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Opinion

March 4, 2018

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Festival fever

If you attend literature festivals in both Karachi and Lahore, you can notice a few differences between them. First, the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) is much more cosmopolitan. You will find young people from Balochistan conversing in Balochi or Brahui at a session on Shakespeare in English by Zia Mohyeddin. You will also overhear Pakhtun students arguing with a Punjabi writer about the lack of interest that Punjab shows towards the problems of other provinces.

Second, the KLF is more egalitarian in the sense that participants travel in auto rickshaws and minibuses to attend the festival. Third, literature enthusiasts from Hyderabad and Thatta tend to travel to Karachi to attend the KLF.

But the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) has a far more international focus and isn’t as cosmopolitan as the KLF. The organisers ought to be proud that they managed to invite so many writers of international repute, such as Ben Okri and Reza Aslan. While trying to reach the venue in Lahore, you pass through some of the cleanest roads in the country. Traffic management is much better in Lahore, with attentive policemen and traffic wardens helping you park your car. In Karachi, the venue is surrounded by a lazy-looking and tired police force in need of new uniforms and better training.

The LLF seems much more elitist than its counterpart in Karachi.

The Alhamra Arts Centre in Lahore is much more spacious than any hotel in Karachi. The art and architecture of Alhamra is impressive and open while hotel venues in Karachi tend to cause claustrophobia. In Karachi, the festival is dominated by one publishing house. However, you don’t get this feeling in Lahore. The book deals you get at the festival in Lahore are also much better than what you get at the event in Karachi. But one feature remains common at both festivals: whenever you question the dominant nationalistic and religionist narrative, at least one person stands up from the audience – as if on a cue – and talks about how bad the situation is in India.

The LLF, which was held on February 24 and February 25, offered over 50 sessions. Most of these were widely attended despite the fact that some activists and intellectuals had announced their decision to boycott the event after the controversy generated after one of the organisers made some inept remarks about child abuse.

The first session was titled ‘Light at the End of the Trumpian Disruption’. The main hall was crammed with so many people that the organisers had to close the doors as there was no space to accommodate more people. The prime attraction of this session were Ben Okri and Reza Aslan.

Ben Okri is a famous writer from Nigeria and the author of around 20 books, including essays, novels and poetry anthologies. In addition to receiving the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1987 and the Booker Prize for one of his the best book, The Famished Road, in 1991 and being awarded an honorary doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 2010, Okri has dazzled his audiences and readers alike. At the LLF, he was one of the prime crowd-pullers along with Reza Aslan.

Aslan has two Master’s degrees in theological studies and fiction writing, and a doctorate in sociology. He is not only a distinguished professor but also a public intellectual. While he was on stage at the LLF with Okri and Ahmed Rashid to talk about the Trump phenomenon, he expressed his surprise at how well people knew him in Pakistan. It was a delight to hear the insights of all three intellectuals into the nature of today’s world. The breadth and scope of their knowledge was mesmerising. Aslan’s thorough understanding of not only modern Islam but also of other religions in the contemporary world was particularly impressive. Ahmed Rashid is perhaps the best-known Pakistani intellectual and writer who knows religious and militant movements in Central and South Asia like the back of his hand.

The session on Munnu Bhai was aptly titled ‘Munnu Bhai ki Yaad Mein Jangal Udaas Hain’. Moderated by Asghar Nadeem Syed, the session was an ode to Munnu Bhai. Masood Ashar, a senior journalist and one of the best short story writers in Urdu, recalled his association with Munnu Bhai in Lahore and Multan. I A Rehman talked about Munnu Bhai’s commitment to social causes and his efforts to help the poor. He mentioned a couple of instances when Munnu Bhai, through his columns, managed to help those who were in need, especially children.

Kishwar Naheed, a noted poet and columnist, narrated how she and Munnu Bhai used to tease each other in a friendly manner and how Munnu Bhai mocked the hypocrisy of the elite in Pakistan, especially in Punjab. She provided an overview of Munnu Bhai’s famous Punjabi poem about accountability chief commissioner. In this poem, Munnu Bhai raises questions about the wealth of the commissioner and wonders how accountability does not touch those who make others accountable.

When Kishwar Naheed shed light on how the gloomy events of December 16, 1971 – the day we lost East Pakistan – inspired a grief-stricken Munnu Bhai to write his poem ‘Ajay qiamat naee ayee’ (Still the doomsday has not come), someone rose from the audience and started questioning the loyalty of intellectuals to Pakistan.

It has been frequently observed at conferences, festivals, and seminars that whenever the dominant narrative is questioned or the mistakes of our state are highlighted, someone from the audience – whether it is during or after the discussion – starts blaming intellectuals or talks at length about Indian atrocities. The gentleman who did the same at the LLF suggested that instead of blaming the country (well, nobody blamed anyone) the speakers at the session should be thankful that they have this country otherwise they would be living under miserable conditions in India.

In another session, Shoaib Hashmi – who is ill and bed-ridden – was paid glowing tributes. Though a professor of economics, Hashmi is more famous for his subtle wit and humour. His programmes on PTV in the 1970s are still fondly remembered. The LLF deserves credit for acknowledging the contribution of Shoaib Hashmi, whose niece Nadia Jamil and nephew Adeel Hashmi joined Salman Shahid in the session. Audio and video clips from Shoaib Hashmi’s were played and made the audience nostalgic about the good old days of PTV.

Perhaps the best session of the LLF was reserved for Faiz Ahmad Faiz. A hall brimming with people showed how Faiz is admired, appreciated, and loved by the people of this country. ‘Faiz: Hamari Yadein’ was impeccably moderated by Masood Ashar. Iftikhar Arif and Kishwar Naheed also shared their memories. But the highlight of the session was Zafarullah Poshni, 92-year-old retired army captain and the last surviving member of the notorious Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case of 1951. Poshni startled the audience with his sharp memory and flawless recitation of Faiz’s couplets.

In short, the festivals in Karachi and Lahore – and in some other cities of Pakistan – have become a regular feature of our intellectual landscape. This is an encouraging sign. The role that most institutions of higher education should ideally be playing is now being played by the civil society that organises these festivals and the corporate sector that facilitates them. However, the corporate touch, at times, becomes too visible and needs to be downplayed.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: Mnazir1964@yahoo.co.uk

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