I was eighteen when my father was appointed by the frontier works constabulary to supervise three of their projects that were in the North West frontier province. To me it seemed that abba had flown into an abyss of tribes, turbans and chadors. An unknown, rocky land with an eccentric language. A place that refused to share anything with the country; a place that had its own set of impenetrable secrets; a place where lifestyle and dress-code were dictated.
After a few months of settling down, abba asked me to visit him. It would be a good time as his friend of youth had his daughter’s wedding celebrations underway. Abba’s friend-ship with taj uncle went a long way back. Their youth was now a joke they often laughed over. Taj uncle was a friend, a well-wisher and a brother! My siblings and I were very fond of him and his family. We enjoyed his company, adored his Pathan accent and admired his good looks. His broad structure seemed capable of shouldering the responsibility he held--- soldier of the state.
It was the end of October 2000. I was elated. But deep down inside a voice kept telling me how much I was going to miss mom. I was in the age when one liked everything…. I liked my age. It was my youth. The feeling must have been the same for abba and taj uncle in their good old days, only that it was 20 years or so ago. Maybe this is what the cliché refers “history repeats itself”.
Everyone operates differently; I like to hide in my cocoon when I fear an outburst of emotion. I hated the thought of parting from mom for even a few days. The night before my flight was a restless one. A dry October night. I slept in my brother’s room, sleeping in momma’s room would not be a “cocoon” thing to do. Morning was busy with my sister-in-law helping me pack and unpack and then, of course, re-pack. And with a lot of things I was seriously glad she was a true lender. In the afternoon I got dressed for my journey to Peshawar in a black and orange short shirt and straight pants. I draped the dupatta around myself; that quite prepared me for my trip to Peshawar.
Remaining in my cocoon, I embraced momma very briefly and coolly at the airport. That was unlike me. I was her kitten, always snuggled into her. But my cold front did not allow anything like that. Now I wish I would have hugged her closely and held her a little longer…..
As I walked with my trolley through the entry gate after having my ticket checked by the civil aviation guards, I remember feeling the cold breeze of the air-conditioned hall against my face. The breeze gave me a feeling of unclipped wings. I liked it. After all, it was my age.
I landed in Peshawar just as the Maghrib azans sounded over all other calls of the city and birds began their flight home. I was not homeward bound though. My flight was a launch into the world of a language that was enthralling and suggested intrigue…. It had accompanied me all through the flight! To be the only one who spoke Urdu was funny because I had not even left my country. Yet, it was scary too--- I felt alone! But in the age that I was I liked fear. I liked blind turns and going uphill at breakneck speed was probably the best thing in the world. Fear had me excited. It posed unknown challenges!
The airport was a small place where getting lost was impossible. With luggage in trolley once again, I exited the building. To my surprise there was not a single woman in sight on the crowded airport! I thanked god for the safety of my chador and searched for abba….there he was, just as I had been seeing him since birth. Clad in cotton kurta shalwar, with cigarette in hand, Peshawari sandals, silver hair neatly combed. My dear abba. What a relief it was to spot him in that crowd of strange men! He smiled with pride and happiness when I mouthed the word “Abba”. His Swati friend Akbar uncle stood beside him dressed in a similar style.
From the time that I had boarded the flight to Peshawar, I had started writing little notes to momma. In my imagination I was updating her with the events of the day. For me it should have been an instance of realization that life sometimes had to be lived without those who you love. I did not know it then, I simply kept trying to come to terms with the fact that I was barely a week’s distance from momma. It was the age. I could not have known that the powers that controlled destiny were working on teaching me a lesson that would have long-term effects!
I had heard the wildest tales about the N. W. F. P being highly primitive in customs and conservative in lifestyle. But to my surprise, I discovered those days were long gone. While getting dressed for a party at taj uncle’s the same night of my arrival in Peshawar I wanted to set an impression but made sure to carry my chador for I wanted to do “as Romans did”. But upon arrival I found myself stripped of my lovely chador and escorted into a big round garden where men and women together enjoyed traditional Pashto music being played on traditional musical instruments. The atmosphere held romance. Exotic tea was being served, afghan musicians played glorious music, the heavy-set pathan men, all belonging to important government posts, others from the army and most of them family men hooted and sang along; lovely fair-skinned, green-eyed damsels seemed sent from paradise…………..oh I was mesmerized! And I sure did learn not to rely on hearsay!
The people were beautiful. Very courteous, warm and could sometimes prove to be funny. Abba had quite a few other friends from his youth who had lived in the swat valley previously but were now in Peshawar. I got to meet a lot of families there because of abba’s acquaintances. It was always a pleasure. They treated me lovingly and helped me feel comfortable. Each home held a different tale for me. Taj uncle’s was one of honor and prestige. The house had several huge rooms, a dining room that resembled a mess hall, a courtyard at the back and a garden like the ones I often saw in English movies. Then there was Akbar uncle’s house. Very traditional in structure and, to my delight, was the picture of a typical Peshawar family. Akbar uncle’s sister, Malika aunty lived in Peshawar’s posh area, hayatabad. She had a lovely, cozy, English home, decorated in dull hues.
I learnt how education was very important to all the families I met. Almost every other girl I met was either specializing in some field or taking on some professional course. They were well-aware and made interesting company. They still followed rules about draping chadors around themselves in market places or any other public place. This added secrecy and charm to their women; I enjoyed every bit of maintaining that mysterious outlook. It was the age!
They believed in treating their women tenderly and provided them that security and warmth which our modern world was unfamiliar with. They were simple people who did not bother much about what the world did. They had progressed tremendously and yet, did not overlook tradition.
I was showered with lovely gifts or rather I should say tokens of love. Each one held a story in itself. There was the fabric from the gilgit border and the lovely fabric my hosts especially chose for momma from their best marketplace and the mullagori marble stand for keeping the holy quran from abba’s staff at the marble factory; also, there were the sweet, vague words and the naughty, Pashto gestures.
The hot dry days would flow into long silent cold nights. I wished for a promenade in the gardens of the mess. I wanted to pick flowers and smell the crisp air. I did not have the opportunity of living certain moments that would enrich my soul. And I wished very hard for at least a glimpse of myself touching petals and feeling well-maintained lawns beneath my feet. It would have been possible with momma only. Each night brought me closer to departure and momma. She, who read my mind and loved me unconditionally… momma!
I am so thankful to abba for the day that he took me to the pak-afghan border. Maybe it was my age but it held real importance for me. The ride was long and went up rocky brown mountains. We passed the local militia at several places; bony in appearance but firm in will and physical strength. Black kurta shalwar was their uniform and they trekked the mountains without a bead of sweat on their broad foreheads!
I continued to marvel at the majesty and beauty of the barren mountains. They were like their people; unyielding, sturdy, expansive. It was unbelievable how such an unwelcoming structure could hold such enigma and attraction. The winding paths were a steep uphill ride with sharp, blind bends. My ears crackled and my hearing constantly ranged from good to very bad to average. We passed colossal fortresses, caves, military units and officers’ mess. All over-powering and fascinating sites. The mountains were strangely unaccommodating. They were in so many shades of brown and gold and chrome, their color palette surely was conjured up in the heavens. The bright day light did nothing to make them cower. They had rough edges. The sun light could only bounce helplessly over them. My eyes felt their prickly sharp edges. Maybe it was my age; I fell in love with the masculine mountain peaks.
The border was a delightful sight with its hustle bustle. It seemed like a busy marketplace. Or maybe a flea-market. Burqa-clad females moved about, but as was usual male dominance could not go unnoticed there, too. There were fruit stalls; and turbans bobbing up and down either when there was accord or difference in conversation. The division between nations based on lines drawn by man really saddened me. It seemed to be the only root-cause for all problems. Why couldn’t we live as a whole? The globe began feeling finely and carefully etched and dirtied by false lines to me since then.
I went and touched the afghan earth. It felt like the earth I was standing on.
How difficult must it be to follow a line that does not exist geologically?!!! I am sure it was my age; I felt I was an afghan. The afghan that abba and momma often told me about, royal, friendly, fun-loving! I had the misfortune of witnessing them as a fallen nation with no hope of betterment. They had not lost their land. They had lost their home, their shelter, their pride. I was told about how the migrants that left Afghanistan and entered Peshawar were trying to cope hopelessly. There were financial problems, health problems and even sometimes life and death problems! The beautiful flowy gowns that were displayed in nearly all shop windows were traditional to the Afghans. Pathan weddings now had lovely colorful decorations in laces and nets and flowers which were also brought in by their migrating friends! They were doing everything they could to earn a living and maybe somehow gain the past splendor!
On our return from the border we stopped by the Khyber rifles mess for lunch. Once again I found myself in awe with the décor, the pictures of past army generals covering the high, old-British walls, the long carpeted passages, the dining hall with its elegant long table and the orderlies at our beck and call. We were entertained by the brigadier on duty who gave us stories about the Pathan culture, the land and the mess itself. At another mess we saw a tree chained to the ground. It is said, abba informed me, that the British general who was posted there in the pre-partition era got drunk one night and imagined the giant tree running to attack him. Out of fear he ordered his men to immediately restrain it using chains. Just as much as I found the story amusing, I wondered why decent, civilized people wished to indulge in such habits and become a joke for centuries to come!
That night after my tiring ride to and back from the border when I was in deep slumber, I dreamt of momma. It was a chilly dry night with the temperatures dipping till 10 degrees centigrade. I cried in my sleep and wailed. Out of fear that I might wake the people in the next lodge poor abba woke me up. He told me I was screaming “momma, momma”.
Pashto music really had me off my feet. I believe it was my age. It was a happy music; a loud music. I could not imagine a sad song in that culture. Their musical instruments and traditional dances were beautiful. Different tribes had their own special version of twirls and jumps and claps. Catchy tunes were played on drums as men frolicked in traditional outfits with flare shirts and turbans. They had us entranced with their rhythmic movements. Their expertise was commendable and their fervor contagious. The women however did not seem to have their version of any of the dances….. They danced into the night in a tent reserved for them. There was much rejoicing.
Abba helped me buy several music cassettes of their famous musicians. It was a purchase driven by my age; a funny story for my later years perhaps.
Abba’s office was housed in a fortress called the “Bala Hisar”, meaning, “THE HIGH FORTRESS”. It was raised high on a hill. The radiance and brilliance of the building lay in its antique appearance. It had a castle-like façade, carved out of the mountain it stood on. Winding, spiraling, slopy paths led to the entrance of the building. Once again I feel unfortunate because I did not get to visit abba’s office, my important abba, but the bright side is that I have been within the premises once when we passed through the building while picking somebody. The building is resonant of a rich past, an important past. At present, it maintains its richness and significance. It is a landmark. In all the daytime noise and din, I felt the solemn and dignified presence of the over-bearing building. The first time that I set my young eyes on the fortress, I envied those who spent their entire day there. I wished I could own it somehow…. It was the age!
It was nice to see abba’s old times return. He had an “army” of servants, lots of people who were loyal and dear friends, three factories under his supervision and comfortable accommodation. I must correct myself here, old times could never return. The power, prestige and riches were a fairytale that helped the women of the family at their children’s bedtime. He certainly did not have palaces, fleets of Cadillac and Mercedes, and 20 acres of industry under him with a workforce of 200 “worshipping” servants, anymore. But I was very happy to witness him in a commanding position again. His meticulous manners, throaty voice, his extensive knowledge on social and religious issues and travel experiences complimented his status.
Time fortunately flew by for me in Peshawar. There surely wasn’t much for me to see. But whatever there was, I had explored it and cherished it. It was a “been there done that” experience. For the age I was in the lessons were numerous. One could get a bullet in the head while playing hop-scotch on the border if you accidentally stepped on the line that never existed; the pathans spoke in Pashto only; I had to drink tea politely without letting my hosts have the slightest hint of my detest for the drink; and I could not get a stoneware tea-set with a tea-pot included!
I was young and impressionable. I enjoyed every bit by the strangeness of cultures, norms and traditions. The real lessons were an undercurrent that surfaced years later. Sometimes I still feel washed over by a strong sense of realization of both momma’s fears and motives at the time, or of the strong bond I formed with the rest of my family because of the brief distance I had to maintain with them, or how abba was over possessive of me, or of the weaknesses I had finally conquered simply because I had made an eight day journey. A simple people had transferred their simplicity in me. I saw the plight of the Afghans at having migrated to Pakistan but now relate to their predicament. Sometimes I wonder how I could have missed these important lessons just eight years back. But then I remember it was just the age…