Thin and bearded Alam Shah, wearing a dirty shalwar kameez, who drives a taxi in Peshawar, says that he sometimes worries what will happen to his beloved city. “Peshawar is the centre for culture and activity for the North- West Frontier Province,” he says. “People come to Peshawar, they don’t leave. The city has everything one can ask for.”
But Shah, like many others, has been rattled by the frequency and intensity of militant activities in the city. Only recently, a suicide bomber attacked an air force bus on the outskirts of the city killing 20. “They are hiding the real figure. It was close to 40,” says Shah.
This is a city, says another resident proudly, where street crime is almost nil, but almost everyone carries a gun or has one at home. Apart from carrying weapons, the people of Peshawar are also very mindful of their honour.
Taxi driver Alam Shah attests to this fact. “If someone showed me a gun and I gave him all my money, it will bring shame to me. I cannot let that happen.”
Traffic is light even in rush hour. Smoke-emitting public transport buses can be seen on roads. Despite its historical significance due to its location on the edge of the Khyber Pass, and what it has to offer, the city has few tourists. Security is tight; many roads are closed altogether.
The lobby of the Pearl Continental Hotel, the city’s main five-star hotel, is filled instead with prosperous Pakhtoon families enjoying a meal in a secure environment.
At the Deans Shopping Mall, which boasts 18 escalators and seven capsule lifts, young shopkeepers are unsure of whether to invest more in their businesses. The shopping mall is one of the largest in Pakistan, but customers are few. “People are withdrawing their money and taking it elsewhere,” comments Muhamamad Anwar, a government employee.
The slump in business activity can best be seen at the CD market in Nishtarabad, which is located in one of the older areas of Peshawar.
Shopkeepers sit outside and share tea and laugh. There are almost no customers. “On a good day, I sell 20 CD’s,” says Muhammad Bilal of Bilal CD House, which means a paltry profit of about Rs 500. Stacked behind him are a collection of VCDs ranging from raunchy Indian dance numbers to Pushto dramas, a particular target of religious groups.
At the Nishtarabad Market too there was an attack last year in which 20 shops were burnt down after a bomb exploded in the bazaar.
While the death toll was minimal, many were forced out of business. “They first call us. Then we get letters and then one day we hear that some shop has been attacked,” says Sarfaraz Khan, chief of the local CD sellers association.
But, for supporting his family, Khan says he would have moved to some other part of Pakistan to “live in peace”.
Maulana Abdul Bari of the Moti Masjid, one of the main mosques which is located in the centre of Peshawar has a different take. He says that CDs “do indeed spread anti-Islam messages”. The Maulana does not favour attacks on barber shops, another favourite target of religious groups, but feels that the CD shops do need to be shut down. Mufti Ghulam Rehman of the Jamia Usmania Nothia disagrees. “We cannot stop the spread of technology. Through CDs and computers, the youth get knowledge. I think some religious groups are misinterpreting Islam.”
A year ago, a senior cleric at the Jamia Usmania was murdered for taking such a position. Mahmood Shah, a former Home Secretary of the NWFP, says that the move to attack barber shops and CD shops is aimed at “instilling fear in the hearts of people”. He says that the Taliban want to give a message that they mean business. And in small towns all over the province, this is how they do it.
So far, people have not quit Peshawar. Instead, thousands of refugees displaced by the strife in different areas of the NWFP are finding their way to the city’s streets. As the conflict continues, there are questions about the safety of the city itself.
The Taliban may be far away but other religious groups are nearby. One such group, located in the Bara tribal agency, a mere 15 kilometres from the Peshawar city centre, has decreed that all men wear the traditional shalwar kameez and women the burqa.
It has also punished those who violate this dress code. With such diktats at the city’s doors-step, can the city itself be far away?