The Lahore Literary Festival took place this past weekend (20-21 February) at The Avari Hotel, Mall Road for the fourth consecutive year. Following are some of the thoughts and observations that I had during the two-day event.
Doubts and controversies surrounded the LLF this year from the word “go”. There was something about the Orange Line Metro, followed by the apparent cancellation of a No Objection Certificate (NOC) by the local administration. The whole festival was thereafter reduced to two days instead of three. Moreover, the venue was changed to Avari, right next to – wait for it – Alhamra Cultural complex, which was the original planned venue. The biggest hall at Alhamra is under construction and in the pre-NOC plan, the Marquee at Avari was supposed to function as Hall 1. The irony of it all is the fact that you don’t even require an NOC to hold a Literature Festival. And the Government of Punjab was still one of the event’s sponsors.
The security arrangements at the eventual venue were inferior to those from last year
I am a firm believer in the idea that whenever ‘security’ and ‘national interest’ are used in an argument, there is generally something dodgy in the story. The ‘security’ pretext that was invoked to deny the Festival an NOC was bogus. From a geographical point of view, Avari is less than a stone throw’s away from Alhamra – one wonders how it is significantly more secure. Secondly, the ‘security’ arrangements at the eventual venue were inferior to security precautions taken last year (such as snipers on the roof). After the fifth checkpoint, a friend with a bag inquired politely about the rationale for checking his bag (which contained nothing but a laptop) repeatedly. He was told that it was ‘just for the cameras’.
A question posed during the LitFest season every year is of the existential kind. Are Literary Festivals inherently elitist and exclusionary in nature? One could say that elite have traditionally been patrons of the arts, particularly in our part of the world and we would not have heard of Mir, Ghalib or even Iqbal if there had been no elite patronage for these gentlemen.
Mona Eltahawy was a big draw at the LLF
Nevertheless, it may be useful to ask: in a country where a small fraction of population speaks English, should literature festivals be focussing mostly on English authors and their works? Should we discuss Manto and Faiz in English? Should Urdu be given more or less importance? Note that this year, a Regional Languages festival was taking place at the same time as LLF, in Islamabad.
As for the exclusionary part, there are boundaries of language, class and location that someone from the middle class or working class has to traverse to take part in Literature Festivals. In the last few months, two literary festivals were organized in smaller cities (Faisalabad and Gwadar) that received scant coverage when compared with LLF or KLF.
While we are on the topic of who attends a literary festival and who doesn’t, it should be remembered that an event cannot accommodate all the authors in one city, let alone the whole country. We should debate the inclusion of certain panels and panellists instead of who was excluded – as that latter list would never end. I fail to understand why the late David Bowie was given such importance that even in the ‘truncated’ schedule that session went on as usual. There are much more important and interesting events taking place in our own neighbourhood that merited some discussion with the esteemed guests, such as (and this is perhaps my own bias) the JNU row going on in India.
During the last-minute activity to reduce the sessions from a three day schedule to a two-day schedule, the primary victims were Pakistani panellists. In the original plan, two sessions were to be dedicated to Punjabi. During the ‘chopping’, both sessions were dropped. In an entirely unexpected twist, the LLF administration claimed to have received ‘threats’ by members of the Punjabi intelligentsia. Eventually, a protest was launched outside Avari by Punjabi language enthusiasts decrying the hegemony of Urdu and the elites.
For me, the saving grace of the festival was a man coming all the way from Chicago. Professor C.M. Naim was part of three sessions and he was knowledgeable, articulate and witty in all his conversations. Unlike many panellists at LitFests (not just the Lahore version), he was well-prepared and spoke with an authority that comes with years of experience in that field. To a question about his ‘research method’, he advised academics and researchers to do some leg-work, approach libraries, praise librarians to no end and sift through physical archives.
One of the major disappointments was the session dedicated to George Orwell. Being a big fan of Orwell, I was really looking forward to the session and was surprised to see a packed arena waiting to hear from Orwell’s adopted son, Richard Blair. We discovered very soon that this gentleman was less than six years old when Orwell died. That was probably the only useful information at the session.
The inaugural session was dedicated to Sharmila Tagore. Adding star power to a cultural event is no crime but if you are out to promote culture and have ‘literature’ in your event’s name, the chief guest should probably be someone related to literature.
Among the crowd were many Westerners, wandering aimlessly, trying to fit into the scene. They were clearly not panellists. According to one of our chiryas, they were people writing for foreign publications flown in from their countries to ‘provide coverage’ to the event. This is why you read things like these in big-name foreign newspapers every year: “Pakistan is a country ravaged by religious intolerance and terrorism and is known globally more for its links to terrorism than promotion of arts. However, this clichéd image of the country was challenged through a literature festival in the heart of the ancient city of Lahore, known as Pakistan’s cultural capital. People of all ages thronged the festival, defying the security threats and showcasing their love for literature and arts.” You can hear it now…
At many less-attended sessions, one could clearly identify plain-clothed policemen among the audience, silently observing the proceedings (primarily ogling at girls) while ‘keeping us safe’.
Former foreign minister of Pakistan Hina Rabbani Khar was at the event as a panellist on a run-of-the-mill foreign policy session. As soon as the session ended, she was surrounded by media personnel. She has some unorthodox views regarding Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policies and is not shy to point out the fault-lines affecting Pakistan, unlike most of her male predecessors.
At one of A.G.Noorani’s sessions, the veteran lawyer and human rights activist talked about (what he saw as) the worthlessness of Kashmiri separatist leaders. During the Q&A session, Pakistan’s ex-foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri took on Noorani in a way that most doves won’t – even if his recent book is titled ‘Neither a Hawk nor a Dove’.
The whole event had the feel of an extended valima (wedding feast). But then again, there were actual valimas being held at the venue in alongside the festival!
Some encouraging signs at the festival were the sessions dedicated to feminism and the fact that panellists were actually paid for their appearance (an issue raised by Indian and British authors this year). Mona Eltahawy was a big draw at the LLF and in one of her sessions, the audience spontaneously applauded as soon as she finished a sentence.
The microphones kept malfunctioning, the background screens had a life of their own and there were a gazillion useless body scanners at the venue. Despite many hiccups in the management of the festival, the young volunteers were well-drilled and were ever present to paper over the aforementioned hiccups as best as they could.
All said and done, LLF is becoming an annual tradition worth preserving.