If Virginia Woolf is to be believed, killing a phantom is far more difficult than putting an end to reality. Upon first glance, the statement appears ambitious in its scope and depicts why sensationalised and macabre portrayals of certain areas by the western media continue to hold sway.
The Federally Administered Tribal Areas have remained the epicentre of the war against militancy. The tribal belt has also grabbed headlines following repeated demands to do away with the Frontier Crimes Regulation and integrate the region with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. However, media reports have conveniently edged out the voices of tribespeople who inhabit these areas. Little has been done to probe the limitations of human understanding and explore what lies beneath the surface. As a result, the reality of the tribal areas is weighed down by common misperceptions about the land and its people.
I recently took a road trip from Peshawar to Torkham — a town in Khyber Agency — with a few colleagues. The experience opened a vista onto the so-called tribal existence and pointed out the terror and solace of people who belong to the agency.
Although it is difficult to detect the roots of conflict by simply driving through sinuous roads surrounded by treacherous hills, the journey helped me look beyond the range of media coverage and gain a fresh viewpoint.
As our car crossed Bab-e-Khyber and large, rugged mountains zipped through our line of vision, the chaotic energy of Peshawar’s busy streets seemed like a distant reality. The noise and rush fell away and we entered a rustic setting surrounded by open spaces, fresh air and towering peaks. In retrospect, the sights and sounds belonged to a separate world. And yet, there was an essence of familiarity to them that I was irresistibly drawn towards.
The willingness of khasadar personnel to pose for a photograph and smile for a selfie, added to my consternation.
When we reached Jamrud, our guide identified a series of sites where explosions had occurred in the past. The journey through the region’s history of violence served as a reality-check and instantly reminded us that we were passing through dangerous territory.
However, our fears were short-lived as semblances of stability began to emerge on the horizon. In the midst of jagged hills and an endless strip of road, there was a boxlike pizza shop — the only shop that sold the western delicacy in Landikotal. A few minutes later, Landikotal Bazaar, a largely male-dominated market, and Landikotal Press Club, unlocked the doors and windows to our imagination.
On our way back from Torkham, we made it a point to visit the press club and the pizza shop. All three sites narrated a human story, a remarkable tale of survival. The press club was housed in three rooms that could only be accessed through a dark, dingy staircase. According to locals, the political administration was unwilling to set up a press club. As a result, journalists took matters into their own hands and established the press club.
Similarly, pizza is not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Landikotal and the lone shop presented a unique facet of the region that remained largely unknown.
While we ate at the pizza shop, the owner informed us of a cricket match that was taking place. Driven by curiosity and enthusiasm, we found ourselves sitting at the bleachers of a playground twenty minutes later and watched the sport with nothing but the rugged hills to keep us company.
After my trip, it has become crystal clear that killing a phantom can be easy if the phantom that haunts your thoughts has no basis in reality.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 15th, 2016.