Peshawar: A City Where Its Flowers No Longer Bloom

The complex tapestry of Peshawar's transformation over the past four decades, split by the twenty-first century and the 9-11 incident, tells the tale of a garden of flowers that has now lost its diversity, colour, and fragrance

Peshawar: A City Where Its Flowers No Longer Bloom

This year, Eidul Fitr coincided with spring, and my family and I arrived a day earlier from Islamabad to celebrate in Peshawar—the city of flowers. However, the Peshawar I remember from childhood has undergone significant changes, shifting its focus from blossoms to beliefs. Born and raised in Peshawar, I have seen two different eras, split by the twenty-first century and the 9-11 incident which changed the face of Peshawar.

Growing up in Peshawar, I cherished this city's rich heritage. It stands as one of South Asia's oldest living cities, steeped in hospitable traditions and vibrant culture. Yet, the city's harsh realities have made it increasingly challenging for some to call it home. Let me share my reflections on this transformation.

Peshawar bore witness to the Afghan war with the Soviets and the subsequent fallout from the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan. These events reshaped the region's dynamics, and Peshawar found itself on the front lines. 

In 2008, as I embarked on my career in Islamabad, terror attacks gripped Peshawar. The once-familiar streets became fraught with danger, prompting me to consider Islamabad as my new refuge. Over a decade later, I can confidently say that relocating to Islamabad was one of the best decisions I have made.

Despite the terror which continues to haunt Peshawar, it remains a city of immense beauty. Its ancient roots, warm-hearted people, and cultural richness are undeniable. However, the environment can be unforgiving. 

Its diversity has waned, discrimination has risen, and inequality dots its streets. These ills demand collective efforts for resolution.

One feature of its rich diversity was how, when I was little, Peshawar used to echo with various languages. Urdu, Hindko, and Seraiki were all spoken alongside Pashto. Sadly, the Afghan war and the aftermath of 9/11 eroded this linguistic diversity. Today, speaking Pashto is almost mandatory, whether in government offices, hospitals, or educational institutions. Speaking in any other language makes you an alien.

Peshawar has been a cradle to one of the greatest minds to have risen to become icons of history. As I reflect, I wonder: What if Shah Rukh Khan's father had not left Peshawar for Delhi?

Beyond its people and languages, Peshawar is also home to some of Pakistan's oldest Imam Barghas, yet the Sunni dominance prevails in the socio-economic fabric. Even within Sunni sects, the divisions run deep.

Some mosques remain off-limits to others, perpetuating intolerance. One mosque can change the day of Eid for half of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa while the other half waits patiently to celebrate it the next day.

Afghans, who have been ravaged by decades of continuous war, have not only endured racial slurs in the streets of Pakistan since the 1990's but also received no social protection from the government. Many continue to live in the buffer zones — physical and social.

Other smaller communities of the city, including the Sikhs and the transgender, suffer indifference, intolerance, and sometimes even deadly violence.

This city's opportunities for women and girls remain scarce, casting a shadow over Peshawar's prospects. While many women have become doctors and teachers, women's participation in other professions— such as architecture, information technology, and interior design— lags.

This is due to a disheartening trend that persists in Peshawar, as it does in many parts of Pakistan. Girls are often married off soon after high school, regardless of their educational achievements. After marriage, often their careers take a backseat, overshadowed by societal norms and economic considerations. Some young brides find themselves wedded to men twice their age, and their dreams are deferred.

Unlike other cities of Pakistan, Peshawar lacks the recognition that progress hinges on the active involvement of women in socio-economic activities.

Legislation must create spaces for women across all walks of life, fostering their contributions to society. 

There is an urgent need to prioritise girl-child education and ensure young minds flourish beyond traditional boundaries. Beyond education, addressing inheritance rights becomes crucial. Many women silently bear the burden of injustice due to resource constraints.

The newly formed, male-dominated Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government must face scrutiny. Recent incidents, such as the shoe-throwing episode targeting a woman parliamentarian, underscore the harsh reality faced by women. Diversity remains elusive, with traditional major political parties underrepresented.

Peshawar's streets once echoed with laughter, with vibrant theatre performances and television programmes. Alam Zeb Mujahid, a dynamic performer, became a household name with over 250 comedy dramas to his name. He brought joy to millions on both sides of the Durand Line. Yet, fate dealt him a bitter hand. For someone who brought smiles to millions, he had to flee to secure the smile on his face. 

Forced to flee his homeland, he sought refuge in Singapore, where he drove a taxi to make ends meet. But Alam Zeb's story is just one thread in the complex tapestry of Peshawar's transformation—a garden of flowers that has now lost its diversity, colour, and fragrance.

Peshawar has been a cradle to one of the greatest minds to have risen to become icons of history. As I reflect, I wonder: What if Shah Rukh Khan's father had not left Peshawar for Delhi? Would we still have witnessed the rise of one of the most celebrated actors of our time? Similarly, Indian cinema's golden era would have remained incomplete without the contributions of Peshawar's favourite sons, Dilip Kumar, the Kapoors, and Vinod Khanna — each tracing their roots back to Peshawar.

But it's not just the silver screen that owes its brilliance to this city. The world of sports, too, reverberates with Peshawar's legacy. Squash legends like Hashim Khan and Jahangir Khan emerged from these very streets. And who can forget the indelible mark left by PTV icons like Qavi Khan, Rasheed Naz, and Marina Khan? What unites these luminaries is their audacity to chase dreams beyond the familiar; they did not settle for mediocrity; they carved their names into history. Rejecting the notion that hometowns are shackles, they ventured forth, proving that success lies beyond comfort zones.

Perhaps there lies a profound lesson for our current age in Peshawar. Instead of blindly following the crowd, let us form opinions based on reason and fair judgment. Pursue your dreams, guided by your inner compass, rather than conforming to the expectations of others. Cherish the uniqueness that each person brings, and respect differing points of view—even when they challenge your own beliefs. Let us create a world where equal opportunities flourish, transcending gender boundaries. Remember, people are like flowers: diverse, vibrant, and not bound by uniformity.

As spring blossoms anew, hope emerges. The newly formed KP government holds the key to change. Bridging religious divides, uplifting marginalised communities, and empowering women can transform Peshawar into a city of flowers once more. Both the government and people need to start believing in rich diversity, fostering tolerance for minorities and marginalised communities and equal opportunities for women.

Ibrahim Nisar, a Peshawar-born IT professional now based in Islamabad, wears many hats. He actively participates in tech events, including Code for Pakistan and TEDxPeshawar. Beyond the digital realm, he engages in thought-provoking discussions about architecture, design, and literature. His critical writing sheds light on pressing social issues, making him a multifaceted conversationalist.