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Pakistan Literary Festival Defies Violence

  • Ayesha Tanzeem

In any other country, the site of people casually hanging around, or deep in conversation, with a book in one hand and a cellphone in the other, would be quite ordinary.

Here, it symbolized an act of defiance.

The three-day Lahore Literary Festival in the beautifully designed Alhamra Cultural Complex last weekend started a few days after a suicide attack in the city had killed at least 20.

Pakistan has seen an unprecedented increase in violent extremism in the last decade. Tens of thousands of civilians have died in bomb attacks. People have been targeted and killed for expressing liberal ideas.

Many agree that the space for freedom of expression in public has shrunk to the drawing rooms and living rooms of a few - if even that.

Violence in name of religion

The slippery slope of using violence in the name of religion to silence dissent has reached the country’s religious establishment.

Several Muslim clerics who spoke up against suicide bombings have been targeted and killed. Others considered “too liberal” in their interpretation of Islam have been forced to leave the country under death threats.

So a literary festival where ideas were exchanged freely and everything, from regional politics to nuclear weapons and women’s issues to controversial novels from the Arab world, was discussed candidly was a welcome respite from the oppressive self-censorship that has become the norm here, at least in public discussion forums.

“I think you’ve had discussions here which would be impossible on the TV channels,” said Ahmed Rashid, best-selling author and a member of the festival’s advisory board.

Some overheard conversations drove Rashid’s point home.

A couple of young people were eagerly discussing something with a famous attorney. He seemed to agree with them, but then offered his advice: “Just be careful to stay alive. You have to be alive to propagate your ideas.’”

Nearby, resting on a deewan - a broad, backless wooden bench, draped with white and yellow covers and cushions - were teachers from a famous art school in Lahore.

The conversation was about whether a statue of Mohammad Iqbal, a famous regional poet Pakistanis credit with imparting the idea of an independent Pakistan before the partition of India, was a good piece of art.

The consensus seemed to be that despite the debatable quality of the artwork, it was uplifting to see a human sculpture in a public place. The black statue was placed in the center of the lush lawns of Alhamra, surrounded by the towering red brick buildings of the complex.

Sculptures of human forms

Sculptures of human forms have been another victim of the rising Islamism in the country since some believe that they impinge on the right of God as the perceived sole creator of humans.

Sculptures of soldiers at a traffic circle in Lahore’s Defense Housing Society had to be destroyed several years ago due to a similar controversy about human forms.

A majority of those enjoying the colorful decor of the festival, in the city considered the cultural heartland of Pakistan were students of local colleges and universities.

More than 100 young volunteers enthusiastically guided people toward various halls and sessions. Writers and artists from a dozen different countries took part in various discussions.

The slightly rainy weather on the festival's first day subsequently morphed into bright spring days when the chill of winter was gone from the air and the heat of summer was but a hint. Displays of books and artwork added to the ambiance.

In an effort to draw in more of the masses, the organizers had broadened discussions in Urdu and local languages. While most of the discussions were still in English, the language of the elite in Pakistan, at least one local language session ran parallel to them at all times.

'I love literature'

Self-described avid reader, film buff and festival-volunteer Ali Arshad was there despite his family’s misgivings about security.

“I mean it's literature. I love literature. I’ll do anything for it,” Arshad said.

He said he thought events like this were needed more than ever in Pakistan.

“Literature imbues something inside your heart,” he said, which he thinks is important to trigger a change in society.

Pakistanis are not known for their reading habits. Bookshops are rare, only a couple even in big cities. Some blame this for the Pakistani penchant for conspiracy theories.

One police inspector guarding the festival, for example, said that the current security situation in the country was the result of Karbala, a battle fought during the early years of Islam almost 15 hundred years ago.

The security parameter around the festival consisted of several layers of metal detectors, body pat-downs and bag searches, along with a heavy contingent of police. Armed guards were visible outside the entrance to any session.

A counter to ongoing extremism

Festival board member Rashid hoped that the many all-nighters to put this event on would help contribute in developing a counter-narrative to the ongoing extremism and intolerance in the country - a narrative that would shore up “issues like tolerance, human rights, working for the community.”

He thought the discussions would benefit from the presence of authors from countries who had experienced similar kinds of violence.

“What we’re really trying to do is discover other people’s culture. Sri Lanka’s been through a civil war and we’ve got a lot of Sri Lankans here who’ll be talking about this. We’ve got people from the Middle East [who’ll talk about] the Arab Spring and the aftermath of the Arab Spring,” Rashid said.

Several leading foreign novelists who had planned to attend had dropped out after a devastating attack in the northwestern city of Peshawar had killed at least 150, mostly school children.

A day before the opening, the chief minister of Punjab province had ordered the festival stopped and all preparations halted for unknown reasons, only allowing it to proceed at midnight after frantic calls by organizers led to military intervention - another indication of the power the armed services of the country wield in its domestic affairs.

At the end, though, the festival went forward. People arrived by the thousands. They enjoyed vigorous discussions, giving a glimpse of what was possible if the siege of violence and extremism was lifted.

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