I’ll be honest. I find travelling to far off places with strange sounding names devastatingly romantic. I love meeting people with charming dialects, weather beaten faces, coloured eyes and an aura of having experienced life in hues both dark and bright. Nature thrives in diversity yet we foolishly look for comfort in familiarity. Diversity unravels the tedium of it all. Imagine a world of Blacks and Whites without the bewildering riot of colours that keep the extremes eternally apart. Our understanding of this colourful tapestry is massively informed by the stark and the subtle comparisons we inevitably draw, differences we embrace and celebrate, imbibing all along the zest of a tolerant God. I had little clue of what Peshawar would be like for I had lived in Lahore all my life. December 30, 2003, frustrated, apprehensive, courting a sense of doom, I set off for the city on a hazy, frigid morning.
Jobs earn livelihood and go some way in making us the people we are. But sometimes our work does much more as it takes us on journeys to places far from our homes, our loved ones. I worked for Shell for 10 happy years with most of these years in Lahore. Peshawar, therefore, sounded like a death sentence. The world can change in minutes but mine took six hours to unravel on a road journey that was both emotionally and physically exhausting. Peshawar looked crowded, decrepit, a nobody. I was told it is the oldest city in Pakistan that finds a striking mention in the Zoroastrian religious texts, as the seventh most beautiful city in the world. There is beauty in windswept, barren landscapes which only the discerning with an eye for the sparse and grey would know.
My local colleague, Azhar Khattak, introduced me to Jaan Bakery, the oldest in the city. Food has a way of blunting the blows dealt by life and I was no exception. This cake made in butter, chicken croissant oozing with cheese, fried mutton chops made my life a lot better instantly. Then there was the Karkhano market in Hayatabad where you could find TVs of all kinds and ages. There, in some corner, atop a rickety wooden frame, sat the paunchy Baba Wali from Afghanistan, selling the most fragrant rice cooked in a broth made from beef bones and meat. He served the rice with succulent shank meat and a sauce of crushed green chilli laced with garlic. I need not wax eloquent on the joy, visits to Baba Wali brought me without fail and for that matter all the unsuspecting visitors. Most of my Peshawar memories are about charred meat, whirls of smoke wafting around, glow of embers and how it painted our faces amber and crimson, crispy fried fish on the river bank, steaming qahwa, freshly squeezed orange juice and the butter cake.
I had the largest territory stretching all the way from Mardan to Bahrain, which was an hour’s drive from Swat. An hour’s drive on a road that skirted hillocks, winding its way through some of the most beautiful scenery one could imagine. Bahrain was known for its fried trout and I don’t want to be drawn into talking about the virtues of the trout. Peshawar grew on me slow and tender and I was soon in love with the sleepy, quaint city. It was not all about food though and my best memories were spawned by the very hospitable, rugged Pakhtoons. I got to know Faisal Khanzada who owned a Shell pump somewhere near Takhtbhai and I would look forward to meeting him every time I went to Swat. Handsome by all definitions, his salt-and-pepper beard perfectly complemented his ruddy complexion and green eyes. And he was embarrassingly courteous. Hasnain Khana, he would call me, he had this old world charm and goodness about him which shone through. Faisal died in a suicide attack while attending a funeral. I miss him a lot and often imagine him somewhere up there in heavens, puffing on his cigars, billowing out smoke, wearing his inimitable smile and that glint in those green eyes.
Peshawar embraced me whole heartedly. And I returned the favour. I had left Lahore full of trepidation but was won over by a city that had more salt than spice, that had more character than Lahore and that spoke in a gruff but endearing diction. I stayed in Peshawar for two years and was given a royal farewell with a bonfire on a cold winter night. “Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow”, some wandering soul once said. I happily brought back a bit of Peshawar.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2016.