In Peshawar no one walks as a potential victim. It must be part of human nature to never imagine oneself in the day’s plane crash or car wreck. Death always seems escapable; not so the burden of existence. The astronomical rise in the cost of living is putting a visible strain on most people. Inflation has remained in double-digits since 2008, second only to Vietnam in Asia. Prices of some commodities are comparable to those in Britain. Bananas are cheaper at Sainsbury’s in London.
The free flow of dollars in Afghanistan has created a further distortion, raising prices and emptying markets of commodities which are flowing freely across the border. Smuggling is rife. According to Sayad Waqar Husain of the Institute of Management Sciences, with 141 transit points along the Durand Line, and with dysfunctional customs regulation, there are now 133 illegal markets in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) alone where trade in non-custom paid goods is booming. Property prices have also risen and rents are high. Real estate prices amplified by inflation are making people invest in the only commodity which is likely to keep its price. With an exploding population, accommodation is always scarce and buyers always at hand.
Although Pakistan’s cumulative birth rate has declined in recent years, the fertility rate in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is still the country’s highest. In 1809, when the first British envoy to Kabul Monstuart Elphinstone visited the city, it had a population of about 100,000. Following the Sikh conquest in 1832, the number fell to 80,000, dwindling further to 63,079 by 1891. After independence, however, the population began to increase steadily reaching 109,715 in 1951, and 166,273 by 1961. But by 2010, the number had shot up to 3,625,000. This figure very likely excludes the large number of unregistered Afghan refugees who at one time numbered in the millions. All of this places an enormous strain on the city’s resources. Water, which had always been abundant, is now scarce. The city’s sanitation system is overwhelmed—it is impossible to escape the vague odour of raw sewage in most parts of the city. Where oncePeshawar dazzled visitors with its verdure, today it is permanently covered under a coat of dust; the varieties of flowers which were eulogized by everyone from Babar to Elphinstone have today receded into private enclosures.
But unlike others in adverse circumstances, Pashtuns never reconcile themselves to what fate has assigned them. Pride is both their blessing and their curse. It keeps them from being overwhelmed by adversity; but it often also impedes their progress out of it. It gives the society an irreverence that disposes it to egalitarianism; but it also instils a vanity that consumes it with maintaining appearances. People in the region are given to grandiose gestures. These impulsive attempts at gaining the respect of peers often drive people of modest means into penury. Like the impoverished protagonist of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s No One Writes to the Colonel, determined to uphold his dignity amid dwindling means, the burden of a man’s pride is inevitably born by the wife and children.
Possession marks the distance between being and nothingness as far as life opportunities go. Amid a crumbling economy, without a social security net, there are those whose lives are so diminished that survival is their only concern. These shards of human debris crawl along streets, lurk about the bazaars, go door to door, rummage through refuse, with the only hope that the kindness of strangers will see them through another day. Henry Byroade, the US ambassador to Pakistan from 1973-77, once described these shiftless ambulators as ‘bipeds’. The inheritors of this attitude today regard this tableau of misery with equal disdain as they zoom past in their imported SUVs.
You can’t be a person of any consequence and be seen on foot. The quickest way to lose peoples’ interest in Peshawar, in effect to become invisible, is to walk. This can sometimes be a blessing. Traditional cultures are notoriously claustrophobic. Less due to physical space—though space is often a factor—than to the oppressive presence of a society which is forever disciplining, restraining, and confining individuals in its mind-forged manacles. You are assigned a role and your life is reduced to a performance. To be yourself, to escape its onerous expectation, you have to be anonymous. Like Baudelaire’s poet, you can only find solitude in crowds. Peshawar is too big for the comfort and security of community, but not big enough for the freedom and opportunity of anonymity. Anonymity has to be manufactured. And one way of doing it is by walking.
Peshawar is Pakistan in a microcosm. The public infrastructure is crumbling as more and more wealth is squirreled away into gated communities of extraordinary opulence. Notions of civic responsibility are hard to cultivate when the state is dysfunctional and services poor. This absence of civic consciousness is particularly evident in people’s liberal attitude toward littering: there are few streets which aren’t strewn with plastic bags, soda cans, empty bottles, pizza boxes, food wrappings, and other filth. It is also evident in the crumbling public transport system. Railway tracks are frequently stripped by thieves for scrap metal. The Khyber Steam Safari—a train which crossed 34 tunnels and 92 bridges on its short scenic journey from Peshawar to Landi Kotal—was once a major tourist attraction. Today the two 1920-vintage steam engines have little track to roll on. A recent visitor to Dara Adam Khel’s famous weapons market told me that after he purchased a hand gun, the seller congratulated him on his choice. The gun, he said, was made from ‘hundred per cent track metal’.
But Peshawar is not all pain. It has a grace and nobility which lend it an enduring magnetism. Shortly before lift-off, I was visited by a memory from the summer of 1997. A friend and I were walking down Peshawar’s Saddar Bazaar when we were approached by a little girl, no more than eight years of age. She was offering to sell us balloons. My friend bought one and gave her money for two. The girl refused to take the extra money. My friend insisted and we walked on. We had barely gone a few steps when we heard the child shout after us. We turned around to find her running away. Before leaving she had tied a second balloon to a railing near us.
Underneath Peshawar’s rigid structures, amid the tyrannical traditions, despite the social disintegration, there exist traces of a community whose dignity, hospitality, generosity, irreverence, humour, compassion and grace under pressure remain matchless. In Peshawar, friendships are real and courtesies backed by genuine sentiment. Its culture prizes self-sacrifice and community service—qualities that have given the city resilience despite decades of neglect. Had there been a government interested in genuine nation-building, it would have tapped into this as a civic resource. But until now, Peshawar has lacked a civil society, or elective affinities based around issues and ideas rather than class, clan, or party affiliation. The space for political engagement was limited, monopolized by Pakistan’s visionless political parties. There were no causes to join, no forums for meeting likeminded people. But this is gradually changing. Pakistan’s rambunctious new satellite channels, for all their flaws, are broadening the scope of political activity. Blowback from an unpopular war in Afghanistan has further shaken people out of political torpor. People are more politically aware and a civil society is finally emerging. The women’s movement around the Ladies Club is serving as a nucleus. The city is being reclaimed. Peshawar is in poor shape, but it is a city in transition. It will rise again.