The first time I flew into this city it was like entering a place straight out of the Middle Ages. On my flight from Karachi to Peshawar I rode a Russian-made and crewed airliner along with many Pashtuns in their native shalwar kameez, some of them carrying bundles of clothes on sticks in lieu of a suitcase. Upon landing, I took a brief tour of the city past narrow streets, centuries-old bazaars, walled forts and old architectural designs on wood and brick houses – all of which evoked memories of a distant past.
I visited Peshawar several times from 1998 to 2003 and was immediately drawn in a strange way to the frontier city and its remarkable people. Like the Khyber Pass whose eastern end is located nearby, Peshawar has a colorful past. Founded more than 2,000 years ago, it is one of the oldest cities in the region encompassing Central and South Asia. The city’s location has turned it into an important trade center and its strategic position on the crossroads between Central and South Asia meant that many an invading army would come its way. Consequently, the city of bazaars and forts would endure successive invasions from Persians, Greeks, Bactrians, Turks, Mughals, Afghans, Marathas, Sikhs and the British.
Peshawar is known for its historic bazaars such as the famous Qissa Khawani Bazaar. But even the recent history of the Qissa Khawani Bazaar is not spared from violence; in 1930 British troops gunned down 400 demonstrators here. And in the 1980s Peshawar witnessed rampant street violence as a proxy war broke out between Soviet agents and US CIA-backed mujahedeen. These days the city is affected by the ongoing struggle between Taliban extremists, moderates, liberals and nationalists. Several suicide bombings, including that at a school inside a military compound, have occurred in recent years.
Despite rapid growth and development many examples of old architecture remain. Brick and wooden houses with elaborately carved designs on doors and balconies may be seen everywhere. Peshawar used to be a walled city with a citadel and 16 gates. The walls are practically gone but some of the gates have managed to survive. Historic landmarks include the Bala Hisar Fort, the aforementioned Qissa Khawani Bazaar, various mosques displaying intricate décor and the Clock Tower.
Mosques make up the vast majority of religious structures here, of course, but I was mildly surprised to see Christian church buildings, many of them built during the British colonial era.
But probably the one feature of Peshawar that continues to conjure images of that city to me is the wheeling and dealing nature of the majority Pashtun population as evidenced by the city’s numerous bazaars. These sell a variety of souvenir items such as traditional carpets, pottery and artwork in wood, brass and semi-precious stones.
I also encountered a trader who invited me over for tea at his place and offered some pretty interesting items for sale – including Soviet military paraphernalia such as insignia, uniforms, binoculars, and trench periscopes. I did not bother to ask where he got them. He probably had guns for sale that he would have pulled out had I asked for them. (I ended up buying a pakol or Chitrali woolen cap that I gave as a gift to a friend in the Philippines who had Punjabi features.) My Pakistani friends later told me that the trader’s gesture of inviting me upstairs to his place meant he considered me a special person. I also found out that there is a thriving gun-making industry in the tribal areas; the Pashtuns had been copying and manufacturing guns for centuries.
And the food! As fans of South Asian food, Nina and I have come to enjoy Pashtun food. It has similarities to Persian and Indian (specifically Punjabi) cuisine so it wasn’t hard for me to enjoy anything set in front of me. My most unforgettable dining experience was sitting down on the ground with some town elders for a meal in Mardan, a city just north of Peshawar. The curried lamb was excellent although I would have preferred sweet to salty lassi that these locals usually drink. I also thought that their version of naan was a bit too thick for me but I thoroughly enjoyed their biryani – actually an Afghan lamb biryani that included nuts and raisins.
I still dream of going back to Peshawar and the Khyber Pass. For years I have also been longing to see the Swat Valley and the alpine regions north of Peshawar in the Hindu Kush which I believe is a tourist paradise waiting to be discovered. Alas the problem continues to be the peace and order situation with the presence of militants in the area, even though the Pakistani military has re-established control in the region. We can only pray the situation improves not just for us but for the future of the local populace.