In the Pakistani Far West, a library is making a place for itself near a large arms market
When the hubbub of the arms market where he works, the most famous in Pakistan, becomes too distracting, Muhammad Jahanzeb walks away from his shop, past colleagues who are testing machine guns and takes refuge in the calm of the local library.
“It’s my passion, my favorite hobby, so sometimes I smuggle,” the 28-year-old arms dealer told AFP, after proudly showing off his collection of old rifles, replicas assault weapons and daggers with polished blades.
“I always hoped that we would have a library here and my wish has come true,” he told Darra Adamkhel.
This city is located in the very conservative tribal areas of North-West Pakistan that form a buffer to neighboring Afghanistan. They have earned a reputation in the Wild West after decades of gun violence and drug trafficking in the surrounding mountains.
Darra Adamkhel has long been known for his black markets full of replica American rifles, copycat handguns and Kalashnikovs.
But a few meters walk from the crowded market, the library offers products that are not fake: Virginia Woolf’s classic “Mrs Dalloway”, the saga that tells the idyll between a vampire and a human “Twilight” , or a book on “The Life, Speeches and Letters” of Abraham Lincoln.
“At first, we were discouraged. People asked: + What is the use of books in a place like Darra Adamkhel? Who wants to read here? +”, recalls the library’s founder, Raj Muhammad.
But “now we have more than 500 users,” he said.
The literacy rate in the tribal areas, a territory that remained semi-autonomous until 2018, is among the lowest in Pakistan due to poverty, patriarchal traditions, conflict between clans and a lack of schools.
– “What good books?” –
But attitudes are slowly changing, says Shafiullah Afridi, a mild-mannered 33-year-old volunteer librarian. “Especially among the younger generation, who are now more interested in education than weapons,” he remarks.
“When people see young people in their neighborhood becoming doctors and engineers, others start sending their children to school”, added Shafiullah, who manages an establishment that offers 4,000 titles in three languages (English, Urdu and Pashto).
Despite the background noise of gunsmiths testing their wares by firing bullets into the dusty floor, the mood in the library was bright, with regulars poring over their books while sipping of their tea.
Even Shafiullah is struggling to strictly enforce the no-gun rule.
A young arms dealer walks into the room with the salmon-pink walls. He left his Kalashnikov at the entrance, but kept his gun in his belt, and joined the readers rummaging through the shelves.
Alongside the well-worn paperbacks of Tom Clancy, Stephen King and Michael Crichton, there are larger works tracing the history of Pakistan and India, preparation guides for civil service entrance exams or books- lesson of Islamic education.
Libraries are rare in rural Pakistan. And even in the cities, those that are there are often not supplied with books and are rarely visited.
In Darra Adamkhel, it first opened in 2018 in a single room, filled with Mr Muhammad’s personal book collection, above one of the market’s hundreds of gun shops.
– “Education, not weapons” –
“You could say we planted the library in a pile of arms,” smiled the latter, a poet and teacher who himself came from a long line of arms manufacturers.
But the public in the library then found it difficult to concentrate, with the noise caused by the machining of guns.
Soon, the simple room proved inadequate and the library was moved a year later to a dedicated building, built on land provided free of charge and financed by the local community.
“There was a time when our young men adorned themselves with weapons as if they were jewels,” recalled Irfanullah Khan, 65, patriarch of the family that donated the skeleton.
“But people are beautiful in the jewel of knowledge. Beauty is in education, not in weapons”, poetically one who spends his time in the library itself, with his son Shafiullah.
Registration costs 150 rupees (0.60 euro) per year for the public. Students benefit from a discount (100 rupees), so some do not hesitate to go there just for recess.
Among them, almost 10% are girls, a very high percentage for tribal areas, even from adolescence they will be confined to their homes and the men of their families will take books for them .
However, during the morning recess, 9-year-old Manahil Jahangir and 5-year-old Hareem Saeed join the boys, leading them by several heads, and immerse themselves in books.
“My mother’s dream was for me to become a doctor,” Hareem slipped shyly. “If I study here, I will fulfill his dream.”