Third edition of Lahore Literary Festival goes off with a bang

Big-name writers, seminars and 75,000 visitors rendered the Pakistani city’s literary festival a success, despite being held days after the Lahore bomb attack.

A poster exhibition by Lahore's Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop at the Lahore Literary Festival 2015. Usman Ahmad for The National
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In a dimly lit lecture room, an audience sits enthralled by a discussion on Saraiki literature, the eloquent southern dialect of Punjabi most famously expressed in the verses of the Sufi poet Khwaja Ghulam Farid.

Another hall hosts a new generation of writers, including Manesh Rao and Saba Imtiaz, who narrate passages from their debut novels and speak on the trials and rigours of being first-time authors. A conversation about the tendency of readers to conflate writers with the protagonists of their books elicits plenty of laughter among panelists and the public gallery.

Together these sessions formed part of an exciting three-day programme at the third annual Lahore Literary Festival that came to a close last Sunday, having welcomed 75,000 visitors.

Day-to-day, the event’s unique vibe – indigenous, laid-back, colourful yet intellectual – extends beyond the inner sanctum of the beautiful Alhamra Arts Centre and out into a packed courtyard where pockets of debate and discussion hum like mosquitos. Others just soak in the atmosphere in and around the Mughal-inspired buildings adorned with handmade bricks, and enjoy the pleasant temperatures of the last yawning sigh of winter.

It is a rare sight in contemporary Pakistan, a country long suffocating under the weight of terror attacks and a homogenisation of thought and debate, to see a communal space utilised for creativity and simple leisure. Also unique is the mix of people – drawn from every stratum of Pakistani society. In a nation that still functions on fiercely patriarchal lines and an old-world social order based on privilege, the mingling of different classes opens up fresh avenues of conversation – all of which is exactly the sort of dynamic the festival strives for.

Established in 2012 by Razi Ahmad, an American-educated business executive, the festival aims to revive public discourse and a fading cultural scene in Pakistan’s most vibrant city. “With so much erosion of the cultural landscape,” Ahmad tells me, “a group of us came together as a citizenry to harness the talent of the city and honour its rich legacy as a centre for the arts.”

As a part of their efforts, the organisers took a conscious decision to keep the festival free and open to the public to fan out the sphere of creative thinking across the widest possible audience.

In the short span of its existence, LLF has proved an immensely popular attraction. Over the course of its three editions, more than 130,000 visitors have passed through the gates, and sponsors have come to include one of the largest media groups in the country and an assortment of multinational companies. Apart from local delegates, it has also been able to draw on the participation of authors such as Vikram Seth, the Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Mira Nair and The New York Times journalist Roger Cohen. As a member of the organising committee tells me: "We have grown very fast and are now second only to Jaipur in the region. I know this because people who attend these kinds of events tell us so."

As literary festivals become ever more popular and widespread, the distinction is important. The subcontinent alone has more than 30, many of them less than a decade old.

In the face of this ubiquity, it is tempting to view the festival within the narrative confines of Pakistan’s perpetual cycle of violence as a way of setting it apart from others. The city carries plenty of scars from many years of turmoil, the freshest wound inflicted only three days before the event kicked off, when eight people were killed in a deadly attack on the police headquarters of Lahore, a sharp reminder, if ever any were needed, that Pakistan is a country firmly under siege. Indeed the festival was almost cancelled as a result and only received official clearance from the provincial government late on Thursday night.

But for many, the depiction of “bombs, bullets and books” restricts the complexity of Pakistan and its cultural heart, and questions on the subject are met with withering frustration.

“It’s an incredibly lazy way of looking at things,” says Ayesha Raja, the owner of the city’s Last Word bookshop. “There is much more to Pakistan than just terrorists as long as you are willing to look for it.” Or as the Indian journalist and author Basharat Peer remarks: “Just because there is killing in a certain place, it does not mean that books and reading become this unique thing all of a sudden.”

For Raja, the true significance of the LLF lies in its basic aspirations. “You need to maintain an interest in reading and that’s the entire purpose of a literary festival. You have people here who want to organise something like this, you have booksellers who can profit from it and you have a public that has the potential of becoming a reading public and that’s why it’s important,” she says.

The Booker Prize-nominated author Mohsin Hamid shares these sentiments and points to the large number of young people attending the festival as a measure of its reach. “Look around and you see so many young people. And who else matters in a way? Two-thirds of Pakistan’s population is under 30. It’s like that everywhere in the world. Who reads the most? Students. And who is reading most important for? People who are still forming their world view,” he says to me.

And then there’s the lure of the city itself.

According to a Punjabi adage, "if you have not been to Lahore, you have not been born". Anyone who has ever visited the city will no doubt agree. The capital seat of Pakistani Punjab, founded by a Hindu prince and raised to a peak of civilisation by Mughal emperors, Lahore is a confection of frenzy, multiculturalism, history and glorious architecture that has long served as not only a travel destination, but also a crucible for literary and intellectual thought. Poets such as Allama Iqbal and Faiz Ahmad Faiz found their voices here, while less celebrated names, such as Zulfikar Ghose, produced some of the most mesmerising works of Urdu literature against its backdrop. For western audiences, Lahore will forever be synonymous with the definitive author of the British Raj, Rudyard Kipling, who, as a fledgling journalist, honed his craft in this heaving metropolis. In later years, he would draw on his memories of the city as material for his fiction, most notably in his last and finest novel, Kim.

With such impeccable credentials, Lahore is an ideal setting to showcase the best of Pakistani literature, which in recent years has garnered international interest through a small coterie of acclaimed English-language novelists.

Hamid's novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and selected by The Guardian as one of the 25 books that defined the past decade. Mohammed Hanif is another who has won plaudits for his hard-hitting comic satire, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, about the death of the military dictator General Zia. The literary magazine Granta celebrated this exciting flurry of new voices with a special Pakistan edition in 2010. It went on to become one of its bestselling issues.

Not all the attention has been positive, though. One criticism of the festival has been that it is too international and does not sufficiently embrace the literary traditions of the region. But as the historian Ayesha Jalal points out: “While there is an awareness to have better emphasis on regional languages, there is at the same time an equally important need for Pakistan to locate itself in the world. With all their mounting problems there is a fear that Pakistanis are becoming a little bit insular, so I think it’s important for them to see themselves as part of the global order and events like this help with that.”

One issue that LLF needs to address is the degree of participation by the ruling elite. The sight of politicians at the speaker’s podium at literary festivals is nothing new, but in a country so riddled by administrative corruption, it’s almost unseemly to see the country’s intellectuals so closely aligned with a political class that has long lost credibility. A public discussion on social and political issues is clearly required; however, for this to ring true, the politicians need to be put into more hard-hitting sessions with moderators willing to ask difficult questions and with greater audience participation.

Midway through the first day, a heated debate is taking place in a session entitled “No Permanent Friends or Enemies” about the United States’ engagement in the region. The atmosphere is highly charged and a palpable energy fills the auditorium. As questions are opened to the floor, an audience member rails against American foreign policy and seems to suggest that stories of Osama bin Laden ever being in Pakistan are false and part of a wider conspiracy. Many in attendance begin to clap, though it is unclear whether they are being ironic or appreciative, but whatever the reason, the fact that the fiery exchange is taking place at all is testimony to the power of books and something that deserves its own round of applause.

Usman Ahmad is a British freelance writer in Pakistan.

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