The South Asia Channel

A Letter to My Beloved Peshawar

On the day the Army Public School reopens, it's worth pausing to remember that Peshawar wasn't always filled with violence and terror.

Pakistani civil society activists and children hold light candles during a vigil in Lahore on December 18, 2014, for the children and teachers killed in an attack by militants on an army-run school in Peshawar. Students grieving for their classmates massacred by the Pakistani Taliban have vowed to defy the militants and return to school as soon as possible. AFP PHOTO / Arif ALI        (Photo credit should read Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani civil society activists and children hold light candles during a vigil in Lahore on December 18, 2014, for the children and teachers killed in an attack by militants on an army-run school in Peshawar. Students grieving for their classmates massacred by the Pakistani Taliban have vowed to defy the militants and return to school as soon as possible. AFP PHOTO / Arif ALI (Photo credit should read Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

Dear Peshawar,

The Army Public School opened today nearly one month after the deadly attack on Dec. 16 that killed 150 people, including at least 134 schoolchildren.

Burying those children, slaughtered in cold blood by the Taliban, had to be devastating for the parents. One can only imagine how difficult it must be for the surviving students to return to the school where their classmates and teachers were killed.

Although the Taliban have killed thousands of people in dozens of attacks in various neighborhoods in the last few years, the school attack plunged the entire country of Pakistan into shock because you, my Peshawar, lost so many lives in just one day.

The school, a politically strategic target located in the heavily guarded garrison of the city — bustling with more than 3million people — was chosen for the specific purpose of delivering this message: Nothing here is safe!

Yet you are not a stranger to such attacks and tragedies. Being the capital of the restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, you have been on the front line of the war on terror since its beginning in late 2001. While Taliban fighters have killed thousands of people across the country, including police and security personnel, you have received the brunt of the attacks.

Militants have attacked your mosques, churches, funerals, weddings, schools, and markets. Hundreds of locals have been killed within your neighborhoods and suburban towns for resisting the Taliban. Bashir Balour — one of your sons and a senior government minister — was killed in a Taliban suicide attack in December 2013.

You have endured many wars and invasions throughout your history. Now you are bearing it again. The children of my generation, who experienced a good life during a reasonably saner, prospering, and teeming time, now watch you bleed each and every day.

Millions of Pashtuns, the Hindko-speaking people, and many Afghans, who have lived some part of their refugee life within you, call you home. The people have heavily depended on you, not only to make their living, but also for other basic needs, such as health care and education — services they don’t get in the northwest because of the poor infrastructure. But now with the rise of the Taliban and other militants groups in the neighboring Khyber tribal agency, they have moved elsewhere in Pakistan for a “safer life.”

As for the many foreign visitors, their memories of you might be dusty. But we still cherish the sweet and endearing memories we have of you. Deep down within us, we are proud of your intrigue-filled history, rich culture, traditions, and pluralistic environs. Women in our Pashtun villages used to sing about you as the city of gardens, roses, and fragrance.

We miss the songs written by Pashtun poets of your glory, comparing you to Washington, Paris, London, and New Delhi. We miss the peaceful coexistence of Shiites and Sunnis and even of Muslims and non-Muslims within you. We miss our long walks on the sidewalks of your sprawling university campus, living the bachelor life in your hostels, the late nights watching movies in your cinema halls, and shopping at Saddar Bazaar. We miss the decorated buses and the noise of the old wagons, autorickshaws, and bus conductors loudly repeating the names of the different stops in the city. As for the smell of the fresh baked breads, chapli kabobs, and the aromatic green tea, they are matchless.

Whether you are called Pekhawar or Pishor, you have remained a great seat of learning with ancient roots, once a center of the world-famous Gandhara civilization. Alexander the Great passed through your streets on his way to victory. You were a gateway for Muslim roads into India; you were once ruled by the Sikh Empire, and then you were home to the British Army. Rudyard Kipling, the British writer and poet, immortalized you in his writings. You look up at the mountains that frame the famous Khyber Pass. You are the beginning of the famous Grand Trunk Road that stretches across the subcontinent.

Bollywood legends such as Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, and Shah Rukh Khan proudly trace their roots to you. And many even inside Pakistan have forgotten that one of your small suburban towns, Nawa Kali, produced seven world squash champions.

It is deeply disturbing that you have been making global headlines only for terrorism, violence, and bloodshed. Outsiders hardly get the chance to know your rich history and culture. Even those who know a bit about it would probably shame you with their images of you as a city of smugglers, bazaars, and drug traffickers.

The ancient city, nicknamed the “Walled City,” once was heavily guarded, built by various rulers of the past to protect the residents from invaders and pillagers. Homes were made from mud or unbaked bricks and had their own charm, with beautifully carved wooden doors and amazing artwork. There were also those ancient banyan trees with their long and bushy branches, where people once took deep naps in their somber shade. But due to the war and continued chaos, you are losing your rich and ancient traditions and cultural and historical sights.

The famous Qissa Khwani Bazaar was once known in the annals of history as the storyteller market, where traders would share stories over a cup of famous green tea. The storytellers of modern time instead tell of the dead and injured.

The story of current woes began in the early 1980s, when Pakistan became the front-line ally of the U.S.-led Western alliance in the Afghan war against Soviet occupation. People my age recall the increasing flow of petrodollars and the jihadi economy that arose in Peshawar and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. With the help of the United States and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan’s establishment made you a staging ground for the Afghan jihad. Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson came to Peshawar in 1982 to energize the war against the Red Army. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher also visited you and addressed about 15,000 Afghan refugees in a camp on your outskirts. Amid rousing jihadi slogans, Thatcher vowed to support the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union.

Thousands of mujahideen came from many Muslim countries to fight the Soviets. Many of them remained in the tribal regions after the Soviet Union left Afghanistan in 1989. Along with Western support and money, Saudi money was channeled into building madrasas, which later served as breeding grounds for the Afghan Taliban under Mullah Mohammed Omar.

In the shadow of the Afghan war, al Qaeda was established in a guesthouse in the posh University Town area of Peshawar — the same area where Osama bin Laden lived before moving to Afghanistan and formally declaring war against the United States and its Western allies. In all those years, during the Afghan war and later during the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the local people in Peshawar understood very little of bin Laden, al Qaeda, and the Taliban; yet all these groups and their ideologies have been shaping the lives and the deaths of Peshawarites.

In the wake of the Army Public School attack, I have been hearing that Pakistan has awakened. The civil and military leadership seems to have finally realized that enough is enough; now they will be dealing with the militants using an iron hand. Under newly passed legislation, the country’s leadership announced the establishment of military courts and other measures for curbing militancy.

However, there are many who are still skeptical and not sure if the bloodshed within you will stop. I wish that skepticism were misplaced, but I don’t think it is. It seems that the world, as well as many inside Pakistan, has already forgotten you — Imran Khan’s wedding now dominates the media.

I left you in late 2008, and since then I have been living in Washington, D.C., with my family. There are many Pashtuns like me here — and elsewhere living abroad — holding on to our memories of you. In your honor, we make a mini Peshawar wherever we live, speak our language, and adhere to our cultural values. Our gatherings are dominated by our memories of you. Our nighttime stories with our children revolve around you. We all hope and dream of returning one day — if not to live, at least to show our children how beautiful and beloved you are. We pray earnestly for your speedy return to peace, prosperity, and joy!

With Love,
Imtiaz Ali
Washington, D.C.

Imtiaz Ali, a Pakistani journalist from Peshawar, is currently a media development consultant and non-resident fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, D.C.