Peshawar: Ghosts of a Frontier City

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

1186905_523067824433258_1699815987_nA single feather, milky blue, just fallen on my threshold, is from a Turkestan hill dove flying south from China to Peshawar, I imagine, though it is more likely to have been shed by a buttonquail which is common in these parts.

There is no house or door, only a threshold with the listening capacity of a mystic; there is unstoppable song and news in the hubbub. My impatience will keep me from staying by the threshold. I’ll fly over it like a bird from India or Afghanistan, or I’ll cross back and forth like local ants and lizards, run by the small animal clock inside me.

When I migrate, something of the threshold will migrate with me.

Made from melting the musk of each passerby with protolithic time, this threshold is neither a construction or a destruction but a slow composite of both. Along the Silk Road— the moving marketplace across Asia, Africa and Europe— Peshawar has been an important outpost: here, what is stolen by opium, is filled back in by shady trees planted by pilgrims; what is healed and made whole with medicinal tea and Sufi poetry, is pulverized by gun powder; there are rare gems and there are bullets. Sometimes trade and war ride each other’s shoulders. A third companion, the storyteller, is often a few paces ahead or behind.

Qissa Khawani Bazaar or “the market of the storytellers” has teashops where traders, craftsmen, monks, poets, warriors, spies, scholars, pilgrims, thieves and builders traveling the Silk Road, have, for long, gathered to exchange stories.

But some stories tell themselves, like the story of the old Banyan tree chained by James Squid, a British military officer who got this tree in the Landi Kotal Cantonment “arrested” for lurching at him on a very drunken night: the punished tree’s shame is intensified by its caption “I am under arrest.” The tree is locked in history as is the British Raj’s moment of inebriation with power.

Not far from Peshawar’s military areas are two unforgettable libraries— the British Council with its air conditioned, brusque smell and the soothing secret of a raised reading nook, an antechamber with round cane stools for children— and the Peshawar Club library where there sits on the shelf a shadow book for every book; every footfall and turning of the page is heard by ardent colonial ghosts.

In the other environs of this ancient city, the ruins, stupas, temples, orchards, caravanserais, graveyards, havelis, universities and forts, there are ghosts of other inhabitants: invading Persians, Greeks, Marathas, Mughals, Sikhs. Peshawar has been the heart of the Gandhara civilization, beloved “Lotus Land” for Kushan kings, Pipal Mandi known for the Pipal (Bodhi tree) under which Buddha is said to have preached.

The city receives its formal name from the Mughal emperor Akbar in the sixteenth century. Peshawar means “the one that comes before,” or the frontier. The first Mughal Babur’s remarks upon entering the subcontinent through here, are not flattering— it is dull compared to his verdant home Ferghana in southern Central Asia. The Mughal emperors fill it with gardens, dubbing Peshawar “the city of flowers” and leave, among other treasures, a beautiful seventeenth century mosque.

Legend has it that Khizer— the green-robed saint who appears to people who are lost and trying to find their way— comes to this Mughal mosque to pray. The mosque, Masjid Mahabat Khan, is bathed in elegant carnelian and ivory colors and surrounded by shop fronts of goldsmiths and jewelers who claim that this sacred place is befitting for their trade of precious goods. The faithful have been called to prayer five times a day for hundreds of years but there are chilling memories of other days, of the accused being hurled from the top of the minaret in summary executions carried out by the Italian mercenary and governor of Peshawar under Sikh rule, Paolo Avitabile— a tyrannical figure who has entered folklore as Abu Tabela.

There is an ancient highway, built by the Afghan emperor Sher Shah Suri, extending from Kabul to Delhi— an engineering feat of the sixteenth century, renovated and renamed the Grant Trunk Road by the British. A multitude of cultures jostle each other along this road from Afghanistan through Pakistan and India— Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Hindu, Parsi, Buddhist and others. In Peshawar, part of this road is still named Jamrud and a footbridge over it is a thoroughfare for students walking to and from a complex of colleges in the area; part of it is tree-lined, part arid— the Safed Koh mountains visible in the distance.

The city smells of bus fumes and is heartbreakingly resplendent in springtime— there are richly fragrant apricots and melons. The elderly men and women are thought precious and receive a kind of reverence that sweetens the air.

The Sikh fort, Mughal marketplace, British clock tower, modern hotels and shopping plazas, cinemas, stadiums are astir with life. Since the time of the Soviet war, I have seen these places in the aftermath of bomb blasts. I have seen the insult of human flesh exploding into lifeless ribbons hanging from lampposts. I have heard children and birds shrieking in panic.

In the register of shattering glass lives protolithic time, chipping away, accruing. Nothing goes unrecorded. With each passerby, the saffron curtain exhales, hanging over the threshold, the frontier.