As Pakistan spirals into violence, it is becoming a familiar experience to turn on the news and recognize the streets that are running with blood and the buildings that have been reduced to smoking ruins.
Blasts have torn through landmark neighbourhoods in central Lahore, through the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad, and now the Pearl Continental in Peshawar. Overnight, the “PC” was attacked by gunmen and then blasted by an explosion that killed at least eleven people and injured many more.
“But it was splendiferous!” my daughter said when I showed her the online footage of the ruin that was once a gleaming hotel. I could never afford to stay at the PC, not remotely. But I would venture inside for the occasional posh meal and a veg-out in the air-conditioning.
My daughter still has happy memories of having dinner on the roof at the same time as the touring Indian cricket team — delicious Afghan-style barbeque, elaborately costumed waiters, and occasional cries of “Look! Sachin Tendulkar!”
Now the hotel is a smouldering wreck, and since the attack on the Sri Lankan team earlier this year, no-one knows when international cricketers will venture near Pakistan again. In the last few days, there have been reports that the US was negotiating to buy the PC to use as a consulate. If that goes ahead, presumably it will be turned into a fortress.
Like the Marriot in Lahore, the Peshawar Pearl Continental was regarded as an oasis by expatriate diplomats and aid workers, by foreign correspondents, and by upper-class Pakistanis. It was also said to be a hub for intelligence agents, and it certainly had that atmosphere.
It was plush and luxurious, but it was in Peshawar and it still had a frontier, Kipling-esque quality.
Pakistanis from outside the North-West Frontier Province too often tend to regard Peshawar as a wild and semi-civilised city, “full of Afghans”, people not-like-us.
“When I need to go to Peshawar for my business, I go straight from the airport to the PC and hold all my meetings there. I don’t go step outside the door — the PC is the only place where I feel at home,” many of them would say.
Pakistanis are more than entitled to complain about sensationalist, narrow-minded media reports of Pakistan that make the country sound barbaric and primitive. Unfortunately, upper-middle class Pakistanis often respond by saying that of COURSE there are barbaric and primitive areas of Pakistan — but what Westerners don’t understand is that those areas, areas like Peshawar, full of Pashtuns and tribal types and God knows who — well, they aren’t the REAL Pakistan.
The “real” Pakistan is the Pakistan of middle-class neighbourhoods in Lahore and Islamabad and Karachi — and what happens elsewhere does not really count.
That attitude seems to be changing fast, and not before time, as one secure enclave after another is torn apart.