Thursday, July 16, 2009


The ochre hills are dry and bare. Swirling gusts of wind and dust chase each other around, like carefree urchins playing tag. Neither house nor tree as far as the eye can see, and a lonely road that stretches from horizon to horizon. And on that roadlurches and loiters a beat up Toyota Sedan, both diffident and determined in the same burst of combustion. And perhaps with good reason, for this car was passing through the Khyber, a region that has come to be known as the most dangerous place on the planet, between the lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Western Pakistan, and Afghanistan, a region at the forefront of the war of and on terror, a red-zone if there ever was one.

Inside, next to the driver sat a man whose modest salwar-kameez belied his aristocratic bearing. He turned oft en to speak to a man in a skull cap sitting at the back. Next to him sat a boy who was trying hard to look like a man. The one in the skull cap seemed nervous, constantly pulling his right sleeve, trying his best to cover the kada (a bracelet worn by Sikhs) on his wrist. The next moment, the image went off the screen and was replaced by a commercial… I was watching an episode of ‘Jailed Abroad’, a programme on National Geographic. And though I usually restrict myself to recounting first hand experiences on this page, what I saw last night was a story worth telling, and those of you who might have missed it, missed out an important lesson about the paradoxes and prejudices of our times.

In the May of 2002, Amardeep Bassey, a British Sikh of Indian origin, investigations editor with The Sunday Mercury, wanted to make his way into Afghanistan for a story about the common Afghan’s life after the war. He met a Pakistani human rights activist in Peshawar who asked him to meet a certain Naushad Afridi, son of a tribal chieftain from the Khyber. Bassey left Peshawar and reached FATA. The Pakistan administration had little control over the tribes and warlords operating in the region. Bassey was on his own. He reached a dilapidated building where he was told he’d find Naushad. He was asked to wait. While he waited, he must’ve been a very nervous man. Daniel Pearl had been murdered mere months ago. Western journalists were aware how dangerous missions to these regions crawling with al-Qaeda loyalists and sympathisers could be. This was as good a time as any for militants to get their hands on a western journalist, truss him up before a camera, make some demands and finally behead the poor chap like a sacrificial lamb. Bassey knew that even one wrong move could well be his last.

While Bassey waited, he thought of his friends and family back home and wondered if he would be able to see them again. Just then, a tall slim chap walked in with a group of people. Though dressed like the others, he stood out because of his demeanour. He looked like a man who knew his way around. “Salaam walaikum! I’m Naushad. What can I do for you?” said the man as he extended his hand. Bassey greeted him, gave him his references and asked if he could helphim get to Kabul and back for his story. After some deliberation, Naushad said, “You are a brave man to have come this far. I’ll be your guide.” While they were shaking hands, Naushad happened to see Bassey’s kada and warned him, “People here have been conditioned to believe that any one who isn’t a Muslim is actually an enemy. So be careful.” Naushad asked him to replace his western attire with a salwar-kameez and a skull cap. And to keep his kada hidden all the time. They partied a bit in the evening with a local sugarcane brew and next morning, the two of them, along with the much younger Khitab Shah headed off for the border. On the bus, grim thoughts accosted Bassey and he kept wondering how real the dangers of this mission might be. He turned to Naushad and shared his concerns. “We’ll see what happens,” said Naushad, “but whatever happens to you will happen to me first. We’ve had fun together, so when trouble comes, we’ll face it together”. Though it sounded like rhetoric, Bassey felt at ease.

There was a big crowd at the border gate. Incidentally, the Pashtun tribals who inhabit both sides of the Afghan-Pak border do not require a visa to cross the border. But unlike his guides, Bassey was no tribal and was feeling rather apprehensive since he only had a single entry visa for Pakistan. However he’d been told that they’d return through a different route used by opium smugglers, and that wouldn’t require ‘papers’. So he just “went with the flow”. Soon they were in a cab that was heading towards Kabul which is where the commercials interrupted the story.

In Kabul, Bassey interviewed everyday people about their life after the war while Naushad acted as interpreter. Next day, with his interviews done and notes in place, Bassey joined Naushad and Khitab in a taxi that was to take them to the Pakistan border. Halfway through the journey, Naushad and the driver had an altercation… apparently the Americans were scrutinising the check posts on the route used by the opium smugglers, anticipating the movement of a large number of jehadis. So they had no choice but to go back the way they’d come. Bassey was worried. He knew he would be in trouble if the authorities check his visa but Naushad told him that they didn’t have a choice and he would definitely know someone at the border who could get them through.

At the border though, Bassey’s British passport drew unnecessary attention and the duty officer at the border took him across to the Military Intelligence office. There, the officer-in-charge, after being apprised of his visa issues, lookedat Bassey’s name and his watch which also happened to have a camera, and concluded that he was an Indian spy. Bassey protested in vain. The officer was sending Bassey to jail. Then the officer turned towards the two Pathans and said they were free to go. Naushad stood up and said, “We’re not going anywhere. This man is our guest and is under our tribe’s protection. If he goes to jail, we go with him”.

Naushad had met Bassey less than 48 hours ago and knew practically nothing about him. As far as he knew, he could well have been an Indian spy. The maximum punishment for espionage in Pakistan is death. Naushad and Khitab knew what the consequences could be, and they knew little about the man they were standing by. And yet, without batting an eyelid, they went to jail for Bassey. Amardeep Bassey spent 28 days in jail, some of them in solitary confinement and others in squalid concrete cages packed with hardened jehadis and bandits. A Westerner and a non-Muslim, Bassey felt like a lamb trapped between a pack of wolves. Inside the cell, tall gaunt men with long fl owing beards and piercing eyes looked down their hawkish noses at Bassey. One look at them and you knew these men had known war, death and desperation, and they hadn’t tired of it yet. He was even asked to convert by an al-Qaeda operative who was a gang leader of sorts in one of the jails, but Bassey respectfully but firmly refused. His courage surprised both of them, but Bassey knew his strength stemmed from the presence of Naushad. The Pathan, son of a tribal leader, was suffering the ignominy and uncertainty of incarceration for the sake of Bassey, his guest. And he was doing that because of a centuries old, pre-Islamic code of honour – Pashtunwali, the code of the Pathans – which amongst other things, states that every Pathan should offer help and protection to those in need and especially to strangers and guests, and even die for them if need be.

Twenty eight days later Bassey, thanks to diplomatic maneuvers, was finally released and deported but the two Pathans were still in jail. “Turning my back on them is the hardest thing I ever did,” said Bassey. But he wasn’t given a choice. The two of them were released a week later.

Bassey and Naushad met again in 2008 and embraced each other like brothers. Today, the two, a Pakistani Pathan and British-Indian Sikh, share a friendship that runs deeper and further than the Ganges. As the programme drew to a close I realised how recent lore has demonized these brave people from ‘the most dangerous place in the world.’ Perhaps it is the same code of honour that prevents a Pathan from giving up on another guest, even if did blow up a tower or two.

While drones rain down on their homes and their children toy with automatic rifles, the paradox of the proud Pathan chained to his code of honour lives and grows amidst the din of battle. Perhaps it is up to people like Bassey and Naushad to talk to their worlds and help them understand and appreciate the other and dispel the fears and prejudices that stoke the fires of hate on both sides of the divide.



  1. Glad you appreciated the message behind our story. Noushad and his tribe are still in close contact, by phone and email, but the security situation in Khyber has severely deteriorated and I wonder when I will ever be able to return. Throughout my time in various jails most of the prisoners, from so-called Taliban and Al Qaida suspects to opium smugglers and murderers, were intrigued by my Indian background and spoke about India in a respectful way, acknowledging its close links to Pakistan. Some men who had never left their villages even asked me what India looked like, no doubt having an image in their mind shaped by years of propoganda and hearsay. Ultimately though it was my 'Indianess' that led to my prolonged incarceration. As one ISI officer told me when I asked why I had been kept in so long..'You are an Indian and all said and done dhushman is dhushman...'

    amardeep bassey

    Today I 've watched this program in Nat Geo.
    Excellent narration and I sincerely oblige to Mr.Naushad for his courage and he given the meaning of True friendship and hospitality.
    And also I feel your hardest feelings when you turn back on them while you freed.
    And after they show both of you hugging with real passion,I shed tears.
    I love you all, long live with peace.
    Convey my regards to Mr.Naushad.
    Ganesh M,
    INDIA / 98430 64746

  3. To
    Mr. Amardeep Bassey,

    I've watched the programme several times now,and all i could say is longlive friendship.
    At the end of the day we are all humans, what Naushad did was surprising at first, but then he did what every human ought to do for others.

    Say my salam to him Mr. Bassey, you are really lucky to have a friend like him.

    Tajjuddin Ajmeri.

  4. My great Pashtun Brothers Noushad Afridi And khetab Shah We Really Proud Of You Tow That Really Show The Pashtunwali & Pashtu To The people Of World People Should Find Friend Like Pashtun Because Pashtun Never Let Other Person To insult his Guest If some One try PASHTUN fight TILL he IS a Live
    Massage For Noushad afridi and khetab shah My brothers i live in kabul hope to come to Afghanistan on tour and meet me here

    bye Best Luck long live

  5. Y.D.Kaushik from India
    Really it is very great because i think that its happens in movies only but i am very glad to know that its can be happen in real life and Mr. Naushad is a very great person who knows the real mean of friendship.Mr. Amardeep bassey is very lucky person who find a diamond like Mr. naushad
    I wish that Mr. Naushad may very live long life

  6. I Been working with Mr. Noushad Ali Afridi the loving personality. and seen the movie too, Me and Noushad are running an civil Society with aim to generate the equal citizenship for all communities, Love, Caring and Peace Buildings are our first priorities...