A lot of people have asked me, in Pakistan and elsewhere, why we don’t leave Peshawar and live somewhere else. After all it does make all the “most dangerous places on earth” lists.
So, what do we Pathans see in this city, now blown up by countless bombs and torn in the world’s war against terrorism?
For someone new to the city, for someone travelling through it, I can just imagine what they must see. A ghost of a city that once was. Broken buildings, uneven roads, frequent blackouts and severe traffic jams. To the casual visitor, maybe the only boasts of the city would be the famous Peshawar University, a legacy of the British and the Qilla Bala-Hisar, the fortress with a history dating back to the eleventh century.
But, despite all of its shortcomings, this city has a strong pull on its inhabitants. And once you have lived there, wherever you may have come from, you would not want to live anywhere else.
When I went back to Peshawar after a year last summer, I realised just how much fighting someone else’s war had aged my beloved city. Living there all my life, I had been oblivious to the incremental changes.
But let me tell you, Peshawar was not always like this. It was called the city of flowers since the 1500s, the time of the Mughals. Almost all Pashto songs, old and new, say something about its flowers. My favourite one being about a woman waiting for her beloved to come back to her, thinking that he will bring back a black qameez and fresh flowers from Peshawar.
Irfan Khan, a Pashto singer, says in one of his songs, when our women want a gift from their loved ones, they ask them to bring them a few flowers from Peshawar.
Flowers were the mark of my city, even as recent as my childhood. I can remember the sweet smell lingering in the lazy summer air. I remember my father taking us to Rose Garden almost every afternoon. Our parents would walk around the garden while my siblings and I would play around the rose bushes, running after fireflies and capturing them in jars which we would put on our nightstands at night.
It is strange though, that the city should have so much greenery and flowers. It hardly ever rains there. But we do have magical water there. (Anyone who has ever been to Peshawar will agree with me. The water does wonders for your hair too).
Though all of that is gone now, we Pashtuns still have not gotten over our love for flowers. There will always be a garden in everyone’s home, rich or poor. If someone has a house too small for a garden, they will have various sized, multi-coloured pots for flowers, some even growing plants in used bottles.
Even to this day, watering ones gardens and flowers in the afternoons, as soon as the sun prepares to set, is a tradition that everyone in the city follows. Take a stroll around the city any afternoon and you will see men with hoses proudly watering their gardens.
It was a city of poets. Of men and women who had loved too much and then lost. They poured their hearts out in poems for the world to see their love. Pashto, the language of the province of Pakhtunkhwa, is still spoken with a tint of poetry. People talk in deep metaphors and quote verses from poems in everyday conversations.
Pashto poetry, when coupled with the surreal, enchanting tunes of the Rubab have the ability to transform a person into a trance. I myself have been listening to the same Pashto song for two months now and I still cannot get over the lyrics.
The inhabitants of this city, the Pathans, are also a unique people. These proud, rugged people have so much love in them. Their only two rules: honour and love.
They have always been dubbed with names like ‘warrior’ and described as ‘lawless’ and ‘fierce’. I don’t know how truly those words describe Pathans, but I do know this: you can buy any Pathan’s loyalty, love and protection with one simple act- by calling him a brother. You do that and these seemingly harsh and brutal people will love, help and protect you for life.
We are a simple, uncomplicated people really. I mean how uncomplicated do you have to be to announce your love for food and meat to the world by having one whole, large market for tikkas only. The namak mandi has been developing from just a few restaurants to now 2000 families running it…and all of them selling tikkas!
To whichever end of the world a Pathan goes, he will always yearn for and return for those tikkas, myself included. Whatever peaks a Pathan reaches, he will always love sitting cross legged on the floor eating those tikkas.
You will not find a people more hospitable than the Pathans. Take a stroll down any market or mall. When its dinner or lunch time, the shop owners will invite you to eat with them. If it is not time for a meal, they will insist on serving you tea.
For instance, take the Qissa Khwani bazaar, the ‘market of story tellers’. It was dubbed the Piccadilly of Central Asia by Peshawar’s British Commissioner, Herbert Edwards. I do not know how that market got its name, but if I had to name it today, I would name it just that: the market of story tellers. Here you will find shop owners always nursing a cup of green tea. They are ever ready to offer you a cup too and while you are making your purchase will talk to you like you are an old friend.
The people have managed to keep their spirits up despite the dangers of everyday. The biggest testament to that: the very gaily coloured vehicles. It is something everyone should see. Peshawar roads are strewn with gaily decorated trucks and buses with thousands of trinkets and intricate beautiful paintings. They are amazing pieces of art really.
I don’t know if Peshawar is really a special place or if it is only so to its people. I just know that I, as with all those who live there, love this beautiful, simple and wounded city with all my heart.
With every bomb blast and every drop of blood shed in the city, my heart weeps a sea of tears. And like every Pathan living there, I will never let Peshawar go. I will help it with all I have. I know I don’t have much else to offer, just my writing. So I will endeavour to tell the story of this misunderstood, forgotten city of flowers.