by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
Torkham, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, felt like an utter release— as if we were random things, a fistful of summer insects set free in space. This, of course, was before the Soviet war. I was in elementary school.
Dwarfed by the standoffish ice blue mountains on the road to Torkham, we loved the bridge one must drive under twice, once before and once after a loop. Where Peshawar of the ‘70s was a nest of “jhoola parks” with stone slides, school routine, snack bars, badminton for girls, street cricket for boys, Torkham was a rush of freedom.
Sunlight hit the rocks here in a way that kept shadows minimal, the boundlessness was the essence of the place and a contradiction to the bitterly disputed Durand line, the artificial boundary that stared you in the eye with a chilling animosity, and worse to be reprimanded by the guards that it was forbidden even to straddle the rope that marked the border and to declare proudly as we did: “look, look, this is how to be in two countries at once!” Afghanistan was silent and unfriendly in the distance as we stood sobered and chastised for mocking the sanctity of the divide that the miserable rope represented. This corridor between countries, this no-man's land demanded veneration as if it had an invisible flag and a soundless anthem of its own. It filled us with awe and a little disgust until the frowning guard gave us a watermelon to make up for spoiling the moment. [Photo shows the author at Torkham in 1977.]
My brothers must have enjoyed the treeless, rugged mountains, the wide embrace of the sun, the cool wind whipping, shalwars swelling like sails. I preferred to gaze at this generosity of grayness, angularity and sun from the café window. There was only one café, with nothing on the menu except for Coca Cola and tea sandwiches but the place was magical and never felt lacking in anything. Peshawar being desperately short of tourist attractions, my father used to bring his overseas guests to Torkham. We came here so often that my younger brother served as a perfect tourist guide, somehow communicating to the Japanese, British, or American guests all the tourist worthy aspects of a place more historical than any of us realized then.
Driving along the Khyber Pass I knew vaguely that this was the ancient route of famous invaders. Alexander the Great had fought here and lost; descendents of his army, green-eyed, dark-haired pagans still populate the Northern areas—Kafiristan, with its wine, slave-musicians, trading of women and other customs in a country with a Muslim majority now. Hindus, Zoroastrians, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians had all had dramatic battles around these parts through the centuries. The rocks have absorbed war cries in many tongues and all I remember is their amnesiac aloofness and silence.
As an adult, I would recall these mountains when I read passages from the Baburnama (memoirs of the founder of the Mughal dynasty) to my children. It fascinated me how the Mongols, who had decimated Muslim cultures, setting libraries on fire in Baghdad and Persia in one generation, themselves became Muslims in the next and became patrons of the arts as Mughals. And how Babur in his memoir reminisces about his lush and lovely Ferghana, with fountains and Persian-style gardens; the more he travelled east into India the more he missed the natural and cultivated beauty of his homeland. There are no beautiful buildings, gardens or beautiful women in India, he proclaimed. His dynasty was to last for over three hundred years and to make India synonymous with breathtaking architecture.
The arrangement of space has an effect on the psyche. I loved Peshawar for Masood Toy Shop and Saeed Book Bank, for lunch and swimming at the club; I was less at ease with its hypocrisies, its narrow confines of local culture, overt racism— life outside of the island of my parents' relatively more urbane sensibilities. Torkham, or “black curve,” on the other hand, was conjured in my mind every time I felt heady with independence as a young adult living in Pakistan and abroad. The fiercely sculpted mountains were a persona representing the empowering surge of freedom. Soon I would witness the ravages of war in these parts, the Afghans fighting against the Soviets; decades later, the new century would bring a new war and the word “freedom” in English would ironically become a euphemism for imperial expansion and ideological control. Where in my teenage years I became used to television images of Americans celebrating the “Mujahideen,” those engaged in “Jihad,” in my adulthood, “Jihad” would become a dirty word, and allies would become enemies.
After decades of violence in the area, I dare not imagine the café or the scenes visible through the window I loved. Torkham, I am sure, is still flint-mouthed, large and self-possessed; defiant against every brand of empire.