A city that fights the battle of life every passing minute sings a tune that is seldom heard of: the tune of normalcy. When Pashto’s renowned contemporary poet and lyricist Fazl-e-Subhan Abid coined the celebrated phrase “Pekhawar khu Pekhawar dey kana”, I’m curious if he realised he was resonating with a a million hearts through Peshawar and all around (a famous phrase from a song ‘Pekhawar’ that gained acclaim from the public amidst the wave of terrorism at the time). It’s because this singular phrase brought to life the longing for recognition that the people of this city have long lived with.
The sense of ownership the dwellers feel for this city is parallel to none. The agony of losing the vibrancy of the city to terrorism has an accompanying effect on the intellectual landscape of the city, i.e. the avenues where ideas are debated are either closed outright or are reduced to the very private for fear of reprisal. But the story of surviving the menace of extremism always has at its core the idea of liberty to hold a different opinion. I believe it’s easy to survive, but it’s downright hard to retain and revive the things you lost to a gloom of the sort that Peshawar has been through, over the last decade or so. Reviving intellectual spaces – spaces of any size – is to me Peshawar’s singular tale in its journey to revival. I think that as long as the spirit behind the beloved lines “Pekhawar khu Pekhawar dey kana” keeps us going forward, with books, music, culture and art coming to the rescue, we can bring intellectual life back to this great city.
War sucks life out of a city, and cultural and literary activities – being the soul of any city – are the first to go
Speaking of phrases amounting to slogans of collective identity, there is the famous “Lahore Lahore Ay”. – a striking contrast, and a comparison so natural to draw, with Peshawar. In these two phrases one could view the contrasts and the simultaneous parallels the two cities share. You don’t say ‘Lahore’ and then fail to fall in the awe of the city’s inspiring love for literature and books. You just don’t. It has lived up to its own set standards of a thriving intellect and a regard for intellectual spaces. Of the many things that deserve to be mentioned, the sustained ability to let intellectual spaces operate and flourish is perhaps the most significant one. Dating back to the Mughal era and even before that, the first institution of literary gatherings was the ‘baithak’ which formally thrived under the British rule, and transformed to modern ‘cafes’ after Partition. Names like Coffee House and Pak Tea House stand out as monikers of a glorious intellectual period that the city saw. These spaces allow the collective wisdom of people to be molded into an educated and informed narrative. Book-meets, poetry slams, open houses for readers or other such activities inculcate in thinking minds an understanding of the society’s dynamics and formulates a viewpoint solely based on the purity of the written word and the sacredness of literature itself.
With trends varying over time, literary spaces might be losing their appeal to small ‘gigs’ at clubs or even private residencies. One constant, through it all, is the love for the written word. Evolution of any trend or trade is inevitable, and literature should be no exception. While the standing of literary spaces is established, one can’t possibly shun the growing influence of social Media in this regard, too. The disruptive revolution that social media is, has also sent its shockwaves through the conventional understanding of intellectual spaces. Perhaps there is an oasis of intellectual energy and passionate zeal about ideas in the atomized spaces of social media in the scores of outlets out there inviting you to come, read and basically hang out. And the take-home message is: READ! This way it’s quick, it’s easy, it’s just as good as a physical meet-up. What if one were to merge the two, though? Brilliant! A blend of social media and conventional means of literary endeavour -. combining the better parts of the two worlds which, at times, are on divergent paths.
Surprise! Peshawar actually did that. Here is how.
It so happens that ‘Bookay’ is an online facebook group, which works to promote books, book-reading and book-readers alike. A perfect nook for fertile minds. Popular as it is, it has earned international acclaim, with nationwide city chapters keeping the domestic game going. The Peshawar chapter is one such outlet of Bookay, which recently held a book-meet, and that too, successfully. The fact that the meet happened is a greater triumph than the response to the call itself (which, by the way, was not short of excellent). Such meet-ups are evidence of the fact that the youth of the city do long for cultural outlets and spaces which they know only through tales of yore. The arranging of this particular meet-up was testimony to the sad reality of the unavailability of cultural spaces for the youth; but it also was a testimony to the will of the coming generation to carve out those niches for themselves and contribute something of their own to the revival of that culture. After all, this city has suffered immensely in recent times and the inhabitants have been deeply traumatized – any efforts to return to normalcy and revive the lost traditions of the city are steps to revive the vibrancy of intellectual life and spaces in this terrorism-ravaged city
An already deprived region (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa), when hit with war, leaves little hope behind for its people. Peshawar, being the capital, has suffered the most. Whatever was done in the literary domain endured grave damage. War sucks life out of a city, and cultural and literary activities – being the soul of any city – are the first to go. Without an indigenous promise of promoting literary values, the dream of true education of the people can’t be realised. Hard as it may be, even a small initiative towards this goal is vital.
Peshawar had fewer spaces like those in Lahore and Karachi, and more often they are under-noticed. Anyone contributing to the cause in whatever way possible, in essence, reflects upon the collective promise that this wretchedness imposed upon us can be defeated, and that in the long run we can contribute in unimaginable ways to the ‘change’ we all so eagerly wait to see. It is a testimony of our collective will and our courage to survive. These spaces equip us with the reason and narrative required to shape the future of this city and this country as a whole. The “Bookay Peshawar chapter” meet was one display of it. With several books being discussed, recommended and quoted, an array of ideas was laid out. A healthy discourse of this kind is what we need to bring back. With most of our readers already lost to social media sites and technology at large, our solace now lies in using these very ‘menaces’ to our advantage.
No matter what the pains and how harsh the tragedies, if there is one thing Peshawar has proudly done, it is that it has survived! So has our love for book reading and literature. Here is to hoping that book reading thrives as a hobby and habit in our people. Here is also to hoping that Peshawar can rid itself of the horrific burden of having to fight an image, when all it has actually done is to thrive despite the odds.