An uptick in terrorism again: family members grieve after a suicide attack at a Shia Mosque on March 5, 2022 | White Star


Aurangzaib Khan ruminates upon the unrelenting quagmire Pakistan, and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in particular, finds itself in.
Published January 8, 2023

Round and round the park they go, looking for a place to park the car. The ‘Central Park’ is hardly that, merely a walking track around a circular market with franchise cafes, eateries, fake ferns and plastic palms.

Already his host is showing signs of frustration. Her daughter in the front seat insists they go swimming, even when the mother explains the pool is closed for maintenance. The girl agrees to go for a walk with the proviso she will have an ice cream shake afterwards. That promise extracted, could she also have a burger at the fast food franchise since it is right here?

His phone buzzes. Ihsan is calling from Peshawar. “Where are you?” his friend wants to know.

“Islamabad. Here for the weekend.”

“Want to go to Waziristan on Friday? The Wazirs and Dawars have set aside historical tribal differences to protest against targeted killings in Waziristan together.”

Aurangzaib Khan ruminates upon the unrelenting quagmire Pakistan, and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in particular, finds itself in. When ugliness is constant, how do people react? Have the constant fear, consumerism and apathy turned those of its citizens most affected numb to the brutal realities facing the region?

“I am stuck here for a couple of days,” he says.

“I have to take the kids to participate in the tribal parlat [sit-in]. Been doing that every weekend for the last 45 days.”

“What’s the response been from the authorities?”

“The usual,” Ihsan’s tone turns cynical. “Hollow promises to disperse crowds and reopen roads closed due to protests. It is the only choice left to us to force an indifferent state to respond to our security needs. Earlier we knew our enemy, now our killers disappear into the shadows.”

Ihsan is speaking of the time before the tribal areas were ‘merged’, before the state assumed its responsibility for security, law and order.

Later, he follows his host into the park. Her little girl, overweight and unhappy she has to walk several rounds of the park, drags her feet petulantly behind. A band of youths lounge in chairs outside a café, under a pall of smoke that smells like hash. Nose wrinkled, his host touches her ears for divine forgiveness and mutters: Kya ho gya hai aaj kal kay bachon ko? [What has happened to the youth of today?]

Her question stirs up words from a song. “Too bad people say, what’s wrong with the kids today; I’ll tell you right now they got nothing to lose, they are building another empire.”

He looks around at the families walking in the park; children skating in a special enclosed space, gliding over the smooth concrete floor. Wide roads and orderly traffic. With the song come to mind snatches of something else from Jane Austen’s letters: “How horrible it is to have so many people killed! And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!”

A real-estate empire where people, despite their constitutional and universal rights, know not who is out to harm them.

Earlier we knew who our enemy was, now our killers disappear into the shadows.


Military operations in the former Fata regions may have to be beefed up again: soldiers patrol in Bajaur | White Star
Military operations in the former Fata regions may have to be beefed up again: soldiers patrol in Bajaur | White Star

Desi is derisible. Desi lacks class, it lacks cool. Desi comes with a baggage — it is the kitchen odour permeating the air of your home, that spice of family love, the acrid green scent of patriotism from an ivy which can either be safe or poisonous. Desi implies freedom, but there is a way of conceiving freedom that is bondage.

When he suggests they go out to have chaat, Salar wrinkles his nose. The boy slumps deeper into the recliner in reluctance, all curves and angles, a discarded marionette.

“What would you have then?” he indulges the child, knowing if there is one argument against indulgence, it is this ten-year-old immersed in Call of Duty: Black Ops II — the digital war game. His stress over the tense, bloody battle dripping on to his T-shirt as he chews the spittle-soaked neck anxiously, and distractedly while playing.

“Hell-lo! I said……what would…… you…… rather have then?” he repeats, stretching words into a singsong question when Salar ignores him.

No reply. The boy is consumed by the combat. The immediacy of its death-dealing losses and self-affirming victories negate the world. A total submersion of mind and body against everything else. Against life itself, including the maddening urge to go feed or relieve himself.

Disgusted, he gives up on the boy and this ploy to go out for desi food, to leave the house and the screen in the hope it might get Salar curious about the world outside — like the people eating gol-gappas at the dahi bhallay wallah’s shop on Arbab Road. The hope that perhaps he might find himself amidst the thrust of all that teeming life out there.

Stuck-to-the-screen-Salar! If ever he comes willingly unstuck from the TV or computer, it is to harass his mother into ordering junk food online. Meals at home are unappetising to a palette shaped by peer pressure inherent in the youth subculture of instant wish-fulfillment, delivered by corporate franchise genies summoned through handy apps.

When not stuffing his face with the greasy contents of a delivery box, he is glued to war games or culinary videos, where coarse-tongued kids pretend to be heirs to the legacy of Gordon Ramsay, potential Michelin chefs in the making.

Growing jowly for want of exercise, from consuming calorie-packed meals promoted on video-sharing platforms, he plays war with friends who, like him, take on the avatars of armed-to-the-teeth marines hunting terrorists in urban Pakistan. All this while chomping on takeaway tacos.

Here’s Salar and his friends, screeching urgent battle manoeuvres into headphones, trading their best years for the ghoulish glow of gaming and mindless YouTube videos. Pawns driven by the invisible hand in the global marketplace, curated for youth preferences and the appetites it shapes.

Here’s Salar and his friends, doing their bit to help build the Empire.

When he grows up, the boy wants to be a chef. His next-door friend Farhan, obese and diabetic, is a YouTuber. Meanwhile, there are trophies to win, blood to let, bounties to collect and takeaways to order amidst this battle right here in the living room.

Desi doesn’t figure anywhere there.

They go down the residential street off the Mall Road, the one that leads to Saddar Road. It’s like entering a shrine, this street. One built by a family. Posters bearing pictures of a son slain in the Army Public School (APS) massacre. Anguished poetry on the walls, over a life’s promise cut short.


Adam Zameenzad’s The Thirteenth House
Adam Zameenzad’s The Thirteenth House

Monday. The forecast is for rain. Low skies, the air heavy with humidity. It burns in his lungs. He coughs with an ominous rattle.

“You alright?” asks Manzoor, patting him on the back.

“My chest — can’t get enough air,” he tells his friend. “A walk may do us good. Want to come along?”

They go down the residential street off the Mall Road, the one that leads to Saddar Road. It’s like entering a shrine, this street. One built by a family. Posters bearing pictures of a son slain in the Army Public School (APS) massacre. Anguished poetry on the walls, over a life’s promise cut short.

And like a shrine, the street is always illuminated, bright against the blue gloaming, as if to prevent grief’s shadows from climbing up the walls, to dispel the gloom and the ghosts that haunt the street.

“Why would anyone enshrine grief and let it chip away at their grain every day?” muses Manzoor.

He shrugs his shoulders. Once he was curious how people lived with grief in these parts; now all he wanted was to take in the bright lights. God knows there is enough grief in this country, this region, not to stand guard against. To live here is to cohabit with grief’s serpent, coiled at one’s core, waiting to strike, ready to take away the will to live.

All he knows is that all these years the boy had stayed the child he was the day he died, his memory a persistence of the agony of that day, frozen here in pictures and posters. A trauma trapped in time and space, with no hope for release, none for closure. The boy — and 134 others — lost in a horrific re-enactment of Beslan here in the heart of the city, will not grow up to have a life, a story.

But the story of APS is the story of all of us, our collective precariousness. Of lives and potential cut and curtailed; from continent to continent, the sense of an oncoming sickness. Quietly, he considers the brewing militancy, the war that looms always; considers this freedom that is death.

Hidden among the eyesores of nondescript streets and shops are glimpses of the beautiful crumbling face of Peshawar, as it once was. They come upon one alive with the cries of children playing around sacrificial animals, tethered to pegs in a compound with old houses.

He snaps pictures for a friend who once lived here. A man with the pallor of a day-sleeper, suspicious as we all are now, asks why they are here. When he names his childhood friend, the man remembers him from long ago.

“For better pictures, come back in daylight,” says the man.

At the far end stands an abandoned house, grand and contemplative in its aloofness from the rest of the street. In the grainy twilight, it looks grey with age. Faded.

“I would love to see it from the inside,” he tells the day-sleeper, now a relaxed and willing guide.

“Nobody lives there. It is haunted.”

“A haunted house!” exclaims Manzoor, suddenly excited. “I would like to do a vlog on it.”

“Perhaps you should,” he says. Thinking of the family that has put up pictures of their son in their street and of December 16 — when authorities display images of the APS ‘martyrs’ on roads in callous disregard of the pain of inconsolable families — he adds, “But should you do one, remember there are many haunted houses in this city.”


Participants mark the anniversary of the APS attack in Peshawar | White Star
Participants mark the anniversary of the APS attack in Peshawar | White Star

In the morning, news arrives that the government has an award for Saghar Siddiqui, the poet who died miserable on the streets of Lahore. It took the rulers 48 years since Saghar’s death to recognise his genius.

“The couplet of his which everyone knows,” nods Manzoor, as he recites “Zindagii jabr-e-musalsal is tarah kati hai..” The precise words of the second line evade him somehow, like the incomplete puzzle that is Saghar’s life.

Independence Day approaches, but Arbab Road is deserted. No shoppers to attend to, clerks look out idly from empty shops. Is it the heat or the economic depression keeping people away? Even chairs at the dahi bhalay walah, something of an awami spot, gather dust out in the clearing next to the old building that once housed the London Book Company and Capital Cinema — another two landmarks with origins in the pre-Partition history of Peshawar, no more. Curtains drawn on them without so much as a whimper of mourning or protest from anyone.

Years ago, at London Books, he had found Adam Zameenzad’s The Thirteenth House. A lament for Pakistan during the grim 1980s, with the country under a dictator’s stifling shadow. The cursed Thirteenth House an allegory for a country where religious bigotry and superstition thwart the destinies of millions in a predatory political milieu. Citizens hounded by the persistent curse of a scheming triad known to all.

Anxiety tugs at his heart. The face of the ill-fated child in Zameenzad’s book takes on the liking of another he loves. The pampered, protected Salar in his living room, lost in the game, blissfully ignorant of the games played around him.

Like children rooted out by militancy and military operations, could he live in a camp for the displaced? Spectral like the silently accusing ghosts of APS in poster frames, generations lost to never-ending conflicts in a region where the past persists to haunt the present, to poison the future.

The force of the novel’s hindsight, dulled by years, is renewed in all its crippling intensity by a news story soon after Eid. A father slays a 4-year-old daughter, thinking she is not his legitimate child. And another, where a person who went missing at 26 returns home at 40, the best years of life erased.

He is still turning over Saghar’s couplet in his mind when Manzoor remembers he promised his son a T-shirt with the Pakistan flag printed on it. Citrusy air-freshener, with an undertow of synthetic plastic odour, greets them as they enter a garment store. Cheerful clothes on hangers everywhere, done in the 75th Independence Day anniversary theme, amidst a surfeit of surefire sellers with Marvel superheroes on them.

Manzoor holds up a T-shirt appraisingly, bearing the inscrutable metal-mask of Ironman. “Wish they would put local heroes on T-shirts,” he says, intoning the tired disdain of someone bored by the familiar.

“Who do you have in mind?” he quizzes Manzoor with an amused glance above his glasses.

A moment’s pause. Manzoor says, “Well….Bacha Khan and Baba Jan. Akbar Bugti and Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai. Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Hassan Nasir.”

“Why no women? Give me someone alive, an ideology still breathing.”

“Malala Yousafzai and Asma Jahangir” says Manzoor. “Julius Salik, Ali Wazir, Ammar Ali Jan. Moreover, nothing wrong with resurrecting ideologues and ideologies if relevant to our age? Ideas silenced but not dead?”

He says, “Won’t sell. Not popular with kids lapping up the ahistorical politics of Naya Pakistan.”

“Then, perhaps, the martyrs of APS?” says Manzoor, his voice taking on an ironic edge.

“Now that’s a thought! We only need heroes that are martyrs. Dead heroes that fit quietly and uncritically into state narratives.”

“The APS parents wouldn’t like that. In any case, they don’t buy the ‘martyrs’ narrative.”

He nods. Masked, warlike superheroes have greater currency in our economy of conflict. Writers, reformists and revolutionaries, dead or alive? They don’t sell where war-games do, or like war heroes made out of unsuspecting martyrs like the APS children. A martyrdom never consented to.

Suddenly, he snaps his finger, remembering the exact words from Saghar’s couplet: “Zindagi jabr-e-musalsal ki tarah kati hai/ Janay kis jurm ki payi hai saza yaad nahin.”

They walk back to the office, speaking of the real heroes of this country. Of activists and artists, individuals and institutions that too were heroic. Of an age when heroes were real not super-mascots for neo-liberal ambitions run amok. Those battling real issues of power, oppression and marginalisation, at home and abroad.

Yara waqai, hum aisay kab thay? Manzoor looks around, shaking his head in disbelief at the security checkpoints on the Mall, at this nowhere time and place where we stand as a nation. “When were we ever like this?”

Days later, he opens the newspaper to find two headlines. “Pakistan is having an international moment with Ms. Marvel,” and “Man held for killing his daughter.” Maryam was her name. Her father believed she was an illegitimate child, slit her throat and dumped her body by the river.

Maryam and Ms Marvel. Now who said there was a way of conceiving freedom that was not freedom but death?


It hurts to see Salar crying, angelic features distorted by his mother’s suggestion that violent games may turn him into a threat to innocent people, like gunmen in the US.

He hazards a comment, even though not sure if it’s his place to say something. “There’s a documentary on YouTube about young gamers recruited for the US drone war in Pakistan. Watch it.”

This draws a withering gaze from Salar. Not long ago, the boy, finding a new ambition in life — while burning zero calories in the lap of his recliner — showed him a video claiming gamers could win three million dollars in a global gaming competition. Three million dollars to vicariously take out targets in a game. Or killing real people remotely — with the right inducement and detachment, you wouldn’t know its difference from a game.

He wants to say it doesn’t matter if Salar wins a game, his avatar swooning triumphantly over a vanquished enemy. The battle’s not just between avatars but the gamer and the game, the latter winning over his time, energies and prospects, his potential for acing the game of life itself in a region where the odds against winning are insurmountable to begin with.

Whether make-believe, or bleeding people and nations for real, war for the mighty is a game, and games a war. Entertainment inspired by conflicts we fund and fight, including the subliminal encoding of video games that turn our living rooms into Situation Rooms for strategy and manoeuvres. Invading hearts and minds, the military-entertainment complex was out to bring a ‘Just War’ to our homes and children. As the TV commercial for Call of Duty stated, “There’s a soldier in all of us.”

If he ever left that recliner to look around, Salar may find that the deserts in The Mandalorian evoke the Middle East, the desolated neighbourhoods where US marines hunt terrorists in Call of Duty indeed resemble former FATA or Afghanistan.

He will see that all our spectacles, like the rest of our fallen world, are built on cruelty, exploitation and erasure; the potential of our children restrained by the straightjacket of the screen, this readily available panacea for distracted parenthood.

The ever-indulgent Father TV and the never-exhausted Mother Mobile, there to instruct us in pleasures of crass consumerism and its close cousin, hollow patriotism. Tools for the state-capital nexus to beat citizens into line, to entrench themselves.

There is a way of conceiving freedom that is not freedom but death.

He wants to say all this but says nothing. Would a 10-year-old understand how the game is rigged, change a lifestyle that is a market force firmly on the side of demand, craving unhealthy entertainment and food from unscrupulous profiteers? Would he care such consumption is both death and cannibalism, us feeding on our potential, our energies …our lives.

How does one protect a child from this cult of death? How does one negotiate the obstacle race that is life, the endless barriers to mental and physical flourishing now, without giving up and giving in?


Zoloft for anxiety, Alp for sleep. Detachment in a pill.

It’s you, not this country or region; it’s you of the weak nerves. Take a pill, relax and learn to cope.

But Maryam?

Nothing you can do for her. Try to focus on Ms. Marvel, with whom Pakistan is having an “international moment.”

To silence the scream, prescriptions. In a blighted place where people living with fear and conflict must learn to ‘cope’ with anxieties by suppressing their voice. The region, its legions, screaming inside. Now, as in the 1980s, teeming with heroin and meth junkies, huddled under bridges and in drains, scavengers of garbage dumps.

You look at their sunken-eyed faces and you see Edvard Munch’s man on the bridge, screaming silently as the sky screams back at him.

To live with the scream, screens. Devices to turn us indifferent to our precariousness, to the ominous knowledge of things falling apart. Meds and drugs to take the sting out of us, lest we revolt. It’s not the world, not the country, it’s you because you are weak, when all you are is trapped by the everlasting crisis in the present and its architects.

We all now live with screams growing in our entrails like cancer, dying in sympathy with this city and region. If he we were to replicate Munch’s masterpiece with a local sensibility, it would be monochrome, leached of any colour.

There’s colour aplenty, of course. Neon lights in the night, billboards shimmering with products and real estate projects, promising ‘a better tomorrow’, because deep down we all know the here and now is hell. Gated communities because we are safe no more. Temples raised to, and run on dynamos of, consumption as a celebration of life, on a culture of coveting brands, franchise food and housing societies, readily available retail therapies to hush up screams stuck in our throats.

“Bohat maza aanay wala hai,” declares a billboard cryptically, promising fun because all you need is an escape, a distraction to delay confrontation with the ugly reality of our times. A new product to be revealed soon. Mind, just don’t expect uninterrupted power.

“Roohaniat say humahung, hairton bhari zindagi,” screams another. A housing society promising spiritual transcendence, a life full of surprises. Clean running water may not be available, though.

“Khwabon ki tabeer ab door nahin.” The fulfillment of your dreams is not far and yet there may not be gas available for cooking and heating.

Later that day, Manzoor comes to him visibly shaken. “You wouldn’t believe the story I just did.” He relates the following:

Two families in the city suburb with an old blood feud. Family One killed a man from Family Two sometime ago. Now Family Two, men disguised as police, stop the bus on which a man from Family One is travelling. They take him away, kill him, keep his head and arms. They throw the rest of him in a graveyard and return to the village to declare the avenging act on a mosque’s loud-speaker.

They dare Family One to recover the head of their man. Fearing more violence, village elders intercede and Family Two returns the body parts. Days later, Family One digs up the grave of the man they had killed from Family Two years ago, scattering his bones in the streets all over the village.

He recoils on the inside; a part of him shrivels and die. To Manzoor he says, “Have you heard Jaswinder Singh’s rendition of Faiz?”

His query, a non-sequitur, does not seem to bother Manzoor, still rattled by the story. He worries about Manzoor, young and hungry for bylines. Horrors like this, in a region where the news is always bad, will catch up with him eventually when older; his condition precarious in more ways than one, nerves steady no more.

He offers Manzoor his headphones. “Here, it’s Mere Dil Mere Musafir.”

As he listens, Manzoor’s face relaxes, features turning ecstatic. He hopes he has done something for his friend’s nerves. Maybe put some distance between him and that blister-strip of Alp or Zoloft because, in the end, there is no help but from ourselves, living in quiet desperation in a world where the centre holds no more.

He returns to the Great Art Explained video he has been watching. Explaining his Persistence of Memory in a reedy voice, Dali declares time is fluid. His is a thin moustache like the one sported by Speedy Gonzalas; his manner flamboyant.

The next day when he speaks to Faiz, his friend at the university, about Dali’s masterpiece, he responds, “The only time that persists in this place is Orwellian — the persistence of 1984.”

Dali, a surrealist, would have understood.

Aurangzaib Khan is a journalist based in Peshawar

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 8th, 2023