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By Iqbal Khattak
PESHAWAR – Raziq Khan opens the door of a new saplay store in the Khyber Super Market near Saddar bazaar and asks the salesman, “Show me some new designs you have.”
The salesman puts a few pairs of shoes on the counter, and Raziq examines them, ending the inspection with a whisper: “This one looks good.” Then he asks the price.
Raziq, 28, is a labourer who earns about Rs 400 (US $4.70) daily. But he wants a pair of saplay mainly because Eid will come in the second week of September and because they last longer.
Saplay, or shoes in Pashtu, have long been a Pashtun tradition. Historians differ over when saplay were first introduced. Leather saplay, when worn with shalwar (baggy trousers) and kameez (a long shirt), complete a typical Pashtun’s traditional dress.
Khawaja Mukhtar Ahmed, 66, a manager at Smart Shoes in Saddar bazaar in the Peshawar cantonment area, explained their popularity. “The poor go for saplay because they’re hand-made goods that last longer,” he said.
Raziq agreed. “We, the poor, like saplay because they can take very hard use and all you need to worry about is keeping them dry,” the labourer from the Sarband area outside Peshawar said.
Charsadda, a district north of Peshawar rich in Pashtun culture, is famous for saplay. In the 1970s and 1980s, having “Charsadwale saplay” – Charsadda-made shoes – was a fashion statement.
The saplay know-how since has spread to other cities. Now Peshawar, Mardan and Bannu are renowned for crafting saplay.
“Wherever the Pashtuns live, you will find saplay stores. The Pashtuns cannot live without saplay,” Khawaja said.
But the younger generation is moving away from its forefathers’ tradition, he lamented.
“The new generation has started using boots instead of saplay,” Khawaja said. “That is why there is a 40% drop in sales of saplay.”
However, a visit to Namak Mandi in the old city centre shows “it is still very much part of Pashtun culture,” as Jan Gul, 60, owner of New Royal Chapal Maker, said. “You can see labourers are busy in making as many pairs of saplay as possible in every shop at this market.”
With Eid approaching, the number of buyers also goes up.
“The Eid festival brings more shoppers, and we cannot do this much business in any other month,” Tahir Nadeen of Big Jolly Shoes said amid a crowd of potential buyers.
“I don’t think boots will replace the saplay culture,” said Tahir, whose family has run a shoe business for four generations. “As long as the Pashtuns live, the culture of saplay will stay on.”
Saplay remain popular shoes for Pashtuns, particularly in spring and summer. However, they do not keep feet warm in winter.
And Noor Shehzad opened a new saplay store in Khyber Super Market.
“No, who said Pashtuns are distancing themselves from saplay? They still love it very much,” he said, refuting Khawaja’s opinion about boots cutting into saplay sales.
Economic reasons also contribute to the success of the saplay business. A pair costs Rs 500-1,000 (US $5.90-$11), while a pair of boots costs Rs 1,500-4,000 (US $17-47).
Saplay made of camel skin “lasts longer,” Noor said, sharing a secret. “Camel hide is tough. If you keep the saplay away from water, you can use it for five years.”
Noor invested Rs 400,000 (US $4,761) to transition from car sales to the shoe business in his hometown of Latambar in southern Karak district.
“I hope the investment I made will help me do good business in the months and years ahead.”
“It is our culture, and Pashtuns will cling to saplay culture,” Jehanzeb Khan, a talk-show producer at the state-run Pakistan Television Centre in Peshawar, said.