Pakistan, Under Cultural Siege, Is Buoyed by Book Festivals

By Declan Walsh
The New York Times, March 6, 2013


Assailed by jihadist attacks and the moral cudgels of religious conservatives, Lahore’s celebrated cultural vitality has waned somewhat in recent years. A famous kite-flying festival is no more; a performing arts festival vanished after being attacked; and music concerts take place in restricted circumstances.

But last month, the city welcomed spring with a raucous new party—a celebration of books.

Thousands of people crammed into a towering red brick building for the inaugural Lahore Literary Festival, flitting between sessions to hear, and meet, their heroes from Pakistan’s swelling firmament of novelists. It seemed as much a rock concert as a scholarly venue, and scuffles erupted as people pushed to gain entry.

One star attraction was Mohsin Hamid, a Princeton-educated native of Lahore, whose new novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, has been published to critical acclaim. Wearing jeans and sneakers, he received a giddy welcome from a home crowd. There was swooning. One man stood up to say that he had come to Lahore specifically to emulate the sex and drug scenes in Mr. Hamid’s novels.

Mr. Hamid was not the only draw: even more esoteric discussions of poetry and writing, or academics cogitating over the country’s troubled trajectory, drew packed houses that surprised even veteran authors.

“It was very exciting—the first time I’ve seen Beatlemania among literary groupies,” said William Dalrymple, a British historian who participated in several sessions. “Nobody was throwing knickers, but it was a higher degree of hysteria than I’ve ever seen. I felt we were being treated as rock stars.”

The festival came on the heels of a similarly well-attended literary event in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. Put together they tapped into a well of pent-up enthusiasm for cultural and political debate among young Pakistanis, and offered a glowing counterpoint to Pakistan’s more usual image of a country troubled by the forces of extremism.

“It was a vibrant and intellectual space,” said Faraz Ahmed, a 19-year-old finance student and aspiring author. “I’ve never been to anything like it.”

Literary festivals are surging in popularity across South Asia. Since the first major event in Jaipur, India, in 2005, 30 other festivals have sprung up across India, with a handful more in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. Many test the boundaries of free expression.

Early this month in Myanmar, where the shackles of military rule are loosening, people flocked to hear Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at a new festival there. Last year controversy erupted at Jaipur after Muslim clerics prevented the author Salman Rushdie from speaking. This year, Jaipur organizers estimated at least 140,000 people attended over five days.

In Pakistan, the festivals are about more than books—they seek to become part of a national conversation about the direction of the country. Usually, public debate takes place on raucous television chat shows, which critics accuse of framing issues in a confrontational and divisive manner.

The events at Karachi and Lahore offered a more considered take of the debate, mingling chat about nuclear weapons and the Afghan war with the intricacies of Urdu poetry. Some authors spanned the range: in one session Mohammed Hanif, author of the popular novel A Case of Exploding Mangos, discussed extrajudicial executions in western Baluchistan Province; in another he had the audience howling with laughter at his account of describing the imagined anal examination of a former military dictator, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq.

With its grand Mughal architecture and elegant colonial-era roads, Lahore is considered the cultural capital of Pakistan, with a thriving Sufi music, art and literary scene. Yet in recent years that vibrancy has been muted, to some degree, by violence.

A major performing arts festival was bombed by extremists in 2009, and has not taken place since. Basant, the great spring festival in which children fly kites in the streets while adults party on the rooftops, has ostensibly been banned over safety concerns, although some believe that pressure from conservatives also played a part.

“The excuse of the string was used to appease the conservative religious constituency,” said Najam Sethi, a veteran political commentator.

The worrisome bout of sectarian bloodshed that has swept Pakistan this year lingered over both festivals. In Lahore, several speakers spoke movingly about the assassination of a Shiite doctor and his son in the city a week earlier. In Karachi, the buoyant mood was tempered by a devastating bomb attack that occurred mid-festival in the western city of Quetta, killing at least 84 Hazara Shiites—a terrible sectarian attack emulated last Sunday in Karachi itself, where a bombing claimed 45 lives in a Shiite neighborhood.

For all that, the festivals were also a reminder of Pakistan’s considerable success in international literature.

Intizar Hussain, an 89-year-old Urdu language writer, has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize—and for some in the audience, it offered something rare: a chance to celebrate the condition of being Pakistani.

“You are a source of pride to Pakistan,” one elderly man told Mr. Hamid, the author, to loud applause. “You are sending the message that we are normal people, not terrorists.”

The festivals faced criticism, too. Critics said the festivals focus too much on English-language literature that is little understood by many of Pakistan’s 190 million people, who largely speak Urdu, Punjabi and other languages. In Lahore, in particular, the crowds largely came from the city’s small upper crust.

Against that, the sizable crowds—up to 60,000 people between both festivals, according to the organizers—were testament to the growing penetration of English-medium education. While just one percent of Pakistanis were privately schooled in 1975, said Mosharraf Zaidi, head of the education-rights campaign Alif Ailaan, today at least one-third attend nongovernment schools.

At the lower end of the scale, though, education is in crisis—some 25 million Pakistanis between the ages of 5 and 16 are out of school, Mr. Zaidi added.

Attention will shift from prose to politics in the coming months, with elections expected in early May, and few believe that a few literary festivals can beat back the Taliban.

Other forms of culture have taken a battering in recent years—several landmark movie theaters were torched during riots against an American-made film that denigrated the Prophet Muhammad last fall. In a country of mass illiteracy, high literature remains a minority concern.

Yet, for two weeks in two cities, Pakistan’s book lovers delved into a world of words that, for all its turmoil, offered the chance of a different story.

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