Painter Fikret Otyam: Multiply the heat of Gaziantep with twenty times more the heat, sprinkle some aromata of spice and there you’ll have Peshawar!

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Painter Fikret Otyam: Multiply the heat of Gaziantep with twenty times more the heat, sprinkle some aromata of spice and there you’ll have Peshawar!

Fikret Otyam, a Turkish painter and author, visited some countries in the early 1970s. He compiled his memories of the visits in his travelogue ‘Ne Biçim Amerika, Ne Biçim Rusya ve İran, Afganistan, Pakistan’ (How Now America and What’s Up Russia and Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan). Taking a truck from Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, Otyam travelled through the Khyber Pass and entered Pakistan via the Torkham border crossing. While describing a much cherished bazaar in Peshawar, he remarked, “Multiply the heat of Gaziantep with twenty times the heat, sprinkle some aromata of spice and there you’ll have Peshawar… I never felt myself a stranger especially in the Coppersmiths’ Bazaar. The sounds coming out of the hammered copper plates reminded me of Gaziantep.”

We share an excerpt from Otyam’s book where he describes his impressions of Peshawar. Let’s take a journey into history and see what Pakistan looked like from the eyes of a Turkish painter 50 years ago:

My eyes were heavy with sleep when we entered Peshawar …

In the morning, my Uzbek interpreter and host Haji Abdul Mannan Bukhari arrived. Someone who did not know what to do because of the excitement of hosting a Turk and even working for him for a few days! I said ‘bin’ to say one thousand in Turkish, and he said ‘min’ in Uzbek… We could make similar letter changes right there and then, and could understand each other almost flawlessly.

Just like in our beloved Turkey, the notion of paying more attention to the foreign press to ensure they write better things about the country exists in Pakistan too… When we got out, a black car with a driver in baggy trousers was waiting for us at the door… I sprung up just as I sat in the car. The car, having waited under the sun for a long time, felt no different than an oven at a Konya Kebab restaurant.

The street of romantic storytellers

I am chaperoned by two guides from the Embassy… They look at me and laugh at the way I sweat profusely… both of my handkerchiefs are virtually soaked! All surfaces on the car gust with fire! The thermometer shows 46 degrees Celsius… The streets are all empty, you get the impression of an abandoned city. Rarely, a double-decker bus and some people on bicycles pass. We had to visit the tourism department and we fulfilled that condition. It cost us half of our day… Wherever we go, we encounter two fixed features: The first is the portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. The other is a ceiling or a pedestal fan! Oh, and the third is the brotherhood felt for Turks far beyond mere lip service… a heartfelt love for Turks…

Scorching high noon

For as long as I have known, I do not like official business. Yet, when you are invited somewhere, you cannot turn it down out of courtesy. Around the noon, I walked into the hotel, hardly managing to put one foot in front of the other. The interpreter and the other escorts told me, “Do not go out until 5 in the afternoon. Rest for a while. We will come and pick you from here.” Through a dexterity that makes ducks envious, I plunged myself into the bathtub. I think I also had a snooze for a while! Around 3 in the afternoon, I thought no one was there to discourage me from taking a short walk outside. I dashed inside the hotel just as I left the revolving door! Walking for ten minutes in that heat would equal self-vaporization!

Qissa Khawani

Qissa Khawani is the name of a local bazaar. It stretches on a west-to-east axis in the centre of the Old City. It is an active and prolific street, and is fairly long… Buggies pulled by single horses, double-decker buses, taxis, motorcycles with side pillions, pushcarts, peddlers, concentric shops, bearded people with white shalwar kameez, and heat, and heat, and heat! Words cannot express the permeating scent of spices, the sight of randomly discarded melon peels here and there, and narrow escapes in the dense human and vehicle traffic… Curious stares as well…

In times of yore, there were caravanserais here… In those caravanserais, some explorers – in the words of Ismet Inonu Pasha, “some adventure-seekers” – would sojourn. The salient feature of this street is the stories told by “romantic storytellers” to the caravanserai guests… This is why the street is still famed as the “Street of Romantic Storytellers”… Professional storytellers used to recite poems, sing songs and tell tales about war and love to the adventurers, merchants, travellers sojourning along the street … Now, they are long gone but their mentions have remained …

Just like the myriad streaks on the ground, the people in the bazaar are diverse…

Afghans, Uzbeks, Iranians, Tajiks, and others… While passing by a shop crewed by Uzbeks, our engaging friend Haji Abdul Mannan Bukhari introduces me to the vendors with pride, and I move along the bazaar beaming all-teeth smiles and shaking hands with people! They wish to host us over a cup of tea… You cannot prefer one’s invitation to another. Chatting with them while listening to their lilted accents, we frequently exchange greetings with others who keep on joining us…

If one day you ever visit that very city called Peshawar, do not ever forget to visit the Bazar Bater-Bazan located on the left side of the Qissa Khawani Bazaar… Once again, in times of yore, that place was the Bird Market… If you are a bit of a bird fancier like me, do not ever forget to visit the sole shop left behind as a relic of those good old days. Hundreds of birds with unknown names, colourful plumes, and manifold breeds shriek and chirp in cages… Wisecracking parrots locally called as Tooti or Tota keep on squawking, “Toto… Toto…” As for the Turkish ears, the word Toto reminds the Lotto, I fight the feeling so as not to ask the birds, “Tell me how many accurate guesses you had in this week’s Lotto?” They do not heed but drone on: “Toto… Toto…”

Along the bazaar, you come across spice shops… While the package stores of the Turkish Monopoly Board sell us tea for 80 liras a kilo, here you see different brands and blends of tea heaped in small mounds in separate sacks… The most  prime of these tea mixtures does not even cost 20 liras in the local currency!

Mochilara Bazaar – the Shoe Market – intersects the Bird Market lane. Pakistan’s renowned silk-draped and gold-and-silver studded Pathan shoes are sold here… The vendors are enterprising and eloquent in their trade… If you have ever visited Gaziantep, feel no worry… Multiply the heat of Gaziantep with twenty times more the heat, sprinkle some aromata of spice and there you will have Peshawar… I never felt myself a stranger especially in the coppersmiths’ bazaar. The sounds coming out of the hammered copper plates reminded me of Gaziantep… Large copper plates are expertly shaped into jars, trays, samovars, bowls, and goblets. Actually, Peshawar has already been renowned for its exquisite copperware and proficient masters…

The green city

On board of our black automobile, we roam around the city… Green is the ruling colour here… Flowers of myriad colours adorn the gardens… As gleaned from the annals of history, this is the place where once the ancient Greeks roamed, the Buddhists ruled, the Huns invaded and pillaged, and the Brahmas built and restored. Later, the Ghaznavids arrived and developed the land. The British arrived sometime later and settled down until they were sent out with the Partition… I have not been able to observe the impact of the Ghaznavids or the Brahmas, but the outcomes of the British rule are obvious everywhere even to the tea cosy on the breakfast tray served in the hotel!

Swarthy and valiant Pathans who speak loudly and walk spiritedly while airing their wide shalwars are an indispensable feature of Peshawar… It feels as if Peshawar would never exist if these Pathans were not… As I said, here is no different than Gaziantep… Pathans are lauded for their piety, but they also stay abreast with entertainment… They are hardworking, endearing, generous, and bon vivant…

The mosque, built in 1630 by the governor of Peshawar, Mahabat Khan, is entered from the narrow street where the jewellers are located. Its minaret has an absolutely original shape…

On that narrow jewellers’ street, display windows showcasing gold works are illuminated… A downpour of yellow light bathes your eyes…

By the light of day

I have always liked lizards. Especially, I liked that green lizard in my hotel room. It was at least ten or fifteen centimetres long. I think the lizard was also a bit of a painting admirer because it did not leave that part of the wall where the sceneries painted by various postcard makers were hanged. It would be a lie if I said I was not pleased with that.

Peshawar Museum

Located at an impressive old-style building on the Grand Trunk Road, the Peshawar Museum was among the places I had wished to see.  

Two Buddha statues placed on the two sides of the entrance are surrounded by an indefinable aloofness: They must be there for inspiring a bit awe and also for welcoming the guests with class as well! With simply their stature, the statues strike you. The museum is by no means meagre. Especially the relics of the Gandhara civilization; stone slabs, marbles, golden, silver and copper coins, ceramicware, weapons – yes, how striking they were – and pieces from the Buddha statues.

The Qur’an manuscripts and the exquisite miniatures were among the works I could not have enough of because of time limits. The second floor of the museum is a picture gallery. The citizens of the city can boast of the Peshawar Museum, if you do not count the paintings that you will be surprised how they have – besides very masterful works – ever been able to find themselves places at the museum. I will especially suffer in regret for having unable to photograph the wooden  sculptures – I could not tell to which era they belonged, but I thought they were fairly dated – because of the significantly dim lighting there…

Mr. Commissioner

When they told me that the Commissioner of Peshawar Masroor Hassan Khan would receive me at 11:00 a.m. at his office notwithstanding the holiday, I became very glad to be meeting this person whose reputation I had heard.

The Commissioner’s Office is in a large garden. A security guard – in Pakistan’s national clothes, with his henna-dyed moustache and wearing the impressive local turban (I am unable to remember the exact local word for that) – stood before us gracefully and admitted us into the Commissioner’s Office. The Commissioner was a young gentleman. With his lilted fluent English in Pakistani accent, he patiently answered all of my questions about his Office.

He pointed at several cities and towns on a wall map and told me about each. On a framed flannel board to the left of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s portrait, I saw some names and dates. It was the list of the former commissioners and their periods of tenure. Masroor Hassan Khan had started as the Commissioner eight months ago… While telling me about his regular open-days for hearing the public and their grievances, some incidents originating from land disputes, his interactions with other commissioners and governors, and the facilities they used for accessing to the remotest villages, he was extremely candid. He had been to Turkey once. When he told me that I had kept my visit short and that I should stay in Pakistan for some time more to my heart’s desire, my second handkerchief had already been soaked. He said Peshawar was the most pleasant in autumn… Alas, I had no means to wait until autumn. While leaving the Commissioner’s Office, I was also preparing to bid farewell to Peshawar.

University of Peshawar

In this area – which I guessed to be the military cantonment of the city – some modern buildings, the Pakistan Air Force fighter jets that took off with ear-splitting shrieks and double-decker buses plying the streets were among the busying sights.

For an additional two hours, I toured the University of Peshawar, which – as one of the largest and the most resourceful higher education institutions in the East – roused in me the desire for further learning. It was holiday and there were no one around to provide me information about the institution. I wish I would be able to give you some detailed information about the university which spanned an area as large as Ankara’s Bahçelievler district. When I returned to Ankara, I contacted the Embassy of Pakistan a couple of times for that reason, but to no avail. When I dialled Mr. Ambassador’s number one day, I explained my wish to a person who spoke fluent Turkish. He listened to me at length, and finally said:

“Sir, why don’t you make a call to an interpreter?”

I told him why I had not contacted the interpreters and also asked him gently who he was.

“I am a cleaner!” the fluent voice on the line replied, exasperated.

In fact, I had personally witnessed how gentle and cultured the cleaners in Pakistan had been! He was someone else, he would not qualify as a cleaner in true sense of the word! When I dialled another number and informed the person on the line in the name of humanity and the friendship between Turkey and Pakistan that Mr. Ambassador’s Office had been ‘invaded’ by angry and wisecracking cleaners, that gentleman apologized to me as lengthy as the span of the Khyber Pass. In the end, he also told me that Mr. Ambassador had been in Istanbul for some time!

A fortnight after that conversation, a really gentle person phoned and said, “This is the Embassy of Pakistan in Ankara. On invitation of our Government, we would like to host you in Pakistan. When do you deem your visit suitable, sir?” I thought, “This must be a prank by that wisecracking cleaner!” and turned down that gentle invitation much the same.

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