Thanks: Dawn, 13 Feb 2010
This picture taken on February 11, 2010, shows a woman choosing Valentine’s Day gifts at a shop in Peshawar. — AFP
PESHAWAR: Hip young romantics in Pakistan’s most dangerous city are splashing out on text messages and teddy bears, defying Taliban bombers and conservative parents to find love this Valentine’s Day.
It has taken four years and the prospect of never seeing her again, for Mohammad Asif to pluck up the courage to approach the object of his affections, a fellow engineering student in northwest city Peshawar.
Destined to graduate and look for a job in a city where bomb attacks have closed businesses and emptied markets, Asif realises it’s now or never.
“After four years of studies, my classmates are dispersing and I finally want to express my love for a girl I’ve liked for the past four years, but never said anything,” gushes the 21-year-old.
“I’ve bought a card and chocolates to give her, so she knows that I love her. This is the day to disclose your hidden feelings,” he said.
For Shama Aamir, who bought scent, chocolates and a love heart for her husband, Valentine’s Day is a ray of sunshine in a miserable life.
“Some people cannot express their love and Valentine’s Day provides them a good opportunity. It’s a positive thing in this gloomy atmosphere and bombings,” the 32-year-old told AFP.
Retailers only wish there were more people like her. Nasir Ahmed, who owns a gift shop in Peshawar’s Sadar bazaar, says Valentine sales are down 30 per cent this year because of unrest and inflation.
Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked bombings, which have killed more than 3,000 people in Pakistan within three years, surged late last year, much of it focused around Peshawar and northwest Pakistan.
Morale has suffered among the city’s 2.5 million residents. Checkpoints have mushroomed. Many struggle to make ends meet and cloister themselves at home, frightened of becoming the bombers’ next victim.
“Sales have plummeted by at least 30 per cent this year. People are scared of going shopping and purchasing power has been severely dented by back-breaking inflation,” Ahmed told AFP.
“Most of my customers are young people buying cards, chocolates, love hearts and teddy bears for their beloveds.”
Peshawar is a conservative Muslim city, where many disapprove of Valentine’s Day as a Western import. Women are veiled and few girls go out alone.
Valentine’s Day is the preserve of the young, educated and wealthy. Secret trysts are a dream, even more difficult on Sundays, when schools are closed.
“There will be a lot of problems and difficulties for boys to take girls out as it will be a holiday… so please celebrate Valentine’s Day on Monday,” said the “Love Guru” in a text message pinged through Peshawar and other cities.
But for young lovers with strict parents there can never be chocolates, roses or candlelit dinners as enjoyed by contemporaries in the West.
Kashmala Qasim fell in love with someone she met when displaced by fighting between the army and Taliban last year. Now at home with her family in the Swat valley, far from Peshawar, a text message is her only Valetine’s hope.
“It’s impossible for me to go to Peshawar. I tried my best but it is impossible to meet him. So the only way I have is my mobile. I’ll send him wishes by SMS,” she told AFP by telephone from Swat.
But Aftab Ahmed, a 30-year-old civil servant, claimed to be among those bombarding networks with furious text messages condemning Valentine’s Day as an offence to local culture.
“Valentine’s day is un-Islamic and against our culture and values… I’ve sent more than 1,000 text messages to various people,” Ahmed claimed.
“Say no to Valentine’s. Spread modest culture. Modesty Day, 14 February 2010,” said another text message received by mobile phone users.
Haji Zar Khan, spokesman for militant group Lashkar-i-Islam, currently subject to Pakistani military operations near Peshawar, was unaware of the significance of the day — until he was filled in by an AFP journalist.
“Through you we send this message to all Peshawar — people should refrain from celebrating Valentine’s Day otherwise they’ll be responsible for the consequences,” Khan told AFP.