Curtains for bookstore in KPK Nasser Yousaf Thursday, March 31, 2011

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An utterly bland banner hanging outside the closed shutters of a bookshop in the Peshawar Cantonment makes a foreboding announcement: the owners have shut down the shop and could now be approached for business in Islamabad. It is more than a month now since the mournful notice was hung. Pedestrians and motorists pass by it at all hours of the day, but give it little more than a casual glance.

It was the biggest and one of the oldest bookshops in the town, nay in the entire province, and a repository of stationery and books from around the world. The elderly owner, who had lately disappeared into the basement leaving the counter on the ground floor to his son, appeared to be distinctively aware of the literary sense of his visitors. One could thus find nearly all major works of renowned authors, otherwise unavailable even in cities like Karachi and Lahore, prominently displayed on the racks.

The bookseller was also quite daring; one would often observe the gradually diminishing copies of titles as enticing and controversial as Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ being replaced with a gusto. Glossy fashion magazines for men and women including GQ and Cosmopolitan would also be found spread invitingly on tabletops in addition to a continuous supply of several US, UK and Middle East-based daily newspapers.

The protracted Afghan conflict and the resultant rush of Western journalists to the region added another chapter to the success story of the bookshop. The raging fury of the conflict, its myriad interpretations, and paradoxical dimensions suddenly found their way to the bookshop on Arbab Road Peshawar.

The enterprising bookseller made most of the opportunity as titles on the Afghans and Pakhtuns, long lost to memory, suddenly reappeared in new jackets. And the bookseller knew perfectly well how to flaunt those titles: a shelf right at the entrance decked with eye catching colourful covers would welcome the visitors. But these windfalls alone could never have enabled the bookseller to set sails for the higher climes.

The business fortunes of the booksellers had in no small amount been propelled by local purchases, more specifically purchases in the public sector. The bookshop had virtually served as the single source in as far as supplies of all types of books to the libraries in the government and non government sector were concerned.

A casual visit to one of the more than half a dozen libraries in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province may provide irrefutable evidence to this effect as every next book could be found indelibly stamped with the seal of the closed bookshop. The burgeoning growth of English medium schools in the private sector also spelled a bonanza of sorts for the increasingly reclusive bookseller.

What then forced him leave his long held fort for good that set tongues wagging? One of the probable reasons bandied about referred to the prevailing fluid law and order situation in the province, particularly in Peshawar. The ever present threat of kidnapping for ransom has left the rich and famous of the town confined to their cavernous quarters. Some accounts also referred to boredom induced by the age-old routine as the likely cause of the closure that came like a bolt from the blue for the fast dwindling club of book lovers. The latter believe that the sad event should not go unnoticed.

The bookseller on his part could hardly be faulted for shifting his place of business. The undesirable security situation in Peshawar makes his decision understandable. Islamabad is teeming with affluent refugees from Peshawar. ‘Run with your money to Islamabad,’ is the fad in Peshawar these days. The bookseller and his ilk have one common denominator: they all accumulated their riches in Peshawar. Selling books in an embattled town with the wealth thus hoarded could be the last wish of the hoarders.

Those addicted to books will continue to get them from all quarters of the world. But for students and, above all, the image of the land, the closure of the town’s premier bookshop is a matter of inconsolable grief.

Recent events in the area have seriously impaired Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s image as a civilised place. The place that for decades has been home to Edwardes, Islamia and Burn Hall schools and colleges and the lush green sprawling campus of Peshawar University is under attack from bigotry brigades. The morning news bulletins invariably begin with news of bombings in more schools in this godforsaken province. Why, for God’s sake, is there no word of protest from those who perceive the militants to be angry only with American presence in the region?

A small segment of the Pakhtun literati recently circulated an article that draws reference to an inflammatory account of the Pakhtuns by Jules Stewart under the title ‘The Savage Border.’ The book has dubbed Pakhtuns as wild, savage, barbarians, not versed in the civilised ways of the world. One may not like it, but the bombings of schools and the closure of the bookshop provide ammunition to Stewart and vindicate him and his ilk.

Why is Alexandria and Cordoba being done to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa? No one appears to be ready to answer this, and this is the saddest tragedy to befall the Pakhtun nation.

The writer is a Peshawar-based freelancer. Email:

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