PESHAWAR, Pakistan – At the entrance to Peshawar, a young man on the side of the road offers a prayer, while on the bridge overhead three men videotape him.
They could be friends in Peshawar for the first time, perhaps from a nearby village. But that isn't my first thought.
My first thought is, maybe he is a suicide bomber setting off on a mission.
I make a mental note of his appearance — maybe 5 feet, eight inches, brownish-beige shalwar kameez, mustache, no beard, maybe 20 years old, maybe younger. They say most suicide bombers are 18- and 19-year-olds, poor, disaffected.
I decide to quietly, gently roll down my window, just an inch, thinking that if there's an explosion — from the young lad I just saw or any number of other directions — the opening will reduce the effect of the concussion. It could perhaps prevent the windows from shattering into deadly shards, unless of course the explosion is right next to the car, and then I guess it doesn't matter.
It has been 22 years since I lived in Peshawar, a city of one million people close to the border of Afghanistan. In the early morning traffic, noisy diesel-belching rickshaws weave past screeching buses with people hanging off the side. Horns blare as cars bump up against horse-drawn carts straining under the weight of half a dozen people crammed onto a seat made for three.
But what strikes me most is the palpable fear that now hangs over the city.
The Taliban insurgency is spreading from the wild, ungoverned border region close to Afghanistan into urban Pakistan. Peshawar, the commercial and cultural hub of the frontier province, is on the front line. Some say it is under siege. It has that feel to it.
Bit by bit the militants are creeping farther into Pakistan. Last month they dumped the headless body of a police officer on the road to Peshawar. This month they blew up a mosque frequented by security men who stood guard at a post across the street. The men had just knelt in prayer when the bomb ripped through the building and killed dozens.
That's how they start, with the police and the security officers. Then they go after the people — the businessmen, the musicians, the teachers and children in the schools.
Just last week, a powerful bomb flattened 30 shops on the edge of Peshawar. The owners of theaters and music shops have received letters warning them to close or be destroyed.
Even former friends are frightened. One former Taliban from a small gunmaking town barely 20 miles from Peshawar says he is terrified of his one-time colleagues.
"I don't mind being blown up, but it's the beheadings that scare me," he says. "And no one, not the police, no one can stop them."
Women who used to wear large shawls now rarely emerge without the all-enveloping burqa. Musicians have fled. Schools have been blown up, and young men roam the Peshawar University campus to harass girls seeking education.
In a posh neighborhood of Hayatabad, an Iranian diplomat was kidnapped and the Afghan ambassador-elect taken by armed men. Residents are under self-imposed lockdown after dark. Belligerent young men from nearby religious schools knock on doors at prayer time, telling people to go to the mosque.
Peshawar's people used to be the most hospitable around — they would stop you on the street and invite you into their homes for tea. It doesn't happen today. Foreigners are targeted, and that makes locals nervous to be around them.
Peshawar has always been linked to Afghanistan through trails in the mountains that run like a jagged spine between the two countries. When I first came here in 1986, the trails were used by Afghan mujahedeen fighting the Soviet Red Army that had invaded their country. Then, Russia was the Soviet Union and the mujahedeen were Cold War heroes, helped by U.S. money.
In those days, heavily armed, praying young men, their Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders, weren't looked on with suspicion and fear. No, they were seen with admiration and even a little romanticism, because they were fighting the good fight.
The enemy was the communist Russians. The friends — or, as President Ronald Reagan liked to call them, the freedom fighters — were the religious young men taking up arms. The sight of them praying five times a day was a comforting image, a symbol of a battle between holy warriors and godless communists.
Not any more.
The bearded men with guns have become a nightmare, and now their prayer is a reminder of the terror they are willing to inflict in the name of their harsh brand of Islam.
My thoughts return to the young man praying on the outskirts of Peshawar, his clothes covered in dust from a nearby construction site. And I think, my, how times have changed.