Article by Peter Maass

Emroz Khan Is Having a Bad Day

The New York Times Magazine  |  October 21, 2001
Which is not unusual, and helps explain why Peshawar’s youth are tinder for Islamic extremism.

Emroz Khan destroys for a living. He dismantles car engines, slicing them open with a sledgehammer and a crooked chisel, prying apart the cylinders, tearing out pistons, dislodging screws and bolts and throwing the metal entrails into a pile that will be sold for scrap. He is 21 and has been doing this sort of work for 10 years, 12 hours a day, six days a week, earning $1.25 a day.

His hands and arms are gnarled works of body art, stained a rich black like fresh asphalt and ribboned with scars. As dusk falls on Cinema Road, where Emroz works in a shop that is so poor it has no name or sign, he rolls up his sleeve and asks me to put my finger along a bulge on his forearm; it feels as hard as iron. It is iron, a stretch of pipe he drove into his body by mistake. He cannot afford to pay a doctor to take it out.

“I’ve had it for three years,” he says.

He opens his left palm and places two fingers alongside what looks like a crease, then pulls apart the crease to reveal a two-inch gash that runs an inch deep. I hadn’t noticed it because the raw flesh was covered with grease, like the rest of his palm and arm. The wound is two years old.

“We work like donkeys,” Emroz says. “That’s what our life is like. It is the life of animals.”

Javaid Khan watched with apprehension. Javaid, who is 17, began chopping up engines three months ago, when he dropped out of school because he could no longer pay the fees. He is new at this work, so he earns just $2.50 a week. His hands and arms have not yet been mauled, but it will happen. A hospital is nearby, and Javaid wishes he could be one of the clean-cut medical sales reps he sees in the neighborhood. “I do not have the education,” he acknowledges. “It makes me sad to think about it.”

There is much sadness on Cinema Road, so named because of the movie theaters at the bottom of the street. A few feet from the shop where Javaid works, children who don’t know their ages (they look 5 or 6) sift through the scraps of the scrap merchants; one of them squats on the ground and pounds the remains of a light socket, hoping to find a morsel of tin or copper. A few dozen yards farther down the road, boys who might be 10 or 11 clean out goat intestines that have been discarded by a slaughterhouse; the intestines, once dried, can be turned into ersatz leather. The boys reek of offal.

If you want to understand why the world no longer feels terribly safe, you would do well to stroll down Cinema Road. You would hear the chants of the muezzin, the shouts of peddlers selling bruised bananas, the heavings of buses so overloaded that passengers ride on roofs and the cries of mutilated beggars pleading for a few rupees. You would taste curry and dust on your tongue at the same moment, and you would feel heat and energy in the air; at night, you would hear gunfire. The sights and sounds would make you think you had walked into a third-world “Blade Runner,” exhilarating and grotesque. And all around, you would notice young men for whom life is abuse. The population of Peshawar reflects the population of Pakistan as a whole—63 percent are under the age of 25. To varying degrees, that holds true for the Middle East, too; everywhere you look in Cairo or Amman or Gaza or Baghdad or Damascus or Tehran, you see young men. You need not visit these cities to know this; just look closely at the crowds in a protest or funeral; the faces are young, very young. And they are very angry.

Television often distorts matters, and that’s the case with the crowd scenes. Most young men in Pakistan are not burning effigies of President Bush or fighting riot police. Their anger is only loosely articulated, often because they are struggling to survive and cannot afford the luxury of taking an afternoon off to join a demonstration. But the young men you see on television and the ones you don’t see belong to the same deprived generation.

They live where globalization is not working or not working well enough. They believe, or can be led to believe, that America—or their pro-America government, if they live under one—is to blame for their misery. Many are adrift, cut off from their social foundations. Perhaps they moved into the city from dying villages, or were driven there by war or famine. There is no going back for them, yet in the city there is not much going forward; the movement tends to be downward. As they fall, they grab hold of whatever they can, and sometimes it is the violent ideas of religious extremists.

Peshawar, one of the oldest cities in Asia, was conquered by Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, and the Sikhs and the Afghans, and, in the 19th century, the British. The conquering ceased when Pakistan was born in 1947, but the city remained the gateway to the Khyber Pass and to Afghanistan. That was a curse, because 22 years ago Afghanistan entered an era of warfare that has yet to end. Nearly half of Peshawar’s two million inhabitants are refugees, most of them living in camps that are several degrees below squalid. The local economy revolves around smuggling—of guns and ammunition, of VCR’s and televisions, of heroin and hashish.

Aziz ul Rahman is a product of Peshawar. He is 18, a vocational-school dropout. He has a job at a tire shop, where he works in the mornings. In the afternoons he studies the Koran at a madrassah, or religious school. The one he attends is of the extreme variety, as most are these days. I meet him at a protest, in the Khyber Bazaar, that was organized by a pro-Taliban religious party.

“The American leaders are very cruel to Muslims, so that is why I am taking part in the demonstration today,” he says, politely, as we stand in a shaded alley to get out of the noise and heat. “I hear that the Americans are not doing anything good in Palestine or Bosnia or Chechnya. They are being cruel to Muslims.”

In the background, the speaker of the moment is inciting the crowd against Pakistan’s military regime, which is backing Washington’s anti-terror campaign. “The generals are stupid,” he shouts. Then, like a rock star inviting crowd participation, he calls out, “Generals!” and the crowd roars back, “Stupid!” They are quick learners.

Aziz wants to get back to the demo, so we part ways after a half-hour. He did not fall into religious extremism by choice; his preferred path, of becoming an engineer, was closed off by poverty. This is common in Pakistan. Poor families do their best to send a son to school, but in the end they cannot manage. The son will get a backbreaking job of some sort or, in some cases, keep the donkey’s life at bay by enrolling at a madrassah, most of which offer free tuition, room and board. And that’s where they learn that it is honorable to blow yourself up amid a crowd of infidels and that the greatest glory in life is to die in a jihad.

Politically-engaged youths are a minority, the tip of the iceberg. They are the ones whose anger you see, whose danger you sense. But the upset of Peshawar’s youth is manifested in many ways; in, for example, visits to graveyards, where, among the newly dead and the long-dead, they sit on bamboo mats and sing about their despair as they smoke hashish.

The Pinza Piran cemetery is a shrine of sorts, holding the remains of five famous elders. If you wish to pay your respects, you take off your shoes and walk into a tiled yard, where tinsel hangs from trees and incense burns next to the burial mounds. You say a prayer, give a few rupees to beggars as you leave and walk across the dirt road to a large yard from which musky smoke is issuing.

Nearly 100 men lounge around, most of them in their late teens or 20’s, though some are in their 40’s and 50’s. They sit in groups of four or five, passing around cigarettes spiked with Afghan hash. Some share pipes, known as chilum, which resemble small hookahs, and their bowls are filled with chunks of hash that throw off smoke and flames like a campfire. A man sitting near me says, “You have your bars, we have ours.”

Unless someone is singing, there is little noise. Some of the youths are too drugged to do more than slump against a tree. Others, emaciated looking, are lying down, glassy-eyed; these are the heroin addicts, wasting toward death. There is a man with a tame bird on his shoulder and another with dreadlocks, which are rare in Pakistan.

The best hash, known as tirra, costs about 35 cents for 10 grams. Smoking hashish is against the law, but because Islam does not condemn hash as strongly and explicitly as alcohol, it has become the drug of choice. There is nothing secretive about the activities at Pinza Piran; the police ignore it, especially if 50 rupees (about 80 cents) are slipped into their palms when they nose around.

I sit next to a youth, Malik, who says he is a student at a technical college. He also says that he is forming his own political party, that he has 450 followers across the country and that he is in discussions with Saudis who might provide financial support. He pulls a two-inch thick set of worn business cards from his pocket; evidence, he says, of his network of contacts. He is stoned and perhaps mad, but he echoes public opinion when I ask why he wants to become a politician: “Because all of our leaders are corrupt, and we have to get rid of them.”

Usually someone is playing the rabab, a traditional stringed instrument, and someone is singing, usually a plaintive song about an aching love. There are no women at these gatherings, as the women of Peshawar tend to spend their lives at home, donning a burqa if they venture outside. That is why posters of the uncovered faces of Indian starlets draw eager stares from men as they pass by on the street. The segregation of the sexes is deeply ingrained, but it’s not easy to live with, as the lyrics of one love song I heard indicated:

“Show me your face/Show me your face/Where are you?/Where are you?”

In the many circles of hell that exist for young men in Pakistan, the lowest is found at Dabaray Ghara, on the outskirts of Peshawar. It is an expanse of pits, dug out of the sunbaked earth, in which several thousand men, mostly refugees from Afghanistan, make bricks. It is the hardest of labor because it takes place outdoors, no matter how hot or cold, pays next to nothing and is, literally, backbreaking.

You see children as young as 4 or 5 in the pits, except they are not playing. They are making bricks. There are few men beyond the age of 30 or so. Horses carry bricks from one pit to another, and they do so without being led; they walk back and forth on dusty paths, too tired or too hopeless to imagine trotting away to freedom.

It is the humans, though, who suffer the most. Bakhtiar Khan began working in the pits when he was 10. He is now 25 or 26. He isn’t sure, because nobody keeps close track; time passes, that is all. He works from 5 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon, making 1,000 bricks a day, six days a week, earning a few dollars a week. He is thin, he wears no shirt or shoes and he cannot believe a foreigner is asking about his life.

“Life is cruel,” he says. “You can see for yourself. You wear nice clothes and are healthy. But look at us. We have no clothes to wear and we are not healthy. Your question is amazing.”

The situation is worse than it appears, because the youths at Dabaray Ghara carry an invisible burden. They don’t earn enough to live on, so they must borrow, especially when there is a wedding or funeral. They borrow from the men who own the pits, but the interest rates are so high, and their wages so low, that they have no hope of paying back the loans. Bakhtiar and his friends are only vaguely aware that they are indentured slaves.

They are illiterate, and the world of politics is beyond their grasp. In a sense, this is encouraging, because they have no time for polemics or protests. Yet it is discouraging too, because they can be led to rally behind any person or idea that promises to improve their lot.

“I don’t have the knowledge to blame a government,” Bakhtiar says, as a dozen work mates gather around, squatting in the bottom of a pit. “I don’t know about politics, but for our problems, I blame the world community. All humans should be equal, but we are not. You ask me who is to blame. You find out who is to blame.”

He is not without hunches.

“We arrived from Afghanistan 15 years ago. Since then I blame America, because it used to support us, but now it leaves us in a place like this. So if someone is fighting a jihad against America, I would support them. But if America is willing to help us, we support that, too.”

In Peshawar, even the lucky are damned. Ihsan u-Din is enrolled at a civil engineering college. Before that, he attended a private school. His brothers and sisters are enrolled in school, too, thanks to their father’s steady income. Ihsan speaks good English, and he has the ultimate luxury in Pakistan—pocket money, which is why I ran into him at a video parlor.

Ihsan is in the first year of a five-year engineering program. Compared with Emroz and the brick makers, and most youths here, Ihsan has it good. But there’s a catch. Pakistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. Even with a degree, it’s very hard to get an engineering job. You need connections and money. Ihsan’s family doesn’t have enough of either.

“It is a game of money,” he explains. “Even if you are a good engineer, you will not get a positive response when you apply, unless you pay. This has been the truth for 20 years. It hasn’t changed.”

Did I say there was a catch to his life? Actually, there are two. The second one is this: Ihsan’s father is in the United Arab Emirates, where he works as a taxi driver earning infinitely more than he could in Pakistan. He sends money to his family so that his children can eat well and go to school. But Ihsan’s father does not earn enough money to buy a plane ticket home once a year, or once every two years—or hardly ever.

“I have not seen my father for eight years,” Ihsan said. “Is that right? He sends pictures and calls. But we don’t want calls. We want to see him. That is the problem of my country. My father is far from me.”

They might not be separated for long. Ihsan is thinking of leaving school and joining his father in the U.A.E., where he can drive a taxi, if he’s lucky. That’s the best he can hope for—not to work in his country as an engineer but to drive a cab in a foreign land. It may not be the U.A.E.

“America is such a fine place,” Ihsan says.

Haroon Bilour has the answers. a lawyer who serves on the town council, Bilour reels off statistics like a computer spitting out mathematical equations. Nearly half of the city is without running water. Away from the main roads, which are in horrible shape, there are few paved roads. The majority of the city’s inhabitants live below the poverty level. They have run their miserable infrastructure right into the ground.

“Peshawar has suffered rather than benefited from globalization,” Bilour says, sitting on a couch in his office. He has bolted the door, because the flow of assistants and colleagues and needy citizens cannot be halted otherwise. “No aid package or special package of any kind has been provided by the world at large, or by the government of Pakistan. This is a very sorry state.”

For Bilour, the answer to Peshawar’s problems comes down to one issue: schools. Building them and ensuring that parents can afford to enroll their children. Not counting refugees, only 52 percent of the city’s school-age children attend school, and of those, nearly one-third attend madrassahs. If the city had the infrastructure to encourage investment and create jobs, and if it had more schools to neutralize the madrassahs, youths might not be tempted to spend their days chanting “Death to America.”

But Bilour is a realist. He knows how reluctant politicians in the West are to lower tariffs, ease quotas or raise foreign aid, even though, currently, foreign aid accounts for only a tiny fraction of government spending. He also knows that the government in Islamabad is unlikely to be much help; corruption is endemic, and a large portion of state revenues go into military spending. So as the United States begins fighting a war that has Afghanistan as its target, Bilour, whose city is the traditional gateway to Afghanistan, is not in a joyous mood.

“We are not against our territory being used for the war against terrorism,” he says. “We fear only that Peshawar will be ignored again. We are petrified that we will have to shelter more refugees, that there will be more bomb blasts here and that we will have no help from the world community. If we are again asked to make sacrifices for the West, we must be able to show our young generation that we can get schools and hospitals and a properly developed city.”


“I am not hopeful.”