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Travel diary: A boys club in Landi Kotal

The Fata press club is a haven for the pensive mind; an escape for a nimble pen that fears losing to a mightier sword.
Updated 24 May, 2015 02:47pm

Towards the end of clumsily assembled shops in the Landi Kotal bazaar, a derelict door marks the opening of a tiny island.

Here, dreams take shape; ideas flourish and roll off frank, quicksilver tongues. Sweetened kahwa is generously served and savoured in pretty painted cups.

It is a haven for the restless, pensive mind; an escape for a nimble pen that fears losing the battle to a mightier sword.

The dusty marketplace is frequented by Afghan travelers en route to Peshawar, or locals looking for snacks and gifts. But the crumbling entrance leading to the one-room Landi Kotal press club is only used by journalists – always male.

I make my way up the steps wondering how I will be received. What am I doing here?

Earlier, we had had the good fortune of being stranded.

After an adventurous day spent driving from Peshawar to Torkham, we were ready to get home when we found the road back abruptly dug up by men from the Frontier Works Organisation.

It was a particularly dusty road in Khyber Agency, dwarfed by stony mountains – not an ideal spot to stretch and take some photographs, but I had stepped out of the car, while my companions thought of a way out.

I attempted to quickly snap a photo of a handsome khasadar youth sprawled on a rock, unaware of my presence as he posed for a selfie. Nearby, construction workers took a break to eat an orange ice-lolly in the heat.

Nothing to worry about, my fellow travelers – two jovial local journalists – had assured me. Help was on the way.

It arrived in the form of four khasadars from the nearby Michni checkpost where we had earlier stopped to take in the astounding bird’s eye view of Torkham.

These energetic Khyber Khasadar Force men removed the gravel to clear the route back to Peshawar.
These energetic Khyber Khasadar Force men removed the gravel to clear the route back to Peshawar.

The armour of the beaten Toyota Hilux they drove was nowhere near shining, but our knights came equipped with shovels and burly resolve to clear the route for us. They met with success.

The boys unite to give the car one big push.
The boys unite to give the car one big push.

Worn out from the wait and unforgiving sun, my companions insisted we break for a cool drink. And so we found ourselves climbing the steps to the wondrous world that is the tehsil headquarters’ press club.

“Landi Kotal is not a safe place, as you may know,” the club’s president Ali Shinwari says with a small smile as I walk in. “But journalists visit the press club regularly.”

The main ‘hall’ is a small carpeted room which hosts a daily 'baithak'. Bolster pillows and small cushions line the walls and a desk and chair set is stuffed into one busy corner. A wall-mounted flat screen TV relays the latest bulletin on an Urdu news channel. Sunlight streams in through two large windows, left open for ventilation in the suffocating heat.

We sink into the floor cushions and exchange pleasantries with the handful of journalists in the room. There are no women.

I am introduced as a visiting journalist from Karachi. Some of us shake hands.

“How are things there?” they ask. I blush before I speak. I think of Karachi’s frustrating survival against depressing odds; of Sabeen Mahmud’s murder, the attacks on teachers and minority communities. As usual, there is no good news to share.

“Things are the same,” I say.

Ali Shinwari laughs. It betrays his trepidation. “We know violence. It has destroyed thinking and freedom here.”

I ask if any women come to the press club.

It is difficult enough for men to report in Fata, he says. “There are hardly any women journalists here. You are the very first woman to visit our press club.”

We both smile.

Drinks are served by a lone staff member. The hosts insist I drink two tall glasses of pulpy fruit juice. It is ice cold, delicious and really just the perfect antidote to the afternoon heat. There is a small plate heaped with slices of marble cake and biscuits from the bazaar.

“There are many pressure groups who threaten us from time to time,” he says later. “Sometimes we make compromises. Sometimes we take risks. There are times when we remain silent. But I think things are getting better.”

Shinwari’s determination is rousing. The blood spatter on the proverbial wall from the killing of 14 tribal journalists and migration of several others does not deter the 35 registered members of this club.

“How do you carry on?” I ask. “What inspires you?”

He is frustrated by the abysmal state of the tribal belt. It is deprived and disgraced by the stigma of militancy and he hopes to tell the story of the real, everyday Fata. Of small victories and colossal symbolic leaps.

“Really, we are not bad people. But with bad policies and no rule of law, things become worse.”

His words are heartbreaking. But his burning conviction would bring a smile to the lips of the most steadfast cynic.

“We need support. We want our women to work like men.”

Days after I return to Karachi, he uploads to Facebook a photograph of my visit to his islet of hope. In it, we are holding up a gift presented to me on behalf of the Landi Kotal press club; a pink shalwar kameez suit with embroidery on the shirt front.

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Karachi based female journalist visits Landikotal Press Club. Nasir Dawar and Ali Akbar was also present on the...

Posted by Nasib Shah Shinwari on Tuesday, May 5, 2015
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Among the dozens of comments under the photo — most of them in Pashto, saying ‘welcome to our land’— two particularly stayed with me. “This means [sic] here’s peace. Fata’s voice can reach Karachi.”

In the days that follow, my friends from Landi Kotal post pictures nearly every day. Many of them are of a football match taking place at the Government Highschool Ground. The sidelines are demarcated by rows of spectators sitting in one large square on the loose, sandy bottom; an orderly sea of grey and white shalwar kameez. There are photographs of children and old men cheering for their teams; and a cheerful one of the victors.

It takes me back to their burning urgency to make Fata belong. To tell happy and sad stories that are not pegged to the war on terror.

This boys club in Landi Kotal is a drop in a savage ocean of tribulation. But, like Shinwari had said: A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.


The journey: In photos

A bus carries sleepy passengers back to Peshawar city.
A bus carries sleepy passengers back to Peshawar city.
Drivers rest under their monstrous trucks in the late evening, before they set out towards Torkham. These guys were happy to pose.
Drivers rest under their monstrous trucks in the late evening, before they set out towards Torkham. These guys were happy to pose.
Kids spend the afternoon playing with a slingshot.
Kids spend the afternoon playing with a slingshot.
On the drive back to Peshawar, I saw these children having a ball of time swimming in this tiny lake.
On the drive back to Peshawar, I saw these children having a ball of time swimming in this tiny lake.
A fiercely patriotic sign at Torkham border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
A fiercely patriotic sign at Torkham border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Michni checkpost, the last before the Pak-Afghan border, is a sight for sore eyes with it's beautiful garden.
The Michni checkpost, the last before the Pak-Afghan border, is a sight for sore eyes with it's beautiful garden.
Another view of the flora at Michni
Another view of the flora at Michni

Atika Rehman is the News Editor of Dawn.com. She is a travel buff and a foodie, who tweets @AtikaRehman.