THESE days preparations for the Karachi Literature Festival are underway, a happy time for those of us who want to turn our minds from politics and towards the arts.
Yet as the organisers reach out to the writers and academics and participants, and we’re being informed about the titles and topics of our panels, I’m somewhat concerned that the artists might be edged out by the all-too-familiar Pakistani obsession with politics.
For example, I was asked to participate on a panel with the working title ‘Whose Pakistan, whose politics? Writing English in Pakistan today’. When I said that I wanted to speak more about literature as an art, not a vehicle for politics, I was reassured that literature as art would be discussed as well. But in the face of discussing Pakistani identity, the nature of resistance in fiction, and Pakistan’s local and global image as portrayed in English literature, I worried that the art and craft of writing would be left by the wayside in favour of the more familiar political prism through which we view everything in our lives.
As a concession to my concerns, we’ve agreed to change the title of the panel to ‘Whose Pakistan? Writing English in Pakistan today’.
Another writer was asked to discuss ‘Political consciousness in the Pakistani novel’. To show his discomfort with the automatic conflation of politics with literature, he quoted the novelist George Sand: “In times when evil comes because men misunderstand and hate one another, it is the mission of the artist to praise sweetness, confidence, and friendship, and so to remind men, hardened or discouraged, that pure morals, tender sentiments, and primitive justice still exist, or at least can exist, in this world.”
Across the border in Jaipur, the literary festival there has also been overshadowed by politics. Last year ‘Islamist’ protests over Salman Rushdie’s attendance at the festival were vociferous enough to dissuade him from attending. This year, the Muslim fundamentalists wanted to ban the authors who read out excerpts from Salman Rushdie’s work at last year’s festival.
At the same time, the Bharatiya Janata Party objected to the presence of Pakistani authors Fehmida Riaz, Nadeem Aslam, Jamil Ahmed, Mohammed Hanif and Musharraf Ali Farooqi. Indian officials stopped Pakistani diplomatic envoys from visiting the festival as well: Indian journalist Rajan Nair said on Twitter, “There was no need for Indian external affairs to play politics over a literary event.”
Political events have long held more interest for Pakistanis than issues of literature. If you don’t believe this, look at the number of people who turn out for jalsas and rallies versus the number of people who attend book fairs, literary conferences and festivals. Literature is considered something for the ‘elite’, while politics is said to interest the ‘masses’.
This in itself is a highly politicised statement, one that reeks of classism and assumptions about the intellectual capabilities and interests of the upper class versus the middle and lower classes. But there’s another possibility here: are we turning towards politics because we simply don’t know how to talk about art?
I went to a talk at The Second Floor given by Hollywood actor Faran Tahir in December. Tahir discussed his work in Iron Man and Star Trek, his craft as an actor, and his philosophy in dealing with the racism and exclusionism that is practised in Hollywood.
But I was most interested in his discussion of his thesis work at UC Berkeley, where he wrote a dissertation on how different genres of theatre were favoured by populations in countries controlled by repressive dictatorships and political regimes. Street theatre in Pakistan, masked theatre in Poland, and folk theatre in South Africa each took on importance in the people’s resistance against government oppression.
As I listened to him, it struck me that Pakistan experienced a blackout on the arts that can only be likened to a person who has undergone a traumatic head injury, and loses the ability to function in the world: she loses language, mobility, memory and must relearn everything in order to take her place in society again, if she ever can.
Similarly, because of Gen Zia’s violent clampdown on literature, theatre, dance, and music during his reign, we Pakistanis, who previously thrived on artistic expression, lost the ability to see the world in terms of art, poetry, song and movement.
That whole language was amputated for an entire generation, and a different one was forced upon them: the language of politics and violence. Now we’re relearning everything we lost two decades ago, but those political muscles are still far stronger than the artistic ones we’re trying to rehabilitate.
It’s my belief, as a writer and artist, that the answer to many of Pakistan’s woes lies not in politics, politics, and more politics, but instead the empathy for humanity that the arts encourage. Art and culture is a more sophisticated form of democracy: the people have a true voice, they sing and dance and act to express their needs, hopes, and dreams.
This is a movement so powerful and so innate that governments fear it and try to silence and suppress its practitioners — writers, poets, artists. But it cannot be suppressed forever.
Occasions such as the Karachi Literature Festival and other cultural events give us a chance to see less politics and more art in our lives. I’m all in favour of an imbalance in favour of art, because through art, we are motivated to find our spiritual centres, to allow our souls to express themselves, to find our commonality with all of humanity. And this is the way Pakistan will find its way back to peace and tolerance.
The writer is the author of Slum Child.
Bina Shah is a writer and columnist in Karachi; she is the author of the novel Slum Child and A Season for Martyrs.
She tweets @binashah
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