August 20, 2019
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First library seeks to bring change to Pakistani gun-making town

By Jaime Leon

Darra Adam Khel, Pakistan, Jul 19 (efe-epa).- For decades, life in a small town in northwestern Pakistan has revolved around the manufacture of imitations of AK-47 and M16 assault rifles. But this is slowly changing, as symbolized by the opening of the town's first local library.

The main street of Darra Adam Khel's market is full of sounds of the hammers of gunsmiths and even gunshots, but just 300 meters (984 feet) away, the library's silence is disturbed only by the sound of the fans.

Five youngsters and an adult could be seen reading, surrounded by shelves holding 3,500 books on history, religion and novels – the vast majority of them in Urdu – while Raj Mohamed looked on with satisfaction.

"People need books nowadays more than guns," said Mohamed, founder of the first library in Darra Adam Khel, a town of 10,000 inhabitants that has been renowned for its weapons manufacture for over a century.

The 32-year-old, who has three children, studied Urdu at the University of Peshawar, located 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Darra, then went on to complete two masters' degrees and is currently pursuing a PhD.

His passion for reading began in college, but his disinterest in arms goes back further. In his youth, he decided not to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who were both gunsmiths.

So in August last year he decided to open a library in a small shop located above his father's gun store with books people donated through Facebook.

"When I started the library, people were laughing at me," said the librarian, who also works as an Urdu teacher at a local school. "You are starting a library here?"

However, within a few months the library managed to attract 240 members, in an area where only 35 percent of the population is literate, according to Mohamed.

The members include around 30 women, although they do not visit the library themselves due to the conservative values prevalent in the region and books are carried to their homes by male relatives.

After the initial success, in April, Mohamed shifted the library to a new building with a soccer field, basketball court and children's swings, a complex built with help from the military, two coal mines in the region and individual donations.

This was a unique initiative in an area hit hard by extremist violence and that was under Taliban control until 2010, when security forces retook the territory through military operations.

Nonetheless, a suicide attack on a mosque killed 66 people and injured 80 in the region earlier this year.

One of Mohamed's nephews died in another attack.

"I want the new generation to start their lives with books, to get educated rather that follow the business of their fathers," Mohamed said.

He added that "the people of the tribal areas need books, want education, want peace."

The arms trade is declining, partially because the tribal areas were integrated with the rest of the country in 2017, when the constitution and laws were extended to these areas, considered ungovernable since the times of colonial British rule.

One of those affected by the changes is Sher Bad Shah, 78, who has spent more than half a century making copies of M16 rifles for the price of 30,000 rupees ($187) and AK-47 imitations for 10,000 rupees.

"Before I was running this business without any license, but now my license is under process. There is now less interest from the people in purchasing weapons because they have to apply for the license and it's not easy. Business is down," the gunmaker told EFE.

Gulab Khan, 40, whose father and grandfather were also gunsmiths, finds himself in a similar situation.

He has decided to ensure his two children are educated for the promise of a better future, and in case books do not serve the purpose, they can always go back to the family profession.

"I make copies of Zigana and Beretta and Glock pistols for 7,000 to 10,000 rupees. My pistols are really good and I can guarantee they work as the original ones," Khan proudly said.

For Asim Khan, a 19-year-old student, the fact that the arms trade was on the decline and more parents were sending their children to school heralded a social change.

"Before, when a child was five years old, his father would bring him to his gun shop and start teaching him how to make guns, but now they are sending them to school," said the teenager, who aspires to be a software programmer and comes to the library in search of books on science.

Mohamed's library has gained popularity from recent media attention and in the last month it received 550 books donated by different people.

Some help has also come from abroad, such as New York-based writer Emily H. Butler, who sent two books, and a librarian from the same city who donated $40.

Mohamed has even been nominated for a $3,000 prize awarded by the American nonprofit Judith's Reading Room to "anyone who has done exemplary work to instill in others a love of reading."

He claimed that if he won the award – whose recipient is set to be announced in a few weeks – he would invest the prize money in buying more books.

"Books will bring peace," Mohamed said. EFE-EPA

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