In 2008, I visited a marble supplier at an industrial park in Peshawar, Pakistan. On the way, we drove past abandoned refugee camps where Afghans fleeing the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan lived during the 1980s.
The proximity of Peshawar to Afghanistan – just 60 kilometers away – and the cultural connections between ethnic groups on both sides of the border cemented these camps into the already hard terrain of northwestern Pakistan.
I had flashbacks to television anchor Dan Rather’s war reporting on the CBS nightly news, watching with my father from our living room in Toledo, Ohio. I was probably too young to remember such a thing. But from the car in Peshawar decades later, I captured two blurry images of the dwellings – an appropriate outcome given my displaced memory.
Pakistan is the sixth largest mineral extractor of marble in the world. Most of the marble can be found in remote areas, including in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where I currently was.
The marble yard was more casual than I expected, but it was also surprisingly daunting. The heavy stone was larger than life. I wondered about the safety of the workers.
My mind was still in the empty refugee camps. But I was soon distracted by the rugged beauty and minimalism of the factory.
Later, as we headed back towards the capital city of Islamabad, the rocky cliffs surrounding us hinted at the place we just left.
Pakistan still hosts 1.5 million Afghan refugees, but the more recent exodus of Afghans to Europe is a comment on Pakistan’s own growing instability.
The landscape in this part of Pakistan tells all that the South Asian subcontinent offers and portends – a surreal combination of rocky moonscapes and desert wasteland; abandoned peoples and failed wars; hospitality and natural beauty.