The sixth edition of Lahore Literary Festival began on Saturday with a two-day schedule featuring performances, panel discussions and recitals by some renowned local and international writers, artists, poets, journalists and academics. This year, delegates such as British actor/rapper Riz Ahmed, author/TV producer/academic Reza Aslan, and Man Booker prize winner Ben Okri attracted the most people throughout the day.
On the first day on Saturday, the sessions were well attended, as scores of people from all walks of life were seen celebrating the true spirit of Lahore discussing art and literature under the mellow winter sun.
Outside, a handful of food outlets and bookstalls with both new releases and old were seen busy, while book-signings by the writers present at the event kept fans engaged. A light shower in the morning inaugurated the festival, adding to the classic February vibe in Lahore, which resulted in a pleasant day to follow. Yellow and red coloured sitting area lined the green, well-manicured Alhamra lawns, and were meeting point for people who carried on with discussions about the sessions and festival with delegates, friends and family, adding to the ambiance of the festival. While inside, halls were almost filled with enchanting discussions and performances till the evening.
During the day, there was some protest on the social media over a recent controversial tweet by a key member of the LLF organising team, echoes of which were heard at the festival venue. The person in question later withdrew from the event this year, but there were renewed calls on Saturday for a clear statement about his position.
Sharing her thoughts about LLF, BBC journalist Lyse Doucet said: “It’s always so heartwarming to come back to the LLF and to see these halls that are packed with Pakistanis young and old, men and women, students, veterans, authors and writers and people who just love books. The whole conversation is about literature, it’s about culture, it’s about celebration of some really positive things about Pakistan so it is really a joy and honor to be here.”
While Mohsin Hamid said: “For me, having these amazing writers and artists come to Lahore from all over is a wonderful part of the year. I like to feel the city is connected to the world and I like to see the audience engage with these writers and ask questions.”
Among the delegates were some academics as well, including scholar Ammara Maqsood who was attending the festival for the first time. She said: “Being an academic, my research either remains confined to academia or my students, so it was great to be able to share it with other people and hear their thoughts.”
Some attendees like Dr Nushaat Maqsood said that LLF is “a collection of very progressive young people who think out of the box, which really heartening to see”. Adding to it, another attendee, Rano Usman said: “We would like to see basant at LLF in the future as it is a great way to welcome spring as we haven’t been able to celebrate a traditional event like it for many years and LLF can be a great way to revive it.”
At day end, the keynote speech was delivered by Dr Azra Raza, a researcher and activist, who spoke at length about what it means to be “woke” for Pakistanis of today. In her words, being woke means to exist in the state after “waking up”, or letting go of the apathy of commonplace existence. Through couplets of Allama Iqbal and Ghalib, Dr Azra cast light on the predicament of both Pakistanis and the rest of the world, as everyone lay awake at night contemplating the horrors of turbulent times of today. In her eyes, the world was reeling from chaos and confusion, and the cognitive dissonance between virtuous speech and tyrannical actions had become impossible to ignore. The only way to progress out of this darkness was to reclaim the illuminating flame of the past, of cultural values that made people and nations what they were.
Recalling the epic story of Mahmud of Ghaznavi and the dutiful Malik Ayyaz, Dr Azra appealed to the men of Pakistan to rise above petty, aggressive and boorish visage of masculinity portrayed in today’s world, and revert to the kindness and generosity espoused as the height of male character by our own culture. She ended her speech with a strong, rousing appeal to the “woke” women of Pakistan, to cast off their chains of subservience, submission and slavery, and demand their fair place in the world. Leaving the stage to a standing ovation, it would be safe to say she left her audience wide awake.
Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2018