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Peshawar: The City That Was

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It is no more a secret that Pakistan is facing a Taliban insurgency. Except the southern parts of Pakistan, all other areas have become the targets of terrorist attacks. North West Frontier Province (NWFP) is the worst affected as most of its inhabitants share their ethnicity with the Taliban i.e. Pashtuns. Sharing borders with Afghanistan and home to almost-autonomous tribal areas, NWFP is nothing short of a war- torn country.

Peshawar is the capital of NWFP and the city that is seeing an unabated flurry of terrorist attacks. In fact, it has become a daily feature and government authorities are not doing anything to contain them. The semi-armed police cannot take on the Taliban threat and some unseen hands in the Pakistani security establishment are not eager to call armed forces into this region. At the end of the day, it is the ordinary citizens of Peshawar that are suffering from this criminal negligence.

This piece, however, is not related to the current security situation in Peshawar. It is an ode to a city that has seen millenniums of chaos and prosperity but has remained resilient and booming. Peshawar is as old as they come with its historical origins rooted in the evolution of Silk Road and invasion by Alexander the Great. The Purushapura of the Buddhists is bleeding profusely.

I would not go into the centuries of historical perspectives as people are no longer interested in bygone eras. Until only a decade ago, Peshawar was the cultural hub of Pashtuns, both Pakistanis and Afghans. Although the Taliban were controlling Kabul, Pakistani areas were safer. Pakistani intelligence agencies were supporting the Taliban and so was the Pakistani government. This lull before the storm provided great cultural and entertainment opportunities in Peshawar.

There were regular sessions of music and dance at the local theaters. Pushtu movie industry, on the other hand, was going strong. Interestingly, Pushtu films were almost always based on making heroes out of villains and quite gory in their outlook -- with a liberal dose of skin show. Peshawar was also known for its gastronomic delights. Beef 'Tikka' was the most popular cuisine followed by "Chappal Kebabs" (spicy minced beef with onions, tomatoes and herbs).

Apart from the cuisine, everything has been in tatters in Peshawar. It all started when President Musharraf entered an alliance with the Taliban and their interlocutors i.e. Islamist parties. He and other military agencies, especially ISI, saw to it that all major Afghan Taliban factions are secured in the havens in Pakistani tribal areas.

He maneuvered the 2002 Pakistan elections to help Islamist parties gain strong foothold in NWFP and Baluchistan. It was a ploy to welcome pro-Taliban elements in government along the border regions with Afghanistan. As soon as the Islamist parties came into power, they banned music, sprayed black paint over hoardings that displayed women and put an end to the cultural and theatrical performances. This proved to be a turning point for the centuries old Pashtun culture of music, dance and performance art.

The worst blow was to woman rights as they were effectively barred from education, health and other facilities. Education was not banned like the Taliban rule but there were enough unseen roadblocks that many women teachers ultimately decided to stay at home. This badly affected women education in that region.

Islamist parties took a beating in the 2008 national elections and a moderate government was set up in NWFP. There were high hopes of a resurgence of Pashtun culture but the genie of terrorism emerged from the bottle of Pakistani intelligence agencies.

They were nursing the Taliban for decades and it was now a payback time. Taliban insurgency in Swat and tribal areas spread to other parts of NWFP. As always, women became their first target and they started blowing up women schools and colleges. Entertainment came next with slaying of singers and dancers and burning/bombing of video rental shops. Hundreds of professional singers and dancers have fled the region or have stopped their activities. Video rental stores still offer video rentals of Indian movies but in a hush-hush manner. They advertise themselves as selling Islamic DVD and keep the stack of movies hidden in the secret chambers of their stores. Even the famous Peshawar museum -- with hundreds of Buddhist artifacts, is not really accessible for public.

As of now, Peshawar and other cities of NWFP bear a deserted look. Peshawar, in particular, has become a city of death. I recently visited the famous Qissa Khawani market of Peshawar that was the hub of traveling caravans for centuries. They used to sit in the open lounges of tea vendors (Pashtun version of street cafes) and narrate their stories. Although telephone and other means of communication had already sealed their fate years ago; there were many story tellers in this area. Now, the whole area is devoid of any activity. Tea vendors have closed their shops due to low patronage and there are no story tellers. There is not even any typical hullabaloo that is associated with a major market of a cosmopolitan city.

A local press report said that only one business has flourished in Peshawar in recent years i.e. of coffin makers. They are doing roaring business and are striving hard to meet the high demands. So that is the fate of Peshawar for now; a city of coffins. There is still a hope of recovery as the citizens of Peshawar, known as Peshawaris, are resilient and can tackle the Taliban. This, however, is not possible as long as elements of the Pakistani security establishment continue propping them up and Islamist parties charge ahead with their message of intolerance.