Over coffee with a friend, I mentioned that I spent a week of my vacation in the city of Peshawar, and the reaction, though expected, jarred me. His eyebrows climbed up his forehead and he asked with pure disbelief, “Why?”

When I gave him a rundown of my trip, his eyebrows climbed higher. His jaw slackened and the look on his face said that I might as well be talking about Mars, not Peshawar. I shouldn’t be surprised, because just two weeks ago, the news was filled with images of burnt shops in Saddar where a devastating bomb went off in the middle of the day, with seven fatalities and several injured. Singapore Airlines and Emirates have cancelled all flights into Peshawar because the landing requires a 180-degree turn over the agencies (tribal areas ungoverned by police or provincial authorities). About a month ago, bullets came flying over the bow of a plane as it taxied into Bacha Khan Airport. While no one was injured, the story travelled fast and far enough to have long-lasting consequences.

Peshawar is Pakistan’s frontier town. It borders the lawless tribal areas and is a hop, skip and jump away from Afghanistan (2 hours by car). It’s been the port of call for Taliban fleeing Afghanistan and has attained a reputation for being fiercely fundamental in their approach to religion. In fact, the only time that religious parties have ever won an election has been in the Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa province (formerly NWFP, or North West Frontier Province, Sarhad in Urdu) in 2003. When I was leaving to join my husband, numerous friends and family members warned me to keep my head covered, and every time my husband heads over, he’s advised to grow a beard (because all ‘good muslims’ must have a beard).

With dire warnings ringing in my ears, I boarded the plane with slight trepidation, imagining a couple of days of being cooped up or roundly ignored by the men in the city before we headed to Islamabad. That was our original plan—two days in Peshawar and a road trip to Islamabad.

We stayed for five days.

Another Maligned City

My husband was waiting for me when I exited Bacha Khan airport. My landing had been uneventful, the flight smooth. Coming from Jinnah International, Bacha Khan’s single terminal with its two conveyor belts for luggage was euphemistically cosy. But the personnel were extremely professional, polite and kind. It took less than twenty minutes for me to get my bag and walk straight out of the terminal into the open air. The city was pleasantly cool compared to Karachi. Our hotel was just a few miles away from the airport. We crossed through Peshawar Cantonment via a double road lined with trees and bordered with red brick buildings. Traffic was orderly and polite, but the scenic route was burdened with numerous military checkposts and as we got closer to the hotel, there were barriers and sandbags lining the pavement, barbed wire cutting across the blue sky. We were passing the army’s commanding officer in charge of Zarb-e-Azb (the military operation against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan in Waziristan) residence, which happened to be right next to the hotel.

Opposite the hotel was the Peshawar Supreme Court, the City Courts and the Parliament House, so I understood the extra security. When we left the hotel a few hours later, we went in the opposite direction we had arrived in, out of Cantt, into the main city. Our first stop was Chowk Yadgar (literally remembrance), which lies at the heart of the old city. When we crossed the Bala Hissar Fort, the security measures fell away. There was no more barbed wire, no checkpoints, no military presence.

Image below courtesy Wikimedia.

Bala Hissar Fort, Peshawar

The Fort, rebuilt in 1835, is beautifully preserved, an imposing red building with smooth walls and rounded guard towers that were originally built atop a man-made hill. It was taken over by the Frontier Corps in 1949 and is no longer open to the public (the provincial government has passed a resolution to turn it into a tourism point, but it has yet to come into effect), so the most I could get were quick shots of the fort from outside (though none of them were clear or crisp enough to share). The citadel stands at a corner of the old city, and was probably the border of the original city of Peshawar. The old city is no longer a walled city (unlike Lahore, where the old city is clearly walled), but its edges are marked by seven imposing gates that lead into popular tourist destinations like Qissa Kahani Bazaar and Chowk Yadgar.

Chowk Yadgar was a revelation. The monument itself is built over an underpass, a curving tunnel that should have been used for one-way traffic, but was, instead, blocked off by parked cars. Our car passed over a bridge just to the left of the monument, a narrow strip through a congested warren of buildings and shops. In the midst of this cramped, overcrowded, unkempt area is the Yadgar piazza—an open space that’s equally unkempt, but there were signs that the municipality was working on cleaning it up. Behind the open piazza was Jewelry Market, a veritable treasure trove of gold and silver shops divided by cobbled streets just wide enough for two people to walk side by side. The shops and their elaborate signs hid buildings that were clearly ancient, with ornate facades and carved lintels. Behind the old buildings is an equally old mosque with an entrance decorated in stunning geometric art, perhaps of historical significance, though I couldn’t find any markers indicating that it was.

Schools and Girls

We walked through the market and I saw little girls in blue school uniforms with their schoolbags, obviously heading home. And this was the first Peshawar stereotype that came crashing down around my head. With Malala’s recent Nobel Peace prize award (though, for my money, Aitizaz Hasan may have a better claim to the prize), the belief that women’s education is limited and difficult in the Frontier is a cliché that exists within Pakistan as well as outside of it. In fact, everywhere I looked, I saw schools. And not small schools started up in houses as is common in Karachi. Peshawar has a huge number of well-planned, large schools, both public and private. From Edwards’ High School, founded 1835, advertising open admissions, to St Mary’s High School for girls and any number of government girls and womens’ schools, you can’t go anywhere in the city without spotting one.

Almost every day we spent roaming the city, I saw children and young adults heading home from school. And a drive through University Town to the gorgeous Islamia College campus confirmed that I was as guilty as anyone outside this country of typecasting my own people. Students at Peshawar University work out of one of the most stunning historical buildings in the country, and it’s beautifully preserved. It houses both men and women studying together for their undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate degrees. It stands opposite the Sherpao hospital, now the Khyber teaching college for medical students.

After day two in the city, my husband and I scrapped our plans for Islamabad. We hadn’t yet made the trip through the Khyber Pass, and he had more of the city to show me. Every day I spent in the city chipped away at the crazy image in my head of a backward and oppressed people. The shopping center, Saddar, is a wild mix of modern and old buildings, wide roads, small hotels, and clean walkways. Along with University town, these areas were filled with women, women alone, women with children, with their husbands and families. The men were clean-shaven and bearded, and at the small hotel where we feasted on chapli kabab and chutney, we were in a small curtained booth next to another couple obviously on a date.

No one shied away from talking to me. Shop owners fell over themselves to offer their beautiful fabrics and shoes and handicrafts to me, ignoring my very tall, very Pathan husband standing next to me. I bought mountains of dry fruit (a Khyber Pukhtunkhwa specialty) from a young boy filling in for his ailing father, where we got to taste pistachios and cashew nuts and dried plums before we bought anything (a kilogram of each for a total of $30). When a woman came up to my elbow and begged for money, I was shocked.

Karachiites are used to beggars. It’s practically an industry, from transvestites hounding drivers at traffic lights to beggars ringing doorbells in residential areas. It’s no longer possible to distinguish actual needy or homeless people from professional beggars now (various TV anchors have aired episodes on the lives of Karachi’s beggars. In one case, they followed an old woman home, where she shed her tattered clothing before she entered a respectable middle class house. It turned out that begging was a highly lucrative part-time job for the woman, who was watching cable TV on her 52” plasma in her air-conditioned living room. Several beggars have been caught with expensive cell phones and credit cards, in their own names). In Peshawar, however, except for the one woman in Saddar, I saw no beggars at all.

To say I was floored by the picture unveiling before me is an understatement. And that was before I walked into Peshawar Museum. Housed in a beautiful red brick building (newly renovated), the museum boasts one of the largest collections of Ghandara Art and Buddhist artefacts in the region. The ground floor has three halls filled with stone and terracotta Greco-Buddhist objects, including a creepy skeletal Buddha that I have never seen before. The second floor was devoted to ancient Islamic manuscripts and cultural objects from Kalash, including the coolest looking guns I have ever seen. The coin collection is apparently also a must-see, though the section was closed for renovations when we were there.

Shattering False Expectations

Nothing about Peshawar met my expectations. In every instance, it exceeded them, and I realize how easy it is to fall prey to global stereotypes, even for those living in Pakistan. Because everything written about Peshawar or Khyber Pukhtunkhwa in general is normally accompanied with the words ‘troubled’, ‘terrorism’ and ‘hub for the Taliban’. In reality, it’s none of those. It isn’t full of mullahs wielding sticks and shutting down girls’ schools. It isn’t overrun with fundamentalists burning down cultural exhibits and historical buildings (though the city no longer boasts as many cinemas as it used to). It isn’t unsafe for or unfriendly toward women on their own, or men without beards. Men aren’t walking around armed to the hilt—in direct contradiction to several political assertions that Pathans can’t go anywhere without their guns.

Instead, I discovered a cultural city that has found a seamless balance between the under-developed tribal areas surrounding it and all the amenities of modern life. A city that welcomed millions of refugees when they had nowhere to go, a city with great historical significance to the region, and a people that are hardworking, hospitable and highly educated.

Damn those stereotypes.