In the Pakistani Far West, a library makes a place for itself near a large arms market

DARRA ADAMKHEL: When the hubbub of the arms market where he works, the most famous in Pakistan, becomes too disturbing, Muhammad Jahanzeb walks away from his shop, passes behind colleagues who test machine guns and takes refuge in the calm local library.

“It’s my passion, my favorite pastime, so sometimes I sneak away,” the 28-year-old arms dealer told AFP, after proudly showing his collection of old rifles, replicas assault weapons and daggers with shiny 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 which form a buffer with neighboring Afghanistan. They have earned a Wild West reputation after decades of gun violence and drug trafficking in the surrounding mountains.

Darra Adamkhel has long been known for her black markets teeming with replica American rifles, copycat handguns and Kalashnikovs.

But a few meters walk from the crowded market, the library offers products that are not counterfeit: the Virginia Woolf classic “Mrs Dalloway”, the saga telling 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 were asking, ‘What good are books in a place like Darra Adamkhel? Who would ever want to read here?'” recalls the library’s founder, Raj Muhammad.

But “now we have more than 500 users,” he says.

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, inter-clan conflict and lack of schools.

“What good are 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 in weapons,” he remarks.

“When people see young people in their neighborhood who become doctors and engineers, others also start sending their children to school,” adds Shafiullah, in charge of an establishment which offers 4,000 titles in three languages ​​(English , Urdu and Pashto).

Despite the noise in the background of gunsmiths testing their wares by firing bullets into the dusty floor, the mood in the library is polished, regulars meditating on their book while sipping their tea.

Even though Shafiullah struggles to strictly enforce the no-gun rule.

A young arms dealer strolls through the room with salmon-pink walls. He left his Kalashnikov at the entrance, but kept his handgun in his belt, and joined the readers rummaging through the shelves.

Alongside well-worn paperbacks by Tom Clancy, Stephen King and Michael Crichton, there are larger works tracing the history of Pakistan and India, guides preparing for the civil service entrance exams or textbooks of Islamic education.

Libraries are rare in rural Pakistan. And even in the cities, those that exist are often poorly supplied with books and little frequented.

At Darra Adamkhel, it first opened in 2018 in a single room, stocked with Mr Muhammad’s personal book collection, above one of the hundreds of gun shops in the market.

“Education, not weapons”

“You could say that we planted the library on a pile of weapons,” smiles the latter, a poet and teacher who himself comes from a long line of arms manufacturers.

But the public in the library then had great difficulty concentrating, with the din caused by the machining of firearms.

Soon, the simple room proved insufficient and the library was moved a year later to a dedicated building, built on land donated free of charge and funded by the local community.

“There was a time when our young men adorned themselves with arms as if they were jewels,” recalls Irfanullah Khan, 65, patriarch of the family who donated the plot.

“But men are beautiful with the jewel of knowledge. Beauty lies in education, not in weapons”, poetizes the one who devotes his time to the library himself, with his son Shafiullah.

Registration costs 150 rupees (0.60 euro) per year for the public. Schoolchildren benefit from a deduction (100 rupees), so that some do not hesitate to come there just for recess.

Among these, nearly 10% are girls, a remarkably high percentage for the tribal areas, even if from adolescence they will be confined to their homes and the men of their family will fetch the books for them.

However, during morning recess, 9-year-old Manahil Jahangir and 5-year-old Hareem Saeed join the men, who tower over them by several heads, and immerse themselves in the books.

“My mother’s dream is for me to become a doctor,” Hareem shyly slips. “If I study here, I can fulfill his dream.”

In the Pakistani Far West, a library makes a place for itself near a large arms market