Peshawar! The city of flowers! I became enamoured of this town when I first set foot on its sand-swept streets, over 30 odd years ago. In those days, PIA was the best airline in the world, teaching other airlines how to run an airline. Those were the days, government GTS blue buses would take you safely anywhere. There was an ambiance which thrilled a newcomer.
When I disembarked from a rickshaw on the wrong side of the street from the hotel I wanted to go, I was almost run down by a ‘speeding’ tonga. Reaching the other side, the hotel wallahs, lolling at the entrance, laughed good naturedly and ushered me inside. They were welcoming and wanted to know all about the ferangi who had come into their midst.
Where was the Old City, I asked. After being shown my room and partaking of chai on the house, I ventured out into the street. Opposite me was a regal mosque, the Sunri Masjid. A few tongas passed, a number of rickshaws and some rather battered trucks with colourful paintwork on their wooden sides, and buses adorned with sparkling tassels of metal hanging from the driver’s cabin. A small truck laden with school kids hanging on the back passed under my nose, belching oily black smoke.
I hailed one of the larger varieties of rickshaws and headed for the Old City. Passing the Dean’s Hotel, we went over a bridge, the sides of which were decorated with blue tiles. The hotel had looked attractive, and I promised myself I would stop by later and have something to eat there.
At the beginning of the Khyber Bazaar, I said farewell to the rickshaw and stepped into the throng of pedestrians. I was immediately enthralled by their colourful dresses. I saw only men, except when a car pulled up and a woman in a burqa got out and went into a shop. There were lungis as well as shalwar khameez and a wonderful variety of headgear. The Chitrali cap, flat, was worn by the men from Chitral; the Afghan from the mountains with turbans of every kind wound round the head with a big tail dangling down the shoulder.
I walked on to the famous Qissa Khwani Bazaar — the Storytellers’ market. I was enraptured. I had read all about the North-West Frontier and the ancient city of Peshawar, one of the longest inhabited cities (along with Damascus) in the world. It was everything I had read and dreamed about. The more I moved into the Old City, passing the chai shops, then the spice market and then on into the gold market and out into the Chowk Yadgar, the more I felt I was passing into a time warp. I had left the 20th century.
It is now 2013. What of the fabled city of Peshawar? Dean’s has long since gone and a monstrosity of a building has been built in its place. The blue tiles on the bridge are all but gone. PIA is a joke. The transportation in the city is a nightmare, compounded by the building of flyovers and army check posts. Famous parks are losing their beauty to encroachments. Flowers? I have them in my garden! I no longer wander the streets and alleyways of the Old City. Many of the wooden buildings are collapsing — no one cares. The Qissa Khwani Bazaar has become the bazaar of militants and bomb blasts.
Gor Kuttre has been prostituted with an illegal wedding hall, the British barracks have gone, the stables have been turned into handicraft shops, the Hindu temple has been restored with cement. Since the day, many years ago, I walked in and saw unbelievable chaos — bulldozers and other modern equipment, such as a cement mixer, piles of bricks and rubble — and could not make up my mind whether it was a demolition or a restoration site, I reckon that millions must have been spent on Gor Kuttree over the years, USAID, Unesco et al.
The Treasury hit the dust last year. A while back, the Landsdown cinema opposite Arbab Road, was demolished. What next? I hear that the 1,000-year-old tree outside the Muhafiz Khana, which I and a friend saved from demolition a few years back, by getting a stay order, has had most of its glorious branches cut.
The railway line, which goes on to the Khyber Pass, runs in front of my house, but it is many years since a train rumbled by, shaking the foundations of my rented house. Tourists used to ride that train. Now the tracks are all broken. Today, there is not a tourist to be seen in Peshawar.
Every day there is a sad tale of something being demolished or axed. Are we going to continue to be victims of the land mafia, the demolition mafia and corrupt politicians?