x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Salvaging a life: the child mechanics of the Shuba Bazaar

Peshawar's Shuba Bazaar is a maze of car repair shops peopled by child mechanics who scrape an existence rebuilding broken engines. Old beyond their years, they have found a refuge of sorts from war and poverty in this fetid workshop.

Peshawar's Shuba Bazaar is a maze of car repair shops peopled by child mechanics who scrape an existence rebuilding broken engines. Old beyond their years, they have found a refuge of sorts from war and poverty in this fetid workshop. Adnan Khan tells their story in words and photographs. There's a distinct feeling of danger whenever you drive into Peshawar's old city, a creeping sensation like trekking deeper and deeper into a dark jungle. The streets narrow but don't simply become more congested; they close in on you. The buildings crowd together in compact geometries but they don't just tower, they loom menacingly. And the people look different, less and less like the frantic city-dwellers you find in the newer districts and more like people looking for trouble, people with a penchant for violence. It's obviously a state of mind, this descent into darkness, and not reality in a strict sense. The old city isn't any more, or less, dangerous than the rest of Peshawar. Bomb blasts can - and will - happen all over this frantic frontier metropolis. But states of mind can be a powerful force, more real sometimes than concrete and glass, more disturbing even than a moving mass of dour faces. And places - spaces - can have a power of their own, indelible moods and emotions that will a person to a certain kind of reality. Peshawar is full of interesting spaces, mostly rundown but imbued with a sense of history, of events and moments trapped in the atmosphere a space creates. The war in Pakistan has altered those spaces, coloured alleyways and bazaar districts in ever-deepening shades of dread and driven the collective consciousness into a state of anxiety and depression. I've never felt that feeling more thoroughly than in Shuba Bazaar. This is Pakistan's most famous car parts district - a 1 sq km maze of car repair shops sliced through with alleys and lanes where engines piled precariously in jumbled masses create a scene like nothing else I've ever seen. Over the eight years I've been coming here, I've watched the lives of its adolescent mechanics being shaped by their surroundings, altered by the relentless march of events out of their control. The children of Shuba Bazaar are living history books; on their faces are written the tragic chapters of 30 years of war and displacement. They are the children of refugees, driven into exile and forced into a life normally associated with adulthood. Fixing engines is second nature to them: children and teenagers man everything from grinders to blow torches, caked in grease and grit, shaping and welding together functioning engine blocks in a dark and twisted parody of a craft class. Their story is a continuation of the same story their parents lived: the life of the refugee, desperately struggling to build a future in a land that has only nominally accepted them. For them, Shuba Bazaar is everything and nothing, on the surface a simple place of employment where they eek out a meagre living that helps their families survive the hardships of refugee life. But scrub away the filth, scrape away the rust, and histories begin to reveal themselves; wander into the maze of engine blocks, and further into the labyrinth of lives that occupy it, and you can easily get lost in the stories that lie buried there. This is how space defines a person, shapes him in ways that can only be described as symbiotic. The child mechanics in Shuba Bazaar are the reflection of their workspace. The mechanics of their lives are intricately woven with pistons and carburettors, the endless repetition of their daily routines as banal as a spinning fan belt. Every time I visit Shuba Bazaar I come away with another piece of the puzzle, assembling the lives of these young boys in bits and pieces. What captured me on my first trip was the look in their eyes: it was an ancient look, a look beyond the years contained in their tiny bodies. Childhood is the first victim here. After that comes individuality, the uniqueness of a person that can also be called his identity. Working as mechanics - child mechanics - is their most obvious means of identity. It envelops them. Some struggle against it, like eight-year-old Fahd who dreams of leaving Shuba Bazaar. "Some day I'll be a doctor," he says. "Some day I'll fix people instead of cars." His is a dream in the early stages of decay, still whole enough to retain some semblance of reality. But for others, such as 15-year old Ashoor, the brutal truth has set in: there is no life for them outside the confines of Shuba Bazaar. Car parts will be their permanent landscape.

It's the look in his eyes that first drew me to Adil: the intensity of it, the absolute concentration and focus. It's not something you expect from an 11-year-old. In some ways it's disturbing, skewed, out of place, an 11-year-old adult, with all the mannerisms of a grown man packaged in a child's body. But in other ways, it's powerful; the confidence he exudes is impressive. And he knows how to use it: Adil is top dog in his tiny corner of Shuba Bazaar. The other children look up to him, some worship him, for his abilities with engines as well as his uncanny adeptness at dealing with adults. No one barks orders at Adil - he is consulted, requested, kindly asked. His is a duty that goes beyond the mere confines of poverty and desperation. Adil is the eldest boy in his family and with that comes responsibility. "I want to open my own shop," he tells me, recounting a dream that few 11-year-olds would have. "Then my father won't have to work any more and my mother can buy all the dresses she wants." Adil's family is from Swat, where his grandfather settled after escaping the war in Afghanistan in the early 1980s. But now the war has come to his doorstep. Pakistan has become the mercurial void his grandfather hoped to spare his family two decades ago. There is no escape: the cycle of violence and hopelessness seems to follow his family wherever they go. "You want to open your own shop?" a teenage mechanic asks Adil. "But you couldn't even afford breakfast this morning." Adil averts his eyes, obviously shamed by the revelation. "I don't know. Yes, I will. Maybe," he says.

Rauf arrives at Manzoor's shop looking like a lost puppy from the countryside, wild-eyed and bewildered by the hectic activity of Shuba Bazaar. Someone fires up an engine and the roaring sound makes him jump. The other boys gather around and make fun of this new arrival. "I bet 500 rupees he won't last a week," says one of the older mechanics, a teenager with the ragged complexion of someone who has spent far too many years breathing in exhaust fumes. No one takes the bet, which is a good thing for the teenager. After two weeks, Rauf has graduated from tea-toter to an assistant mechanic. He is keen, and quick, qualities to which Adil is instantly attracted. They form the kind of bond that is the product of two people who know they are sharing a similar destiny. Rauf has a familiar back-story: the collapse of Peshawar's economy since the start of the war in Afghanistan has left his family destitute. "My father can't afford my school fees any more," says the 12-year old. "So if I want to go to school, he told me I have to make the money myself." Rauf's family is different from the others in Shuba Bazaar: they are not refugees from Afghanistan. They have lived in Peshawar for generations, their fortunes fluctuating with the fortunes of the city. And unlike Manzoor and Adil, Rauf is a first-generation mechanic, a fact that becomes apparent in the way he interacts with the other child mechanics. He misses most of their jokes, appears uncomfortable in their presence. So instead, he directs all of his energy into the work. He may be the beginning, I think, the catalyst for a new cycle of generational child mechanics. Or maybe he will escape, maybe he will make enough money to put himself back in school, maybe he will not get lost in the maze of Shuba Bazaar.

There is still the innocence of a 10-year-old in Manzoor's eyes, a slight hint of childhood left in the fast dying embers. When I first meet him, he is watching his father remove the pistons from a four-cylinder Corolla engine block, eagerly taking in the details of a process he will have to learn himself in a short few days. "Manzoor is not meant for this kind of work," his father confides to me later. "He is not so quick a learner like Adil. His mind is always on cricket." Adil and Manzoor are best friends but it's obvious when you meet them who is the dominant personality. Manzoor worships Adil. In every aspect of their lives together, from the greasy workshops to the cricket field, Adil is Manzoor's better. It's a confidence thing, I think. Manzoor is less sure of himself, less able to strike back with a verbal barrage when the men tease him, less certain of the role he must play in this adult's world. After two years of working in Shuba, I have a feeling he still hasn't fully accepted the future that has been laid out for him. He still retains childhood dreams of cricket stardom and leaving the bazaar. "I'm only doing this right now because my mother needs the money," he tells me. "I make 100 rupees (US$1.20) a week here and give half of it to my mother. But when I'm a professional cricket player, I will buy her a whole house." His father smiles sadly. He also had dreams, he confesses - of going back to Afghanistan, back to his ancestral land where he would work the fields and build a house in the middle of an apricot orchard. "But the war," he says, his voice trailing off. "The war?"