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CONFERENCE: RESISTING SHRINKING SPACES

December 31, 2017

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Women writers take to the stage to discuss the role of women in the social and literary landscape | Fahim Siddiqi
Women writers take to the stage to discuss the role of women in the social and literary landscape | Fahim Siddiqi

The tone was set at the very outset. And it was set by Kishwar Naheed. As part of the presidium at the opening ceremony, she was expected to say the customary ‘few words’ in praise of the organisers (organiser actually, if you know what that means!), but Naheed chose to do it a bit differently. She talked of “walls closing in on us” and the need to “stand our ground” in the face of obscurantism. She did earn a pat on the back when Zehra Nigah, in her own ‘few words’, praised Naheed for being the only one “who said what needs to be said in these times.” Thus began the 10th edition of the International Urdu Conference in Karachi last week.

And it was on this very note that the conference ended, with Dr Jaffar Ahmed filing an FIR with the Arts Council against the “kidnapping of Quaid-i-Azam’s Pakistan” at the hands of theocrats and their apologists. So strong was his narrative that the session could never quite outgrow the metaphor. Harris Khalique offered to be the first witness in the ‘trial’, and even Javed Jabbar, the lush green optimist the kind of whom is hard to find in today’s Pakistan, could disagree only to the extent that the ‘kidnapping’ was still taking place in slow motion and the act had not been completed because, in his words, the people were resisting such attempts.

It was all lively and cerebral for sure. But a critical question did cause a bit of botheration to a few minds. Was it all happening at the right forum? After all, this was a language conference and had to keep its focus in line with its context. The fact that it failed to even mention in any meaningful way — if at all — the name of Mukhtar Masood was disappointing, almost depressing. He died during the year and his fourth book hit the stands posthumously and yet the organisers didn’t find it cause enough to have someone talk about it. A Mukhtar Masood book — like that of Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi — has never been a mere book; it was always an occasion... an occasion to celebrate.

The 10th International Urdu Conference was successful in sustaining audience involvement, but language was not always the reason

There was a session, titled Yaad-i-Raftagan, in remembrance of people who are no more around, but Mukhtar Masood failed to make the cut, reflecting either a lack of homework or some agenda on the part of those behind the whole show.

The session itself was quite lively compared to similar sessions in previous years. Irfan Javed and Jazib Qureshi struck a chord with the audience while talking about Tassadduq Sohail and Shanul Haq Haqqi. Mazhar Jamil, Afzaal Hussain and Shamim Hanafi were eloquent in their descriptions of Ibrahim Joyo, Khaliq Anjum and Naiyer Masud. But the man who surprised everybody was Peerzada Salman, a journalist. In a mere five minutes he sketched an image of the late Urdu poet Nida Fazli that many would have struggled to do in hours. If only some others — in the session and otherwise — could understand the difference between the written and the spoken word, the life of the audience could be so much more enjoyable, but all through the 10 years of the conference, it has been one distinct irritant for which the organisers cannot be faulted. The burden rests on the shoulders of the speakers.

The 10th year of the conference was also the 10th year of lingering time mismanagement. The schedule is almost always in tatters, beginning with the opening ceremony and nothing gets going when it is supposed to. Names are printed on the schedule, but there dropouts galore. Luckily, however, the consequence of at least two dropouts helped the cause of the event — and of the audience — tremendously. The session on Pakistan’s cinematic journey, for instance, had a few not showing up. Instead, veteran actor Qavi Khan was brought over from his shooting to add some star value. And he just ran away with the whole thing.

Delegates at the 10th International Urdu Conference
Delegates at the 10th International Urdu Conference

The second such case was the session with Iftikhar Arif. The moderator developed a sore throat at the last moment and in his place came Wusatullah Khan. As Arif himself remarked, hinting at the sore throat, “everything happens for a reason and only God knows what is better for us.” Khan and Arif hit a chemistry that brought out flavours that are generally not associated with such sessions.

Incidentally, the session was part of an evening that was in many ways the most intense of the five-day event. It started with the session on cinema in the afternoon, moved on to a discussion on Pakistani music, followed by conversations with Arif and then with Amjad Islam Amjad.

Next came the launching of three interesting books: Jaanay Pehchanay [Known and Familiar] by the writer of simple-but-complex stories Akhlaq Ahmed, Farishta Nahin Aaya [The Angel Never Came], a collection of short stories by known critic Nasir Abbas Nayyar, and Mohabbaton Ka Safar [A Journey of Love], the first collection of poetry by senior journalist A.H. Khanzada. As if all this was not enough, the curtain was brought down on the evening by a performance featuring Ustad Hamid Ali Khan. It was all sheer ecstasy.

What the conference has missed all these years is a regular session on story readings. Poets have their mushaira, and reading sessions can work wonders for fiction writers. Instead of inviting writers to read papers on research and critique, they need to have a forum to deliver their own craft. Hopefully, as the conference takes fresh guard next year, somebody will think of giving storytellers their due place in an event that has now come to be associated with the city’s social landscape.

This year’s edition of the conference was also the most widely attended one. And there were reasons. The scope of the sessions was enlarged to include film, television, music, painting and dance. Simply put, there were more crowd-pullers than usual and it reflected in the turnout. To portray it as society’s commitment with, or interest in, Urdu will be a notion totally misplaced, but in terms of resistance against shrinking spaces, this event and others like it do have their value. And that, in itself, is a reason good enough to continue doing it.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 31st, 2017