Shiraz on Holiday

Shiraz Maher Meets the Taliban

Read the story in Standpoint:

The silhouetted figures still braving the streets at this hour belong only to hefty and hirsute men. It has been miles since we encountered the last checkpoint manned by the Karachi Rangers, the armed police who are meant to deter kidnappers and terrorists.

At last, a familiar sight: we drive past a Johnson & Johnson factory. “This place can’t be that bad,” I tell myself.

“Daniel Pearl was executed near here,” the driver says unprompted. “Do you want to see where?”

We are in Sherpao Colony, a desperately impoverished area where extended families live in small blocks of vertical housing. The almost exclusively Pashtun community here is acutely sensitive to the ongoing turbulence in Fata. Arriving at our meeting point, a TV cable store, I am greeted by several men. All wear crooked smiles coloured by tobacco stains and chipped teeth. Without a hint of irony they are watching American wrestling on TV. “I hope you’re not on a tight schedule,” says a man who introduces himself only as “the General”.

“No,” I reply.

“Good, because nothing around here works like that. You drink Mountain Dew?” he asks, passing me a full glass of the fizzy drink before I have a chance to reply. The fighter I am hoping to interview has not arrived yet and I am told to take a seat.

I try to distract myself with the television while the general switches on a fan. A single light bulb hanging from the ceiling by a wire provides the only light. The General is twirling a Beretta pistol in his hands. Its cold, burnished metal glistens menacingly under the dainty spotlight. It also becomes apparent that another group of armed men are keeping watch from a distance, furtively scanning the terrain.

Suddenly, the room plunges into darkness. The television fades to black while the fan whirs to a lifeless stop.

What happens next?