Sunday, 12 February 2017

QK Archives: Searching for real Peshawar

Published originally by the Statesman, Peshawar Mashriq group 2007
Searching for real Peshawar
S Amjad Hussain
I have lived away from Peshawar, the place of my birth, for over forty years and still in so many ways it feels as if I never left. It is not the awful traffic, widespread pollution, clogged sewers, deafening street noises or the call for prayers broadcast over the ever-powerful and amply-amplified speakers that gives me the re-assurance of continuity; it is the peaceful and tranquil slice of the old city that still connects me with my early life and which can still be found but only at odd hours of the day. For that one has to venture into the maze of brick-lined narrow alleys of the old city. While the haphazard urban sprawl has swept away the ancient city wall and the 16 gates, for some of us diehards, the city of yore remains even if for a few fleeting moments.
There is a tiny mosque located about 100 yards from our house in Mohalla Kazi Khelan where I, when I can, attend the first prayer of the day an hour before sunrise. A short flight of stairs leads to a tiny courtyard at the end of which there are two large carpeted rooms that serve as prayer area. On a recent morning there were about 15 worshippers from the neighbourhood who, wrapped in wool blankets and shawls to ward off bone-chilling cold, came for congregational prayers just as their fathers and their fathers’ fathers had done before them.
I am always amazed and envious of their devotion to faith and family that surpasses mine in so many ways. An elderly worshipper was praying fervently for his family, his city and the world beyond through a steady stream of tears flowing down his grey beard. He was repeating the ancient prayers that have, because of mere repetition, lost their real meaning for many of us. Just as these men, people in other parts of the city as well respond to the call for prayers and show humility that is becoming a rare commodity in this violence-prone world. As opposed to the grenade-tossing, machine gun-totting fanatics who kill and maim in the name of this very religion, these simple people from every walk of life are the real believers. It is a privilege to be in their company.
There used to be a Quranic school in this mosque where the neighbourhood children, both boys and girls, would come in the afternoon to take lessons in memorising or reading the Quran. I profiled the school and its imam the late Ustad Khurshid in a cover story for Toledo Magazine in 1993. Many of those kids still live in the neighbourhood and have become responsible citizens and good neighbours. I see an occasional one at the morning prayers.
On my way to the mosque there is the neighbourhood baker’s shop. Every day before dawn Anwar, the owner, fires up the large underground clay oven. The aroma of the freshly baked bread wafts through the neighbourhood. On the way back from the mosque I greet him and his early customers and ask if he would bake me a thin flat bread call lavash. As a special favour he bakes one for me. By the time I reach our home half of the bread is gone. No one has heard of Dr Adkins and his diet in these parts. A breakfast of freshly baked bread and sweetened cream called malai is enough to gladden any heart in this town including that of a hopelessly romantic native son from America.
Eating breakfast sitting around the sandli in the kitchen is another tradition that connects me with my past. Sandli is an old Peshawari tradition where in winter months a charcoal basket is placed under a low table and an oversized large quilt is spread over the table. Family members sit around the sandli with their feet under the quilt. In the dead of winter the families start using sandli not only to ward off bitter cold but also to have the entire family gather in one place to talk, to tell stories and to enjoy food or snacks in an intimate and comforting setting. The stories and fables we heard from our elders have, over the decades, been passed on to the younger generation in this setting.
Another thing that has not changed is the way people come to offer condolences. Unlike in the West and for that matter the rest of this country, long-time city residents come whenever they can to visit. Our family went through that process when the news of my wife’s death reached here. Upon my arrival a few weeks later the process started again. Some of them bring an offering of food as a token of their affection. A poor woman, a distant acquaintance, brought a handful of spinach leaves that she most likely had gathered in the fields on the outskirts of the city. It is the equivalent of neighbours bringing a cake or food for the bereaved family. The visitors raise their hands, bow their heads and utter the familiar verse from the Quran, ‘To God we belong and to Him shall we return’.
It is comforting and re-assuring to find a few old traditions that are still in vogue here even though the city I knew and loved has ceased to exist except of course only in the minds and hearts of some of us.
A die-hard Peshawari, Dr. Amjad Hussain returns to his favourite city a few times a year to reaffirm his deep-rooted attachment to the city of his birth. In his other life he is a professor emeritus of surgery at the University of Toledo and an op-ed columnist for the daily Blade of Toledo, Ohio. E-Mail: aghaji@bex.net
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