I leave Kamra (*) in Punjab at 7pm in a rickety old bus without air-conditioning. A pleasant wind rushes through the open windows: the late summer evening has mercifully sucked the humidity out of it. People who can’t afford air-conditioned transportation escape the infernal elements by travelling at night. And the passengers are mostly a destitute lot. When a man in the seat in front gets up I notice that his sādr — a cotton shawl used by Pakhtun men variously as a turban, windbreaker or bedspread — covers the long rip running down the back of his kameez. Next to that rip is an older tear crudely stitched together.
In two hours we are in Peshawar. For a third of each day the city has no electricity. It’s lights out as we arrive. I get off a stop early and decide to walk — though I have been advised against walking in western clothes outside the city centre. A pharmaceutical company salesman was killed a short while back for arriving at a hospital wearing pants, shirt and tie. But I feel safe despite my hiking outfit, backpack and sandals: I haven’t been in Peshawar long enough to think of it as anything but the city I grew up in. Wetook our safety for granted.
It’s dark along the sidewalk. To my right, on the farther side of the road, the transformer on a pylon erupts into a blue, luminous flame. The glow lingers before sputtering out with a few dying gasps – yet another district plunged into darkness. Ahead on the pavement five men lie asleep in a column, oblivious to the deafening roar of the Grand Trunk Road’s traffic. They have arranged their sādrs neatly as bed sheets. The odd symmetry is only broken by the missing right leg of the third figure. I draw inquiring stares, but with a few words of Pushto, apprehensions ease all round. People don’t fear or dislike foreigners; they just don’t like standing next to them in case they become collateral casualties in the war against what is seen as the creeping colonisation of their country. Blackwater, the US private military corporation, is said to be in town, and that angers many. (A house next to my friend’s in University Town, an affluent quarter of the city, is now rented by a US security firm, possibly Blackwater).
Call it globalisation. Peshawar has assumed the aspect of any major conurbation in the developing world. Ubiquitous poverty lies juxtaposed with gaudy displays of new wealth. The strain between the two is somewhat eased by a new proliferation of gadgetry: fancy cell phones are brandished by everyone from the street urchin to the feudal scion. To be poor in Peshawar is harder than it is in the rural towns where the old traditions of hospitality and charity still obtain. In the urban centres it may be a rat race, but in the countryside compassion survives.
In my hometown Chitral — the northernmost district of Malakand and once a key outpost in the imperial Great Game — they still don’t have a word for beggar. They call them mustafer, which is Khowār for “traveller”. In the old days people would often travel the lengths of the expansive valleys with little in the way of resources, relying instead on the generosity of strangers for food and shelter. Economic conditions may have dampened the wanderlust, but the same principle prevails when it comes to the treatment of the needy. And so it remains, too, in the rest of the Northwest Frontier. It prevented the displacement of nearly 3 million residents of the Malakand from turning into the catastrophe that it might easily have been during the Pakistani military’s recent operation in the region. Eighty percent of the Internally Displaced Persons (90% according to some estimates) were absorbed by families and well-wishers regionally. Punjab and Sindh, on the other hand, denied them entry.
As I arrive in Hayatabad, the vast suburban sprawl to the west of Peshawar, I choose not to push my luck, though I’m told it is safer today than it was last year. But the new military operation in the Khyber Agency is already drawing retaliatory attacks on the district. Kidnappings in Peshawar were rampant: 180 were reported in the first few months of 2009 alone. My appearance could make me a potential quarry. While waiting for a cab I meet two young Afghans who, it turns out, live in my own neighbourhood. I invite them along. They tell me they are leaving for Afghanistan in November after 16 years living here. It is now safe in Laghman where they are originally from, they say — safer than Peshawar, anyway.
(*) On a dry plane a few miles from the Indus, Kamra was once a sanctuary for bandits and criminals who would retreat to the Kala Chitta hills after their exploits. During WWII the RAF established a base here around which the Pakistani Airforce later built a garrison town which today houses its large aeronautical complex.