Pakistan Postcard

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Pro-Bin Laden protesters rally after Friday prayers in Peshawar

"Death to Americans" shouted the mullah, his right arm punching the air. "Death to Americans" responded the crowd of several thousand men, gathered in the narrow streets of the Qissa Khawani bazaar in Pakistan's northwestern city of Peshawar after Friday prayers. They had congregated outside the mosque to listen to speakers denounce the U.S. and its war against terrorism. At the back of the crowd a man raised a straw effigy of President Bush, set it alight, and then others flailed at the burning straw with sticks.

As the crowd shifted, one man lurched back and inadvertently stepped on my toes. He turned around and apologized profusely at his clumsiness and his lack of manners with a foreign guest. Then he turned back to listen to the mullah say "Death to Americans." Just don't step on their toes.

Divided even in themselves

Pakistan is deeply ambivalent about its new and unsought role in the war against terrorism — and nowhere is this more clear than in Peshawar, the country's main frontier town on the way to Afghanistan. The people of the Northwestern Frontier are as famous for their ferocity in battle as they are for their hospitality to strangers. On the eastern end of the Khyber Pass, one hour's drive from the border, Peshawar has fought wars and suffered invasions for over 2,000 years. Now as Pakistan braces for the expected U.S. attacks on Afghan territory, the people of Peshawar are torn: on the one hand, they don't want to be isolated in the eyes of the international coalition against terrorism. On the other, many interpret U.S. actions as a hostile "crusade" against Islam in general. And so the secular-religious split at the heart of Pakistan manifests itself in the conversation of people on the streets and in the bazaars, who express horror at the deaths of thousands in World Trade Center, but in the next breath suggest it was all a cynical plot by Mossad to gain sympathy for Israel.

The Qissa Khawani is also known as the Street of the Storytellers. In the past, travellers stopped to rest in its tea-shops and tell fantastic tales of their journeys. Today the rumors that swirl through Qissa Khawani are no less fanciful. One of the more common is the allegation that 4,000 Jewish people who supposedly worked in the World Trade Center stayed at home the day of the attacks. "It was all arranged by Israel," says Abdul Baky, a 26 year-old shopkeeper. "The Jews stayed away, and kept their paper records outside their offices." He is holding a sign which reads "Crush America — our Leader is Osama Bin Laden". Baky says that "if America attacks Afghanistan, I will myself go as a suicide bomber to America."

Others see the dark hand of India, Pakistan's long-term rival, in the attacks, but when pressed cannot explain why it would be in India's interests. Many are delighted to see America humiliated. The weekly magazine "Wu Jood," with a picture of Osama bin Laden on its cover, is selling briskly. The caption on the cover reads, "Not Russia, not America — only Allah is a superpower." "America has great power," says Mullah Yousef, "but God sent just four planes like mosquitoes, and Bush was forced to run away from his house." Should the Americans attack, says the Mullah, "Afghanistan will be a cemetery for American corpses."

The demonstration breaks up after another speaker says Pakistan's president Perez Musharraf is destined to "die like a dog" for promising to support the US in its military operations. A small group of youths tear off down the narrow alleys, overturning fruit carts and banging on the metal shutters of the small shops. But the helmeted riot police do not intervene — they know that today was little more than a stage rehearsal for the anger and violent protests expected after the bombs start falling. And then there will be no apologizing for stepping on someone else's foot.