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As Peshawar's Bookstores Close, Isolation Grows

Haji Rasheed (right) bags a book for a customer in front of the dwindling stock of books at his Maktaba-e Sarhad bookstore in Peshawar.
Haji Rasheed (right) bags a book for a customer in front of the dwindling stock of books at his Maktaba-e Sarhad bookstore in Peshawar.
For more than 55 years, the Maktaba-e Sarhad bookstore has been a cultural monument in the heart of Peshawar.

But now, the store is closing.

"Those who love reading books have no money, and those with money are busy in other activities," owner Haji Rasheed says, with tears in his eyes, amid his once-crowded bookshelves.

When he opened in 1956, he says, he had a "missionary's zeal" to squeeze the whole world of ideas into his medium-sized shop. And he succeeded. His shop had 30,000 books in English, Pashto, and Urdu, ranging from literature to studies of law, theology, medicine, and political science.

But beginning last month, Rasheed priced everything at 50 percent off. Now, with just 3,000 books left, he is turning from selling books to the more profitable business of selling computers, radios, and televisions instead.

The collapse of his bookstore might seem like just another business failure if it had happened elsewhere. But in Peshawar, it is the third of the city's landmark bookstores to fold in the past two years. After it closes, there will be only one major bookstore left downtown and one in a distant suburb.

War Of Ideas

The disappearance of Peshawar's bookstores is as much about the city's creeping Talibanization as it is about economics.

Since 2001, suicide and other bombings have become commonplace in Peshawar. Militant groups openly rail against institutions they see as Western-influenced or corrupting Islamic values. Music stores and bookstores are among the favorite targets of their wrath.

At the same time, the militants directly undercut bookstores' sales by offering free alternatives. They distribute jihadist literature outside mosques every Friday. And private TV stations offer round-the-clock religious programming.

A Pashtun girl looks out from the doorway of her family dwelling in Peshawar.
A Pashtun girl looks out from the doorway of her family dwelling in Peshawar.
Adeel Zareef, a civil society activist in Peshawar, says the war of ideas began during the 1979-89 Soviet-Afghan war and never stopped.

"In the 1980s, when jihadist organizations came into being, they brought this decay," Zareef says. "Religious thought dominated original thinking and a certain political thought and ideology was imposed."

People 'Deprived'

Peshawar offers fertile ground for extremism partly because there is a constant influx of desperate people. Once they were refugees from Afghanistan, but since 2001 they are mostly IDPs from Pakistan's tribal areas fleeing army operations. According to the UN, 180,000 new IDPs have arrived since January alone, when the latest army sweep began in Khyber Agency.

As instability grows, businesses flee to the comparative security of Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi. One of Peshawar's closed bookstores, Saeed Book Bank, has reopened in the capital, four hours away by car. The other, Old Book Shop, which sold used books affordable to poorer students, closed for good.

A book stall at Peshawar's agriculture university (file photo)
A book stall at Peshawar's agriculture university (file photo)

The loss of the bookstores not only deprives Peshawar of books. It equally deprives the city's intellectuals of places to meet and feel strong enough to resist extremists.

"When I was studying in Peshawar, Saeed Book Bank was full of youngsters. Even those who were not buying books, they would also know about the new books by visiting the shop," says Samar Minallah, a women's rights activist and documentary producer now living in Islamabad. "Adjacent to Saeed Book Bank there was a shop for the repair of musical instruments [now closed]. The old Book Shop was not merely a book shop; it was a symbol of our culture. Our younger generations are being deprived of these cultural roots."

Still, the city's intellectuals are far from giving up. After the loss of the Saeed Book Bank, one group of readers formed Peshawar Readers Club to try to plug the gap. The club meets regularly and shares books among its members.

Club organizer Nasir Yousuf calls the progressive collapse of bookstores selling foreign literature a steady isolation of Peshawar from the world of ideas.

"Why do people read books in English? Because [English-language] literature is more advanced than ours," Yousuf says. "We have a very good [Pashto and Urdu] literary tradition, but our literature [today] is in the bondage of a certain ideology. It is very important that we gradually liberate our future generations from the bondage of our current books."

Written by Charles Recknagel, based on reporting by Radio Mashaal correspondent Marvais Khan

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