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Peshawar: A City Alive In The Shadow Of Death

A Pashtun girl peeks through the doorway to her family dwelling in Peshawar.
A Pashtun girl peeks through the doorway to her family dwelling in Peshawar.
Peshawar, capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and once a central city of the ancient Kingdom of Gandhara, is becoming known as one of the world's most dangerous cities.

Bombings, targeted killings, and kidnappings have left behind an acute feeling of insecurity. But in this resilient city of 1.5 million, a new reality is being born. As one local told me, "We can’t stop living out of fear of the Taliban."

The main road that links Peshawar with Hayatabad and then stretches ahead to Afghanistan via the Khyber Tribal Agency reflects the courage and perseverance of a city racked by militancy.

The road is home to the best restaurants and wedding halls in the city -- Shiraz, Balana, University Tikka, Jalil Kabad, Masoom, and the Sham Hotel, to name a few. These food outlets and gathering halls have become spaces of refuge for students, NGO workers, businessmen, and families, places to come together and celebrate with dance and music in defiance of a resurgent wave of crime and terrorism.

Over food, the conversation inevitably turns to the security, political, and economic situations in the region and in Pakistan broadly. Many of the people at the gatherings are noticeably middle- and upper-class citizens, relatively economically secure -- for now -- and, above all, engaged.

Lively discussions about issues like the global war on terror, Taliban brutalities, U.S. policy in the region, the role of the Pakistani security apparatus in state affairs, and the security situation dance around the room.

Cultural Wasteland

It’s not clear if this is a reaction to events or a newfound love by Pashtuns for their cultural heritage, but almost every educational institute has been transformed into a hub of cultural activities. In some cases, groups of young people have banded together to contribute funds for concerts, food festivals, sporting events, and fashion shows.

The people of Peshawar have learned how to live in the shadow of death and are trying to take back their city.

For the last decade, the city has slowly turned into a cultural wasteland. It started when the Mutahida Majlas-e-Amal (MMA) religious government banned music on public transport and closed Nishtar Hall -- the only cultural center in the city -- and devolved slowly from there.

Now, the provincial government has taken the initiative and opened Nishtar Hall. Every weekend, one can see city residents gather in their traditional shalwar kameez, passing through the security barriers, and enjoying music and shows with their friends and families.

There are also steps being taken to revive the area’s intellectual heritage.

I recently visited the Institute of Management Sciences in Hayatabad. Housed in a well-designed building mixing traditional and modern architecture, the institute is located on the border of the Khyber Tribal Agency, from where various militant groups coordinate their activities.

One wouldn’t know the institute lies in such a volatile region by looking at the courage and hope on the faces of the students and teachers of the organization. With two dozen Ph.D.s and 3,000 students, the institute focuses on socio-economic and cultural development in the volatile tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

It strives to produce indigenous professionals in the fields of development studies, public health, applied economics, business management, and the liberal arts, and regularly hosts video conferences with international scholars on the burning issues of the day.

"Despite bomb explosions and instability, we refused to close our institute for a single day," Javed Iqbal, coordinator of the Center of Public Policy and Research at the institute, tells me. "The institute is the first line of defense against religious extremism. Our spirits are high. We believe that we are contributing to our society in a positive manner."

Life Returns

As militant commanders bent on destruction roam the area, students and staff at the institute try to organize art exhibitions, poetry competitions, and fashion shows.

The ring road that leads from the main city to Afghanistan is the primary route for transporting food and building materials into Afghanistan. It is also the shortest route for NATO supplies. The road is regularly in the media due to the attacks on NATO oil tankers.

But the ring road has also transformed into a bustling marketplace. On both sides of the road one can see restaurants, kebab shops, and shopping malls dealing in Western dresses, cosmetics, and perfumes.

And due to a boom in media, combined with people’s interest in the lighter aspects of life, there are now six FM stations broadcasting music, live call-in shows, and debates on topics of general interest.

This is a big change from the days when militant leaders propagated fundamentalism through their FM radio channels in different areas of the province. According to one estimate, there were once more than 80 FM channels in Malakand and the adjoining areas of Peshawar city.

The vigor and enthusiasm of Peshawar is as alive as ever. The only thing this resilient city needs now is peace.

-- Shaheen Buneri

Shaheen Buneri is a journalist with RFE/RL’s Pakistan service, Radio Mashaal. He is on a monthlong reporting trip to Pakistan as a Pulitzer Center fellow