Peshawar may be to the War on Terror what Vienna was to World War I and Casablanca to World War II, but as a result, South Asia’s oldest city has fallen off the tourism map. Though random bombings have lately decreased, the December 2014 massacre of 132 Army Public School children has done irreparable damage: even Pakistanis have stopped visiting the city. Fortunately I managed to visit Peshawar in September 2001, as a war correspondent covering the aftermath of the 9/11 attack.
I was on my own; never have I been an embedded correspondent. I’d begun my travelling in terror-torn Punjab; I was in the Assam jungles, when a mass grave at Lakhipathar, dug by separatists, was discovered (it had a rank stench); and I built my career during the worst of the 1990s insurgency in Kashmir. Though I reported from places like Brazil, Germany, Israel and Thailand, nothing was more satisfying than reporting from a conflict zone. The thrill of the unknown was at the very heart of reportage; making sense of the bits and pieces of reality, when it was hardest to do so, was its own reward.
Peshawar looked no different from any Indian large town. The heart of this 2,500-year-old city is its crowded and squalid old quarter, a labyrinth of narrow streets skirted by mildew-y colonial houses now used as spice shops, dental clinics (the streets were filled with giant sets of teeth on signboards), and currency storehouses for traders in the worthless “Afghani”—bundles of it were stacked fearlessly on the roadside. The smell of meat permeated the place, both the raw meat hanging in shops as well as the stale meat in the streets. Clouds of flour exploded out of bakeries. And occasionally, a gleaming mosque where youngsters would display indignance over the U.S.A.’s War of Revenge. This old quarter is filled with Pashtun men—don’t call them Pathans—burly and craggy, and dressed in crumpled “pathan suits”, skull caps and beards.
At the edge of the old quarter is the Bala Hissar Fort, standing between the city and the Khyber Pass to the West, from where India has been historically invaded. The fort is a cleanly kept ruin, with Army cannons peeking out of the ramparts and turrets. The British came to Peshawar in the 19th century to fight three unsuccessful wars against the Afghans and built a cantonment beyond the fort. It is sprawling, spacious and leafy, like most cantonments in India, as if it were deliberately the opposite of the noisy, crowded civilian life.
When Peshawar began to bulge, new residential colonies sprouted in concentric circles around the centre. The poshest have developed along an invisible line that extends from the old quarter through the cantonment and beyond, towards Afghanistan. The Afghan settlements that followed the December 1979 Soviet invasion (and the War on Terror) have come up west of the residential colonies: these are Pakistan’s “Afghan Cities”. Donald Trump rails against “thousands and thousands” of refugees coming to the U.S.; but as a character in Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West says, millions of refugees have already streamed into Pakistan because of the wars.
Peshawar’s Sadar Bazaar is a bustling high street between the cantonment and the old quarter, lined with Afghan-owned shops where one could buy semi-precious stones, cell phones or ancient technicolour postcards featuring a beaming King Zahir Shah looking more youthful than his 87 years. And also T-shirts featuring a tranquil Osama bin Laden, accused of the 9/11 attack. This street’s monotonous commerce continued even as daisy-cutters were being dropped just miles to the west, proving that death too could not stop life.
For peace and quiet, however, I walked around University Town, where I stayed during my five weeks in Peshawar. It sprawls between the cantonment and the University of Peshawar; further to its west is Hayatabad; and further west are the smugglers markets and the Afghan cities.
The wealthiest Pashtuns lived in Hayatabad. Its roads were lifeless. Abdul Haq, the former Mujahideen commander who lost half a foot to a landmine, lived here; after the Soviets fled he set up a prosperous business in Dubai in dry fruit and heroin. The CIA sent him into Afghanistan to take on the Taliban, and he was promptly killed. Pir Syed Ishaq Gailani, right-hand man to one of the Afghans’ main spiritual leaders, also lived here. He and his men were “Gucci Mujahideen”; because he lived in luxury, surrounded by gadgets, eating his buttered bread with a knife and fork.
It baffled me that this Afghan was not eating Afghan food. When I arrived in Peshawar, one thing I looked forward to (besides reportage) was Afghan cooking. Central Asian cuisine was no doubt the baap of Mughlai cooking. It was the central Asians that established the Mughal Empire who invented chilli-rich recipes to kill the local stomach bugs. Just imagine. Mughlai cuisine was invented to fend off Delhi belly.
It was an upset tummy that kept me low-profile the first 10 days I was in Peshawar. The toughest battle that any war correspondent faces in a conflict zone is the one against diarrhoea. Riaz, the Dawn’s local bureau chief, said it might be a “hill bug”, which sounds unglamorous. I visited Islamabad three weeks into my trip, and was in a visa-renewal queue when I heard several Americans bragging to one visibly suffering cameraman about how they had already got over their bouts of “loose motions”.
Once I was no longer “bogged” down by the “runs”, it was time to hunt for food. I couldn’t of course go looking in Afghanistan, which had suffered three consecutive years of drought by the time the Americans showed up. Even the dry fruits of the lush Shomali Valley had, well, dried up. Anyone who could afford to cook a proper meal had already fled Kabul and the inevitable American bombs. Only the poorest remained. For Afghan food you had to go to where the Afghans had conquered the restaurants: Peshawar.
Peshawar, though, had its own speciality, the chappal kebab. Why chappal kebab? “You know chappal?” The Nation’s chief reporter Shamim rhetorically asked. “Yes, it’s like the bottom of the chappal.”
One day, Herald’s Peshawar correspondent Ilyas and I went out to look for the chappal kebab. We had just covered a demonstration by the Sipah-e-Sahaba, extremist Taliban-friendly Sunnis who habitually gunned down Shias at prayer. Expectedly it was filled with boring speeches, followed by the obligatory effigy-burning. Foreign cameramen clicked the protest like Geiger counters at Chernobyl. We left before the tear-gassing and drove out of the old quarter, in search of minced mutton shaped like sandals.
Ilyas quietly drove through Sadar Bazaar; something was not right. He went into the cantonment. Still quiet. We passed one ramshackle dhaba after another but they were shuttered, their large pans empty. Over the railway tracks but no luck. Oh no, Ilyas groaned. “Tuesdays and Wednesdays have been declared meatless days in Peshawar,” Ilyas explained. “For ecological reasons.” And today was a Tuesday.
Yet this only meant no mutton or beef; chicken was still fair game. Indeed, the afternoon of October 7, hours before the bombing began, I sat in a restaurant with Ilyas and with the Hindustan Times’s Islamabad correspondent Mubashir, and asked for beef. They were horrified. “Isn’t it forbidden for Hindus?” Mubashir wondered. “The beef here is no good,” Ilyas added.
They were taking their famed Pashtun hospitality too far. I’ve eaten lots of beef in my life. When I was a teenager in New York, my father and I ate many steaks at Beefsteak Charlie’s. My father is now a supporter of beef bans.
Desperate for beef I one day stole out of my hotel, ran across University Boulevard and ducked into Chief’s, where I ordered a beef burger. It was meant to be a quick replenishment after a morning of interviews and meetings, and an afternoon of writing copy. Yet it was nothing but a tasteless heap of chopped beef. The next day I ordered the Chief’s Cheese Steak Beef Burger, but it was just too tough to chew and too much for my hill-bug shrunken stomach to digest.
“Okay,” I agreed to chicken with Ilyas on that beefless Tuesday, even though I had already had a whole coop of chicken handi, cooked in lots of tomato in oil with plenty of onions. The portions were always Shrek-sized. Even for in-room dining, I’d be served a handi that was enough for three. And Afghan naan is as big as a towel. The Pashtuns always looked horrified whenever I turned down a third naan. But we had no choice. A large pan of chicken was placed between us, with one large naan thrown on top. No plates were provided.
The Pashtun motto, I suspect, is “Dig in without further ado”. We tore off pieces from opposite ends of the naan and dipped into the pan. We chewed and picked out pieces of chicken, depositing them on the edge of the sloping pan. I held my naan fragments in my left hand —yes, the hand I wash my ass with.
But it was a tasty chicken that travelled into my tummy. The Pashtun chicken was a tad larger than its Indian counterpart, and far tastier than the American chicken, pumped up with more steroids than an East German swimmer.
The tastiest I had was roasted, whole, along with hundreds of other chickens, courtesy the ISI. The chickens were prepared for a tribal assembly of Afghans, held in Peshawar in late October 2001. Afghan spiritual leader Pir Syed Ahmed Gailani, openly bankrolled by the ISI, had Pashtun tribesmen together for a loya jirga—a grand assembly—to demonstrate his suitability to be a future ruler of Afghanistan. Around a thousand hefty, bearded men in elaborate turbans sat through the usual speeches about peace, reconciliation and the doddering ex-King. The reward was a hearty lunch that was also open for us intrepid journalists.
Three reporters who cheerfully admitted they were religious right-wingers invited me to join them. A tray arrived that was dominated by a mountain of mutton biryani, dotted with raisins and cashews; on top lay a roasted chicken; and around the tray’s perimeter were saucers of meatball curry and vegetables. My devout colleagues each attacked a corner of the biryani with their unwashed hands. I hesitated, so one asked if I was a vegetarian. So I jumped in as well. It was a delight, especially the raisins and cashews.
One of the jamaatis began tearing the chicken for the rest of us, in a brotherly way no doubt, but still I would rather have torn my pieces myself. The skin was ever so slightly crisp. The white meat ever so slightly chewy. The aroma, though, was Total Extreme Chicken. As if that chicken had unwittingly wandered into a clay oven. Oh, the solidity of meat. No wonder we fight.
I felt blessed on being fed by ISI stooges rather than the CIA ones. The Americans were air-dropping food packets on starving Afghan civilians while bombing the crap out of the country; these contained peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It was another brainwave from the hearts-minds-and-stomachs department, who figured the Afghans couldn’t get food aid after Pakistan sealed its border. But what difference would 34,500 packets of PBJ make in Kabul, where the population was still in millions, even after bombing and fleeing?
It made a difference outside the cities, in the empty fields where children ran for the packets and were maimed by Soviet mines still littering Afghanistan. The United Nations in 2001 estimated that the day peace returned to Afghanistan, it would take 10 years to de-mine the country. In 2017, peace is still distant. In 2001, American food literally cost children an arm and a leg.
Well, no PBJ sandwich for me if I ever got to Kabul. I would not leave Peshawar without having a chappal kebab either. So one day I asked a hotel staffer to go buy me a plate of chappal kebab.
A flat, oval and greasy mass arrived. It was shaped something like a steak—as if a herd of goats had been aerially bombarded and turned into finely ground mutton. It was subtle, it was chewy, and it was heavy. There were two pieces in my plate. After the first I was exhausted. Greed forced me to begin the second but halfway through I dropped on my bed, heavily, like the Mother of All Bombs. I clutched my abdomen and begged for mercy from the God of Fried Things. My visit to Peshawar was now complete.
Aditya Sinha is the author of The CEO Who Lost His Head (2017), Death of Dreams: A Terrorist’s Tale (2000); Farooq Abdullah: Kashmir’s Prodigal Son (1995). He is a regular columnist for Mid-Day, Khaleej Times, and Provoke magazine. He is currently working on a memoir set in lower Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School in the late 1970s.