Hear the words tribal chief and you might think of a long grey beard, charismatic eyes, and a charming smile.
That’s not what Jefferson Taylor encounters when he meets an Afghani tribal chief on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Jefferson crosses nine police roadblocks to drink tea with the legally recognized chief. When he arrives, the chief is polishing off a huge line of grade A crystal heroin and getting out his gun collection.
First Lines of Grade A Crystal Heroin
“I am the tribal chief” he says, holding out a rather chubby hand, “and you are late.” Just over three hours to be precise, but when you’re in Pakistan, sticking to the same day is a triumph of punctuality. I’ve clearly interrupted some veracious drug consumption. The chief quickly gets back down to business; grade A crystal heroin runs from corner to corner of a soft porn magazine, and it’s professionally consumed with a rolled up $50 and a portentous snort. Is that the chick’s erect nipple or a crystal that missed the nostril? As I ponder this important question the chief strains his eyes into focus, confirming the itinerary with glee: “now we see guns…”
Who is This Afghan Tribal Chief and How Can You Meet Him?
I’m not that shocked. Travel to Pakistan and guided day trips seem to come from the annals of travel absurdity. The chief is short and round, belly intensified by a blue shalwar kameez and cheeks plumped out like a pubescent child’s. We’re in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and this chief is the legally recognized head of an area that includes the Kyber Pass, the main mountain road linking Pakistan to Afghanistan. He barely looks 30 and inherited the job from his father, who was given the job by the departing colonial British.
Peshawar, in Western Pakistan, receives almost daily suicide bombings but continues to attract a few intrepid visitors. A local guide met me at the airport, dressing me in traditional local clothes until I resembled a lost boy in over-sized pajamas. From here we travel into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), officially off bounds to foreigners. But what is official in a land ravaged by war? Bribes were paid, checkpoints were avoided, and one of the chief’s 118 bodyguards followed us through the smugglers bazaar to meet the chief.
The Afghan Tribal Chief Who Loves Foreigners
The chief enjoys visits from foreigners. A British lads magazine sits on the table. Souvenirs cover the walls; a rugby ball, photos of an amateur American college cheer-leading team, one of those novelty foam hands, a boomerang, Swiss chocolate wrapper, a hundred other souvenirs from past visitors. Other than the armed guards, the house is basic. It sits on the edge of the Smugglers Bazaar, a market that specializes in counterfeit goods. There’s knock off jewelry and electronics, but also huge stores of weapons and insane quantities of Afghan heroin.
The chief forbids any suicide bombings on the Kyber Pass. For well over a decade, the Americans have freely used the pass to bring supplies into Afghanistan. And they turn a blind eye to the mass export of heroin and hashish that arrives at the Smugglers Bazaar. It makes sense. But is this chubby heroin fiend really capable of: a) negotiating deals with the US military, b) controlling a volatile land so effectively, c) negotiating with the Taliban, and d) going 10 minutes without racking up another line?
Checking Out the Gun Collection
The chief has forgotten what he’s doing, so as the heroin pile is sliced up for second helpings a guard sidles over and reconfirms the itinerary. A dozen weapons come out of the closet, each coming with a gleeful introduction from the chief. He’s practically masturbating about an original Soviet Glock with a price tag of plus $500,000. I’m in awe at one of Osama Bin Laden’s old guns, an AK47 covered in dents.
I smile and pose with the weapons, presenting myself as a gracious guest and getting the chief on his feet for a handshake snap. Tea keeps doing the rounds and bodyguards step in to provide some translation services. They’re a friendly bunch, but the scale of his entourage continues to jangle nerves. It’s like meeting the parents of a girlfriend who’s clearly out of your league. I’m so anxious of upsetting this guy that everything I say comes out as a stutter.
Checking Out the Afghan Drug Collection
“You must understand that I don’t buy or sell anything illegal” says the chief as a bodyguard emerges with bags of different substances. “But you must understand that all traders respect the chief.” In short, the chief runs the Smugglers Bazaar, ensures safe passage of drugs out of Afghanistan, and takes a hefty commission on most of the contraband exported from this part of the world. If you’ve been indulging in heroin over the last ten years, then there’s a good chance that it’s passed through here.
A bodyguard explains the sample bags. There’s grade A heroin crystals, gleaming like diamonds through the baggy. Then grade B, only slightly less sparkly but a tenth of the price. Grade C is brown and described as “the shit we sell to Africa.” Is this just a friendly introduction of the local product? Or a hint that anyone visiting the Smugglers Bazaar comes for something? Nobody just browses around. Perhaps I’ve been presented as a wealthy opium dealer.
A Joint of the Finest Afghan Hashish
Next comes the hashish, different bags presented with their different price tags. Grade A, grade B, and now the “chief’s special hashish” an oily concoction with an obscene price tag. Eyes betray me and through a heroin coma the chief picks up on my interest. By now he’s slurring words and unable to stand. He’s too wasted to even rack up a new line, although a bodyguard fastidiously takes over the role.
A garbled Pashtun sentence is translated. “The chief is asking if you would like anything to go with your tea?” The guide is shaking his head in the background, clearly indicating that this is an offer to be politely refused. But…you would do the same right? I gulp and nod towards a bag, a move that delights the chief. Another bodyguard is summoned and within five minutes I’m presented with a perfectly rolled joint of the chief’s special hashish.
Paranoid Moments and Forgetting the Chief’s Present
Within five tokes the room is spinning, but it’s wonderfully moorish and I keep smoking. A few bodyguards smoke away and I begin to float on a serene high, the hash befitting its price tag. Conversation flows with the bodyguards and I learn of dreams to visit England and families in hidden corners of Pakistan. Satisfied that I’m enjoying myself, the chief loses interest in me and focuses on lad mags and MTV music videos. He’s seems content. Time passes. Slowly. Or quickly, I really can’t tell. But it’s all fun and games until…
A stubby finger points and a Pashtun sentence is loaded with malevolence. I don’t understand. Or maybe I do. This part of the world is all about hospitality and visiting a chief means bringing presents. I’ve already given him a watch, but I bought the watch in the Smugglers Bazaar so it’s clearly worthless to the chief. He’s pointing at my neck, jabbing a finger towards a silver St Christopher pendant. Shit…Bodyguards seem to abandon their conviviality and the tour guide steps in to battle my corner. I explain the personal significance of the pendant; it’s for protection, the patron saint of travelers always around my neck, engraved with a personal message from home.
Last Impressions of the Tribal Chief
A torturous ten minutes follows. The chief wants it, I don’t want to give it…but I’m in his house, high on his hash, he’s got 118 armed bodyguards, and I don’t really have a choice do I? What the chief wants the chief gets. Otherwise, what’s the point of being a tribal chief? But my guide tactfully intervenes with a solution; I keep the pendant, the chief receives the chain. Everyone laughs, smiles, then tries not to stare at the chief because his neck is too fat to fit the chain anyway. So the chain ends up on the porn magazine, beside a flock of blond hair and a pile of heroin.
Eventually I relax again and sit in peace, silently laughing at the juxtaposition of tea cups and guns. Suddenly the chief faces me. He stares intently. Maybe he really does want the pendant this time? Then he points at MTV and blurts out, “do you also like Beyonce…?”