On Being Air-brushed out of One’s
Recently an interesting book
about the old walled city of Peshawar by Dr. Raj
Wali Shah Khattak, a well-known Pashto writer and
poet and currently the director of Pashto Academy,
was published. (An Intangible Heritage: The Walled
City of Peshawar, InterLit Foundation, Peshawar,
2005). The book discusses history and linguistic
and cultural traditions of the old walled city.
It is a well-written and handsomely produced book
but suffers from one glaring omission. The book
is not about the walled city of Peshawar. The city
that Khattak Sahib describes in his book is some
mythical city that exists only in his fertile imagination.
Let us establish some parameters and points of reference
for the old walled city of Peshawar. It was called
a walled city because during the Sikh period the
city was contained within a mud wall. Subsequently
during the British rule the mud wall was replaced
with a masonry structure. The wall and the gates
were intact through the 1940s. In the past 50 years
however most of the gates have given way to extension
of the city beyond the old wall. With a large influx
of people from Pushtun countryside the demographics
So when we talk about the walled city we talk about
the city as it stood through the 1950’s and
before. It was until that time a Hindko speaking
city and the culture and traditions of the city
were solidly based on Hindko language. While some
of the narrative in the book under discussion, albeit
a very small one, is reflective of contemporary
Peshawar it certainly cannot be applied to Peshawar
Now against this backdrop let us examine what Dr.
Raj Wali Shah has claimed. He calls the old walled
city a Pushtun city and appears to summarily dismiss
Hindko language and language-based culture of the
city. In discussing the dress, traditions and literature
he imports Pukhtun traditions and Pukhtun personalities
from the outside and imposes them on the city in
such a way that it distorts true picture. Except
for a passing and cursory mention of Hindko speaking
people (page 38) there is no mention of either the
Hindko language or the culture that spawned it.
While he claims Dilip Kumar, Qawi Khan, Shah Rukh
Khan and Prithvi Raj family as Pushtun (they were
all Hindko speakers) he forgets to mention Ahmad
Shah (Pitras) Bukhari and his younger brother Zulfiqar
Ali Bukhari. Similarly Bhai Gama and Professor Miran
Bukhsh, musicians extraordinaire, do not make the
cut but Pukhtun musicians from outside the city
do. In an overzealous attempt to paint the old city
in Pushtun colors the famous small- sized waziri
bricks are attributed to originate from Wazirstan.
They were in fact called waziri because of their
smaller size in comparison to shahi bricks that
were of larger size.
In order to determine the identity of the original
inhabitants of the walled city one has to find answers
to the following crucial questions. When did Pushtun
tribes come to Peshawar valley and before their
arrival who lived in the now 2000-year old Peshawar?
Is there any historic evidence that Peshawar City,
unlike the countryside, has always been populated
by an indigenous Hindko speaking people.
According to historic sources Pukhtun/Afghan tribes
did not appear in Peshawar Valley until after 800
AD (Tarikh-e-Farishtah; H.G. Raverty Notes on Afghanistan;
Peshawar District Gazetteer 1897-98.) This is also
the time when we find the earliest Pashto writing.
So who lived in the area before the appearance of
There is archeological evidence that Hindko language,
as it is spoken through the province, was the language
spoken in its ancient form in Gandhara that included
wide swaths of present day Punjab, NWFP and Eastern
Afghanistan. A stone tablet excavated near Attock
gives us clue to the language spoken in Peshawar
and its environs. It is written in Kharoshthi script
but when phonetically translated it has uncanny
resemblance to Hindko that is spoken in Peshawar
City and elsewhere in the province including Kohat,
parts of Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan and Hazara. (For
phonetic translation see Peshawar, Historic City
of the Frontier, second edition 1995 page 295 by
Ahmad Hasan Dani).
Is there any other evidence that Hindko speaking
people dominated the city life in Peshawar?
Let us observe Peshawar through the eyes of the
famous English historian H.G. Raverty who visited
the city in 1850 and left a detailed account of
its neighborhoods, its crafts and its inhabitants.
About the demographics he made the following observation:
The inhabitants of the city are a mixed race consisting
of people called Peshawurees, who do not pretend
to trace their descent; Hindus of the Kutree and
Seik tribes, Kashmirians, Afghans and Mughals; but
the latter are very few in number.
Of a population 42,000 he did not mention Afghans
(Afghans and Pushtuns were synonymous then) as part
of the commercial and civic life of the city. Most
of the streets and neighborhoods that he mentions
in great detail have Hindko names and some have
Persian names but not a single one with a Pushtu
or Pushtu-sounding name.
We find another interesting facet in Tarikh-e-Farishtah
(Nawal Kishore Press, Lucknow 1850) where the city
is referred to by its Hindko name Pishore and not
by its Pashto name Khar or Pekhawar. Tarikh-e-Farishtah
is considered an authoritative source on the history
of Pushtuns and it has been quoted by many Pushtun
researchers (Preshan Khattak, Roshan Khan Roshan
and Zafar Kakakhel among others) in their work on
the origins of Pushtuns.
Based on these historic references one has to conclude
that the old walled city of Peshawar has been a
Hindko dominated city through antiquity and that
it continued to be populated by Hindko speaking
people until the very recent past. Conquerors and
invaders came and went but the original inhabitants
of the city clung on to their language, their culture
and their traditions.
Why then the outside world and particularly the
world east of the Indus have remained oblivious
to the presence of Hindko language and the people
who speak this language?
There are many reasons. The most important and perhaps
the most damaging has been the glorification of
Pushtun culture and Pushto language at the expense
of other native cultures and languages by the colonial
writers and administrators. The exploits of the
British fighting the wild and unruly tribesmen along
the turbulent western frontier of British India
made fascinating reading at breakfast tables back
in London. Whereas there were equally resolute people
resisting the British within the cities like Peshawar
their struggle was just not glamorous. Somehow the
exchange of gunfire across Khyber Mountains was
more romantic than the heroic exploits of, say,
the citizens of Peshawar City. The incident that
turned the tide against the British in the province
happened in Peshawar City when a protesting crowd
set fire to an armored car and pelted British officers
with rocks in Qissa Khani Bazaar. The resultant
firing on that fateful April day in 1930 killed
a hundred people, almost all of them Peshawaris.
It was not the stuff however that moved the likes
of Rudyard Kipling to write The Ballad of East and
On a personal note I have the utmost admiration
for Dr. Raj Wali Shah Khattak and his scholarly
work in Pashto literature. But I am deeply offended
that in his book he has airbrushed me and my people
out of a city where my ancestors have lived through
the ages and have contributed so much to the shared
heritage of Peshawar.
(Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is Professor Emeritus of
Surgery at the Medical University of Ohio and an
op-ed columnist for the daily Toledo Blade. He is
the author of five books on Peshawar including Yuk
Sheher-e-Arzoo, A Short History of The Frontier
Town of Peshawar and Aalam Mei(n) Intikhab Peshawar.