Afghans Built This City

Laborers From Across the Border Have Left an Indelible Mark on Urban Pakistan

Pakistan’s Afghan laborers built cities like Peshawar (above), allowing the country to have the fastest rate of urbanization in South Asia. Political scientist Sanaa Alimia explains why their work is often overlooked. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Rahimullah waits. In order to get picked for a day’s work, it’s best to get started early. He’s said his morning prayers. Had breakfast. Eggs, bread, and tea. He’s walked for 40 minutes to find a good spot on one of the busiest roads in the city. Rahimullah will likely be picked for a day’s work to fix plants on the sidewalk of a suburban housing area. Peshawar, a city of 4 million people in the northwest of Pakistan, seems sleepy right now, but that will soon change.

Cities, they say, have souls. They emit a mythology from their buildings and infrastructure, from their layers of history and anonymous crowds. But it is also the people who make its soul. Pakistan’s daily wage laborers, including Afghan nationals such as Rahimullah, are makers of Peshawar and other cities across Pakistan.

Rahimullah has, literally, transformed Peshawar with his own hands. Roads, sewage lines, buildings, planting flowers, planting crops—you name them, he’s worked them all. Within his neighborhood, a small informal housing area—or slums, as they’re often called—he’s built homes, made footpaths, bridges, and more.

Then you have women like Qayinat, also Afghan. Her hands are hardened from detergent and water and covered in calluses. Every day she walks from her informal house on the outskirts of the city to get to upper-middle-class homes where she washes clothes and cleans for a day’s pay of around 550 Pakistani rupees (around 2.50 U.S. dollars).

You won’t hear much about Rahimullah or Qayinat though. Daily wage laborers are not venerated in the official and, increasingly, even popular, imagination. Refugees and undocumented migrants are often reduced to tropes and discussed only through the prism of geopolitics, situated outside of the discourse on cities or mentioned only in passing, assumed simply to be waiting to return home.

The Afghans in urban Pakistan that I spoke to for my book project claimed the city as their own, not because they saw themselves as “contributors to the economy,” but because they knew their labor underpinned its very functioning.

Pakistan’s Afghans are the labor that allows capitalist development projects and aspirations to middle-class urbanism.

Pakistan has the fastest rate of urbanization in South Asia. For years, policymakers have boasted they are building “world-class” cities. Much of their inspiration (and funding) comes from their modernization crush, the Gulf Arab states (read: gated communities, securitized high-rises, shopping malls, and Sunni mosques).

Yet, as the late, great Mike Davis told us, urbanization in the Global South is riddled with inequalities, driven by colonial legacies of spatial segregation, the rampant restructuring of postcolonial economies by international financial institutions, and the middle-class domination over the state.

The same is true in Pakistan. There’s no oil-rich economy as in the Gulf Arab countries, industrialization is non-existent, the country’s main exports are textiles and agricultural produce, and the dependency on IMF loans and World Bank projects are debilitating.

Urbanization in Pakistan is driven by forced migration from internal and regional wars, climate disaster, and botched development projects. Alongside Afghans, you also have Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, Sri Lankans, Yemenis, and more. Yet Pakistan’s Afghans are the labor that allows capitalist development projects and aspirations to middle-class urbanism.

Millions of Afghans have lived in Pakistan over the past 40 years—at least 8 million persons at its peak and around 3 million today. The Pakistani establishment, and international actors—states, NGOs, and liberal commentators—like to celebrate the country’s “hospitality” toward Afghan refugees.

This is disingenuous.

Most of Pakistan’s Afghans have come from low-income backgrounds. The majority have been unable to become citizens. While constitutionally anyone born in the country is eligible for citizenship, successive governments have blocked this.

In recent years millions of Afghans have been coerced to leave Pakistan, often with the complicity of the international humanitarian regime. Since the mid-2000s, millions of Afghans have left Pakistan. Some returned to Afghanistan, but since war never stopped in the country, many moved elsewhere—Europe, Iran, Turkey—lived transnational lives, or, simply, stayed in Pakistan.

When, in 2021 the Taliban recaptured power in Afghanistan and Afghan nationals sought refuge, medical treatment, transit, or reunification with family already in Pakistan, they found land borders difficult to cross, beatings and extortion rampant, and visas nearly impossible to get. Pakistan’s hostile borders have been emboldened by the violent, racist, and exclusionary border regimes of richer nations that have consistently been hostile to Afghans.

The Pakistani state also shoulders sizeable responsibility for the protracted conflicts in Afghanistan, especially from the 1990s onward, when it has contributed to elongating conflict in Afghanistan, most notably through its support of the Taliban. It also supported the disastrous U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan, marked by massive civilian casualties.

The nation is jingoistic and exclusionary. Anti-poor urban planning, the shuttering of refugee camps, and displaced persons being told to “move on” from relief camps means many can’t get access to the basics (housing, electricity, sanitation), so they find other ways to do so. Despite the increasingly hostile attitudes of those in power at the national level, the city accommodates different ethnicities, nationalities, sexualities, and classes within a single space—albeit subject to hierarchical, uneven divisions. Afghans and Pakistanis live and work side by side with each other in shared daily struggles, forming community and companionship as they do so.

They literally expand the city—not through the skyline of malls, mosques, and high-rises policymakers would have you believe, but, through the katchi abadi, the informal housing area, which is the true and more complex face of urbanity in the country.

In sympathetic policy circles or polite middle-class living room conversation, when it comes to Pakistan’s low-income Afghans, you might hear how they are economically useful, They’ve contributed a lot to our economy. At other times its, Afghans know how to manage hardship, or, They’re so resilient.

But should one’s humanity be contingent on economic productivity? “Love us… when we’re wretched, suicidal, naked, contributing nothing,” British Muslim poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan teaches us.

Tropes of resilience distract from the more insidious reasons as to why people need to be resilient in the first place—and not everyone can be.

Most of the people I interviewed were unequivocal: Their lives are hard because of failings of the state, elites, international humanitarian agencies, and repeated military interventions in Afghanistan—including Pakistan’s own repeated interference in its neighboring country and those of imperialist persuasions (Soviet, American, European). Perhaps, then, as anthropologist Anila Daulatzai, urges us, we should be thinking about the reparations Pakistan owes Afghan people, which must include Pakistan’s own Afghan population.

So, if we choose to reflect, as you pass through Pakistan’s cities, Bertolt Brecht’s compassionate recognition of workers across civilizations will echo in your ears. So too will the region’s own Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ode to those who live in the broken roads of slum dwellings. Stop in Hayatabad, a township celebrated as Peshawar’s architectural jewel-in-the-crown, and ask any local, Afghan or Pakistani, and they’ll tell you: It was Afghan laborers who built it.


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