Two literature festivals aim to show the country's 'soft' side
Literary festivals are sprouting up all over the Indian sub-continent.
India last month hosted the sixth edition of the popular Jaipur Literature Festival attended by hundreds of thousands, while post-junta Myanmar held the first-ever Irrawaddy Literary Festival.
Now, Pakistan is hosting two events this month to promote the art of letters and portray what organisers hope is a positive image of the country marred by violence.
The southern port city of Karachi is currently hosting the fourth instalment of its annual literature festival while the cultural hub of Lahore see its first book festival start this week.
The Karachi festival “showcase the culture, languages and traditions of Pakistan and shows the world that there is more to the country than extremism,” says its director Ameena Saiyid.
That will “contribute to the soft image” of Pakistan, she adds..
The two festivals depict a contrasting image of a country that has been fighting battles on multiple fronts, including Islamic extremism and armed separatist movements.
Taleban and al-Qaeda-related Islamic groups have been waging war along the Afghan border that has killed thousands of civilians and security forces.
Karachi itself is the most violent city in Pakistan. More than 230people were killed last month alone.
Shabnam Shakeel, an Urdu-language poet, says literature “can help to turn the tide against militancy”.
“A major shortcoming is that our young generation is not interested in studying literature,” she says. “If the youth study literature it will transform them.” Pakistani author Jamil Ahmad, one of the featured speakers at Karachi, says such festivals are important to promote “better chances for peace and progress”.
“It is not just the question of a softer image of Pakistan,” says Ahmad, who attended the Jaipur festival last month.
“It is the question of dignified life and showing the world that Pakistanis are decent people who want to live at peace with the world like other normal nations.” The author of “The Wandering Falcon” also said that despite limited financial opportunities, “literature and art is making progress in Pakistan”.
“We have more and more writers coming up and being recognised all over the world,” Ahmad says.
Pakistan boasts a vibrant art and culture scene that mostly goes unreported in the international media.
Many indigenous authors writing in English have won international accolades, while Urdu literature remains influential in the region.
The literary scene of Pakistan “is vibrant and exciting,” says Saiyid, who is also the managing director of Oxford University Press in Pakistan.
“Pakistani authors are being long-listed, short-listed, and winning literary prizes internationally,” she points out. “Young writers are emerging and contributing to the literary corpus from Pakistan.” Saiyid says she is “inspired by the way the authors were being revered and projected” in India. “I wanted our Pakistani authors to be similarly honoured and connected with the readers.”
Since 2010, attendance has grown at the Karachi festival threefold to 15,000 visitors last year, while the number of participating authors and artists increased from 36 to 144.
Festivals provide “a wonderful opportunity for the authors,” she says. “They encourage the reading and writing culture which is essential for the intellectual development of Pakistan.” In the eastern city of Lahore, at least 40 local and foreign writers and artists will attend the two-day festival starting Saturday.
Festival founder Razi Ahmed says it aims to provide ideas, information and insights “from some very accomplished thinkers”.
“We hope the event will rekindle, even if only in part, Lahore’s once-longstanding traditions of asking questions passionately, arguing rigorously, disagreeing civilly, listening keenly and engaging respectfully.”
Acclaimed Pakistani authors like Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif and Daniyal Mueenuddin are attending both festivals.
British-Pakistani leftist intellectual Tariq Ali will speak at Lahore, and British author William Dalrymple, who recently brought out a book on Afghanistan, is attending the Karachi festival.
“The festivals will definitely help Pakistan to promote its positive image,” said blogger Zainab Khawaja, who has been invited to cover the Lahore event.
She said it will help to disseminate the idea that “not every Pakistani is a Taleban”.
“An important image we need to send abroad is that not everyone is fighting. Not all are hungry, poor or dying. That there are people who are aiming for better, who want better.”