Some years ago we were visiting Peshawar to see our family. We were staying in a good hotel. The hotel served a lot of great food. The food was quite reasonable for the prices so I invited some of my relatives for dinner. Mind you most of the people in that part of the world eat with their hands. Spoons are used to scoop or transfer food from the pan to the dish. Forks and knives are strangers to them. We sat around the table with a nice white and red table cloth, forks and knives neatly folded in cloth napkins and arranged for each guest, and glasses shimmering with ice cool water. I had ordered the meals and the waiters came with the dishes placing them in front of the guests. I took the napkin and put it on my lap and all others followed. Then I picked up the fork and knife and they followed suit. As I watched through the corner of my eyes I could see the tension and anxiety on their faces. Then as I was about to put the fork in the food I put the fork aside and dug in with my fingers. There was this uproar and I noticed such a sigh of relief on the faces of my guests. They were so happy to be eating the food the way they knew best, with their hands. Most of them had never been to a good restaurant or sat around a nice dining table with comfortable chairs. To them it was such a treat. We had roasted chicken, naans, rice polao and a many accompaniments. In our villages normally after the meal younger members of the family will come around with a water pitcher, a water bowl and towel to wash their hands but in the restaurant there is no such thing, instead they provide napkins. After the meals they were licking their fingers and as soon as they saw me wiping my fingers with the cloth napkins. They all were happy to clean their hand with the napkins. I guess they thought the napkins were there to protect their clothes but they discovered the second purpose was to wipe the lips and hands. They still remember that day with fondness, and so do I.
Peshawar is the epicenter of the Pashtun culture. Surrounded by Tatarra hills to the north; most of the Pashtun nation is spread out in valleys, and plains. Pashtuns have certain codes of conduct and within that code is hospitality. These codes most probably spread from Peshawar outwards in the times long gone by. The notion and concept of hospitality is ingrained in the psyche of the Pashtun nation. So much so that It permeates into the ordinary life of every Pashtun. In the code of hospitality if your enemy comes to your door hungry you feed and protect him. Your honor is very much tied to honoring the code.
Being brought up in that environment I was surprised one day when I went with a friend to have a quick lunch in a US fast food chain, ‘The Kelly Hamburger’. Before we could order our hamburgers he told me that “we would go Dutch”. I did not know what he meant by that so I enquired what that meant. He explained that we buy our own lunches. I was happy with that. Normally back home in a company like that one of the friends would pick up the tab; the price of hospitality. The reputation of a friend is ruined if he is slow to offer picking up the tab. I remember one such friend who had a bad reputation. We would laugh about him saying that he had a scorpion in his pocket. But back in our villages that hospitality could be taken advantage of, particularly during wedding feasts. Uninvited guests would show up at dinner time and they are not turned away. I remember one of our classmates in high school would skip school if there was a wedding in the village. It was rumored that his father and his two other brothers would go where the smoke was visible. Smoke was an indication that some sumptuous big meal is cooking. They would show up with small containers to take home extra meals. Perhaps that was a rumor but when there is smoke then there is fire. The burden of the code was somewhat eradicated when I embraced the culture of going “Dutch”.
Nothing can prick the sense of smell more than the food bazars of Peshawar. The stalls are interspersed among the brass, saris, jewelry and cornucopia of goods. The Chapli Kebab, hot naans, tandoori chicken all competing for dominance in your desire to eat. The air is filled with these enticing smells and in spite of the hygienic conditions your mouth waters.
The most addictive and colorful stalls are the Chai Kanas. Pashtun people love their chi or tea as it is called in the west. Tea was introduced to them in the early 30’s when India was ruled by the British. It was a love affair from the start. However there is no such thing as eating or drinking without that special exotic touch. So chai contained milk, sugar and cardamom and other spices. The aroma and taste is so popular you will find a Chai Khana on every other block.
I remember a cousin was visiting us and he was served Tea for the first time. He liked it so much that he drank quite a few cups. These Chai Khanas serve tea to the visiting Pashtun folk. There on the side walk will be a small table and some worn out chairs with guests around the table. Tea is brought in these small ancient enamel teapots, chipped and nicked and looking very much like they were from an archeology dig. Hot boiling tea is poured into the worn out cups and the fun begins. The table is buzzing with pesky flies and some do get into the tea cups and they just take out the dead fly and keep on drinking. I myself caught at least 20 flies in one scoop of my hand.
The other aroma that entices your appetite is the grilled chicken. Peshawar is famous for a variety of chicken recipes but the chicken they grill on a rotating grill is just wonderful. Mind you, Peshawar is not a clean city and there is terrible pollution. Besides the trucks, Lorries and rickshaws that pollute the air with their smoke, transportation is also provided by horse buggies. These horses are not potty trained and they will go when nature dictates them to go. Occasionally one can see cows, buffalos and other animals are being herded through these bazaars so they all add to the pollution. Perhaps the floating dust full of horse crap and other bacteria adds to the aroma and many peshawrites could have developed immunity to the floating germs but germs or no germs many visitors gobble the sumptuous chicken on the sidewalk eateries. With all that it is fun to walk in the narrow bazaars of Peshawar, enjoy the aroma of exotic food and the hustle bustle of the starry eyed newcomers to the city.
For Pashtuns living in the far flung villages talking about the city of Peshawar generates awe and reverence. In North America going to New York inspires excitement because of its awesome skyscrapers and museums. Peshawar has none of that. There used to be the Asia’s tallest Buddhist stupa there but that was destroyed by lightning as the history shows. History also says that the first Mughal king who invaded India in the 1520’s and defeated an Indian king Babar sat under a tree that still stands in the city of Peshawar. For Pashtuns Peshawar is like magnet. Going to Peshawar is like going on pilgrimage. Besides being the cultural and educational center for Pashtuns it is a unique city. Its uniqueness stems from it narrow bazaars. Bazaars are recognized by the merchandise they offer. There is the jeweler’s bazaar, pots and pans bazaar and clothes bazaar. But the most famous bazaar is its Qisa Khwani bazaar. In this bazaar one can buy anything from shoes to readymade clothes but it’s fame lies in its name. Qisa Khwani means story telling. I guess in earlier centuries there used to be professional story tellers that were quite popular when music theaters were not there then. Even now one can hear famous folklore love stories that are being sung here and in most village parlors.
Perhaps the oldest city in Asia it has mesmerizing charm for every Pashtun. A first time visitor from a remote village when he gets of the bus or train one can openly observe the awe on the face of the newcomer. At least that is what happened to me. Although I was born in Peshawar my father moved to different towns where his job took him. So when as a thirteen years old I visited Peshawar I thought I was visiting Mecca.
Peshawar is also famous for its Kava, a green tea beverage, Chapli Kabab and Peshawari naan but the most impressive are its educational institutions. Edwards and Islamia colleges are the most prestigious schools Peshawar can boast about. They have been elevated to the university level now but since I remember and even now any good student from far off schools dream about going to Islamia College. It is like the Harvard of Pukhtunkhwa. Islamia College was the shining feather on the cap of Peshawar. The educational level may not be at par with Harvard but in that part of the world it carries the same prestige.