The last time I was in Peshawar was a year ago, but I barely remember anything about that trip since it was work based.
Yesterday though, I had to go to Peshawar from my best friend’s walima. The trip felt very different, perhaps because I was in more than a pensive mood. One of my best friend’s was getting married – how could I not be in some sort of a mood?
Anyway, on the motorway it didn’t take me long to realize why I (or many others) legitimately find KPK (almost typed NWFP there) to be the most gorgeous province in the country. Once you got past Charsadda, and with the mountains of Swat teetering into view, you couldn’t help but be left stunned at the sheer natural beauty of it all. Sure, it was evening and a slight mist was descending, shaping halos around the trees by the side of the motorway – but still. Everything seemed perfect. It wasn’t overblown; you weren’t gasping, for example. It was just subtle and serene. There was a calmness in place, one that this province and its peoples hadn’t seen in quite a while.
Yet, just as I was coming to grips with how I felt warm at the sight of this province, the car got off the motorway and headed towards Peshawar. And that’s when it all crumbled and fell.
My dad’s a pathan, and during the 90s I visited Peshawar a fair bit with him. His village, Mashokhel, is about 15 minutes from Peshawar, just off the Kabul river (a river whose been very violent to us – there used to be just one road leading into the village and a healthy Kabul river would flow all over it. We’ve twice almost had our car taken away by it)
In ’98, my family moved to Peshawar and I joined up with them two years later. I knew Peshawar from 1998 – 2004, and that place has many memories for me; most of them quite pleasant.
Peshawar, as a whole, will probably never change. University Road will likely always remain central to the city’s plans, and Saddar will always remain the city’s big shopping hub. Hayatabad too, will be Peshawar’s Defence/DHA. But, as tautological as it is to say, the Peshawar circa 2004 is widely different from the Peshawar of today.
Peshawar’s now ovewhelmed with traffic. It’s a city not built for the population that currently resides in it. Swelled to the ranks because of Afghan refugees and IDPs, Peshawar’s bursting at the seams. Though it’s no longer as conservative as it was when the MMA were being the tubthumpers they are, Peshawar’s still a long away from the relative freedom one could enjoy around 2000/2001. Business though is booming – there are lots of new restaurants and lots of new cafes. At least Peshawar’s youth are struggling to earn back the city that is rightfully theirs. No city should belong to bearded old men.
New, monstrous plazas have crept up next to old ones. Where there were houses with outer walls full of bougainvillea, now there are concrete monstrosities selling clothes and mobile phones. Roads are being widened, which in a city like Peshawar is hardly a solution for the ages. Flyovers, even, are being built. And all this while ignoring the elephant in the room: barricades and checkpoints. That side of Peshawar perhaps is best summed up by the fortress that is the road which leads to the American Consulate.
But then again, cities change. They’re living, breathing organisms – hardly immune to the machinations of its citizens or the politics around it. Lahore’s another city that’s changed considerably since I left, but Lahore still seems to be able to breathe more. Peshawar though has become a nightmare. It’s claustrophobic, dirty, polluted. It’s overwhelming, and not in a good way.
But hey, at least Namak Mandi’s legitimately back on the map.