A wedding invitation brought me to the Jackson Heights neighborhood of New York City, where one is surrounded by faces drawn from the far corners of the world. A walk through the bustling streets of this town in the borough of Queens transports one to the exotic bazaars and markets of faraway lands. Here one could spend a lifetime surrounded by comforting and soothing mementos of one's past and not know about the rest of New York. It is a kaleidoscope of colors, smells, and tongues that would tug on the heartstrings of any Americanized desi.
The wedding was between two prominent clans of Peshawar, the frontier town nestled in the shadow of the Khyber Pass in northwest Pakistan. Over the millennia wave after wave of foreigners, some invaders and others traders, came to the crossroads of Asia and adopted the culture and the language of the ancient city. The language, Hindko, had been spoken in those parts since the first century. One could see this in the gathering in New York, where diehard Peshawaris not only celebrated the union of two young people but also their language and their culture.
In the elegant New Huntington House in Huntington Station, N.Y., the guests mingled, talked, and found that many of them were born and raised within the tiny two square miles that was the walled city of Peshawar. While every city has its star-studded list of luminaries, Peshawar has had more than its share of such people.
The Indian matinee idol Yusaf Khan, aka Dilip Kumar, who dominated Indian films for more than 50 years, was born in the city in an alley called Meat Sellers Market. While at the pinnacle of his career in Mumbai he was always longing for the city of his birth. Prithivi Raj, also an Indian movie icon, and his sons would always pour a bag of Peshawar dirt in the foundations of their new homes.
There was Pitras Bukhari, an English professor turned diplomat, who could with ease and facility talk about Shakespeare or discuss the thorny issue of Kashmir. More often than not he presented his arguments at the United Nations, where he represented Pakistan in the early 1950s, in the most poetic language. There were many others as well who were born and raised in that city who excelled in such disparate fields as music, poetry, sports, religion, and politics. Ahmad Faraz, the greatest contemporary Urdu poet, grew up in Peshawar.
At the wedding I met one-time television producer Atiq Siddiqi, who has two advanced degrees in English and journalism from Columbia University and runs a motel in upstate New York. He is also a well-known columnist and writes for some of the leading Urdu language newspapers in this country. I also met Hayat Shah, a mountaineer par excellence, who had accompanied many expeditions to the Himalayas and the Karakorum Mountains in the 1950s. In 1956 he was stranded at 26,000 feet while attempting to reach the summit of K2. He spent the night in a bivouac and survived to tell the story. The irony is that Mr. Shah is blind in one eye due to a childhood accident and, despite the handicap, also excelled in tennis, soccer, and athletics.
And then there was poet-writer Irshad Siddiqi (no relation to the inn keeper) from New Mexico. He joined the U.S. Navy as a civilian officer and served in many facilities around the world. When his ship finally came into port at his retirement, he picked up the pen. In the short span of five years he has written two critically acclaimed novels and a score of other books. Today he is considered one of the leading Urdu fiction writers.
At our insistence Mr. Siddiqi recited one of his landmark poems about Peshawar and its gradually disappearing language and culture. Part lament, part nostalgia, the poem paints a vivid picture of a city that once was, and in many ways still is, part of our collective memory. The New York wedding was the reaffirmation of our roots and the celebration of our language and our culture.
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