Peshawar Rings the Changes

Afghans in Peshawar revel in new-found freedoms following the fall of the Taleban.

Peshawar Rings the Changes

Afghans in Peshawar revel in new-found freedoms following the fall of the Taleban.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Afghans on both sides of the border with Pakistan will be able to celebrate their New Year without fear of persecution, for the first time since 1992.

The festival of Nauroz, which falls on March 21, has been a pivotal date on the Afghan calendar for around 2500 years. But the event's historical connections with Shia Muslims made it anathema to the Sunni Taleban.

When the communist government in Kabul fell in 1992 and the country lurched into civil war, the shockwaves were felt in the north-west Pakistani city of Peshawar which fell under the control of religious hardliners who sponsored the Taleban.

Now the despised regime has fallen, their influence on the Pakistani side of the border has also been stripped away and people are slowly beginning to lead lives away from the fanatical dictates of a group which scorned public gaiety of any kind.

Although the effects of war may still be evident - many Afghans are still mourning the loss of their nearest and dearest and reeling from a quarter decade of devastation - there is still a latent desire to throw off the shackles of the past and look forward.

"We have new hopes. It is a new chance to build a Pashtun nation," said a jubilant Nasir Mohammed Khan, who like many locals, believes Pashtun tribes on either side of the Pakistani border will now be a lot better off.

"To hell with the Taleban. They've gone forever. Their rule was the darkest period of our history," declared Haider Jalal, a member of an Afghan folk troupe performing at a traditional wedding ceremony, amid the sound of women singing and dancing - something unheard of under the Taleban.

Even more striking were the pictures which appeared in newspapers on February 4 of a famous female dancer performing at a function organised by the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women, RAWA, in Peshawar.

A year ago, such a display would have met with harsh response by the state sponsored pro-Taleban militant groups, who now seem to have lost any of the influence they once exercised.

Peshawar has always been a conservative city so there's unlikely to be a dramatic shift in lifestyle. For now, though, people are happy to revel in newly won freedoms.

Hundreds of Afghan singers and musicians are once again able to make a living without the Taleban's punitive justice looming over them. Once again, said band leader Mehmood Karawan, Afghans can indulge in their passion for art and music.

There have also been signs of greater religious toleration across the region. On January 13, hundreds of Pashtuns and leading Muslim clerics joined in a Christmas service with Christian priests and bishops in a show of solidarity between the two religions.

Just a few months ago, the Taleban had arrested several foreign aid workers whom they suspected of trying to propagate Christianity.

Afghans are now keen to show the world that they are not hostile to other faiths. "We have been projected as intolerant, narrow-minded and backward but it is not true," said Khawaja Yawar Naseer, a leading figure in the Pakistan Peoples Party.

The new sense of optimism is prompting many Afghans to return home - so much so that there's been a sharp fall in house prices in the well-to-do district of Hayatabad where, until recently, 40,000 former government officials, professionals and intellectuals resided. "We thought we might never go back," said the daughter of a former Afghan governor, Suriya Safi.

The return of skilled workers and professionals will be a loss for Peshawar but in the grander scheme of things this commercial and political hub will benefit greatly from the peace across its border.

People are for the moment overjoyed at the fall of the Taleban and their new-found freedoms. But New Year needs to be welcomed in with a concerted effort to see that this optimism lasts.

Shiraz Paracha is an editor at the Future Events News Service in London

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