Day 3: Kissa Khwani by The Citizens Archive of Pakistan – “Evolution of Cities”

Source: Kuch Khaas/Muhammad Waheed Photography

Source: Kuch Khaas/Muhammad Waheed Photography

The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, a platform dedicated to documenting oral history, organized a three day event called “Kissa Khwani” in Islamabad, named after the famous Kissa Khwani Bazaar in Peshawar, which was meant to promote the tradition of preserving oral historical accounts and storytelling. On June 22, 2013, the third and final episode of the three day event, “Evolution of Cities” was held in Islamabad.

The panelists of the Islamabad event included columnist Ishrat Hyatt, renowned award winning photgrapher Syed Javed Kazi, Shafiq Siddiqui, urban town planner and senior director of CDA and Fauzia Minallah, nature conservation and peace activist and founder of Funkor Child Art Foundation. The event was moderated by Parveen Malik, the President of Asian Study Group.

I am sure a lot more significant sister event was held in Lahore with the same topic, where panelists included one of my favorite speakers and writers about history, travel and archeology, Salman Rashid. The Lahore event also included urban town planning expert Imrana Tiwana, artist and preservationist Dr. Ajaz Anwer, journalist Nusrat Jamil and architect Nayyar Ali Dada.

The event started with the moderator Parveen Malik recalling her early days in the twin cities when she moved in here with her husband in the ’60s. She talked about hanging out at the Shezan Restaurant, at the London Book Store and spending New Year eves at the famous Flashmann’s Hotel. She also talked about the covered market in Islamabad, which was sold off to everyone’s shock, apart from one of the Nafdec theatres in Islamabad, which was temporarily closed after a bureaucrat’s wife was bitten there by a rat.

She also mentioned a discotheque, aptly named “Disaster”, in the early days of the Islamabad Club where families used to hang out and dance. The discotheque was shut down after one Saturday night, a couple of MNAs demanded entry into the club and jumped into the swimming pool after stripping when denied. The membership fee was a few hundred rupees in those days, which is now up in hundred thousands.

Ishrat Hyatt talked about the peaceful environment in Rawalpindi and Islamabad in the 60s. She recalled how parents had complete faith that their children would return home safely each time they went out. She mentioned the unforgettable sight of fireflies in Rawalpindi, which gradually disappeared as the city expanded. She mourned the loss of a bunch of beautiful cottages that made way for the construction of a cricket stadium.

Photographer Javed Kazi painted a picture of his pleasant walks across Rawalpindi, from the Charing Cross all the way up to Topi Rakh, the location of the Ayub National Park. Kazi observed that the natural beauty of the city offered numerous photo opportunities. Structures such as Flashmann’s Hotel and the 1907 built St. Paul’s Church are located on the same road, known as the Mall. A 30 feet high statue of Queen Victoria also stood at the square by the St. Paul’s Church, which was later uprooted.

According to Kazi, one of the most remarkable structures in Rawalpindi from the colonial times is the Rawalpindi Cathedral, which was built around 1852. Another significant building of the period was the Presidency, which was actually the palace of Sikhs related to the legendary Sujan Singh of Rawalpindi. The building now serves as the campus of Fatima Jinnah Women’s University.

Other structures by the Mall Road included the Odeon and the Plaza theatres, which were surrounded by gardens at the time. Freemason’s Hall was one of the little known structures of the city on the way to Florence Road. Rawalpindi also housed religious structures of Hindu and Sikh communities. There used to be a major Hindu temple in Bagh Sardaraan, while there was a Gurdwara of Narankari Sikhs in the Narankari Bazaar located in Rawalpindi city center.

Shafik Siddiqui of CDA commenced a long account laying out the history of the creation of Islamabad with the mention of the formulation of the Federal Capital Commission under President Ayub Khan. The commission selected a territory of approximately 350 square miles spanning an area from Kohala to Hassan Abdal and from Rawat to the location of Khanpur Dam, beyond the Margallas. The commission ruled out the idea of moving the federal capital to East Pakistan.

The Greek architects of Islamabad, Konstantinos Apostolos Doxiadis, chose to plan the city in a grid iron pattern. This was a feat in its own right, since the grid pattern is suited for planes, instead of plateaus and hills that make up the territory of Islamabad. To the astonishment of the audiences, he mentioned that the notorious Nullah Lai, used to be a source of fresh water supply for the residents of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, which was discontinued after an epidemic broke out in the 1990s. The rest is history.

He also mentioned that four major highways were planned to be built around the city, namely, the Kashmir Highway, Islamabad Highway, Capital Highway and finally the never-built Sawan Highway, which was meant to replace the GT Road. He observed that the CDA plans to remove encroachments around the city were badly affected by corruption and lack of law and order, apart from fear of certain religious groups.

Fauzia Minallah began her account by expressing her attachment to the natural beauty of Islamabad. She recalled that she instantly fell in love with the place when she moved there. She passionately talked about the pleasures of exploring the Margallas and the Saidpur village. She spoke fondly of her experience of interacting with the natives of the village and especially with the village potter Rahim Dad, who had a pottery workshop in the village.

She mourned the loss of tolerance in the society, apart from the gradually diminishing natural beauty. She told the story of the chopping down of the “Buddhist Tree” in the E7 sector at the hands of religious fundamentalists for being sacreligious, where her Japanese friend Tajima Shinji used to meditate. I found this rather ironical because I once tweeted that maybe the only way people in our culture could preserve trees was declaring them sacred.

She also noted that Saidpur used to be a pilgrimage site for Hindus but they cannot dare visit the place anymore out of fear of extremists. She observed that the fundamentalist Muslims were narrowing down the living space for people from other communities, giving them an impression that they are not welcome here. Perhaps it was her, or Parveen Malik, who mentioned that the very name of the city, Islamabad, was like a warning to people following other faiths.

She also attacked people who called Islamabad a “dead city” due to the lack of social activities. She said that Islamabad was never a dead city to her because of its immense natural beauty and for being very habitable. She said that people should understand that every city has its own mood and this is how Islamabad is meant to be. It is not supposed to look like a city with high rise buildings.

According to Minallah, the construction of high rise buildings in Islamabad has been disastrous to its appearance and environment. She warned that unusually high structures are not meant to be built in Islamabad due to its high earthquake risk for being located on a fault line. She also criticized the “so-called developmental projects” from the CDA which were a threat to the trees of the city and which polluted the then pristine fresh water streams of Saidpur village. The stream now pretty much looks like an open sewer.

Minallah mourned the insensitivity of the town planners regarding ancient and heritage structures, as well as precious trees. She mentioned that most of the urban development of the city was misguided. She insisted that people would rather have cinemas instead of shopping malls. Answering one question she rejected the notion that people do not have a good sense of their connection with nature and their heritage. She insisted that the results of the 2013 elections confirmed that the people of Pakistan were aware.

On my question about the pathetic transport system in Islamabad, which was particularly unfriendly to anyone who dared to commute to the Capital from Rawalpindi, Mr. Siddiki admitted that it has been a problem area. He said that much had been planned to develop the transportation system of the twin cities, but out of lack of funds and sincere will,  no such projects materialized the way they should have. He also blamed the local tranporter’s unions for the problem.

Siddiki also mentioned that religious extremism and blackmailing have been on the rise in Islamabad for years and it has been a major hurdle for the CDA to carry out disciplinary measures. Parveen Malik noted that mosques in Islamabad were not allowed to build madrassahs, but just about every mosque had been violating the law, without attracting the attention of the CDA. She mentioned that President Musharraf wanted to take action against the madrassahs but Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman intervened and convinced him not to.

The panelists and participants seemed to agree that the newly constructed high rise buildings looked ugly and out of the place in Islamabad. Many raised the point that the rusty water supply pipes in the city should be fixed, which were getting mixed up with sewage at places.

But as a citizen of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, the cause that appealed to me the most was the preservation of trees. Fauzia Minallah deserves applause for raising the issue. I wish there were ways we could help people who stand up for nature for a change.

In the end, I found the Kissa Khwani event a very fulfilling experience as far as interacting people was concerned. I congratulate the Citizens Archive of Pakistan for organizing the event.

I really hope this town sees another one of these events.

Note: This is not a paid post.

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