The library thrives in Pakistan’s “Wild West” arms market town



When the din of Pakistan’s most famous arms market becomes overwhelming, arms dealer Muhammad Jahanzeb walks away from his stall, his companions testing machine guns, to read in the silence of the local library.

“It’s my hobby, my favorite hobby, so sometimes I get away,” the 28-year-old told AFP after showing off his inventory of vintage rifles, fake assault weapons and a menacing array of polished knives.

“I have always wished we had a library here, and my wish has come true.”

The town of Darra Adamkhel is part of the deeply conservative tribal belt where decades of militancy and drug-trafficking in the surrounding mountains have earned it a reputation as a “wild west” landmark between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It has long been known for its black market bazaars of forged American rifles, replica revolvers and knock-off AK-47s.

But within walking distance of a city library it thrives, offering titles such as Virginia Woolf’s classic “Mrs Dalloway,” installments of the teen vampire romance series “Twilight” and Abraham’s “Life, Speeches and Letters” Lincoln.

“At first we were discouraged. People would ask, “What’s the use of books in a place like Darra Adamkhel? Who would ever read here?”, 36-year-old founder Raj Muhammad recalled.

“We now have over 500 members.”

The library thrives in the arms market town of the
In this photo taken on Jan. 4, 2023, a general view of the Darra Adam Khel Library building is shown in the town of Darra Adamkhel, about 35 kilometers (20 miles) south of Peshawar. (Photo by Abdul MAJEED / AFP) / To go with ‘Pakistan-Library-Weapons’, FEATURE by Sajjad TARAKZAI

– Tribal Transformation –

Literacy rates in the tribal areas, which were semi-autonomous until 2018 when they were merged with neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, are among the lowest in Pakistan as a result of poverty, patriarchal values, conflict between clans and the lack of schools.

But attitudes are slowly changing, believes 33-year-old volunteer librarian Shafiullah Afridi: “Especially among the younger generation who are now interested in education instead of guns.”

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“When people see young people in their neighborhood becoming doctors and engineers, others also start sending their children to school,” he said. Afridi, who has curated a ledger of 4,000 titles in three languages: English, Urdu and Pashto.

Despite the background noise of gunsmiths testing weapons and hammering bullets into dusty patches of dirt nearby, the atmosphere is pleasant as readers sip endless rounds of green tea while pondering the texts.

However, Afridi struggles to strictly enforce a “no weapons allowed” policy during his shift.

A young arms dealer walks into the impeccably painted salmon-colored library, leaves his AK-47 at the door but keeps the gun strapped to his waist, and joins a group of bookworms browsing the shelves.

Alongside the paperbacks of Tom Clancy, Stephen King and Michael Crichton, there are heavier tomes detailing the history of Pakistan and India and guides to civil service entrance exams, as well as a wide selection of courses Islamic

– ‘Education not weapons’ –

Libraries are rare in rural Pakistan, and the few that exist in urban centers are often poorly stocked and infrequently used.

In Darra Adamkhel, it began as a lonely reading room in 2018 with Muhammad’s personal collection, above one of the hundreds of gun shops in the central bazaar.

“You could say we planted the library on a pile of guns,” said Muhammad, a prominent local scholar, poet and teacher from a long line of gunsmiths.

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Muhammad paid 2,500 rupees ($11) in monthly rent, but bibliophiles struggled to concentrate amid the whirring of lathes and hammering of metal as bootlegger gunmen plied their trade downstairs.

The project quickly outgrew the confines of a single room and moved a year later to a single-storey purpose-built building funded by the local community on donated land.

“There was a time when our youth used to adorn themselves with weapons as a kind of jewelry,” said Irfanullah Khan, 65, the patriarch of the family that gave away the plot.

“But men look beautiful with the jewel of knowledge, beauty lies not in weapons but in education,” said Khan, who also spends his time with his son Afridi.

The library thrives in the arms market town of the
In this photo taken on Dec. 14, 2022, arms dealer Hakimullah Afridi displays a locally made automatic pistol at his shop in Darra Adamkhel, about 35 kilometers (20 miles) south of Peshawar. (Photo by Abdul MAJEED / AFP) / To go with ‘Pakistan-Library-Weapons’, FEATURE by Sajjad TARAKZAI

For the general public, a library card costs 150 rupees ($0.66) a year, while students enjoy a discounted rate of 100 rupees ($0.44) and youths get in and out from the library even during the school holidays.

One in 10 members are women, a remarkably high figure for tribal areas, although once they reach adolescence and are kidnapped at home, the men in the family collect books on their behalf.

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However, during the mid-morning recess, nine-year-old Manahil Jahangir and five-year-old Hareem Saeed join the men who tower over them as they study their books.

“My mother’s dream is for me to become a doctor,” says Saeed shyly. “If I study here I can make his dream come true.”

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