Lahore Literary Festival: Almost extraordinary


The event somehow seemed to be missing something

Chai and coffee were in hideously short supply.

If you find my starting complaint petty, odds are you may not be a committed writer; you know, the specific demographic that a literary festival is intended to attract. We don’t need ink as much as we need gallons of caffeine in giant mugs of steaming beverages sitting next to our laptops, notepads, or if you’re a sentimentalist, typewriter.

There was a free coffee stand at the festival, but the line was always frightfully long, and the service criminally slow. Most of us were unsure if they were brewing coffee, or fermenting liquor for Manto.

Now with that out of the way, I can safely comment on the rest of the festival.

The last minute cancellation of the NOC for the festival meant that a lot needed to be rushed and improvised. And the shortcomings of the LLF that I may point out in the article may not reflect too fairly on the organisational skills of the people behind this festival.

The last minute cancellation of the NOC cut the duration of the festival from three to two days, but added an extra topic to be discussed. Mohammad Hanif, in a talk about satire, mused out loud how shifting the festival from Al-Hamra Centre to Avari Tower right next door, solved the supposed “security threat”, with university students attending the festival casually remarking on how the security there was more relaxed than what they find at their campuses on an average event.

The speakers who dazzled the crowds were those we expected to dazzle the way they always do. Mohammad Hanif said what we expected him to say, which is not to imply that he was unimpressive, but simply that there was very little to add to the discussion that he hasn’t already discussed ad nauseum in his long series of books, articles, and interviews. Mohsin Hamid too raised important issues.

Mona Eltahawy, the Egyptian-American journalist known for her coverage of the Tahrir Square protests, spoke well on the subject of feminism in the Islamic world. Ms Eltahawy has a flair for turning, perhaps inadvertently, nuanced discussions on social rights and political movements into rallies by presenting long speeches loaded with electrifying vocabulary. This was expected. She has done the same at numerous talks around the world. In one memorable interview of hers on Real Time with Bill Maher, the political comedian kept gesturing her to wrap up her soliloquy, of sorts, like the orchestra at the Oscars trying to drown out an unacceptably long speech. “This is a revolution, dammit!” she shot back at Maher.

Her radicalism, in this sense, is not necessarily a bad thing. There are few voices in the international media as uniquely significant as Eltahawy’s. Her fervor for political as well as social reformation is exhilarating. It is no surprise that she proved to be an absolute hit with the crowds.

A talk on love and literature called on an all-female panel. This, again, was expected. Men have nothing to do with love and fuzzy feelings; it’s a girl thing, or so we’ve been methodically indoctrinated to believe. Regrettably, the discussion was cautious, and broke no political or social barriers. It was an hour-long homage to cis-gender, heteronormative love, in usually politically charged situations for optimal dramatic effect. As there’s no algorithm to love, the feeling was discussed earnestly, albeit inefficiently, in terms of individual love stories from panelists’ own books. Kamila Shamsie spoke eloquently, and so did Ahdaf Soueif. Alexandra Pringle appeared acutely aware of her presence in a non-English speaking country, and although she sounded specious at places, her efforts to get through to the Urdu-speaking crowds received much appreciation.

At the Lahore Literary Festival, the most popular events had little to nothing to do with actual literature. These were mostly political talks, with the ones featuring Sherry Rehman being among the ones most widely noticed. On a discussion about right-wing groups in South Asia, the PPP Senator absolutely stole the house. Like Eltahawy, Mr Rehman has a penchant for transforming complex discussions into political rallies. She spoke boldly, and made a fierce case for secularism – without actually using the word ‘secularism’. All panelists, including the Indian diplomat, spoke bitterly of Modi’s right-wing government, but Ms Rehman was perhaps the most voracious in her criticism, although her mistake of repeatedly referring to Kanhaiya Kumar as ‘Kanyakumari’, was rather comical, and had more than a few audience members giggling with hands over their mouths.

A sly audience member, at the end of the talks, asked for Ms Rehman’s opinion of the “right-wing” government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his action against the Ahmadi minority. There was a loud ‘Ooh!’ followed by an applause, and the People’s Party Senator did not seem pleased.

“Comparing Modi with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto?” Sherry Rehman said later. “Wow, what are you smoking, guys?”

The Lahore Literary Festival glittered as we knew it would, but fell disappointingly short of its full potential. The venue was restrictive; some of the guests did not appear; the short duration left much to be desired; important political liberal affairs were sidelined in favour of lazy social liberal slogans; and it was infuriatingly difficult to get one’s hand on a cup of coffee.

But, given the difficulties, it was a successfully organised event, and I drove back to Rawalpindi quite content about having attended it.


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