I wrote this feature in summer 2012 for the “Pakistan?” special issue of Critical Muslim.
On the Kuwait Airways flight from London to Islamabad, the unusually boorish flight crew handed us disembarkation cards that the government of Pakistan requires all international arrivals to fill. Besides our passport numbers, addresses and reason for visiting, the form asked if we had been to Africa or Latin America in the past week. The purpose of this question was unclear except perhaps as a means to boost national self-esteem: it implied that Pakistan was healthier than those two continents. With the only pen in my row, I helped five other passengers fill their forms.
At Islamabad’s decrepit Benazir Bhutto International Airport, I was pleasantly surprised to find the immigration staff making no undue effort to harass new arrivals. Former president Pervez Musharraf’s successful effort at gender-balancing has markedly improved the behaviour of male airport staff. After sailing through immigration and customs, I became conscious of the disembarkation card still in my hand. Not inclined to take chances, I asked an officer where to deposit it. He hadn’t a clue, nor did anyone else. Finally, a customs official took the card from my hand and helpfully threw it into a bin.
What is still known internationally as the Islamabad Airport is actually based in the city of Rawalpindi. As the historic Grand Trunk Road passes through its crowded precincts, its name changes twice—to Peshawar Road and The Mall. We drove North-West on the Peshawar Road, past the General Head Quarters (GHQ) of the Pakistan Army which in 1895 had served as the launching pad for the Malakand Field Force, the British colonial army’s counter-insurgency campaign against the recalcitrant frontier. The sanguine details of this campaign were preserved in vivid detail by a young Winston Churchill who was also serving as a correspondent for The Times. More recently, on 10 October 2009, the GHQ was the site of a bloody raid by a group of 10 militants who breached its defences and triggered a hostage crisis which ended with 9 soldiers, 2 civilians, and 9 assailants dead.
On Peshawar road, bearing down on us on both sides of the road, we encountered a procession of cars, lorries, carts, tongas, motorbikes and SUVs, with passengers hanging out of windows, standing on roofs, dancing and chanting. The merry crowd carried no banners, signs or placards to reveal the cause of their jubilation. It was 6 am.
Soon we were on the M1, heading west. If traffic in Pakistan thrives in a permanent state of exception, then the new 6-lane highways might be another country. The drive is smooth and uninterrupted, the traffic is light and rules are abided by. Should anyone fail to observe them, an honest and efficient Police force is always at hand to enforce them. The mystery of the motorway police’s incorruptibility lies in higher salaries and an independent inspectorate general which places greater emphasis on training and accountability.
On entering the Peshawar valley the hills far north and the Khattak hills in the south were visible. But on approaching the city, the Khyber hills beyond Peshawar were obscured by a sky smudged with thick smog. Peshawar, according to a 2011 Word Health Organization survey, has the world’s seventh highest levels of outdoor air pollution—twenty times higher than the WHO standard, nearly twice as high as Beijing. It has no thriving industry or Chinese-level development to show for it. The noise level is also significantly above the WHO limit of 85 decibels. Rickshaws have been blamed as one of the main causes. But as transport for the less well-off, they are easy to scapegoat. The city is congested with traffic and emission tests are still an alien concept. The air is further poisoned by the brick kilns that dot Pakistan’s landscape. The city is more crowded and less green than it was when I was growing up here.
Like the cinema billboards that adorn Pakistan’s busy streets, painted over with garish images of large women and furious men, the city is a palimpsest whose façade has been drawn and redrawn since its birth in the sixth century BCE. As a gateway to India, the valley has played host to conquerors throughout history who came through Khyber or Bajaur, lured by the riches of the Indus and the splendours of the Ganges further east. The Persian Achaemenids led by Darius; the Greeks, led by Alexander; the Mughals, led by Babar; the Afghans, led by Mahmud-e-Ghaznawi. Some conquerors also approached from the east; first the Hindus, later the Sikhs, and eventually the British. The city has been sacked many times and destroyed twice—by the Huns in the fifth century and the Sikhs in the nineteenth century.
It was under the Kushan monarch Kanishka, in the second century, that Purushapura—literally the ‘City of Man’—replaced Pushkalavati (modern day Charsadda) as the capital of Gandhara. The name eventually mutated into Peshawar. The Gandhara kingdom, which thrived for over two millennia, was eventually conquered by Mahmud of Ghazni in the 1021.
Peshawar, the oldest living city in South Asia, has developed in four phases which correspond to the city’s major settlements. The inner city—ander shehr—has been inhabited constantly since at least 539 BCE. People here mostly speak Hindko, which after Pashto is the region’s most widely spoken language—a language that also attests to the city’s Indo-Aryan origin. Hindko-speakers from the inner city have supplied some of Bollywood’s most celebrated screen talent. Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapur, Vinod Khanna: they were all born here. Shahrukh Khan, arguably India’s biggest film sensation, was born to Taj Mohammed Khan, an independence activist from Peshawar’s historic Qissa Khani (Story Teller) bazaar. The whole Kapur family, which has a long history in Bollywood cinema, traces its origins to the inner city. Peshawar also gave India one of its greatest English language novelists in Mulk Raj Anand.
Ander shehr is also home to Gorkathri, the most significant reminder of its Buddhist past. It once housed Buddha’s giant bowl and was pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Buddhists. Under Mughals, who ushered in the city’s next golden age, the site was turned into a caravanserai by the princess Jehan Ara, who also built a mosque inside the compound. The Mughals extended the Grand Trunk Road right up to Jamrud and built several magnificent gardens, including the Shalimar, Shahi, and Wazir Baghs (gardens), whose splendour left an impression on all visitors to the city. These gardens, alas, became a casualty of the city’s haphazard expansion. Images of Mughal grandeur today survive only in the distinct architecture and ornate interior of the Mahabat Khan mosque, named after the much-loved Afghan governor who had it built.
The city was later sacked and rebuilt by the Sikhs. Paolo Avitabile, the Italian mercenary whom the Sikhs appointed governor, made Gorkhatri his residence. Avitabile enclosed the city in a wall overseen by the citadel of Balahisar. The sturdy fort survives today as the headquarters of the Frontier Corp, a federal paramilitary force recruited mostly from tribal pashtuns; but the wall has since been overlaid by new construction. In recent years the local government has made an effort to rebuild some of the sixteen gates that once punctuated the wall. Despite their absence, however, the gates remained firmly as geographical references in the city’s memory. As kids growing up, we would buy crickets bats near Kohati gate, have iced molasses near Sarki gate, walk past the Kabuli gate for the famous sweetmeats of Qissa Khani—the old story-tellers market—without ever wondering where the actual gates were.
The city’s second settlement and its first major expansion came with the arrival of the British, who built a cantonment on a plain to the west to house their garrisons. This is the only part of the city that shows signs of planning. The roads here are wide and the single-storied houses are elegantly built; there is plenty of greenery and very little of the ubiquitous litter that defiles the rest of Peshawar. It is a sad comment on the post-colonial rule in Pakistan that some of city’s most enduring institutions and infrastructure—the Edwardes College; the Lady Reading hospital; the Karachi-to-Khyber railway; the extensive irrigation canals—were all built under British colonial rule, some over a century ago. But as in other places, His Majesty’s government also left a sanguine legacy of repression and massacres, the most infamous of which happened when a gathering of Bacha Khan’s Gandhian red-shirts was gunned down at Qissa Khani in 1930.
The third phase of development began after partition with the founding of the Peshawar University in 1950. The university rose around the nucleus of the Islamia College, an institution which was built by the frontier’s conservative elements with the help of the British authorities in part to countervail the anti-colonial influence of the Aligarh University. According to its founding Committee, the aim of its Oriental faculty was ‘to turn out mullahs…with their whole nature permeated with devotion and loyalty to the British crown, a duty which is ordained by our religion in its true spirit and light.’
In 1953, authorities began developing the University Town, a residential area to the east of the university campus, in a location separated from the cantonment by the city’s main airport. The Town is a leafy neighbourhood whose handsome, single-storied homes line wide and well-maintained streets. It was conceived as an abode for the intellectual elite of the city, an aim which has fallen by the wayside. During the 1980s, it came close to resembling Kipling’s fantastic image of Peshawar with international aid organizations, Afghan mujahideen factions, Western intelligence agencies, and arms and drugs smugglers often living in close proximity. Al Qa’ida leader Usama Bin Laden had his abode at 61 Jamaluddin Afghani Road. It was near what is now called Iqra Chowk that in 1989 his mentor Abdullah Azzam was assassinated. A one-time professor at a Saudi University, the Palestinian Azzam had devoted his life to the cause of jihad, inspiring many to join the Afghan resistance with his impassioned sermons. With his moderating influence gone, Bin Laden would come under the influence of the ruthless Egyptian ideologues, led by Ayman al Zawahiri, who persuaded him of the takfiri justifications for mass murder.
Peshawar’s most recent development is the suburb of Hayatabad, a township built to the west of the city abutting the semi-autonomous Khyber agency. Over the past two decades, the suburb has developed in seven phases, creeping closer and closer to the tribal region. The remoter regions of the township are today frequent targets of retaliatory rocket fire from the adjoining conflict zone. Phase 6, the neighbourhood closest to the Khyber hills, was attacked almost daily during the month I was there. Even Phase 1, which is nearer the city, is often hit by rockets. The insecurity has also created a law and order vacuum which is frequently exploited by kidnappers. Kidnapping for ransom is now widespread and has turned into a key source of funding for militants operating in tribal battle zones. Minorities, particularly the region’s remaining Sikhs, are most vulnerable; but even the vice chancellor of the Islamia College University, Professor Ajmal Khan, a grandson of the iconic Pashtun nationalist Bacha Khan, could not escape abduction.
The violence that once besieged the city has declined somewhat in the past three years, especially since Pakistan banned NATO supplies through its territory. But a low-intensity conflict still continues in and around the edges of the city. Bombings and assassinations continued apace throughout my stay. Just in the first six days of my arrival on May 13, there were two roadside bombs, two assassinations, several rocket attacks, an attempt to shoot down a passenger plane, and two car bombings. And so it went.
Being and Nothingness
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. It is exacerbated further by soaring inflation which has remained in double-digits since 2008—it is second only to Vietnam in Asia. Prices of some commodities are comparable to those in Britain. Bananas are cheaper at Sainsbury’s in Leicester.
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 once Peshawar 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, and 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, and rely on the generosity of strangers to 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 could sometimes be a blessing. Traditional cultures can be 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, the only place you can find solitude is often 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.
Eros and Thanatos
On Shama Chowk, at the western limit of the old British cantonment, the GT Road veers right toward the Khyber hills in the west and assumes the name Jamrud Road. The roundabout was once decorated with a life-sized model of a Shaheen medium-range ballistic missile, since replaced by a modest memorial to those who fell defending the American consulate nearby. The heavily fortified consulate sits on a street which approaches the roundabout from the left. In 2009, when I was last here, the compound was protected by three layers of security, including concrete barriers, two armoured personnel carriers, and a sandbagged guard post. Through the aperture you could see the anxious faces of young soldiers whose notion of duty did not include serving as human shields for the representatives of an overbearing ally. Across the front of the post was draped a black banner emblazoned with the shahada—the Muslim affirmation of faith. It was a pathetic attempt to signal to would be assailants that their attack would only kill coreligionists. All of this proved insufficient when in 5 April 2010, the consulate came under a ferocious coordinated attack which killed many, none of them Americans.
I turn into the Circular Lane, heading towards University Town, pass the old Alliance Francaise compound on my right, turn left at the intersection and proceed down Park Road for a couple of hundred meters to arrive at Coffee Pot, a new establishment. There have been western style fast food joints, restaurants and takeaways in Peshawar, but never a café. I am there to meet a friend: a young woman. When we were at the Peshawar University, it was possible to visit the more traditional university cafeteria with female classmates. Meeting an unaccompanied girl in public however was quite uncommon and would invite assumptions of an amorous tryst. But my friend assures me that times have changed: the best way to avoid undue suspicion, she tells me, is to meet openly in a very public place. Hence the location.
The café follows a standard western layout, featuring a coffee bar, an espresso machine, and liveried barristas behind the counter. There is a variety of seating options. The menu could have come from Costa or Starbucks. Prices are only marginally lower. This is not a place for the average Peshawari. But what strikes you most is the curious location of the café. It sits almost in the middle of what used to be the old Ladies Club tennis courts. My friend mentions in passing some litigation over the location, but the conversation moves on.
Later I learn that one of the ministers in the provincial government has used his authority to lease out the Ladies Club premises for 33 years for an absurdly low price (less than £4,000). Inevitably, the beneficiary is a close relative. But in doing so, the minister has also sparked a historic development: he has spawned a militant women’s movement which has braved threats and defamation to hold frequent public demonstrations against the usurpation. The campaign to save the Ladies Club has since been joined by environmental NGOs and a host of civil society groups. The press is sympathetic; so are the denizens of University Town.
The expropriation of the Ladies Club is not an isolated event. The historic Shahi Bagh—the King’s Garden—had also been built over in a similar fashion. The ruling Awami National Party, unlike the Islamists who preceded them, are treating their five years in power as an extended opportunity to seize patronage from the state and distribute it to their supporters. The Bilour clan, an old hindko-speaking merchant family, which is allegedly implicated in this scam, also has the distinction of being the sole manager of Peshawar’s repressed libidos. They own the Shama Cinema, the only theatre which has tended to the city’s need for onanistic satisfaction with a steady diet of hardcore porn.
Peshawar’s highly segregated society presents few opportunities for romance. Young people as a result develop highly charged notions of love long before they find objects to project them on. Love is over-determined by years of reverie—the object of love becomes secondary. The value of a romance is affirmed by the number of barriers society places in its way. First encounters in this respect prove fateful. In most instances love never suffers contacts with reality. But a premature experience of romance which goes awry could leave lasting scars. Perfidy has wrecked more than a few lives in Peshawar. One young woman, whose first experience of romance resulted in pregnancy and abortion before she suffered the further indignity of abandonment, turned to lechery. A man, whose first encounter also ended in betrayal, went the other way, and adopted a life of celibate seclusion. There were more than a few suicides. Some found solace in drugs.
Many young men adopt a personal posture of celibacy against temptations that aren’t there while hawkishly guarding others against pleasures they are themselves denied. But stories of the moral police relenting on virtue to submit to occasional temptation are legion. One militant of the Jamiat-e-Talaba (the fascistic youth wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami party), who used to terrorized the co-ed Peshawar University campus in an attempt to enforce segregation, shaved his beard and eased into a pair of jeans at the first flutter of a wayward maiden’s lashes. His example was followed by many others in the virtue police.
A significant minority sees no reason to let its public performance of modesty determine private behaviour. Dating in Peshawar is a dangerous business—you can lose your life. When the usual pleasures of dating are combined with the added thrill of adventure, the temptation to transgress is high. The young man who vaults over walls and braves guard-dogs to make a tryst expects, or is often rewarded by, an equally daring leap over the walls of traditional morality by his partner. Repression is successful for the most part in tempering desires, but it also has the adverse effect of launching some into perversity. Love in Peshawar exists in a purely ideal or a highly eroticized form. With the arrival of satellite television and increasing western influence, the trend is increasingly toward the latter.
For many youths repressed desires only find expression in ribald homo-erotic banter. Homosexuality, as in all traditional cultures, is disdained. But the attitude toward pederasty is curiously relaxed in some places. What separates the two is the obvious power relation: homosexuality compromises masculinity in a manner that pederasty, with its clearer distinction of paramount and subordinate actors, does not. It is therefore not uncommon for a Khan or a man of stature to keep a boy without suffering the kind of social sanction that would attend a sexual relation with someone his own age. Instances of child abuse are frightfully high–children of the poor and vulnerable are often easy prey.
Marriage in Peshawar, in most instances, is a transaction. Of all the considerations that go into traditional matchmaking, love isn’t one. The instances of romantic unions are still rare enough to carry a separate, hyphenated label: ‘love-marriage’. The union is as much between families as it is between individuals. The families are usually a closer match than the couple. Perfectly matched individuals on the other hand are denied union because of differences between families. Families, for understandable reasons, like to go with the familiar. For all their radical pretension, men for the most part are curiously conformist when it comes to domestic convention. Libertine lifestyles are quickly abandoned once the boy is called on by parents to man up and marry a cousin.
It is still uncommon for individuals to marry outside clan. But as the old landed aristocracy is eclipsed by the urban bourgeoisie, marriages between them are becoming more common. The transactional purpose of these unions is made more explicit as one trades its wealth for the other’s prestige. Marriages between classes, however, are still rare and inevitably lead to conflict. Between ethnic groups they are rarer still. Rivalries often turn murderous. Two young men from my home town, Chitral—a place known for the gentleness and good looks of its people—were brutally killed in Peshawar over the past year by jealous rivals and outraged clansmen.
Marriages also place onerous demands on families who have to conduct them with sufficient pomp and ceremony or risk losing face. Burdened with its class anxieties the middle class is particularly vulnerable to pressure. People are forever stretching their means in an unrewarding quest for respectability in a society grown ever more materialist. In the 1990s, the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif placed a ban on excessive spending at weddings, which for many was a welcome relief. It gave cover to those with the means for only a modest ceremony. Invoking the Islamic tradition of austerity is another way out for respectable families with limited means to avoid extravagant expenses. Dowries, thankfully, were never as big an issue in the North West as they are in the regions where Hindu influence is greater.
Hope and Despair
On the Mall, inside the cantonment, I see a curious sight one morning. People are queuing up for a chance to secure a work visa to Afghanistan. With Pakistan’s economic doldrums, prospects look better next door where foreign aid dollars are circulating freely. The dihari—day-wage—for a labourer in Pakistan currently stands at Rs. 300. In Afghanistan a labourer can earn up to Rs. 600. Rustam Shah Mohmand, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Kabul, later told me that there were over 70,000 Pakistanis registered to work in Afghanistan. The actual number is likely higher. In the queue I meet people who have come from as far afield as Punjab.
In a country where most people have to rely on an informal economy for survival, if you have the means to get yourself a job you are also able to maintain it. The social capital which ensures Pakistan’s survival also impedes its progress. Except for the more dynamic sections of the private sector, all institutions prioritize relationships over qualification. In hiring, you are who you know—more so in Peshawar than anywhere else in Pakistan. This naturally leads to a brain drain which pushes the country’s best minds into seeking employment elsewhere. It also accounts for the low premium that the country places on educational attainment. Intellectual achievements give you far less of a cache than your possessions.
Pakistan has very few public intellectuals. Peshawar’s last one, the great archaeologist, historian and linguist Ahmed Hasan Dani, passed away in 2009. This void has generally been filled by poets who, unlike in the West, where poetry has retreated into the academy, still have an audience. The illustrious tradition that began in the seventeenth century with the subversive versifying of the warrior-poet Khushal Khan Khattak and the mystical reveries of Rahman Baba has been carried into the present day by the likes of Ameer Hamza Shinwari, Ghani Khan, Qalandar Momand and Sherzaman Taizi. Pashtun nationalism is a common theme running through all their works. The contradictions between romantic tenderness and masculine assertion, between the parochial and universal; the balance between pastoral motifs and a warrior ethos, between spiritual ruminations and a pagan literalism, give to this poetry a character that make it the frontier analogue of what has been called ‘Caldedonian Antisyzygy’, the duelling contradictions of Scottish literature.
The popular tradition of poetry notwithstanding, Peshawar, like the rest of Pakistan, lacks a reading culture. The literate are not always educated. Libraries are few and far between. Book events are rare; the only one I attended was at the Khana-e-Farhang-e-Iran—the Iranian Cultural Centre. The British Council Library scaled down its operations immediately after the Cold War; the American Cultural Centre first closed its library and later its whole operation. Bookshops, to the extent that they existed, are vanishing. Other than the many sellers of used books, there were only two that sold a wide enough range of material, including both foreign and domestic titles. The bigger—Saeed Book Bank—closed down and moved to Islamabad. Even when it was around, it charged cover prices in British or American currency, putting most of its books beyond the reach of the average reader. Books, as a result, were reduced to a mark of status; they could be seen neatly arranged behind glass panels in the homes of educated arrivistes, showing little signs of wear. Their content would rarely make it into a dinnertime conversation. The once strong oral tradition of story-telling has also receded into the margins.
The confinement mandated by a highly segregated society means, however, that women have more opportunities to read then men. As a result, the degree of literacy among women has always been higher. Men are not confined to homes; but are oppressed all the same by the realization of how little there is to do with their freedom. Many have sought escape in drugs, some in sports, a few in the arts. Others have left.
Soil and Soul
In the early hours of May 27, I arrived back at the crumbling edifice that is the Benazir Bhutto International Airport. As I waited in the gloomy departure lounge, the place went pitch dark. The country’s main international airport wasn’t spared a blackout.
Power outages are plunging much of the country into darkness each night but the cuts aren’t indiscriminate. In the military enclave of Peshawar’s cantonment where I stayed for two weeks, power cuts were rare. Areas of major cities not under military control on the other hand are experiencing up to 18 hour blackouts. Dams, clogged with silt, are operating below capacity. Electricity theft is alarmingly high and revenue collection very poor. The state is even unable to provide basic safety gear. One line man was electrocuted across the street from where I was staying; his body laid hanging from the pylon for over an hour. Pakistan’s rulers suffer from a perennial failure of imagination. Places which have given up on the state are actually faring better. In Chitral, for example, people on their own initiative have started small hydropower projects which provide reliable electricity at a fraction of the usual cost.
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 shouting after us. We turned around to find the girl 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.