Lahore Literary Festival: to promote art, not politics (23-25 February 2013)


Lahore will be hosting a literary festival on the coming weekend. For a country that only seems to be making headlines for terrorism, political instability, and economic malfunction, not to forget all the Qadris and Altaf Bhais that bombard our headlines, a few academics and ‘artsy’ turn will definitely be a breath of fresh air.

Leading novelists like Mohammad Hanif, author of a Case of Exploding Mangoes, Mohsin Hamid (author of Moth Smoke); academics like Ayesha Jalal (one of the leading Pakistani historians), Amin Jaffer (art expert and international director for Asian art, Christie’s), Nayar Ali Dada (architect), Bapsi Sidhwa and Tehmina Durrani are only a handful of the 60 participants in the 3 day-long event starting tomorrow.

A bright canvas with aesthetics from different walks of life flowing from different directions, perhaps one can wonder why despite all the turmoil, the instability and political upheaval Lahore (and Pakistan more specifically) were chosen to host such an event. Is it really safe? And is this another strategic attempt to sugarcoat the reality of this country?

Not so long ago, perhaps in the 60s and 70s mostly Lahore was the city of arts. The city has inherited a rich culture of valuing and promoting aesthetics, be it architecture, on the canvas or in words. Not only do the Badshahi mosque, Shahi Qila, and marketplaces like Anar Kali bear homage to the cultural presence, but the use of poetry, the new roads, and mannerism in conversation even today is rich in poetry. So it makes much sense for Lahore to be hosting such an event, re-visiting the past and acknowledging a present that has been conveniently shoved aside in a futile attempt to adopt ‘metropolitan’ values and mindsets.

As Lahore anticipates this much awaited honor, and more accurately recognition, we must also realize the importance of freedom of thought and speech. Art is essential to the human soul because it becomes an escape. A painter, writer, architect, even an academic creates what he feels is missing, or creates to aspire towards an ideal. What good are such forums of we restrict our intellectuals, and channelize their thoughts to suit imposed ideals?

This year the British Council’s decision to exclude Ayesha Siddiqa from the list of invitees to Karachi Literary Festival sparked intense debate. She was granted the status of ‘persona non grata’ by the KLF for causing discomfort to other participants. Dr. Ayesha was part of a panel discussing Anatol’s ‘Pakistan a Hard Country’. The latest epiphany in Western circles is inspired by the concept that certain societies are just not cut out for the kind of freedom citizens are granted in a democratic setup. Hence justifying the need for authoritarian institutions in the country, and Ayesha disagreed.

The debate got heated and even though Anatol as an academic in his own rite is entitled to his view, so is Dr. Ayesha. Then why was the unease and discomfort that a heated argument between the two caused only one mindset to be cut off completely and conveniently? It is important for organizers of such events, and students of art, as well as teachers to acknowledge and speak out against such censorship. A literary festival that only promotes certain mindsets will only exclude those who disagree or teach them to conform blindly. A similar censorship program has taken a toll in Pakistani universities. Professors who fail to massage the promoted mindset, and allow for ‘radical’ ideas are warned and then told to leave.

This censorship works in both directions obviously. There is the external stakeholder, and the more localized closed minded Mullah, which comprises a decent chunk of the middle class. So a push towards the liberal, and a sword ready to slice any limb that strays into the ‘blasphemous’ territory keeps Pakistani minds and tongues in a tight box. A frequently heard label is ‘atheist’ or ‘anti-Pakistani’. Question the two nation theory and you are easily labeled the traitor. Whereas little depth or acumen is required to earn a position in the blasphemous ranks.

As a day is left before the Lahori Literary Festival starts, and we re-visit our past, let us together acknowledge the downside of such platforms. For us restricting ‘differences’ in thought has caused hate, and limited our growth as a people and as a society. While we welcome the intelligentsia of Pakistan and the World, we should together create a climate for tolerance.