Wooster.

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