Ten years ago, the world was a different place. 9/11 had not yet happened.
In this looking-glass world I was wary of the Bishop’s ambitions most of all. It was a routine College Board meeting. Marksmen were already on the roof in the furnace of the morning heat. A doctor had tasted the food in case it was poisoned. Leading personalities of Peshawar were gathering today and power struggles were smouldering like the heat of a magnifying glass on dry leaves. There was a knot of tension in the pit of my stomach.
The Peepul Tree – The Community
Dangerous conspiracies threatened the college. Beyond the burning city were the fabled Khyber Pass and the Pushtun lands full of history and blood.
This is the story of a teacher, who leaves tranquil rural England to cross the cultural chasm into the world of the Pakistan-Afghan borderlands. Take my hand and come with me on a five-year adventure into the enchanted Vale of Peshawar, the ancient kingdom of Gandhara, the land of the Pushtuns.
Swimming with Sharks
It is a world of conspiracy, murder and terror alongside charm and hospitality. Everyday happenings and strange troubles unfold in an extraordinary place and time. The 9/11 attacks are gestating darkly in the shadows nearby. I am a small fish swimming with sharks. I have to fight for survival.
Two weeks before travelling to Peshawar to become Principal of Edwardes College there is a rude awakening. On a darkening December evening, I drive through the dank English countryside. The radio news jolts me awake. ‘A bomb blast in Peshawar – many dead – buildings destroyed – Governor thought to be the target.’ What have I got myself into?
Daily life at the college is accompanied by threats from without and within. Conspiracies engulf the approaching college centenary in 2000. Growing personal threats abound and dangers multiply. I have powerful allies and dangerous enemies.
Tensions build as General Mahmoud, Director General of the notorious Pakistan Military Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), personally calls me to offer help to deal with the dangerous conspiracy aimed at me and the college.
Mahmoud is the second most powerful man in the country. The ISI is hand in glove with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. He is simultaneously holding secret meetings with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. Later he personally authorised a large payment to Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers. [On the morning of 9/11 he is having breakfast with the Chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees – Sen. Bob Graham & Rep. Porter Goss]. He ‘tasks’ his secret agents to infiltrate the conspirators. There are plots within plots. The Church of Pakistan wants control of the college. The Board Chairman, the Governor of NWFP, has different ideas. Some merely have grievances against the college. The extremists see the college’s liberal education, as an abomination against Islamist ideology.
Which way do I turn to defend myself and the college? Where will the next attack come from? Am I safe? Is my family safe? These dangers have to be confronted as the centenary approaches. The threats against the college lead to the involvement of Pakistan secret services, MI6, and the CIA. A terror threat is delivered threatening to bomb the Edwardes College Centenary.
An undercover agent calls me to a secret meeting. ‘Three men carrying timers, detonators and explosives were apprehended trying to get into the college on the night before the big final day of the centenary,’ he says…. We hosted 1800 guests including many governors, generals and ministers.
In this crucible, corruption and intrigue lurk at every turn. The contrast is stark between the badlands of the ‘tribal frontier areas’, and the Pushtuns’ peaceful yearning for progress and modernity. The fundamentalist Jihadists are bent on dragging the people back into a dark and backward place. This story takes the reader behind the headlines and into the everyday realities of this troubled place that stands on the major fault line of modern geopolitics.
I have to admit I stumbled into this adventure, down a rabbit hole. When I picked myself up I was in that global canyon where political storms rage. How I came to be in Peshawar in the years leading up to 9/11 is a strange story. The fabled North West Frontier Province of Pakistan is wilder than the Wild West. Its people are a mixture of charm and ferocity. ‘He takes a lot of knowing. His is a most complicated simplicity,’ says the poet Ghani Khan of his own people.
We reached a ‘frontier’ between East and West, Islam and Christianity, Modernity with its rancid progeny and… mutant jihadist extremism.
 Washington Post, 18 May 2002