An evening in PeshawarPosted: August 31, 2011
The streets are packed with men and boys and the occasional apparition in a drifting sheet looking like a cartoon ghost. The air is electric with anticipation, around the main mosque the streets are blocked off with concrete blocks, barbed wire and sheets strung up obscuring the view. Half a dozen news trucks are parked next to the road block and we stop to ask what’s happening.
“Big meeting at the mosque, maybe Eid tomorrow.”
So that’s it we think, Peshawar might be finishing Ramadan a day early and everyone is looking forward to the festivities that follow. An hour or so later the cars start honking and men lean out the windows cheering. It’s confirmed, tomorrow is Eid, in Peshawar at least if not the rest of Pakistan.
We walk down a street lined with restaurants; rooms the size of garages are lined with narrow benches and forms to sit on. Out the front on charcoal braziers seikh kebabs and chickens are grilling. Carcasses of fat bottom sheep hang in rows from hooks and cross-legged butchers sit on platforms chopping meat into pieces with cleavers. We are waved over to a table and are brought naan, salad and raita and a wok of mutton karahi; steaming chunks of meat and bone and fat with chillies and tomatoes. We mop at it with the bread and eat with oil running out the corners of our mouths. Afterwards the waiters ask if we enjoyed the food and ask for their photos taken. They speak Pashtu and tell me that I look like a Pathan with my shalwar kameez and moustache. They hand me a hash cigarette. Obliging them I inhale once, hold the pungent smoke in my lungs for a second and exhale a dense blue cloud. I try to hand back the cigarette but they laugh and insist I smoke more. I toke twice more before they accept it back.
We walk off down the street but are stopped continually by men wanting to shake our hands.
“What country from? How you? Fine!”
We stop at another stall and order mango shakes. They come in beer mugs with straws and are cold and creamy. I’m dripping sweat and drain the glass in an instant. We go to pay but the group of men sitting next to us have beaten us to it.
“Where are you from?”
“New Zealand and Poland.”
“Why you in Peshawar?”
“Ah good good!”
“Where you stay?”
We aren’t staying at the Green Hotel but their question had made us nervous. They are just making small talk using their limited English but we don’t know who might quiz them afterwards about what they talked to the foreigners about. We feel even safer in our deception when one of them asks us what room number we are staying in. They want us to stay and chat but we decide to keep moving and make our excuses.
We continue onwards against the flow of foot traffic, greeted constantly with thumbs up, smiles and more handshakes. The streets in the old city are so crowded its hard to move. Motorbikes weave through the pedestrians carrying up to four, five or six passengers. They sound their horns incessantly. Some are regular motorbike horns, some play melodies like icecream trucks and others are just loud. Its late but the shops are still open. At a tea stall we are detained and asked to drink saucers of tea and to sit with the men for a moment. We leave after a few minutes but then at the adjacent tea stall they insist we stop and drink with them also. It is a family run stall with an imposing black and white portrait of a white bearded patriarch looming down from the back wall. Mohammed is his grandson and runs the stall. He talks non-stop to us as he works, ladling bowls of green and black tea into plastic bags for his customers.
“How can I go to Australia?” he keeps asking. I don’t know but suggest he studies medicine. His brother arrives and sits next to me. He is a religious scholar with a warm smile. He doesn’t speak English but expresses his notion of global fraternity with a handshake, placing his hand over his heart afterwards and then grabbing my shoulder.
We start out into the streets again but need a break from the chaos. We turn into a doorway, climb a narrow set of worn stairs and enter a second floor teahouse. People stop talking and look up as we walk in. It’s a small room filled with cigarette smoke and charpoys; low beds made of a web of ropes slung on a wooden frame. Wooden beams hold apart an uneven floor and a low ceiling. A toddler lays on his back on one of the charpoys fast asleep. A group of young men sit in the corner and old man reclines on another charpoy. We sit opposite him but he ignores us. The young men start chatting to us. One, a young man with a straggly beard and a pristine white shalwar kameez speaks better English than the rest.
“We are just arts students,” he says. They introduce themselves but I instantly forget their names. They read politics and law at Peshawar university. I tell them I studied the same and they are pleased.
“What is the West’s conception of Pakistan?” asks the student with the better English during a lull in the conversation.
“Well there is a lot of misconception I think,” I say, stalling. “There are a lot of bad stories on the news about Pakistan.”
“Yes,” he nods as if he already knew this. “But people in Pakistan are mostly good I think.”
I agree with him and suggest that if more westerners came and saw for themselves they might have a better impression of the country.
“Yes maybe,” he says before adding “when you leave, please don’t pay for your tea. We will pay for it.”
They rise to go and we thank them for the tea.
“We are going to Bilour plaza in Saddar to smoke sheesha,” our new friend says. “If you aren’t doing anything later please come and join us.”
Another man arrives and sits next to us. He has terrible teeth, painted eyebrows and tortured eyes. He has grey skin and is wearing a head band. The departing students speak in pashtu amongst themselves and laugh at him. He laughs along nervously as if used to a lifetime of being the butt of jokes.
“Shemale, shemale!” the students explain to us as they walk out the door. He is a hijra, a derogatory term for a kind of transexual peculiar to South Asian societies. We introduce ourselves to the man who has seated himself next to us. He doesn’t speak English but smiles coyly at us and pours us tea.
Ziggy goes off to take photos of the steaming samovar and the man making tea and I am left alone with the strange man. He takes my hand and kisses it moistly.
“I love you” he says in English.
He puts his hand in his shirt and squeezes his nipple. I notice his other hand has slid to his crotch and is caressing there. I don’t know what to do so I take a photograph. I’m not sure why but raising the camera lens to my face helps distance me from the situation.
“Ziggy,” I call out. “I think we should go”
He comes over and asks what the matter is. I suggest we head back to the hotel and we head back out into the dust and heat and the noise of the jubilant crowd. This is the night before Eid, I wonder what tomorrow will bring.