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On The Afghan-Pakistan Border, A Daily Echo Of British Colonial Bureaucracy

Postal clerk Gohar Zaman says his antique steel stamps are better than modern rubber ones.

Postal clerk Gohar Zaman says his antique steel stamps are better than modern rubber ones.

LANDI KOTAL, Pakistan -- When Great Britain was at the height of its global power, its proudest denizens were fond of bragging that they inhabited an "empire on which the sun never sets."

The dreams of those ambitious imperialists died long ago, but they might crack a smile today if they could meet Gohar Zaman, a postal clerk in a dusty mountain settlement perched on the very edge of Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan. There, in the town of Landi Kotal, the British crown's legacy lives on in a few basic signs of government authority: the stamping tools that Zaman uses to keep the mail running every day.

Zaman, who conducts his work at a cracked wooden desk, shows off the array of colonial-era stamps he uses to sort and classify the mail. He says the old stamping tools, fashioned out of steel, are much more durable than newer stamps made of rubber.

"For different types of mail, there are different types of stamps. One stamp is for the date. Another one is an oblong stamp. A third one is the 'wrong' stamp," Zaman says.

"The oblong stamp goes on money orders. We change the digits on the oblong stamp. There is the 'name' stamp, where the name of Landi Kotal is impressed. And then the round stamp, where the month is mentioned."

Gohar Zaman shows off the tools of his trade.

Gohar Zaman shows off the tools of his trade.

The stamps are perhaps the last functioning physical legacy of the town's colonial past. Nestled high in the Hindu Kush Mountains, Landi Kotal sits atop the Khyber Pass, a storied route traversed by conquerors from Alexander the Great to Tamerlane to Babur, the Muslim founder of India's Mughal Empire.

On The Khyber Pass

On the Durand Line, which marked the western limit of the British Raj, Landi Kotal was a vulnerable frontier outpost in the 19th and 20th centuries. The 1909 edition of "The Imperial Gazetteer of India" identified the settlement as "the westernmost point on [the Khyber Pass] occupied by the British Government," and noted an 1897 attack from local Afridi Pashtun tribesmen, who succeeded in overrunning the post.

Landi Kotal's defenders were a contingent of militia fighters from the Khyber Rifles, themselves recruited from among the Afridi. Today the Khyber Rifles, part of Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps, are responsible for combating Taliban insurgents across Pakistan's northwest tribal regions.

Until recently, Landi Kotal maintained a tangible connection to the Raj in the form of the Khyber Pass Railway. The route, completed by imperial engineers in 1925, linked Landi Kotal to Peshawar and the rail network connecting all of British India. Steam engines continued to ferry passengers on the three-hour journey from Peshawar to Landi Kotal well into the 21st century. But flooding during the 2008 monsoon season knocked out a key bridge along the route, bringing the Khyber Pass Railway to a halt.

Landi Kotal's postal-stamping tools have held up better. Nevertheless, locals like Ahmad Nabi say that the post office is overdue for an upgrade. "In these modern times, we need fast mail," he says. "We need modern facilities, and there ought to be a computer here."

But postmaster Moazzam Shah believes that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. He claims not to need any snazzy new office toys, and insists that his office is able to make do with the tools they have.

"We don't have a computerized system so far, but we haven't received any complaints about the old system," Shah says. "People receive their mail just fine now. We're getting along well with the old way."

Written by RFE/RL correspondent Charles Dameron, based on reporting by Radio Mashaal correspondent Farhad Shinwari in Landi Kotal. Translations provided by Radio Mahaal correspondent Daud Khattak