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A writer from Peshawar imagines a visit to the city by Orhan Pamuk to his city

He stands by the window, drawn to the persistent mewing of the neighbourhood cats in heat that kept him up all night long. It is an imaginary space he occupies, in someone’s head. That makes him uncomfortable. He is used to living in his own imagination.

“The cats here don’t sleep,” he yawns. “I am afraid I will fall asleep at the dinner tonight, so tired am I.”

“You could sleep for a few hours,” I say. The words echo silently in my head, causing quiet ripples in the air between us. Of course, they don’t. It is just the way I see them. “There is a lot of time to rest before we drive to the restaurant.”

“But I want to see the city,” Orhan Pamuk turns away from the window. “There must be more to it than just bad news from the borderlands. We even have a national figure in Turkey who came from Peshawar. He fought at Gallipoli against the British Imperial Navy, alongside the Ottoman army. He was Turkey’s Ambassador to Afghanistan under Kemal Ataturk.”

“I didn’t know about Attaur Rehman Peshawari until the Turkish president told us about him,” I say, joining Pamuk at the window. Outside, a cat looks up at us from the floor below, its ears pricked up by our voices. It issues a pathetic cry, mewling for a mate. The cry is almost human, a bereft, inconsolable howl of anguish.

It is afternoon and clouds, like an eye with a cataract, blot out the sun. I take Pamuk out for a walk in the old city. I like taking my friends around Peshawar. It has been years I stopped loving this place, especially since its face and form were mangled by a rapid transit project born out of populist pandering rather than any sense of public convenience and aesthetics.

I still take Pamuk out, avoiding roads clogged by unwieldy traffic that the BRT is meant to manage, hoping I can learn to love the city again if I see it from his eyes. My eyes tear up – not with sorrow at the state of the city but because of the dust, smoke and fumes. Looking at the pedestrians with clinical masks, one would think of the pandemic. But air pollution came here long before the coronavirus did.

We go to Sethi Mohallah hoping we can meet someone who knew the Samdani family that Attaur Rehman Peshawari belonged to. Peshawari was born here in the 1880s, more than a hundred years ago.

“How come no one knew of Peshawari until recently?” asks Pamuk.

“That’s your history, not ours,” says a voice in my head. Out loud, I say: “He was never a part of our history books. Peshawari left here when we were a part of United India. That is a history we would rather not own, so we are made to study it selectively. We are fed that staple so we ‘select’ rulers who perpetuate that ‘selective’ history. We don’t know Peshawari but everyone here knows the Taliban who are making history by driving the US out of Afghanistan.”

“What’s the connection?” asks Pamuk, looking at me as if I have gone soft in the head.

“The books that create enemies and teach war propaganda,” I try to explain. “I don’t know why Peshawari went to Turkey but the Anadolu news agency that he worked for as a journalist says he was ‘motivated by high Islamic ideals’. He was not the only one, apparently. Many Muslims who were fed the jihadist literature published in Germany – wartime rival to the British – and circulated among the Muslims in India, left to join the Ottoman army. The US took a page out of that book when, in the ’80s, the Afghan Mujahideen were raised on propaganda textbooks for jihad against the Soviets.”

We walk, Pamuk and I, to the street in Qissa Khawani where the publishers are. The printing businesses that once published books preaching jihad now print wedding cards and business brochures. We sit in a chaikhana to have Peshawari qahwa.

The air in the street is filled with smoke and the aroma of barbecued meat. Across the street, an old man in a shop as ancient as him, is busy cleaning gemstones. One by one, he takes them out from behind the glass counter and blows on them, as one does to spectacles to clean them. He rubs them to a sparkle with a piece of cloth.

“Peshawari became the ambassador to Afghanistan, as will the Taliban who claim to represent Pashtuns in the border regions, once given a stake in power in that country,” I say as we drink our tea. “In popular imagination, the Pashtun will always have the face of a Talib, a man who left here to fight someone else’s war abroad. What’s lost from this narrative is that both the Ottoman empire and Afghanistan eventually crumbled, despite what missionaries from here did by way of what you could call jihad or terrorism – depending on your position and interest at a given time. An assembly line of missionaries that goes back a hundred years, men indoctrinated and trained to fight for others, is something we cannot take pride in. They are not my heroes, nor do they define my identity.”

“I still don’t get it,” Pamuk looks up at the pigeons fluttering above the rooftops of crumbling old houses as we leave the chaikhana. “Who are your heroes then?”

I take him out of the street and stop at a monument to the martyrs of the 1930 massacre in the bazaar. This is where Abdul Ghafar Khan’s unarmed Khudai Khidmatgars were gunned down in the hundreds by an army made up of Indians. They were demonstrating against the British Indian government for freedom.

We stand and look at the monument to the unsung heroes. “I know who our heroes are,” I say. “For one thing, they are organic, not imposed on people. But in our books they are vilified as ‘seditious’ individuals, not heroes. Spaces and platforms for narratives and debates to reclaim their rightful place are crushed, and voices silenced.”

“And in the absence of such narratives, you will only have heroes that are not?” asks Pamuk.

“Worse,” I say. “It allows space for a polity and policy that perpetuate conflict to create and venerate the villains.”

In the courtyard of Gorgatri, the Mughal era caravanserai, city folks are lazing around in the sun. It seems like the first day of spring, warm after the rains. Little black ants are boiling out of their holes, moving manically with a sense of newfound purpose. They go up the walls, stopping briefly to exchange silent greetings with fellow ants, tentatively feeling each other’s faces with curious antennae like a blind man’s touch, before marching on in file.

“This could be a great venue for a literature festival,” says Pamuk, who was in Lahore in February to attend the annual literature festival there. Inside Gorgatri, one only hears the humming absence of the city outside, its din muffled by the thick, tall boundary walls.

“In the ten years since the first literature festival was launched in Pakistan, we haven’t had a single one here in Peshawar,” I say. “There are festivals aplenty in Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad – there was even one in Quetta last year – but never here. This year alone, Lahore has seen more literary events than the rest of Pakistan put together.”

“Why is that?” asks an amazed Pamuk. “There is so much history and culture in this city. I would love to come here to speak, as would others, I am sure.”

“Let me explain it this way,” I say, pulling at my lower lip in an effort to understand this myself as I try to make him understand. “A columnist in Dawn said of the recent Lahore Literary Festival, where you were a guest of honour alongside William Dalrymple, that ‘paradise was there, it was there.’ A paradise for the literati, musicians, artists. Litfests, think fests, art biennales, adabi melas, children’s lit fests, Lahooti melo, Karachi Literature Festival, Islamabad Literature Festival… Now Unesco has designated Lahore as a City of Literature. The columnist wrote: ‘No city in Pakistan though could offer a more receptive, hospitable womb than Lahore to an unborn laureate.’”

“I would say he is right, judging from the interest of people in that city,” says Pamuk.

“Of course! But if Lahore or Karachi or Islamabad are ‘receptive, hospitable wombs’ for writers, how do we know Quetta isn’t?” I ask. “How do we know if there aren’t any litfests in Peshawar but only attacks on artists, their faces blackened on billboards, and schools burned? If litfests are an idea of paradise, then someone’s clearly not doing much about this region turning to hell.”

“Are you suggesting that the region’s turmoil is by design, that someone is out to keep it on the boil?” he asks, eyebrows knitted in bewilderment behind that thick pair of glasses.

“I am only saying that if there aren’t platforms to discuss art, ideas and literature, minds stay closed to thinking and open to indoctrination. They stay open to pitching ‘Us’ against ‘Them’, fighting wars that are not ours.”

“Literature and litfests are not just about ourselves,” says Pamuk. “They need to be balanced with others’ identities and learning about the humanity of others.”

“Exactly,” I say. “But can you imagine a literature festival discussing the role of Bacha Khan and Manzoor Pashteen in Peshawar, or Akbar Bugti and Abdul Samad Khan in Quetta, GM Syed in Sindh or Baba Jan in Gilgit-Baltistan? If you or Dalrymple were really to come to Peshawar or Quetta or GB for a litfest instead of just visiting in my imagination, trust me, you would need a visa.”

We are distracted by a blue-backed horsefly that has blundered into the basement of the Archives Library in the city and now cannot find a way out. It bangs its head against the window-panes. It raises an infernal din with its incessant buzzing, swooping like a drone above our heads.

Light from the windows weakly penetrates the shadows in the library. Except for a few students immersed in research, the basement is mostly empty. I take out a hardbound copy of My Name is Red from a shelf. It hasn’t been issued in a long time. Neither has Snow, another novel by Pamuk. Since he is here, I suggest to the librarian that maybe he should get Pamuk’s books signed by the author. The librarian scrambles off to bring a pen.

“If you don’t have a literature festival, what do the literary types do here?” asks Pamuk.

I position myself to attack an approaching horsefly, a folded newspaper held aloft to hit it with. I miss. My head swivels on my neck every which way to keep up with the chaotic pattern of its flight.

“They go to Islamabad when it is time to attend the ILF or do this…,” I wave the newspaper at Pamuk.

Bewildered, he asks: “Do what?”

“Swat at flies.”

This article first appeared on Dawn.

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