(An edited version was published in US Magazine, The News International on January 24, 2014. Link: http://magazine.thenews.com.pk/mag/arc_detail_article.asp?id=7103 )
‘I remember the day when I first came here
And smelt the sweet Abbottabad air
The trees and ground covered with snow
Gave us indeed a brilliant show
To me the place seemed like a dream
And far ran a lonesome stream
The wind hissed as if welcoming us
The pine swayed creating a lot of fuss
And the tiny cuckoo sang it away
A song very melodious and gay
I adored the place from the first sight
And was happy that my coming here was right
And eight good years here passed very soon
And we leave you perhaps on a sunny noon
Oh Abbottabad we are leaving you now
To your natural beauty do I bow
Perhaps your winds sound will never reach my ear
My gift for you is a few sad tears
I bid you farewell with a heavy heart
Never from my mind will your memories thwart’
― Major James Abbott (British Officer in Colonial India, also known as, ‘Founder of Abbotabad’)
It was an autumn when I first saw it. Its beauty uniquely seductive, the landscape enthraling, pine trees with honey coloured, crisp leaves and fascinating sky so clear it could have easily been mistaken for any European town. This was the Orush Valley. The hub of the Hazara province movement. The city surrounded by the Sarban Hills …Abbotabad. If there’s any place I can aptly refer to as my second home, it’d be Abbotabad beyond doubt. Eversince bidding farewell to it, the automatic alarm clock in my central nervous system has been prompting me to write about this city and I, ever so lazy, have been putting it on the ‘snooze’ button. So, with due apologies to its residents and without further ado, I present to you dear readers Abbotabad, as I saw it…
The small town
It is heartening to see that in a world infested with consumerist thinking, there still exist places which remain unintoxicated from the plague of modern day razzmatazz. The city has a hamletesque vibe to it. For starters, you won’t be able to see brand concious ladies wavering about the streets or fighting over a designer lawn suit which would be horrendously expensive. But do not be misguided; this doesn’t in any way indicate that the Surban Valley faces a dearth of fahionistas; those interested in all things HSY or Khaadi, just drive to the federal capital which is a 110 kilometers away.
I want it all
Abbotabad stands out because of its distinctive nature in (almost) every aspect of life. It is neither Murree nor is it Swat. It does not aspire to be become Karachi yet does not want to remain confined in its own womb of slumber. It wants to be the next-big-thing, however, it wants to hold on to the intrinsic values which are the basis of its foundation. This is the city that wants it all.
Of peace and of pain
Harmony and peace is all what our battered nation desires now. The citizens of Abbotabad are lucky in this regard; they don’t share the fear of leaving home in the morning and never returning back. And probably this is the reason its citizens felt more helpless than ever when on April 12, 2010 some streaks of blood were painted on the white fabric of its peaceful history. The movement for a separate province which spurred some years back has lightened down a bit but the memories of that day, will take some time to wear off. Personally, I had never expected Abbotabad to turn to violence and pain, but then again, what makes a city human, if not for a little pain?
Mausam Rangeeley Suhaney
When I mentioned about Abbotabad neither being like Murree nor Swat, I wasn’t being poetic. I actually meant it. Unlike its contempraries, this valley doesn’t experience harsh winters and thus, those residing here are spared the agony of bursting pipes and unwanted frostbites. The summers aren’t that hot too which is the reason the city faces an influx of tourists in summers (there’s another reason which has recently become an excuse for all sorts of conspiracy theorists to visit it but let’s just focus on the weather, shall we?).
The Suzuki Brigade
For a person who hails from the hustling bustling plains of Punjab, where rickshaws probably outnumber humans (no kidding), not being able to locate a single rickshaw in Abbotabad was a bittersweet experience. A part of me was relieved at not having to hear the awful noise of rickshaws whizzing here and there on roads yet a part of me missed those awful vehicles sorely. So if there were no rickshaws in Abbotabad, how does the common man commute daily? The answer: Suzukis. Hoards of them. Either these or ‘dabbagarris’ are found in every nook and corner of the city’s streets. Wherever you want to go, whenever you want to go; they are at your service. Oh and their drivers will keep you thoroughly entertained by providing you free Hindko music. A word of caution though: If you are waiting in your car at a u-turn along with a Suzuki driver, please have mercy on yourselves and your children and DON’T stand in between him and the road-you will pay a heavy price if you don’t comply.
The mosque, the pakorras and everything in between
Perhaps the only ‘historical’ landmark in the city and which the locals are very proud of, is Ilyasi Mosque. It isn’t Badhsahi Mosque or the Faisal Mosque but its individuality lies in its tranquility. Two things which have brought this mosque fame are the spring water on which the mosque is built (and which is said to have healing powers) and the pakorras which have become synonymous with the mosque’s identity. Treat yourselves to these mouthwatering, spicy and cholestrol loaded delicacies if you get a chance to. If however, you’re one of those weight conscious, cholestrol obsessed people who won’t try them even if a million will tell you to do so, then I’d advise you to go hiking on the hill behind the mosque; I bet by the time you reach the top of the hill and come back, you’ll be vying for the first bite of those same cholesterol-laddened pakkoras you were refusing to try earlier on. Some other sites which are famous are the Shimla Hills, Thandiani and Harnoi. Furthermore, Nathiagali is a stone’s throw away.
Of H2O and snow
When the Abbotabadis get tired of eating-out or hiking, they hop in their jeeps (stereotyped much?) and head out to the place where they trust fun is guaranteed; Harnoi. Harnoi is a small suburban village present in the outskirts of Abbotabad which is famous for a rivulet that flows by. People are seen having the times of their lives at Harnoi with barbeque and other food items accompanying them. Come winters and this burning devotion to water, changes shape. Yes I am talking about snowfall. True, thanks to folks down there in the plains who are cutting trees at the very moment this article is being typed, the rate of snowfall has substantially decreased but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t snow altogether. The snow is awaited and when Mother Nature finally decides to bestow upon the city a sparkle of those white ice-cold balls, Abbotabad and her residents are ecstatic. One of the best memories of my school life is indeed the time we were giving our maths test and it started snowing unexpectedly. Next thing, we were all out of our seats completely forgetting about the important maths quiz and roaming around the school with snow falling on our heads. Some of us were worried we might get frostbite and die of pneumonia but did that stop us from ditching the maths test? Ah, no.
PMA. Name says it all
I know what you’re thinking and I advise you to abstain from speaking ill of the military who couldn’t locate You-Know-Who in their backyard. So where were we? Ah, yes. The Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul is situated in this city. Every year, tourists from around the country visit this historical academy to witness the grand passing out parades held here. The trance enducing parades, handsome cadets (!) and the general aura of the academy is enough a reason to throw off your blankets, get up and pay a visit. Those who are ardent Alpha Bravo Charlie fans should take cue.
Of Hallians, Moderns and others
One element which strikes chords as soon as you enter the city is the number of educational institutes there. If you see the number of schools in Abbotabad you’d think Pakistan is not facing an education crisis at all. And among all these institutions the one which has earned the highest degree of respect is, the grandiose Army Burnhall School and College. Rich in history and heritage it has produced outstanding indivduals eversince its inception. Its alumni includes Prof Dr Akbar S. Ahmed ( who went on to produce the movie, ‘Jinnah’) and Chaudry Nisar Ali Khan (our current Interior Minister) among many others. Then there’s Ayub Medical College and numerous others sprung across the city. Now this is a place that yearns to learn and unearth.
No visa restriction :p
Perhaps the most beneficial thing about Abbotabad is the fact that it’s ours. No one can stop you from going there and you can stay there as long as you want to without the fear of being looked down upon as someone inferior, because you’re not somewhere in the First World country as some secondary citizen. You’re in your country, amongst your own people.
Baar baar dekho, hazar baar dekho
Abbotabad leaves an impact on your souls long after you’ve left it. The city lingers in your thoughts, plays with your reminiscences and plucks your memory. It shines in your recollections like an iridescent diamond. It is here where you first feel the tantalizing and playful tremors of joviality in your hearts; of being part of nature’s best kept secrets. It is here where you’ll want to move in if you’re in need of a break. When you’ll be sad the trees on Shimla Hills will listen to your story, when you’ll be happy the birds will sing along with you and when you’ll be leaving it, they’d all chant you farewell with a heavy heart, wanting you to come back but wishing you good luck nonetheless. The irony of it all is…you’ve never really left.