A group of youngsters in Peshawar have got together to bring the joy of reading and storytelling back to Peshawar, the city of flowers. Sidra Amin tells us how things are going with the Peshawar Book Club.

t takes a lot of consistency and perseverance to conduct 36 book meet-ups in a city in only three years. And who knows perseverance better than Peshawar – a city that was once famously known for flowers and its famous bazaar, Qissa Khwani, or story-tellers bazaar. Peshawar lost all its charm in the first one and a half-decade of this century, as it constantly battled against the effects of war on terror. However, the city slowly and gradually crawled back to normalcy and restored all its life. One of the initiatives to bring Peshawar back to life is the Peshawar Book Club. It was a hope for better days, amidst all the turbulence, a promise of revival by using words as an anchor.The book club started in 2016 when three acquaintances, who loved books and book discussions, realized that there were no safe spaces for recreational activities anymore, let alone intellectual dialogues. The need for book clubs in a city that suffered from the trauma of religious extremism was not only necessary but also urgent. Intellectual dialogues that kick start important discussions on various socio-political issues serve as the basis of a healthy democracy and a more tolerant society. Sidra Amin and her friends Dr Sameed Qureshi and Dr Zarak Jan realized this more than ever, as they saw other cities leaping forward in all fields of life.

 

 

Spinning Tales

It was not very difficult to rekindle discussions over stories in a city that has a rich history of storytelling. Being one of the busiest commercial hubs of the pre-partition era, Peshawar had gained immense popularity for its tradition of exchanging stories over a cup of tea by traders from various parts of the world. This was the very vision behind Peshawar Book Club. The three friends wanted to bring back to life the beautiful tradition narrating stories over tea, but this time in a slightly different manner.Impromptu discussions are not a complete experience, as one jumps from topic to topic. Therefore, Peshawar Book Club was set on a particular agenda, where a book was pre-decided and discussed from all perspectives. It is an open book club, where the only condition to attend the sitting is to read the pre-decided book. The selection of books is through voting of the members who are present at the time of sitting, and Urdu and English books are selected alternatively for every month. 

The book club insists on active reading and discussion, as the moderators believe that if a text is not actively consumed, it will not be an active talk that covers all the themes, motifs, narratives, and subtexts. The book does not only cater to readers but writers as well, and therefore there is an emphasis on the deconstruction of all elements, including imagery, plot, allusions, writing, etc. The book agenda covers a discussion of quotes, characters, situations, writing, and any confusion that remains after finishing the book. It maintains its spirit of Qissa Khwani, as it remains to people from diverse backgrounds, opinions, and ages. It is a nursery for manifesting healthy discussions in a time where there is barely any space left for free speech.A wide number of books have been discussed in the sittings of the Peshawar Book Club, which are attended by an audience ranging from five members to 30. Arranged in the busiest cafes of Peshawar, the book club has had debates over 36 books so far. The genres include but are not limited to, dystopian fiction, feminist fiction, historical fiction, horror, fantasy, politics, memoirs, and much more. The biggest turnouts were seen in book discussions on “Manto k Afsaanay,” “Animal Farm,” “A Man Called Ove” among others. 

Peshawar Book Club was set on a particular agenda, where a book was pre-decided and discussed from all perspectives. It is an open book club, where the only condition to attend the sitting is to read the pre-decided book.

Peshawar Book Club has been an addition of significant importance to Peshawar. It has not only honored its vision of creating a safe space for intellectual dialogues but also played a role in increasing the reading culture in the city. Many book clubs have emerged in Peshawar now that are encouraging readers to pick up books. One of the actives ones is Kaafi, Kaghaz, aur Kitab by Hira Nazir which aims to work on Urdu literature. The book club has also benefited the book businesses in Peshawar, as we encourage reading from hard copies, as opposed to plagiarized ebooks. There are initiatives like Kitab Ghar, which are inculcating the habit of reading in the students of government schools.The book club has also been a player in portraying a soft image of Peshawar, as people from across Pakistan as well as from across the world visit it. One of our members from Morocco, who happened to attend a book meet-up with us, said that the book club was one of the most interesting things in Pakistan for her. Many of the members travel every month from Lahore, Islamabad, and Mardan to attend these meet-ups.Safe to say that Peshawar Book Club has changed the outlook and image of Peshawar into one where it is recognized for its reading culture which has been revived after decades. There are constant efforts to increase membership, which currently is 300 members. It is a breath of fresh air for the city that has repeatedly seen tragedies. The book club aims to contribute more to the growing culture of literature and discussions and looks forward to the support of governmental and non-government organizations for this. There is no denying the power of art and literature in strengthening cultural diversity and democracy, and the importance of book clubs should not be ignored in this regard.

 

Sidra Amin is a Mechatronics engineer and the co-founder of Daastan- A literary and publishing organization, where they have published over 300 books both online and in print. She runs Peshawar Book Club and can be reached at sidraamin@daastan.com .

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