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March 04, 2018


The session featuring Reza Aslan and Ben Okri drew a packed crowd, but many other sessions were not heavily attended | White Star/Murtaza Ali
The session featuring Reza Aslan and Ben Okri drew a packed crowd, but many other sessions were not heavily attended | White Star/Murtaza Ali

Even though this year the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) moved back to the grand Alhamra Art Centre after being cooped up in various hotel halls the previous couple of years, the return didn’t seem as triumphant as expected.

In the past two years, the LLF had taken place first at the Avari hotel and then at Falettis hotel — and the public had not been pleased about it. But the government of Punjab, which had cited ‘security reasons’ for denying permissions to hold the festival in a more public venue, had remained adamant.

This year, it was not the government, but the public that seemed to have disowned the festival. A large section of people who usually attend the festival took to social media to condemn a series of controversial tweets made by one of the board members. Although that member was later removed by the board, it appeared that the damage had been done. The first day was disappointingly sedate and low on energy. There were packed audiences in a few sessions, such as Emmy Award-winning British actor and rapper Riz Ahmed’s ‘MC Activist’ as well as ‘Light at the End of Trumpian Disorder?’ — which featured Iranian-American author Reza Aslan and Man Booker Prize-winning Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri — but many of the other sessions did not see as many people as would have attended in previous editions of the LLF. During the lunch hour, it appeared as if the entire crowd could be seen outside, and it wasn’t much by the festival’s own standards. Even the news media covering the event felt that it was not as it used to be.

Audiences seem to have stayed away in large numbers from this year’s Lahore Literary Festival. A lack of attention to indigenous literature and repetition may have played a part, but more likely it was a social media controversy that marred the much-awaited event

The LLF has definitely become part of the cultural scene at the beginning of every year and each time people do ask about it, regardless of whether they plan to attend or not. But could it be that they are now suffering from ‘festival fatigue’? Are they tired of seeing the same faces? Do they want a more diverse set of sessions? One participant commented that at times, coming to the LLF was similar to being invited to a private party because it was always the same people there. For example, the crowd at the Afkar-i-Taza ThinkFest held in January was not at the LLF, and the crowd usually at the LLF was not seen at the ThinkFest. At the end of the day the question remains: is participation about supporting the concept of a literary festival, or about supporting people you know?

It is true that the LLF has not been all-encompassing this year, especially in terms of regional language literature. Writers of regional languages are not as celebrated or ubiquitous as foreign authors or those who write in English. This affects the market of the festival; there was a throng of Seraiki-speaking people who wanted to see someone from their region come out and speak, but lost interest in the schedule because there was none. Where were the Pakhtun literati, or the Baloch academics, scholars and writers? Balochi poetry, in particular, has been quite strong in its own region, but in Lahore, Punjab, not many would know about that.

It came as a breath of fresh air to see Sindhi literature being represented in Lahore through the session ‘Waadi-i-Mehran Kay Adab Ka Husn’ moderated by Amar Sindhu and featuring writer Noorul Huda Shah and writer-activist Attiya Dawood who is known for her fiercely feminist stance, but there were also some sessions that could have easily been replaced. ‘Faiz: Humari Yaadain’, moderated by Masood Asher and with Kishwar Naheed, Iftikhar Arif and Zafar Ullah Poshni on the panel, did not offer much novelty. It is indeed important to keep our old poets alive because their poetry is still relevant even today, but there has hardly been any light shed on new and upcoming poets. How is it that none of the younger writers and poets were invited onstage to explain their motivations and influences?

In addition to low attendance and the great lack of new faces, several ongoing political and social themes were largely ignored. Many people were expecting that the currently running #MeToo campaign would be discussed by feminist writers and academics, but none of that happened. Other political happenings around the world could also have been included. It would have been important to have a session on the media in Pakistan and the ideas it is disseminating. The ThinkFest had incorporated this and eminent journalists, including Nadeem Farooq Paracha and Mubashir Zaidi, were on the panel to talk. The hall had been packed — the public likes to talk about news media for some reason!

The public also has an issue with repeated guests. Indian columnist and author Shobhaa De may have been a pleasure to hear in her session ‘70... and to Hell with It!’, but perhaps someone else in her place would have been refreshing since she has already attended the festival once or twice previously.

One reason for the sparse attendance may well have been that the Pakistan Super League (PSL) was also taking place at the same time, but in all probability the tweet controversy had the greatest impact. The hashtag #BoycottLLF2018 was floating around on Twitter, and there were dozens of statuses on Facebook calling out the organisers for “siding with a rape apologist.”

Some Twitter users even went to the extent of judging those who were present at the LLF, even calling them rape apologists, but it is quite farfetched to say that every one of them, including the distinguished delegates — Aslan, Dawood, Arif, Naheed, Salima Hashmi and Zia Mohiyuddin — are supportive of a culture of misogyny. It is entirely possible many of them were not even aware of the tumult on Pakistani social media. And yes, authors boycott literature festivals around the world all the time, but whether this would have been a constructive form of protest in the context of Pakistan is up to question.

A literature festival is a place where discourse is made and debates about controversial issues happen — remember the 2016 Jaipur Literature Festival and actor Anupam Kher’s statements on freedom of speech? — but in a country already struck by censorship, lack of freedom of speech, and draconian laws barring free thought and expression, is boycotting a literary festival not an attempt to bar free expression? Should the public not have taken a more constructive way to condemn what they thought was condemnable — at the festival itself? Why not use the platform to speak out against injustice? What is more, such initiatives would have let the foreign delegates see into our lives and take with them ideas and opinions.

Where liberal and progressive narratives are being challenged in any case, it may have been more fruitful to challenge an idea rather than shut down the debate and restrict it to social media only.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 4th, 2018