For a while now I have been speaking to my friends and family about the ‘black cloud’ that hangs over Peshawar. When you enter Peshawar, I don’t know how else to describe it. There is something in the atmosphere: nervousness, an unspoken tension. This is not a simplistic attempt to romanticise Peshawar as a ‘frontline’ city as is often done in public and academic discourse within and outside of Pakistan. Rather, I make this statement consciously in reference to Peshawar and its people – Pakistani, Afghan, and others – as being traumatised by an inescapable vulnerability of life that has become the norm in these ‘post-9/11’ years. This reality is constantly present and shapes people’s everyday lives.
The looming presence of check posts in the city is one way in which people are constantly made conscious of this vulnerability. Check posts are not unique to Peshawar; in the hyper post-9/11 (in)security context, they are everywhere in Pakistan. However, the number of check posts, their visibility, the delays they cause, and their centrality to everyday life is more intense in Peshawar than elsewhere, for example in Lahore, Karachi, or Islamabad. Indeed, many people speak of how the security conditions in Peshawar, a predominantly ‘Pakhtun’ city, reflects a scapegoating of Pakhtuns as responsible for the so-called ‘Talibanaisation’ of Pakistan by a perceived Punjabised/Indian Muhajirised political, economic, and cultural hegemony within Pakistan. Ever since I returned, I am reminded of how normal, yet disturbing, it is to have a heavily armed military guard constantly asking you for your right to exist and to move in or out of a place. Waving his gun around, peering in to your vehicle, seeing what you are ‘up to’. Elsewhere, I have written and spoken about how the situation for Afghans in Pakistan – a sizeable part of the population – is markedly worse. But right now I want to explore how this trauma is significant for all Peshawarites – which includes Afghan, Pakistani (Pakhtun and otherwise), and others.
Funnily, check posts make you feel more insecure than secure. This is not just because you are reminded of the fact that bombings are a routine part of life – Peshawar’s 2013 timeline of bombings almost reads like a train schedule given their regularity and it is estimated that over 50,000 people have been killed in Pakistan between 2003-13– but it is also because you lack trust in the state and state actors. Common sentiments here question if the check posts have ever caught criminals or potential bombers. Yet even if they do not, logic may assume that check posts are meant to act as a public site of ‘theatre’ of deterrence for potential bombers, i.e., because the might of the state is being displayed bombers may think twice, for fear of being caught. However, in Peshawar most people instead understand check posts and state actors as infringement on personal space, dignity, and right to the city, as well as being reflective of an incompetent and complicit security apparatus or a ‘tool’ that is used as a publicity stunt by political parties when they are needed to be seen to be doing ‘something’ to manage security concerns.
These check posts cause massive traffic jams, delays to mobility, and are a constant set of frustration. Everyday, many fights break out at the check post because of this simmering frustration and insecurity.
‘They also check women now’,
my students reminded me this week. (Yes, agreed, from experience.) In a society in which the female is a site of honour, nothing could be more humiliating for people as a whole.
‘This is just a part of our lives now,’ one of my students told me. ‘It used to take me 4 hours to get to my village from Peshawar. It now takes 10 hours because of the extra checking.”
I thought he was joking; he wasn’t. In my research focusing on experiences at the check post in Pakistan, borrowing from work conducted in Palestine, I wrote about how control over one’s time is considered a requisite for human life; when this is denied you are perceived as possessing a status parallel to animals. Peshawarites feel animalised.
Aside from this grating and ever-present tension, most people also know of someone who has been killed or injured by a bomb blast or a military encounter: friends, family members, community members, workers, and colleagues. During the Qissa Khawani blast in September this year, one family lost 18 members; 18 members in one go. Seriously, pause and think about this. How much of a furor would this have caused in Europe, the UK, or US? Yet in this violence, the landscape of amputees, people in wheelchairs, and those who are physically scarred is a norm. Walking through spaces from Hayatabad to University Town, amputees are not an unusual sight. Couple this with regular issues that take place within a state in terms of health, education, and resource distribution and the mind boggles. Added to this is the rise in kidnappings of men – and sometimes killings. From prestigious figures to the average male doctor, men are going missing or being held. This has a tremendous impact on the men who are kidnapped and the families they leave behind – men, women, elders, children, and so on – in this interconnected society. As the writ of the state is absent, to whom do you turn to if a family member is kidnapped? Certainly not the untrustworthy government or security forces. These kidnappings are now a norm and not some random one-off stories to scare children to sleep. It happened on the doorsteps of the road in which I am living. The insecurity of knowing whether you or your loved ones will or will not be able to return home is never far from my mind.
‘Read a prayer of safety for your loved ones’, I was told. ‘What else can we do?’
In Peshawar, the wider Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) these varying everyday traumas are the ‘norm’. If there is one industry that is booming in Peshawar it is the mental health illness as people constantly seek out psychiatrists for sleeping disorders, stress issues, and more serious disorders. In Madiha Tahir’s documentary Wounds of Waziristan, Tahir refers to how family members of those killed in US drone attacks in Waziristan (part of FATA) continue to be haunted and psychologically scarred by those events. She says,
‘in a haunted land, the dead do not live amongst the living; the living live amongst the dead’.
Whilst Tahir is speaking specifically about drone victims, her words resonate with Peshawar and this region. To the victims of other random bombings, killings, military campaigns, mercenary actions, and the violence of other non-state actors, to the lives that continue in vulnerability.
Those who can afford to leave Peshawar, leave; usually heading for Islamabad, one of the relatively stable cities in Pakistan. And then imagine, for many, particularly those from areas that are/have been at the heart of military campaigns by the Pakistani military and US administrations, from drone strikes and military actions, it is Peshawar that is the sanctuary! In Peshawar, given the dominance of the military in Pakistan it is hardly surprising that only the military cantonments are the ‘safe’ areas.
I came to Peshawar to teach because I know that very few people are willing to do so. But I also know I can afford to and am acting in a position of relative luxury and security – I have a Red passport. I can leave when I want. I do not live here permanently. But the fact that no one wants to live and work here, even in the short term, also means that the stories and voices of these daily traumas are not being heard. Instead within Pakistan, the usual stereotypes of the ‘Pakhtun’/’Pathans’ (the latter being a term often used in a consciously and unconsciously derogatory way by non-Pakhtuns in Pakistan), which have been inherited from British colonial racialisation of the South Asian subcontinent, prevail. Or the hyperbole of ‘fear’ of the ‘Muslim’/ ‘Pakistani’ menace, which dominates public discourse in the US, UK, and Europe, is given precedence. But, as I write from Peshawar, these stereotypes and skewed reporting mechanisms seem almost comical or at the very least a cruel mocking of people who live here. Indeed, to all of the official visits made by the US and UK administrative personnel to Islamabad, or to the elite leaders of Pakistan, safely fortified in mansions, I ask them to come and live here. Don’t just visit in a safe helicopter or armoured vehicle protected by ‘thousands’ of guards impermeable to the tense air and emotions that people experience. Actually, come here, live here, and see what fear and trauma really is.
But this itself is part of the problem. No one is willing to do so. Instead those that live in Peshawar are often dehumanized and reduced to numbers, or abstract artifacts, or ‘terrorist’ beings whose lives do not matter. But Peshawar is not a simply a city of ‘militants’ and sub-human beings. It is a city of people; people living, working, pursuing education, seeking to improve their lives, and trying to, quite simply, live. People come to Peshawar from all rural areas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA to pursue degrees, get jobs, and improve theirs and their family’s lives. Over 70% of Khyber Medical College students are female. Engineering students are present here from across the province and country – and even, as I recently found out, from Somalia, Jordan, Sudan, and Kenya. New talents of young musicians are emerging. Peshawar, despite all attempts otherwise, remains fighting to stay living.
Moving across other spaces in the world, especially when I am in London, or even to a lesser degree, fortified and ‘safe’ Islamabad, there are no black clouds – well, they are not as heavy. The black clouds of Peshawar are not unique to Peshawar. They return in places like Karachi or Indian Occupied Kashmir, albeit in somewhat different circumstances. They are the mark of a city and a people in fear and in trauma. These traumas produce a heavy air. People must emit some kind of chemicals or hormones that make the air this way. People must be emitting their grief and their sorrow. Writing in the days of the Hakimullah Mehsud killing, parallel to previous occasions, people hold their breath to see what this city will have to endure next. Yet, we await the day when the air will be lighter and carry sweeter songs of love and happy memories instead of the whisperings of fear, death, and trauma.
Peshawar: the city of flowers, the city of hospitality. We pray for the return of peace.
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Sanaa Alimia is a Visiting Associate Professor at the Political Science Department in the University of Peshawar. Here she is teaching ‘Critical Migration Studies: Migration in a Global Racialised World’. She is also a Senior Teaching Fellow in the Political Science Department at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. Sanaa completed her PhD from SOAS in 2013 where she focused on Afghan refugees and urban poor Pakistanis in Karachi and Peshawar. @SanaaAlimia