Spanning 29 sessions over two days, the LLF was yet again a most pleasant experience
Few sights are more uplifting than a milieu where some of the best from the literature, art, culture, academia and journalism rub shoulders with the young and old alike, sharing their take on knowledge and culture.
For this scribe, by now the much-awaited annual feature in its sixth edition this year, the Lahore Literary Festival 2018 spanning two days and 29 sessions was a most pleasant experience. As it wrapped up the latest instalment despite retaining much of its literary high ground came up with an impressive list of panellists from within and outside of Pakistan. Yet unlike every year, with the exception of the previous one when it was reduced to just one day with a change of venue to boot, this time around quite a few of the regular attendees were missing – depriving it somewhat of the calibre that is associated with the LLF.
That said, despite the unseemly controversy that surrounded the LLF this year from even before the word go and dogging it throughout owing to the intransigence of one of its board members [since ousted], and also the festival being reduced to just two days instead of the usual three, it was a welcome respite.
The effortlessness with which the literary festival gathers art, culture and literature aficionados at one platform and inculcates happiness in their lives is indeed tremendous. These festivals are about enjoyment as much as they are about communicating and sharing ideas and knowledge, and about an emotional connection between the readers and writers.
There was a marked presence of Turkish and Lebanese authors at this year’s edition. However, the curious absence of some of the regulars like Zehra Nigah, Mohammed Hanif and William Dalrymple, among others, did not go unnoticed. The main crowd pullers this year were African poet Ben Okri, British actor Riz Ahmed and the American religious scholar Reza Aslan. The audience also loved the sessions with Aitzaz Ahsan, Amjad Islam Amjad, Shobha De and Hina Rabbani Khar, and Zia Mohyeddin, like ever, was a great hit.
Every year, a question about the presence of an intellectual hegemony is raised during literary festivals in Pakistan. The noticeable dominance of a certain class in these festivals gives rise to an existential problem that needs to be addressed, despite the fact that the elite have traditionally been the patrons of the arts.
The respective talks with author Ammara Maqsood about the ‘new Pakistani middle class’ and chef Sumaya Usmani about the joys of cooking were enthusing, to say the least. However, one could not help but experience the presence of an overall disconnect between the panellists and the general masses during these talks; a recurrent theme that was present in a number of other sessions as well.
In a session titled ‘Faiz: Humari Yaadein’, panellists including Urdu poet Iftikhar Arif, Zafarullah Poshni and Kishwar Naheed discussed different aspects of writer Faiz ahmed Faiz’s life, giving a first-hand account of his time in jail, his interaction with family members and society among others. The session, which was moderated in Urdu, was especially encouraging since the festival in the past has often been criticised for not giving ample coverage to Urdu and writers; and focusing mostly on English writers in a country where only a small fraction of the population speaks the language.
A talk on famous Pashto poet, Ghani Khan, and a session, “Wadiye Mehran Ke Adab Ka Husn”, focusing on resistance in Sindhi literature, were much appreciated by the audience. However, the LLF still has a long way to go before it includes regional languages as a regular part of its programming goals.
There were two condolence sessions this year, one about the renowned columnist Munoo Bhai titled, ‘Munoo Bhai ki Yaad Mein Jangal Udaas Hain’ and the other one on the late human rights activist Asma Jahangir, titled ‘Asma Jahangir: Warrior Icon’. Needless to mention, both of these were instant winners with the audience.
It was heartening to see a tribute session for much-beloved late Urdu poetess Parveen Shakir with Amjad Islam Amjad, Aitzaz Ahsan and Rakhshanda Naveed on the panel. The panel discussed various facets of Parveen’s life, including the manner in which she wrote for the repressed Pakistani woman struggling in a patriarchal society.
Nigerian poet, Man Booker prize winning novelist and activist Ben Okri was, perhaps, the greatest ‘discovery’ of the LLF this year. A darling of the audience in the session ‘a delirium of stories’, Okri completely stood out in his next session, ‘poetry slam,’ with his politically charged poems.
Some promising signs at the festival were the sessions particularly dedicated to feminism, social issues, love, various forms of art and architecture, however, child abuse, which is a burning issue in Pakistan at the moment, was conspicuously absent from the talks — the whole Fasih Ahmed episode prior to the LLF.
A mandatory foreign policy session with the former foreign minister of Pakistan Hina Rabbani Khar took place this year as well. Other panellists in the talk included Mark Leonard and Zahid Hussain. A visibly enthusiastic Reza Aslan won the crowd with his take on the rising global extremism and the many ways in which it can be tackled in his one-on-one session with Khaled Ahmed.
Literary festivals are remarkable — all considerations of art and literature apart— for being a celebration of the word; an attempt at the celebration of freedom from the fêted ignorance that has become the mark of our times.
The Lahore Literary Festival, still in its infancy, has a long way to go before it matures. But there is no doubt it is now fast becoming an annual feature that the people of Lahore gladly and eagerly look forward to — and hence is worth preserving.