Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Back in Pak

And so it is: Pakistan again. And still it feels new, changed, altered in a way that I can’t necessarily describe in words but exists nonetheless in a kind of shapeless form. Re-constituted, perhaps.

This re-constituted Pakistan smells less like war and more like disquietude. War is certain, factual, undeniable. War happens to people; disquietude happens in people. That inner world is making itself known, bursting through the surface of the communal corpus like a feverish sweat. It disorients; it fractures the consciousness, breaks it into jagged, unbridgeable fragments. Here, is the world of war; here, the world of peace; here, the world of dreams, of futures and possibilities; and here, alone, isolated, is the world that could have been, the lost world, the world of longing.

I landed in Peshawar at precisely 4:08 local time Saturday morning. The airplane touched down tentatively, bouncing twice off the tarmac before acquiescing to a pugilistic relationship with solid earth. It swayed and stammered to a stop and then rolled grudgingly to the terminal. In the chaos of the baggage reclamation point (that is, in fact, what they call it here), there was the first inkling of that disquietude, in the way the waiting passengers shifted their weight, from one foot to the other, their mounting frustrations, and in the heat, the unnatural thickness of it that seemed to emanate not only from the air but from the people themselves.

And on the streets, weaving through emptiness, past abandoned blast walls, skirting barricaded alleyways, the city itself oozed a venal malaise, an existential rot. Peshawar is collapsing in on itself, its superstructure weak and decayed. “There is nothing here anymore,” the taxi driver said, offering me a Morven cigarette. “We are like the city of the dead.”

“We are like” he said. There is no separation between the city and its people. It has become a single entity. When a bomb destroys a building, it also shatters a limb of the urban body. But my fixer tells me there hasn’t been a bomb blast in the city since the one in June at the Pearl Continental hotel. Peshawar should be healing.

And yet it’s not. Instead, like an injured man left behind at the scene of a grotesque accident, it bleeds slowly to death, wounds turning gangrenous. Has the world forgotten about Peshawar? Perhaps not, USAID has donated millions of dollars for the beautification of this seminal frontier metropolis. Can the locals look forward to a future of gardens and cafes? Will Peshawar transform into the Pashtun Paris? Or perhaps more importantly: is that what the people need?

After settling into my hotel, I’ve spent the past three days trying to re-construct Peshawar through my own frame of reference. Sadly, I am no surgeon so all of these severed limbs and bleeding arteries feel alien to me. A part of me wants to run, to escape the way this pitiful place begs you to do something: “Help me!” it screams. “Fix me!” Something elemental in me rejects the ploy, for that is what I believe it is – a trick, a scam, a trap designed to entangle me and prevent my eventual escape.

Peshawar is dying and it wants to take anyone it can with it.


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