ocated in the heart of Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, inside the Kabuli Gate is one of the oldest places of the city, the ‘Qissa Khawani Bazaar (The Market of Storytellers)’. Anyone visiting this historical place may not find these streets special at the first glance. The noise, smell of street food, glitter and colour may resemble any other bazaar of Pakistan. But we need to delve deeper into the history of this place, interact with people, and of course sip kahwa here to understand its uniqueness.
Historically, this street used to be a stop for caravans of travellers, traders and tribals from neighbouring areas, specially traders from Afghanistan, India and the Central Asian region. They would stop at inns, called Sarai where they would drink kahwa and tell stories of their countries and listen to the local storytellers. Thus, the central market place of Peshawar got its name as Qissa Khawani Bazaar. In 1840, during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Italian Governor of Peshawar, Paolo Avitabile established this market place.
I have been to Peshawar many times over the years, but never to this bazaar. This summer I went on a planned trip with a focus to spend substantial time talking to people and walking around the famous Qissa Khawani while photographing life there. Despite the many warnings and tips for being safe and thinking twice before visiting this inner city area, I did go and am glad I did. It was perfectly safe with friendly people and everyone eager to proudly flaunt their heritage. I found fewer women here, with men who are not used to seeing women in their bazaars, being very respectful, welcoming and showed hospitality. This is exactly what makes Peshawar so special and a place no one should miss out to visit. I am not comparing it to other cities, but coming from a city of high-rises and malls stuffed with brands and imports, Qissa Khawani is such a treat with its classic, rustic and original ambience. Though we do not see the storytellers anymore, but people and shopkeepers are ever ready to talk to you and share their own stories. Sir Herbert Edwardes, the British Commissioner in Peshawar described it as ‘the Piccadilly of Central Asia’ – even in the present day it carries the same sights and sounds.
I spent almost a day in these narrow, busy lanes, speaking to all kind of vendors, passers-by and people on the streets, experiencing the life here in general. The temperature was 38 degrees Celsius, but I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it. As I was setting up my camera, Muzzammil Khan, the shop owner handed me a steaming cup of kahwa before I started exploring the streets. He told me that Peshawar is famous for its green tea. There is a kahwa cafe at every corner in this area as this is where traders and travellers would stop for a sip of tea as they exchanged stories. Khan proudly mentioned how he enjoys serving approximately 300 cups of tea every day with the numbers exceeding that count during winters. The many tea leaf shops here had a variety of tea, including green tea, black tea and dried spices, that adds flavour and aroma to the drink.
There are all kinds of businesses thriving in the bazaar, mostly selling Pukhtun and Peshawari cultural items, plus textile, carpets and everyday commodities. I specifically had fun treating myself to street food, nans and kebabs that are cooked and served fresh round the clock. Haji Amanullah insisted on having me taste a couple of nans (flat breads) hot out of his tandoor (clay oven) and not let me pay. I was watching and photographing his team working amidst the whiff of deliciously baked nans coming non-stop out of the wood burning fire pit. The shop has been in existence for nearly 65 years producing an average of 2,000 nans per day all made by hand.
The colourful velvet carpets woven in traditional colours, carrying intricate Central and South Asian patterns truly make up for spectacular sights everywhere. There are over 100,000 Afghan carpet weavers working in Pakistan. Most of the carpet shops here are owned and run by Afghani immigrants. Besides being displayed in shops, I also saw the handmade and machine-produced rugs and carpets waiting for customers on almost every wall and pillar, even in open vans and motorbikes.
As I pen this, sipping Peshawari kahwa, a beautiful tune played on Rabab is streaming from the speaker. I feel proud of the rich culture of Pakistan, while thinking of planning my next trip to Peshawar. •