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A Walk Through Modern Peshawar


The Pearl Continental Hotel -- one of many victims of extremist violence in Peshawar

The Pearl Continental Hotel -- one of many victims of extremist violence in Peshawar

Peshawar, a city once famous for its social spaces -- squares, markets, and theaters -- has become known for extremism and terrorist attacks. Locals and visitors alike used to marvel at this city’s traditional touch and rich history. Now, locals live in fear of Taliban reprisals for minor offenses and outside visitors are nowhere to be seen.

As I walk down the streets of this city -- the place of my birth -- I can't help but lament what has happened here.

The Meena Bazaar, a narrow street housing hundreds of cube-shaped shops stuffed with items like women garments and clothes, used to attract women from all over Pakhtunkhwa and even parts of Punjab. Shoppers would visit the otherwise dark street, illuminated with high-powered lights, to buy their favorite clothes, cosmetics, shoes, and other items at what were usually cheaper rates. The bazaar was especially popular among people shopping for wedding ceremonies.

Then, in late 2009, an explosive-packed car was detonated at the entrance of the market killing over 100 people, mostly women and children. This act was most likely a response by religious extremists who don't endorse women coming out into markets and visiting shops. To them, this is an act that both perverts women and leads to other social ills. It's hard for me to see, however, how killing over 100 innocent people is not a social ill itself.

Two of the main squares in Peshawar suffered the same fate as the Meena Bazaar. The Gora Qabristan Square, named after a British-era Christian cemetery, and the main square in the historical Khyber Bazaar named after former Indonesian President Sukarno both bear the marks of bomb attacks from 2009 -- both of which killed scores of innocent people.

The Peshawar Press Club, once a premier location for holding monthly galas for print and electronic media journalists almost once every month, is now barricaded. The reason is obvious: in December 2009, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive belt at the entrance when denied entry by police guard Muhammad Riaz.

The guard, along with the club's accountant, Muhammad Iqbal, were killed and several journalists injured. The motive behind the Press Club attack remains unknown. The main reason for this is that journalists in Peshawar are mostly unwilling to aggressively report on Pakistan's counterterror effort -- partly because impartiality is a requirement of journalistic duty and partly because of the threat posed to their lives by all the warring sides.

No musical function has been held in the Press Club for more than a year.

The Qayyum Stadium Complex, the only arena for sports and recreation available to the people of Peshawar, was also targeted. In 2008, a 14-year-old boy blew himself up at the main entrance when a national sports festival, the Pakistan National Games, was in progress. Many of the athletes competing in the National Games are women, which is frowned upon by religious extremists. The main gate of the sports complex still bears the marks of the blast.

Another landmark, the Pearl Continental Hotel -- the only five-star hotel in Peshawar -- used to offer roof-top dining, and was the preferred hotel for foreigners visiting the city. In 2009, a truck blast killed 17. The hotel was closed for several months, and has struggled to attract visitors since reopening.

Cultural life has also taken a hit, as most cinemas in Peshawar are deserted now. Peshawar's theaters, once famous for presenting classic Pashto films, now sit mostly empty mainly due to threats against owners and would-be filmgoers for the "immoral and un-Islamic" activity of going to the movies.

Of the 16 cinemas in the city, nearly half have been closed or converted into shopping centers while the rest are at the verge of collapse.

Another casualty of extremism has been Pashtun music. Music centers and CD shops were once thriving businesses in Peshawar. However, many of the shops have closed, and shop owners are getting out of the businesses because of threats from extremists. Likewise, a number of musicians, singers, and dancers have either quit the city to move to other parts of Pakistan -- or the world -- or publicly denounced their profession. Several of them joined Tableegh (preaching) to save their skin.

In a particularly gruesome example of violence, budding young singer Aiman Odhas was shot dead by her brothers after she defied the family elders and continued to sing on various television shows and on stage.

On top of it all, the "no-go" areas for civilians have further increased in the city, because of the threat of terrorism. Peshawar, historically a "walled city," has become a walled cantonment -- both physically and emotionally.

-- Daud Khattak

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