Lahore Literary Festival 2018 shrugs off controversy, stereotypes; revels in new ideas, cultural exchange
This edition of the Lahore Literary Festival featured discussions on world politics, fiction versus non-fiction and identity | #FirstCulture
Since my book Nobody Killed Her came out last year, I’ve been invited to various literary festivals. But who would have thought that the most exciting one I would go to would be in my own homeland? The 2018 edition of the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF), with its glitzy lineup of literary personalities, was certainly one with the most diverse voices. In previous years, The Guardian has described LLF as a ‘safe place for dangerous ideas’, and this still holds true. This year, too, it was a forum that brought together a myriad symphony of voices to an audience that was just as varied in its social and political make-up. This was no terrorist haven, no patriarchal harbour for oppressed women, no crime-infested country struggling with literacy, for the scene at Al-Hamra Art Center, where LLF took place, showed a different picture of Pakistan all together. It presented a vibrant and eclectic setting where men and women from all classes mingled together and bonded over one thing — books.
Of course this is just one side, and possibly a narrow profile of urban Pakistan, but still, it was heartening to see this less-talked-about face of my country. When you go by the headlines, and especially if you live abroad, it is easy to think that tension and terrorism is all there is to Pakistan, but the picture I saw in Lahore, at least at the festival, was quite the contrary.
And as one watched luminaries like Hollywood actor and rapper Riz Ahmed, LA-based author Reza Aslan, Booker prize winner Ben Okri, the award-winning author of Hideous Kinky and the granddaughter of Freud, Esther Freud, casually strolling through the gardens of Al-Hamra, I did find myself doing a double take — was I really in Pakistan or at some international literary forum?
Besides the spectacular speakers, the place was stocked with a wide variety of books, both in English and vernacular languages. And the most amazing thing was that there were readers — informed, engaged ones that mingled with the speakers, haggled over books and asked important, pertinent, questions, instead of just taking selfies. The absence of guns, rubbish and the beautiful weather only made the illusion more vivid. And to borrow from The Guardian again, "For the outsider, the LLF revealed a picture of Pakistan that too often gets lost in reporting."
LLF, this year, had an inauspicious start with a controversy marking it, weeks prior to its commencement. Although a controversial board member was removed, many continued to troll the LLF on social media. Despite this, the line-up of the exciting speakers landing in Lahore generated much enthusiasm. Excitement replaced polemics, and although I’m told the audience this year was smaller than previous years, I found the place brimming with literature lovers. Though I personally was approached more often for what I was wearing rather than who I was, once I introduced myself, interesting conversations followed, mostly with young university students who were studying literature and were curious about contemporary Pakistani writing in English. Naïve as it may sound, I had not realised till that point how many higher education institutes there were in Lahore offering Literature courses. Many were interested in writing and wanted to know about the publishing process, which to me seemed very hopeful as far as the future of new writing goes.
The festival opened with a discussion titled, ‘Light at the End of Trumpian Disruption?' featuring Reza Aslan, Mohsin Hamid, Ahmed Rashid, Mark Vaughan and Ben Okri. It was a stimulating dialogue about our political times even if it was a ‘manel’. Some argued that it was an irrelevant start and had nothing to do with Pakistan, while others felt it was a nod in the right direction to hear global voices raise global concerns on the homeground. For me, it was amusing and an interesting change to pose a question about the future of America, rather than what will happen to Pakistan!
Another really interesting session was between the Iraqi fiction writer Sinan Antoon and Guardian journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, moderated by the BBC’s Razia Iqbal, about fact versus fiction. The session debated that reporting from Iraq, however accurate, could not create the same human empathy that fiction could. And this was something that we agreed upon in an earlier session, titled, ‘Art and the Human Condition’.
I, along with UK-based Esther Freud, Danish author Janna Teller and Turkish writer Ciler Ilhan participated in a session, moderated by Thomas Roueche of Tank magazine, about how art and literature filled in the gaps that journalism or social media could not. What was fascinating was how diverse the people on the panel were yet how universal our experiences as storytellers were. We faced the same resistance and the same motivation despite the fact that our political and geographical backgrounds were so varied. It really made one believe in the universality of fiction, and how it bonded us human beings. The blank page is certainly more uniting than than any flag can ever be.
Riz Ahmed's talk, titled 'MC Activist', was another jam-packed session with young people flocking to hear him. Many were left disheartened as despite the huge size of the auditorium, even the seats and steps were full. A discussion between Trainspotting writer Irvine Welsh and novelist Nadifa Mohamed was another very interesting session which had many gasping in disbelief, as they realised Irvine was that Irvine!
One more session that had people under a spell was that of Booker prize winner and Nigerian-British author Ben Okri. Afterwards, at the book signing, he was mobbed and the foremost question I had on my mind was whether he had ever imagined that he had so many fans in Pakistan. Okri talked about growing up in Nigeria, about living in the UK, about writing and more importantly, about not writing. He talked about the elements of fables in his writing and said that he had inherited that unique way of storytelling from his mother. He recalled that one day his mother had walked in while he sat day dreaming and told him the story of a frog that jumps into a saucepan of water. At first the water is cold then it becomes warm and the frog is enjoying the increasing comfort, but before he knows it, the water boils and he is cooked. While this may not make sense on its own, coupled with Okri’s wit and the context of current times, the story made perfect sense. And so it was that we got a glimpse into the inner world of Okri, into his creative process — a rare treat indeed.
My next session was with Shobhaa De, who is a firm favourite in Pakistan. With her hard-hitting and spot-on one-liners that never fail to hit home runs, we had a packed auditorium waiting for her. I decided to open the session with a song that is also the epitaph to her new book, Shobhaa at Seventy. And true to form, it is just at zesty as Shobhaa at any other age. ‘Aaj phir jeene ki tammanna hai, aaj phir marna ka irradha hai…’ the song had us all swaying and it turned out to be one of the most fun sessions at the whole festival. The audience stayed put after Shobhaa for the closing act of the festival, which was the veteran stage actor Zia Mohyeddin. Zia’s take on why Shakespeare is the greatest had the audience enraptured, and as I looked around the appreciative, spellbound audience I thought, here was a society full of artistic gems, a society so scholarly, so proud of its literary heritage, so engaged, that it made me wonder if all it lacked was the opportunity to express itself on platforms that did away with the class and social divisions that plagued our country.
My personal favourite session was that with Lebanese writer Hanan Al-Shaykh and my favourite Pakistani short story writer and mentor Aamir Hussein, who talked not just about writing but also about being defined by their writing. Hanan spoke about how before she moved to the West she had been a Lebanese writer, and how afterwards she became an Arab writer, much like what Chimananda Adichie has said about the pressures of representation, on being defined as an African writer rather than a Nigerian-American one.
By far the most exciting part of the festival had to be the socialising afterwards. One of the dinners held at a stately private home that was a 100 year-old-colonial mansion left the guests in awe of its wondrous interiors. However, the writer in me felt that the extravagance of this Lahore home had to be balanced with the starkness of the city’s narrow and dark alleys where reality lurked. And so I suggested a ride through the old city.
Before I knew it, I had Irvine Walsh, Ben Okri, Hanan Al-Shaykh, Aamer Hussein, Esther Frued, Ciler Ilhaan, Sinan Antoon, Emma Glass, to name just a few, in a van, thanks to the generosity of our host Razi, and we were heading out into the beautiful Lahore night air. We ‘innocently’ stumbled upon ‘Heera Mandi’ which literally translates to 'The Diamond Market', or the place where the courtesans of yore used to live. I had visited this place about 15 years ago and had been fascinated by the sheer contrast between these gutsy, vibrant women and the victimised neighbourhood I had imagined. However, it was ironically disheartening as well as uplifting to see that musical place full of those voracious women who refused to play victim, now replaced by a shoe market.
But the Lahore Fort stood as majestically as ever in the cold night air, giving one a sense of a grand historical past. When I later spoke to Esther Freud about her impressions, she said, "My preconceived ideas of Pakistan were two fold — some from earlier times when I think of it as a country very much aligned with Britain — public schools, cricket, corner shops etc. And then in more recent years a dangerous place politically, which is unsafe to visit. What did I find in Lahore? A vibrant city of friendly, welcoming people. At the festival which made up most of my experience, there were many interesting discussions about world politics, and a great hunger for culture and knowledge, and self expression."
And this is what summed up the Lahore Literary Festival at it’s best. Despite the controversy, despite the labels, it remains a labour of love that brings to Pakistan an international exchange of audience, introducing new ideas and erasing old stereotypes.
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