Like water is to the thirsty, knowledge is to the mind
Like the way water quenches the thirst of a traveller (on the journey of life), the second Islamabad Literature Festival (25-27 April, 2014) and the Children’s Literature Festival (2nd, 3rd May) were remarkably refreshing. Books galore, bookstores, discussions on culture, creativity, poetry, dance, qawwali, humour, Jerusalem, the Ottomans, etc were like a veritable feast to the mind. These book festivals in Islamabad broke the stereotype of the city often cited as “socially dead” in contrast to “lively Lahore”. My views of Islamabad always opposed this stereotyping, which to me was graceful and green. Furthermore, I can now confidently declare, to those who continue to stereotype Islamabad, that at the festivals Islamabad was alive and (intellectually) awake, like its sister city, Lahore.
Efforts like these must be encouraged and sustained – this served as a great morale boost for Pakistanis. Within Pakistan, and especially Islamabad, many people complain that there isn’t much to do in the evenings, except to visit close relatives and friends, and there was a dearth of intellectual stimulation. Adding to that, the socio-political unease and the recent killings of civilians (in the kachehry and bazaars) provides little incentive to the ordinary and creative person to remain optimistic. Outside Pakistan, the image of our country remains in bad shape. But literary festivals celebrating the praiseworthy contribution of artists, poets and writers of South Asia is comparable to the blessed rain on a land pervaded by drought. We need to inculcate the love of knowledge, learning and reading in order to revive our spirits in this beautiful and green country.
The rich ambiance here took me back to the Cambridge Science Festival in the UK. All Cambridge Colleges, museums and halls are teeming with volunteers (students from different colleges) every year, during this exciting week-long event to make knowledge pertaining science, maths and arts widely available and accessible to the general public. The most seemingly boring subjects are made remarkably fun. The layman’s appetite for each subject is aroused. Children are especially encouraged to participate and get involved in creating, constructing and critical thinking.
When you have positive application of knowledge with room for creativity, there is also dialogue and the celebration of diversity. Fauzia Minalla’s patriotic video on our love, as its citizens, for Pakistan also highlighted the parallel heartbreak from the continuous condition of intolerance towards “the Other” — women, Hindus, Christians, Shias, Ahmadis, etc. As a nation, our lack of acceptance for “the Other” is inextricably interlinked with our general lack of knowledge. Despite what may be, I remain optimistic for Pakistan and Pakistanis.
With its array of cultural and linguistic strengths, Pakistan manages to score many goals. Hope stems from the wonderful, ordinary people working hard to keep the wheel of creativity and intellect in motion. Scholars are like the metaphoric head of Pakistani society – they can potentially lead by providing vision. At this event I encountered brilliant Pakistani youths like Haroon Khalid, the author of “The White Trail” and met Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s great grandson – who also happens to be my uncle.
This festival emphasised the audience’s demand for more events of this nature. Next in line could be a festival of ideas, a festival of interfaith dialogue and so forth. We need to work much harder than before, each one of us Pakistanis, to help quench this national thirst for knowledge (or ilm), which has been made compulsory for every male and female believer.
This is not just an idealistic idea or theory. We need to remind ourselves of bygone times, especially in view of the prevalent situation in Pakistan, under Muslim rule in Andalusia and Abbasid Baghdad, when education was so universally diffused that, educationists have said, it was difficult to find a person, especially a Muslim, who could not read or write. It is my dream to work towards that goal of peace-oriented education for all, interspersed with the idea of respectful co-existence and deeper understanding.