A morning in PeshawarPosted: September 2, 2011
The morning was fresh when we stepped out into the street blinking the sleep from our eyes. I wasn’t sweating yet but felt groggy. We tried to get back to the hotel after leaving the teahouse the night before but events conspired against us. More men stopped to shake our hands, wish us well and ask us if we were enjoying our stay. Finally, around 1.00am in a sheesha cafe in Saddar, Peshawar’s new city, we made our excuses to our new friends, exited the smoky room and headed back to the Rose Hotel.
The morning light was still soft and oblique rays of sunlight lit up shafts of dust filtering down through gaps in the awning over the the storefronts. The streets were quiet; the day was only just coming alive. At the barbecue restaurants that had been so busy the night before the proprietors were lighting their braziers. They placed small piles of animal skin and fat gleaned from the butcher’s offcuts in the braziers and placed a few chunks of charcoal on top. When lit, the skin and fat burned like a crude tallow candle and ignited the charcoal.
Passing one of the garage-sized restaurants we were waved in by a smiling man. Out the front was a tandoor, an enormous dish of bubbling brisket and a huge stack of cracked bones from which the corpulent cross-legged proprietor was tapping out the marrow. The place was packed with men slurping down their first breakfasts after Ramadan and we squeezed onto a bench and were brought a bowl of brisket and boiled marrow swimming in an gelatinous broth. Naan and plastic mugs of pepsi accompanied it. The meat was rich and gloopy and we ended up covered in grease. To clean up, a small boy poured water from a stainless steel cup over our hands while we rinsed. When it came time to leave they refused payment.
“No money, no money!” they said, grinning at us.
We wished them Eid muburak in return and continued on our way. Aside from some food stalls the shops were closed, garage doors pulled down over storefronts. Groups of boys roamed the streets, wearing their best clothes and armed with new BB guns received as Eid presents. They demanded to have their photos taken and posed like freedom fighters for the camera.
Walking down a street of coffin builders we were waved over for tea by a man sitting on a charpoy outside his stall. A group of boys appeared from the back of the shop and posed for photos. They didn’t have BB guns and weren’t wearing their best clothes; in fact they were filthy. Intrigued, we followed them to the back of the building where they disappeared up a narrow concrete staircase. Arriving at the top we entered a concrete courtyard. The brick walls were black and tarry from couldrons of oil and sugar bubbling over wood fires. Skinny men with oil burns and skin infections were working, stripped to the waist and wearing baggy trousers so greasy they were transluscent. They stirred huge vats of syrup with paddles, mixed piles of dough up past their elbows and pressed spaghetti strings of sugar into the woks of boilikng oil. It was a snack factory. On the bare ground lay heaps of sweets and savoury snacks that the young boys were piling by the armful into plastic bags for packaging.
The boss came out and seated us on a couple of empty cooking oil tins and brought tea in a battered enamel kettle. He piled a selection of snacks onto a piece of cardboard for us and then left us to photograph. After the while he returned with a hash cigarette and offered it to us. The young boys giggled and whispered “hasheesh” to each other. The boss then led us to a corner where an old man was squatting next to a 10 litre oil drum. On it sat a piece of burning charcoal, a cup of water and a block of hash. In his mouth was long thing paper taper. He pressed out a paper thin leaf of hash the size of his thumbnail and placed it on the charcoal. He then took a mouthful of water and inhaled the smoke through the taper, bubbbling it through the water. He sucked all the smoke from the hash in one long draw and then spurted out the water in a long spluttering jet. He then sat back on his haunches with his eyes closed with a look of supreme beatification on his face.
Next it was our turn. I worried about how much hash he was pressing out onto the charcoal but smoking it through the water it was cool and smooth. It wasn’t until I got to my feet with a sloppy grin slipping across my face that I realised how unsteady I was. We decided to leave and stepped back into the street giggling to ourselves. It was 10.00am.
In the interim the streets had turned to mayhem. The mobs of boys with their plastic assault rifles were clambering over the road blocks and barbed wire erected around the mosque the night before looking like child soliders. Unsupervised by adults, the boys moved up the streets shooting out all the lightbulbs outside the closed stalls.
A firefight broke out betweeen two rival groups of boys which quickly degenerated into a fist fight. I tried to separate them and restore order but they were out of control. We left them breaking their new BB guns over each others’ heads and retreated quickly up the street as BBs whizzed past our ears and a rock hit my ankle.
We took cover in an ice cream shop. The shop owner sat cross-legged by his chest freezer and placed his cigarette between his toes as he sliced our ice cream out of metal cones. We ate the ice cream quickly as it melted in the heat and then left.
We passed one building that looked like a mosque but was surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. It was the Peshawar All Saints Church, founded in 1883. We knocked on the gate hoping to be able to see inside. After a moment the gate opened a crack and we were greeted suspiciously by a man with a shotgun. The church was not open for visitors.
It was noon time for me to head to Lahore. We took a rickshaw to the Daewoo station but found it empty. Of course, it was closed for Eid and no buses were running. It looked like we were stuck.