PESHAWAR. Pakistani city is a welcoming place

PESHAWAR is a pretty town,'' wrote Paul Theroux in 1975. ``I would gladly move there, settle down on a veranda, and grow old watching sunsets in the Khyber Pass. Peshawar's widely spaced mansions, all excellent examples of Anglo-Muslim Gothic, are spread along broad sleepy roads under cool trees....'' One wonders what Mr. Theroux would think of Peshawar today. The presence of 3 million Afghan refugees has transformed the city from ``pretty'' to dusty and worn, from ``sleepy'' to bustling and crowded.

The streets are choked with people, animals, and vehicles, though most Afghans live outside the town in sunbaked, windblown refugee camps. The camps are quiet, clean, orderly, and sad: uniform grids of small, square, baked-mud houses sitting on the wide, grassy plains. Some have a view of the mountains of Afghanistan.

In Peshawar, the narrow, post-colonial residential streets, with their high white walls and scanty vegetation, are studded with international relief agencies and the headquarters of Afghan mujahideen guerrillas.

Soon, with the probable Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Peshawar may return to its former tranquility.

But even with its added burden, it's a welcoming place. In the Muslim tradition, Peshawar extends the same courtesy, caring, and sense of shared humanity one finds in Cairo or Tunis. The mujahideen with their stern, bearded faces, striped turbans, and blankets slung like portable bedding over their shoulders, are in fact friendly, soft-spoken, and happy to talk with foreigners - even unveiled Western women.

Women nearly invisible in public

Many women in Peshawar cannot be seen at all: they are gliding, flapping pyramids of green, black, brown, ochre, or rust-colored chadors. The material is shiny like silk, but it may be polyester: It seems to only come in these standard, solid shades. A band of tight-knit net across the eyes allows the wearer to look out - preventing, at the same time, the remotest possibility of anyone looking in.

Pakistanis - even the poorest - are happy to invite a foreigner into their homes. In a one-room mud-brick house a visitor sits on the cot (the only seat) while the husband sits on the bare earth floor. The wife, unveiled at home, looks on with her children from the doorway in friendly curiosity. One of the children is sent to buy the guest an unsolicited soft drink that costs more than a day's wages. The visitor protests, drinks it down, and the family looks very pleased.

Reminder of the Raj

The British have left their mark on Peshawar, though it's beginning to fade. The old Indo-colonial buildings, with their elaborate latticework and layers of intricate carving, are ragged with age and disrepair.

Yet they are beautiful and exotic to foreign eyes. More than 40 years have passed since Pakistan and India became separate, independent countries. But reminders of the British presence survive in the clipped expressions of a loquacious ``chowkidar'' (caretaker), in the flocks of uniformed schoolchildren, and in that famous old bastion of colonialism, Dean's Hotel. Dean's is surprisingly modest: a line of tidy cottages looking more like Surrey than the Northwest frontier of the imperial Raj.

Our hotel is modern and nondescript, but the furniture in the rooms is strangely harem-like, with dark, carved wood and overstuffed, velvet-covered sofas. A green-and-white decal stuck on the coffee table in our room indicates the direction of Mecca, so that the faithful can say their prayers facing in the right direction.

A buzzing scooter ride

Late one afternoon I took a three-wheeled scooter-taxi through the teeming, noisy, jostling streets. These tiny vehicles buzz and rasp like swarms of angry bumble-bees. Their outsides are painted and decorated as elaborately as the most exotic insects.

Mine was decorated inside too, with cabbage-rose paper and scarlet fringe. The driver's income probably supports 20 people. As we sped - fragile as an eggshell - down one of Theroux's broad roads, the dust rising around us was golden in the evening light.

I felt safe and happy, as one does among friends.

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