Haunted by militancy, Pakistani town welcomes library built above gun market

Nazar Ul Islam
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The Pakistani town of Darra Adam Khel is home to a 150-year-old arms market with more than 2,000 shops displaying firearms.

Located around 40 kilometers south of Peshawar, the town was for decades a no-man’s land. However, in 2009 the military took over the valley from militants and restored law and order, allowing it to have an economy driven by the same decades-long practice; the manufacturing and selling of firearms.

The town’s main square features the statue of Ajab Khan Afridi, a revered warrior in the region who is believed to have stood up to the mistreatment of women by British occupying forces in 1923.

But despite being synonymous with a hostile history and illegal firearm businesses, the town has now become home to a library that has opened right above the weapons market.

A view of Darra Adam Khel's library over gun market. (Supplied)
A view of Darra Adam Khel's library over gun market. (Supplied)

Owned by professor Raj Muhammad, who rented a small room above the arcade, the opening of the Darra Adam Khel Library intends to send out a particular message.

“It was a deliberate move to open a library over the weapon market to realize the people the importance of books,” Dr. Muhammad told Al Arabiya English.

“We wanted to let the people know that literature is more powerful than guns,” he said, adding that the library was the first step towards peace in the area. In recent history, schools have been the prime target of the militants and dozens of schools in the area had been the target of bombings.

Darra Adam Khel bazaar. (Supplied)
Darra Adam Khel bazaar. (Supplied)

“Though the terrible phase of militancy is now over, some of the students are unfortunately still studying in tent schools in this extreme cold weather,” Dr. Muhammad said.

The library is currently home to more than 2,000 books on a vast range of subjects and the library has 175 members, of which at least 20 are women.

The locals are known as being highly conservative and women are rarely seen out in public, and so they usually borrow books through male members of their families, Dr. Muhammad said. The professor’s 10-year-old daughter, Shifa, also helps him provide books to women in the area.

Darra Adam Khel tent school, blown up by militants in 2009. (Supplied)
Darra Adam Khel tent school, blown up by militants in 2009. (Supplied)

“My friends and teachers bring their required list of books to me. I provide it to my father and he issues the books,” Shifa said, adding that she dreams of becoming a doctor. The library is even garnering attention from those in the gun business.

The ghosts of militancy

“My job is very hectic,” said Nizam Afridi, a 25-year-old gun maker, “I need to feel refreshed at times. I visit the library every afternoon. It’s not only providing me a good time, but also improving my knowledge,” he said. Afridi said he wishes the library had opened years ago.

Books also serve as a good distraction from the ghosts of militancy that still haunt the affected families, psychiatrist Imran Khan told Al Arabiya English.

Former Parliamentarian, Qaiser Jamal, visiting Darra Adam Khel. (Supplied)
Former Parliamentarian, Qaiser Jamal, visiting Darra Adam Khel. (Supplied)

“Rehabilitation is a slow process and it takes time. Those families who have been directly affected by militancy are often prone to fear, anxiety and stress related issues,” Dr. Khan said.

The fear level is particularly high among children, he said, with some who get alarmed by the sound of a plane or firecracker.

“Books are good alternative to divert their attention from peering into their past. It’s a healthy way to pass time,” he said.

Shifa Raj helps her father in delivering library books. (Supplied)
Shifa Raj helps her father in delivering library books. (Supplied)

There is no doubt the region has passed through terrible times, but it is time to rebuild, Qaiser Jamal, former parliamentarian from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, told Al Arabiya English.

Jamal said schools were the main target of the militants because they wanted to make the people ignorant. During their two years of harsh militant rule in 2007-200, around 50 schools in Darra Adam Khel were blown up.

“We have rebuilt the majority of the schools and hopefully the remaining will be constructed soon,” Jamal said, adding: “We want to be known on the basis of education in the society and as not gun lovers.”

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