QUETTA: Despite being wracked by violence, Quetta remains famous for its hospitality. Back in the day, it also used to be famous for peace – but gone are those days when that was the city’s claim to fame.
In fact, religious, tribal and political norms used to be a source of protection for the most vulnerable sections of society. Quetta’s strong tribal traditions prevented minorities like Hindus and Christians from being targeted.
But now, a contradiction has emerged – In the shadow of violence, tolerance now lurks in the background: still existent, but in pockets. Because women still enjoy freedom and protection for example, minorities are turning to women and using them as protectors while traveling to sensitive parts of the city.
Quetta is surrounded by mountains, which form a natural ‘fort’ – the name of the city itself originates from Kwatta, meaning fort in Pashto. To the north lies Zarghoon Mountain, Murdar in the East, Chiltan in the South and Takatu in the West. The urban centre is multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic. For centuries, Quetta housed people of all ethnicities, religions and sects with an open heart.
Despite the unrest and bloodshed, people try to find happiness where they can. Recently, Basant was celebrated – proof of citizens’ courage in efforts to bury sorrows and hatred. From grandson to grandfather, everyone participated in the kite-flying. Shutter down strikes continue, yet people come out and go to picnic spots on the eve of such strikes.
Despite these strands of resilience, Quetta’s natural beauty and vibrant culture has been overshadowed by suicide attacks, target killings and violence.
It started in the 1980s, when the CIA-backed Mujahideen (today’s terrorists) were harbored and protected here. The mercenaries not only brought weapons here, but they also introduced the curse of narcotics. Now, the most sparsely populated province of the country has become a corridor for drug smugglers.
Picnicking in the shadow of check posts
Ordinary citizens of Quetta are aware of the contradictions they live with. “Security forces’ check posts have surrounded picnic points everywhere,” says Dr. Irfan Tareen, who has been practicing medicine for the last 25 years. He adds that the closure of several roads for security reasons means it’s difficult to move around the city.
Tareen points out that every Friday, a crowd gathers at Ayub Stadium and Sadiq Shaheed Park to dance to the beat of drums. Meanwhile, markets, hotels and shopping centres remain packed with people.Baldia Hotel, an old meeting place in Quetta, still hosts a crowd of academics, politicians and literary figures. Located opposite a district court constructed during the colonial era, Baldia Hotel is always packed.
Here, Khalid Noorzai, a well-known photographer, sips and cup of tea and explains how the hotel provides an opportunity to meet with different people. “Here, everyone speaks about politics”, Noorzai says. “You can see all the old comrades here,” he adds.
Seasoned politicians like Khan Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai, Mir Ghous Bizenjo and other politicians would come here to talk shop. Without doubt, political awareness remains high in Balochistan.
Politics, nature, and festivals aside, there’s always food. Quetta’s famous for mutton roast in Kuchlak, and Lehri Sajji is always packed with people eager to have their version of the traditional Balochi dish.
Not too long ago, these were the things that kept Quetta in the limelight – its culture, its vibrancy. While a handful of people have tried to distort that image, many citizens in the violence-stricken society try to hold on to, and actively take part in the Quetta they once knew.