Pakistan Diaries: Darra bazaar

The next morning we go downstairs for breakfast and discover that my father has a meeting of physicians scheduled for the next four days.  This is a relief to me, as we can jet off and not worry about coordinating with the parents.  At breakfast we learn that another doctor from Chicago has brought his three daughters and is scheduling them for an outing to the Darra gun market.

In operation since at least 1800, the artisans at Darra have become experts at making copies of popular sidearms, shotguns, and assault rifles.  However Darra is in what is called the "tribal areas".  The people of the tribal areas have been there for centuries, and everyone, including the Sikhs, Mongols, Arabs, Moghuls, Huns, British, and Persians have tried to control them, and every time, they’ve been soundly victorious.  The armies of modern day Pakistan have been smart enough not to try.  Rumor has it that the Pakistani government finds reasons to pay the tribal people to help them keep the border secure, and keep them off the payroll of al Qaeda and the smugglers.

What this means is that by entering tribal lands, Pakistani laws don’t apply.  These people don’t pay taxes, don’t need visas (lucky bastards) and come and go as they please.  It also means if we get into trouble here, getting us back out is going to be a bit challenging.  Claiming "I’m an American" and waving my blue passport isn’t likely to get me off the hook, and from what I hear, more likely to encourage someone to finish me off.

It isn’t as if it’s hard to offend the Afridi tribal people in Darra, either.  While waiting for our armed escort to show up we hole up and try not to freak out at the small crowd surrounding the van.  Sarah takes the time to read up on the Afridis and their language, Pashto, and explains that the Star Trek phrase, "Revenge is a dish best served cold" is actually an old Pashto saying.  Apparently tribal people have gone as far as Los Angeles to avenge an inter-family quarrel with an honor-killing.  Being related to another Afridi appears to offer no protection either, as cousins routinely quarrel over women and money with frightening regularity.  Sarah continues to cheerily point out that in Pashto, the words for "cousin" and "enemy" are exactly the same.

Being an American, and being with the white girl, I’m a little nervous, but I figure what the hell.  After an hour of driving we arrive in Darra.  The place looks like a frontier town.  It’s one long strip with gunshops on every side.  Our van travels down the street as everyone in town turns their heads to stare at our van.  I’m suddenly very aware that a vast majority of the populace is armed.  Furthermore, every 2-3 minutes our slow progress is punctuated by the sound of a weapon being fired.  It’s usually a prospective customer in an alley test-firing a gun before purchase. 

Our guard arrives and takes us on a tour of the workshops, showing us how each piece is made.  Each artisan appears to be an expert at a single component, such as firing pins, stocks, or barrel boring.  Fifty to a hundred different people go into the making of each weapon, and from what I can tell, the ammunition is cased here too.  The craftsmen strive for perfection except in one feature.  Most weapons say, "MADE AS USA"

After the tour we are ushered into a small windowless room for tea and also, I sense, to get us off the street where we keep drawing crowds.  The soldiers from the Frontier Force let us play with their loaded guns, which was a generally bad idea if you ask me. As a crowd continues to gather, we finish tea and head out to a courtyard to test fire a Kalishnakov.  They sell us a magazine’s worth of ammunition and we each take turns firing five rounds from it.  The youngest member of our party fires the rest of the magazine away on automatic, and when she’s done, drops the barrel because her arms are tired.  With the barrel now pointed at waist level she unthinkingly starts to turn towards us to talk.  We all scatter like rats, trying to get away from where the muzzle is pointing and get out of her potential line of fire.

The last thing they show us before we head out of Darra is a pen gun, which the Frontier guard says are very popular with the Japanese tourists.  An actual working pen, you can unscrew the body and insert one bullet into it.  You then remove the ink cartridge and press the plunger at the back to fire it.  I decline the offer to buy it.  Pretty much everything is tempting, but it’s all just expensive enough, and questionably importable enough, that I don’t want to blow my cash and just to have it confiscated by US Customs.

Continue reading Pakistan Diaries: Takht-e-Bahi