I liked Peshawar.
I preferred it to hot, racing Rawalpindi, or grand, haughty Islamabad. I think I preferred it to any other city in the world.
Indolent in the autumn sun, it was the perfect place for waiting. Although formally it was part of the state of Pakistan, Peshawar belonged to Afghanistan by now. It lived according to Afghan laws and rules, it thought and felt the Afghan way, it spoke Afghan and it looked Afghan.
And Afghanistan meant eternal waiting—always, everywhere, and for everything. Hours spent over bowls of colorless tea, on conversations about nothing, but most often in silence, on self-contemplation and pulling an ugly face which was meant to express curiosity and a friendly smile.
I got the impression that the Afghans are never in a hurry for anything, that they always have time for everything. Then I realized that in a country where there’s nothing going on, the citizens have nothing to do. A newcomer is too valuable in Afghanistan to let him just pass by. Like travelers centuries ago, he can be a rare source of news from the world far away, bringing contact with a different reality, which did after all affect the Afghans too.
So a conversation, or even just a few moments spent with a foreigner are an opportunity to find out how much has changed, to brood, sigh, and feel sorry for yourself. And sometimes I felt as if an encounter with a foreigner was the only way for the Afghans to emphasize their own presence—as if they were counting on their words, and above all their faces, recorded forever in the foreigner’s eyes, to provide undeniable proof of the fact that they had been noticed, that they had not disappeared without trace.
Whenever I set off on a journey to Afghanistan, I always tried to plan it so that I could stop in Peshawar for a day or two. For me it was a staging post that allowed for gradual assimilation, and also for thinking everything through one more time. It was also a foretaste of what lay ahead on the other side of the heavy, cast-iron gate; once you managed to pass through it, you entered a reality so different as to be unreal.
Peshawar and the Khyber Pass, which began right outside the city and led across the Sulaiman Mountains, were the only bridge linking Afghanistan with the present day—two incongruous worlds, operating in different dimensions.
Peshawar was the border between them, the furthest outlying, grim fortress, serving to defend and to keep order, or a stronghold from which armies set out on military expeditions to conquer the Afghan lands.
Peshawar was also a huge marketplace, a bazaar, which in times of peace performed the role of a place to meet and exchange goods and ideas.
By the will of the great empires of Russia and Britain, Afghanistan was to share it as no-man’s-land. Peshawar and the territory of the free Pashtun tribes surrounding the city were to perform the role of a buffer zone between the Punjab which, conquered by the British, was industrialized, rich, and focused on profit and progress, and the die-hard land of Afghan warriors who rejected foreigners and everything that was foreign, and who preferred totally unrestrained freedom to wealth.
Peshawar made a poor job of this task, because it was hard for it to remain impartial in the eternal quarrels between the savage warriors, as tough as nails, who came from the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan, and the educated, cunning, resourceful British and their compliant tools the Punjabis, who dreamed of grabbing those lands for themselves.
For them, the Afghans were doubly dangerous. They refused to recognize their authority, or to acknowledge their superiority, or even to admire or respect their laws, customs and unusual inventions that made life easier and multiplied profits. Like this, the Afghans undermined the myth about the foreigners’ invincible power and the pointlessness of resistance—the myth which had enabled previously conquered nations to come to terms with defeat and humiliation, proved the fruitlessness of rebellion and hinted at the usefulness of emulation.
By persisting with their resistance, the Afghans undermined everything that now seemed to be generally accepted and recommended as a universal model. Worse yet, they sowed doubt, and a sense of shame among those who had already recognized the profitability of compromise and collaboration.
Living on the border between two worlds, of reason and emotion, acceptance and defiance, between rebellion and reconcilement to a higher necessity, obligations and the responsibility they bring, Peshawar was like a man torn apart by a quandary, full of fears and dreams, incapable of making a choice. The price for avoiding fear and pain was to renounce his dreams. This in turn could, but did not have to, bring in its wake even greater suffering, which would make life unbearable.
For those for whom a journey to Afghanistan was something more than just a trip in search of new information and stories, Peshawar was a waiting room, a changing room, a psychoanalyst’s consulting room, quarantine, a hermitage where their metamorphosis took place into imaginary characters, the sort they would like to be, or the sort they essentially were, under a layer of mendacity and compromise.
We were getting ready for the journey to The Other Side, trying to make sure we didn’t neglect anything, that we were prepared for any kind of experience, wouldn’t miss anything and would come back from it richer, purified, with less baggage of doubts, and more convinced of the rightness of the choices we had made, ready for a new life.
On the return journey we stopped in Peshawar again, now reconciled, to return to our former characters and our former lives. Leaving Peshawar to enter Afghanistan brought anxiety. Leaving Afghanistan brought joy and homesickness.
Situated in a green valley, generously gifted with life-giving water from the great rivers Indus, Kabul, and Swat, to the very end of the nineteenth century Peshawar was the Afghan winter capital.
In the old part of the city not much had changed since those days. Here time had stopped, as on Afghan soil.
I usually made my way to the Fortune-tellers’ Bazaar, the Qissa Khawani Market. This was the easiest place to lose yourself, to forget and to disappear into the labyrinth of narrow alleys, in the shade of the tall tenements with intricately carved wooden shutters and balconies, among the gateways, stalls and miniature taverns, where bearded men, hiding from the burning sun, fortified themselves by unhurriedly drinking sweet green tea, chewing pressed tobacco with an added dash of opium, and smoking bubbling hookahs.
I would roam among old bookstores, whose owners, pensive and quiet as the books lying on the shelves, seemed to possess all the knowledge and wisdom in the world.
From the Fortune-tellers’ Bazaar, with no plan, no purpose, no aim or sense of time, not accosted by anyone and not questioning anyone, carried along by the crowd, I would head for the Bird Market, festooned with wire cages with songbirds in them, the Khyber Market, where dentists pulled teeth for patients squeezed into leather armchairs set out on the sidewalks, the Andarshah goldsmiths’ bazaar, and the biggest, most important market in the city, the Yadgar.
At noon, or toward evening, when the imams summoned the faithful to the mosques for prayers, I instinctively headed after the others to the Mohabbat Khan mosque, named in honor of love, whose soaring minarets served Sanjit Singh’s Sikhs as a gallows in the nineteenth century.
Acting like a road sign that showed you how to get out of the tangle of alleyways and squares at any moment was the mighty Bala Hisar Fort, watchfully looking down on the city from the height of the hill on which it was erected centuries ago.
Bearded Pashtun warriors slowly strolled along the narrow alleys of the countless bazaars, most of them here Afridi, Shinwari, Mohmand, Khogyani, Yusufzai and Alizai tribesmen, in enormous turbans covering half their faces, and often with plainly visible rifles slung over their shoulders.
The Pashtuns derive their right to bear arms from ancient tradition, from agreements concluded with the British, and also with the rulers of Pakistan, where they had been fated to live. Unable to find a way to conquer the Pashtuns from the Khyber Pass, or at least to persuade them to accept British rule voluntarily, the British agreed for them to live in their own way amid their rocks and deserts, to collect tolls from caravans passing through their lands, and even to bear and make weapons, as long as they did not attack and loot Their Royal Majesties’ garrisons.
The British were merely following in the footsteps of the Great Moguls, none of whom, despite many attempts and efforts, had ever succeeded in forcing the Pashtuns into submission. Nor did Sanjit Singh’s Sikhs, who sent Peshawar up in flames and slaughtered its population, nor did the Punjabis, who took over government in independent Pakistan.
Not wanting expensive and hopeless wars against the Pashtuns, successive rulers of Peshawar committed themselves to observing their autonomy in the tribal territory, which stretched in a wide strip along the Afghan border, blurring and rendering it in practice non-existent.
In Pashtun territory Pakistani law is only binding on surfaced roads, and there alone the Pakistani police take responsibility for the safety of travelers. On all other territory, divided into seven agencies and nicknamed the Land of Lawlessness, only Pashtunwali, the ancient Pashtun code of honor, is in operation, which does not allow for any exceptions or any free interpretation, and which demands sacred obedience to the dictates of loyalty to the clan and tribe, of hospitality and ancestral vengeance.
When traveling into one of the Pashtun agencies—not all of which are open to foreigners—first of all you had to gain the relevant permission, and also declare in writing that you renounced all claims, that you would not expect any help from anywhere, and that from now on you took total responsibility for your own fate.
I was once told a story about a Pashtun going to the market in Peshawar.
“What do you want to buy?” asked one of his comrades.
“A rifle,” replied the Pashtun,
“But you haven’t enough money for a rifle.”
“Never mind, I’ll sell my wife.”
“Aren’t you sorry to lose your wife?”
“Once I’ve bought a rifle, I’ll have no trouble getting her back.”
In the Pashtun, Afghan world, people are divided into only two categories: strong and weak.
The strong, who thanks to instinct, knowledge or experience, have come to know best and most fully the secrets of cruelty, pride, bravery, mistrust and treachery, own everything, and they have the right to everything.
The weak have no right to anything and cannot bear grudges about anything.
And they themselves are to blame.
Wars, greater and smaller, have almost always been going on here. Before the biggest of all wars settled in here for good, the Khyber Pass and Afghanistan were also the footbridge across which pilgrims and refugees from Europe journeyed in search of the Absolute and the Ideal. Rebelling against and disenchanted with everything, including their own rebellion, they sought deliverance and enlightenment in narcotic fumes and distant lands, whose names sounded unusual, tempting and magical—Peshawar, Khyber, Kandahar, Kathmandu, Goa.
Traveling the world in search of the truth, about it and about themselves, these stray wayfarers found a haven in inns such as the Hotel Alzar, for instance, swaying on the garbage dump of Peshawar’s Old Town, right beside the Yadgar Chowk bazaar, which went back to the days of the Silk Route and the Great Moguls.
During the day the hotel melted on a gray-blue cloud of dust and exhaust fumes. Even through the closed windows a cacophony of car horns made its way inside, along with the shouts of rickshaw drivers, the screams of stallholders, and the piercing wail of Indian hit songs coming from all directions. Nothing was capable of stifling the stench of the gutters either. In the evening, when a sudden burst of hot rain fell, the street outside the hotel was drowned in a slimy slush of mud and refuse.
Along with nightfall, the flaking, spluttering, three-story hotel building seemed to rise up and sway above the ground on a sweet cloud of hashish smoke emerging through the slightly open windows, through chinks in the roof, and through the keyholes in the doors.
Your eyes ceased to water, the floor ran away giggling from underfoot, and even the pockmarked walls went into a dance.
Then the godforsaken backstreet became an oriental alley full of mystique, the shabby hotel room a gracious, safe caravanserai, and the stink from the garbage was like the mysterious breath of Asia, filled with great promise.
© Wojciech Jagielski. By arrangement with the author. Translation © by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. All rights reserved.