By Pamela Constable and Shaiq Hussain
Peshawar, September 24 (The Washington Post): The demise of Shaheen Books could easily be the story of any independent bookstore in the United States overtaken by broad cultural and technological changes, but with a terrorist plot twist.
In part it is a familiar saga of people losing interest in reading, becoming addicted to electronic gadgets and finding less time to browse and chat as the world moves faster – even in an ancient crossroads city famed for its timeless tea stalls and historic “Story Tellers’ Bazaar.”
But that is just the final chapter in a long, sad tale of what one commentator called the “intellectual bankruptcy” of this bustling provincial capital and university town, which once boasted a dozen bookstores as well as printers, public reading rooms and libraries, and cultural centers run by the U.S., British and French governments where anyone was welcome to browse and borrow.
“This was an honorable business,” Riaz Gul, the owner of Shaheen Books, said sadly, standing in the gutted space that he plans to convert to a health and beauty supply shop. The bookstore’s closure on Aug. 31 followed a string of others that shut down or moved away in recent years. Saeed Book Bank, the largest, relocated to the capital, Islamabad, a decade ago.
For the past two weeks, a large black poster has hung on the store’s front window. It is an arresting epitaph, written in Urdu script. “The entire society is in the grip of moral degradation, senselessness, extremism and terrorism because of their ignorance,” it declares. “Libraries and bookstores have no meaning for such society. Under such circumstances, we are forced to close down.”
The posthumous protest was written by Gul’s father, Mustafa Kemal, a writer who founded Shaheen Books in 1991 after the death of his father, a former political activist and daily newspaper publisher who got his start in the tumultuous era of the 1940s, when Pakistan was partitioned from India.
Kemal, now 78, likes to recall the intellectual heyday of the bookstore’s early days, when Peshawar was a hotbed of international intrigue, full of foreign visitors and educated exiles from the civil war in next-door Afghanistan.
“Doctors, professors, literary people who had the habit of reading would come in and we would have discussions,” he recounted one recent morning, over tea and pastries at his home. “There were a lot of foreigners working here for the U.N. and other places. In the evenings they would come and buy books too.”
But that was before two powerful, contradictory trends began sweeping this vast, impoverished Islamic republic of 182 million: the increasing influence and intimidation of Islamist fundamentalism, and the relentless commercial and technical drive toward Western modernization.
The first phenomenon, seeded by the export of Middle Eastern interpretations of Islam and a holy war against the U.S.S.R. in Afghanistan in the 1980s, was anti-Western and anti-secular in its teachings. Peshawar, a hub of traditional ethnic Afghan Pashtun culture and trade in the North-West Frontier province, was especially susceptible.
Several mosques and seminaries in the region trained students to join the Taliban militia in Kabul, and after their regime there was defeated in 2001, a like-minded religious party won political control of the province. Theaters and musicians’ workshops were forced to close, anti-Western rallies were held and religious reading material in Urdu was widely displayed. The foreign culture centers shut down.
Over the past decade, uicide bombers targeted schools, markets, churches, mosques and military facilities. Qissa Khawani, the famed Story Tellers’ Bazaar was bombed in 2013, killing 41 people. Sufi shrines, symbols of a moderate strain of Islam whose mystical masters recited chants and poems, were also attacked.
The chilling effect led bookstore after bookstore to shut the doors or refocus on the more mundane business of selling stationery or school texts. Some stopped ordering expensive books in foreign languages or by international authors, and shifted their emphasis to locally published religious books and works of national history in Urdu.
As Gul put it in a recent interview with Dawn newspaper, “these are the aftereffects of the terrorism and extremism that engulfed this city for the last decade or so. Those who could afford to buy books or hailed from the educated class have left the city long ago.”
The second phenomenon that slowly killed off Shaheen books and its competitors was the growing public attraction to modern Western consumerism, especially in the form of electronic devices, which has swept Peshawar even as many inhabitants cling to other traditions, with women wearing toffee-colored burqas in public and boys driving flocks of sheep through the streets.
Over the past few years, the old city has developed rapidly, with new apartment buildings, shopping malls and restaurants flourishing, although government complexes are now fortified behind thick walls and barbed wire. Many of the new shops feature fashions, shoes and electronic devices such as cellphones and tablets. A popular fashion chain outlet replaced Saeed Book Bank, Gul said, and a gift shop featuring electronics is next to Shaheen Books.
One recent day, the gift-shop manager was waiting on a woman as she selected an iPhone cover from a colorful plastic array. Behind her was a rack of comic books and old magazines, including a copy of the Harvard International Review that Gul had left there as a departing gift.
Both the manager and his customer agreed that the wholesale replacement of books with high-tech gadgets was not a healthy thing, but both seemed resigned to it.
“People love them, but it is totally bad,” said the manager, Fawad Khan. “The concept of books is completely finished in Pakistan.” Although noting that iPads and iPhones can be used as educational resources, he added, “people mostly use them for games. They don’t have time to read.”
The woman said her children were crazy about electronic devices but less interested in their schoolbooks. “They have more access to information now but they don’t seem as aware as we were,” she said.
One bibliophile who particularly mourns the passing of Shaheen Books is Gul’s sister Sana, a dentist in Peshawar. She has fond memories of reading as a child, and she lamented that, as Pakistani society has become more affluent and modern, many people are happy to spend big on clothes with money they would never consider using for books.
“They would rather go to a party and gossip and talk on their cellphones. I would rather stay home reading a good book,” she said. “People think being modern is about your appearance, about material things. They don’t stop and peep inside, which a book allows you to do. We are becoming a mentally crippled generation.”