Peshawar, sweltering with mercury soaring above 40 degrees centigrade, hours long power outages, and a new breed of marauding tribesmen called Taliban knocking at city’s gates seems to be submerged into a chaos, yet it is the same noisy and dusty city, it used to be throughout its history of more than 2000 years.
Roaming around when one reaches Qissa Khawni Bazaar (The story tellers’ bazaar) in the heart of the city, one could hear the Peshawarities sipping aromatic ‘Kewha’ in small china cups, and reacting anxiously to the terrorism. Qissa Khawni occupies a central place in the social and cultural life of Peshawar. In the by gone days, it used to be a camping ground for the caravans from Central Asia and Povindahs or Afghan traveling merchants, and at nights storytellers recited their stories of love and war to these travelers. However, during the metamorphosis of the city, the tradition of story telling gradually became a matter of memories only, and this historical bazaar also known as ‘Piccadilly of Central Asia’ become a bizarre mesh mash of ropes and barricades that have been put in place to guard against the unruly terrorists.
The same situation is visible in other parts of the city, where such obstacles replaced the city’s traditional demeanor of openness and hospitality. This reminds one of Ahmed Faraz couplet “Rafta rafta yehi zindan man badal jaatye han/ Ab kisi naaye shahr ki buniyad na daali jaaye,” “Gradually these (cities) turn into prisons, so no new city be laid out.”
On a walking distance from Qissa Khawni is situated Peshawar Museum, which bears testimony to the reign of Buddhism on the vast expanses of Ghandara. There are around 74 Buddha stories carved in stone are on display in Peshawar Museum, describing all happenings in his life. Emperor Kanishka, ruled the Kushan Empire from his capital Peshawar (Purushapura) in 78 AD, and Buddhism, took a new form of Mahayana Buddhism during his rule.
In 1530, the founder of Mughal Empire in India Baber passed through Peshawar and found a town by the name of Bagram, which was later renamed as Peshawar, which means “The Place at the Frontier,” by his grandson, Akbar, the Great Mughal. The Pathan conqueror of Mughal throne, Sher Shah Suri when connected Delhi and Kabul through Grand Trunk (GT) Road, Peshawar became an important trade centre. After Suri, Mughals again captured India and also Peshawar, and transformed it into the city of flowers adding many of its finest architectural monuments including Mahabat Khan Mosque and Shahi Bagh.
In 1834, the armies of Ranjit Singh captured the city; they chopped the city gardens for the firewood and General Paolo Di Avitabile, the then Italian mercenary governor of city used the mosque minarets to hang the troublemakers. He also reconstructed the city’s old wall to guard against the attacks of unyielding and ferocious tribesmen.
The British captured Peshawar in 1848, and turned it into a garrison and later also craved a new province NWFP, and Peshawar became its provincial capital. Peshawar remained an important imperial outpost during the ‘Great Game’ days against any possible Tsarist advances on India, which ironically came about 40 years after the liquidation of British Empire.
The Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 exposed the city to an influx of Afghan refugees, and it became a haven of Afghan resistance groups, fighting the Russian occupation. During this era Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Jihadists and Pakistani military establishment formed close links to oust the ‘Godless Infidels’ from Afghanistan and a new chapter of city’s history opened, which introduced the city to Kalashnikovs, heroin and jihadists. The CIA financed Jihad led to departure of Soviets from Afghanistan, but the bad blood among jihadists led the country to strife, which ultimately paved the way for the emergence of Taliban. Taliban were ousted from Kabul in 2002 by the American for sheltering Osama Bin Laden, whom they considered responsible for the incidents of 9/11. The ouster of Taliban from Kabul with the active Pakistani support exposed the tribal areas of NWFP to a wave of militancy called Talibanistaion, which gradually spread across NWFP and now knocking at the city’s gates.
These tumultuous events and strifes’ over the centuries have shaped the psyche and cultural ethos of the people. According to the Karl Meyer’s The Dust of Empire, “Peshawar is the hub of a thriving black market in drugs and weapons, its slums and refugee camps the recruiting ground for jihadists who would happily kill every infidel anywhere.” In reality, one of greatest non-violent movements of history started in the Frontier in twentieth century and leader of Khudai Khidmatgar (Red Shirts) Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan raised a non-violent army of 100,000 men among the people, who love vendetta and guns more than anything else.
But the ongoing militancy and wounds it had inflicted on the psyche of city and its residents is a reminder of Urdu saintly poet Mir Dard’s couplet “Zindagi hai ya koi tufan hai/ ham tu iss jeenay kay haathon mar chalay” “Is it life or a raging storm/we have reaped nothing except death in our sojourn here”.