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Day one. Arrival.

I looked through the window of the PIA airplane as it was lowering its course. While the machine yearned to reach the tarmac of the runway, I was yearning for the first sights of the Pakistani soil.

December. All I can see through the window are one-story houses, desert-like landscape, few palm trees. Everything looks like someone dusted some sand around. Like a Victoria sponge cake covered with powdered sugar. The warm morning sun cheerfully casts its rays everywhere, suggesting I can expect a heatwave upon arrival, so well known to me after trips to India and the Middle East. Instead the pilot announces 4 degrees Celsius. First dissonance.

At the arrivals gate I am greeted by my fiance’s father. He takes me to the desk with “Foreigners” written above the head of a serious-looking young Pakistani woman. I complete a declaration card, show her my passport, and off we go. My future father in law works for the military, we are free to go.

On one side I have my partner and his parents, on the other guards with guns. So far I don’t sense any danger, it is not uncommon to see armed men at the airports. What surprises, is the tank standing outside. Has someone forgot to tell me there’s a war?

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Three hours later. Hassan wakes me up from the nap I took upon arrival with the words: “we are going to Peshawar in half an hour”.

Peshawar. The largest city of the tribal Khyber Pakhunkhwa province. The city only few miles away from the Afghan border. The place where just over a year ago 141 innocent people, mostly children,  lost their lives.

“I’ll be ready in a second” 

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We picked up our bags ready to leave. Hassan’s dad, dressed in a long caramel coloured shalwar kameez, stopped me for a second. “Look beta”  he said showing me his library collection, including a few positions he wrote himself. While he proudly described his published works, I noticed a small gun calmly resting on the palm of his open hand. The barrel was pointing at me. He didn’t even notice.

In the military houses guns are the most natural thing in the world. Going to Peshawar and taking a gun was like remembering to grab car keys before leaving the house. Just your usual family outing.

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We drove in three cars. On the wide motorway I wasn’t sure what to admire – the  beautiful fields we were passing or the modern three-lane highway which made me feel like I was driving down the German autobahn. I would quickly get reminded I was in Pakistan with the colourful trucks.

Pakistan has the most beautiful trucks in the world.

 

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Pakistani truck parked in a village

 

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We arrived at Peshawar after dark. Pakistan’s oldest city seemed cleaner but also more conservative than Rawalpindi where I landed.

In Peshawar the guns were even more prominent than in Pindi. From the moment we entered the city we noticed check-points. I felt like I was entering a war zone. Every few meters away stood a police officer or a soldier with guns. They checked for bombs under the cars and pointed their rifles with suspicion at anyone passing by.

After the many attacks within the region, especially the most tragic one in December 2014 where over 130 children were brutally murdered by the Taliban, Pakistani authorities had no choice but to increase their military presence in the region.

I was scared seeing so many weapons in one place but in Pakistan you learn quickly that a gun means protection. In Europe a gun is a sign of an approaching danger. Here, it means you are not defenseless, you can protect your loved ones and there is someone who is going to have your back. Guns are not strong and glorious. They are a sad necessity, a magic symbol that wards off the evil and brings peace of mind.

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The portrait of the Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, over a fireplace adorned with guns

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Peshawar in Sanskrit means “city of men” and in fact male citizens are everywhere. Streets, shops, restaurants. Women don’t participate in the street life. You can see them in passing, always coming back or going somewhere. A woman has no business being alone on the street unless there’s an errand she is running or she’s on her way somewhere. It’s safer this way.

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This ancient city was once a well known centre of trade, invaded by many due to its central location. It was conquered by the Persians, taken over by the soldiers of Alexander the Great, and passed from the hands of Chinese tribes to Arabs to Mughal Empire. India wanted it, Afghanistan wanted it, the British wanted it.

From the end of 1970s all the way throughout 1980s Peshawar became a central place for the Mujahideen  fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It also became home to a large group of Afghan refugees.

All these various cultures brought with them their religions and traditions. Peshawar was home to Buddhism,  Hinduism, Sikhism, until Islam took over. This diversity can still be noticed.

Pakistani society consists of various tribes. People build their identity on the religion they follow, its branch, further sect divisions alongside their geographical origin.

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One of the most interesting and largest ethnic groups in Peshawar are the Pashtuns. There are mentions of the Pashtuns living in the areas of what is now known as North-Western Pakistan and Afghanistan that date back around 1000 BC.

Despite the political turmoil they have been exposed to over the centuries, Pashtuns managed to maintain their own identity by cultivating their fiercely independent and proud character and by sticking to their own ethical code known as Pashtunwali. It is this set of believes promoting loyalty, hospitality, bravery, protection for women and respect towards guests.

Our driver, Khursheed, was the best example of it. Always pleasantly polite, he would speak to women in the car only when they initiated the conversation. One day Hassan pointed out that the panoramic mirror was turned upwards, reflecting only the ceiling. Khursheed did this because I sat behind him and out of respect he did not want to make me uncomfortable by the odd chance of catching my gaze in the mirror while driving.

People say when a Pashtun invites you to their house, you should not be offended if they leave the room while you’re eating. It’s out of respect, to ensure you can help yourself to yet another portion without feeling uncomfortable.

That night in Peshawar, my father in law’s friend, also a Pashtun, invited us for a tea to his house. There were ten of us who arrived at their place late at night. We were all welcomed with bright smiles, delicious kava, nuts and carrot halwa. It was my first night in Pakistan and I was greeted with more warmth and hospitality I could have hoped for.

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I went to bed feeling strangely secure in the heavily guarded army compound in Peshawar. Instead of counting sheep I considered counting gunmen.

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Goodnight Peshawar

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