Russian philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin deconstructed the art of Francois Rabelais and Fyodor Dostoyevsky with the concept of ‘carnival’ and ‘carnivalesque’ which, for the duration of the carnival, goes beyond the sphere of the site of festivity and carries wisdom. Here the king of the medieval world appears as the clown and the clown as king and despite the suppression of those holding the reins, relative freedom exists and social, economic and political barriers are removed. A carnival is a time of festivities, but it creates a ‘second life’ of people too, different from the real one. For the three days of the Faiz International Festival in Lahore, things appeared not too distant from the Bakhtinian concept of carnival.

The Faiz Foundation managed to rope in icons from the world of literature, film and journalism. Two towering figures from the Indian film industry — Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar — appeared on stage on the first two days and witnessed the biggest halls of the Alhamra Art Centre jampacked with people, as more waited outside the doors that had to be locked. From Pakistan, big names in literature, politics and journalism such as Mohammed Hanif, Amjad Islam Amjad, Aitzaz Ahsan, Afrasiab Khattak, Shafqat Mahmood, Wusat Ullah Khan and Hamid Mir were on the panels besides many other human rights activists, artists and performers.

Akhtar, in two of his sessions, enunciated his concepts of the role of poetry and poets, disagreeing with Amjad that ‘poetry is the language of love’. He put it as the language of conscience as well. In a session moderated by Yasmeen Hameed, he took on the prose poem and those writing it, apparently unsettling the host who let it go, but not without causing her offence. Akhtar had definitely a lot against the genre and he elaborated his point of view in detail. He also refused incessant requests from the audience to recite his satirical poem, ‘Naya Hukmnama’ [New Decree], on the second day of the festival; he had recited it when he took to the stage briefly during his wife Azmi’s session on the opening day. The poem has too much similarity with what’s happening in both Pakistan and India these days and he might have been warned by the organisers as he hinted at possible unwanted reaction to the poem, but not in clear words.

The Faiz International Festival that took place last weekend was not without issues, but its significance as a temporary oasis of relative freedom should not be underestimated

Another major feature of the festival this year was Hanif who came with his new novel, Red Birds; Hanif is always good to listen to and, in two sessions, he did not disappoint the audience.

The political and social conditions of the country, especially regarding civil liberties, had to be naturally discussed as there were sessions on politics, society and history. Some of these sessions brought flair and interest to the festival. Shafqat Mahmood of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf was put in a difficult situation as the National Party of Pakistan’s Hasil Bizenjo, former Awami National Party leader Bushra Gohar and PPP’s Chaudhry Manzoor took him on about, what they called, the sham democracy existing in Pakistan.

Another interesting session was on parallel politics, where singer Jawad Ahmed and lawyer/activist Jibran Nasir were among the panellists. It was interesting for two reasons: first, Ahmed had a confrontation with young members of student organisations belonging to the Left as he criticised the style of politics of leftist parties and the “useless” slogan of ‘Laal Salam’. It was also in focus as two of the panellists — singer and academic Dr Taimur Rehman (of Laal Band) and university teacher Dr Ammar Ali Jan — were not allowed to speak. Later, both used social media to vent their feelings about the episode. The last minute replacement for them, Aisha Ahmed of the Haqooq-i-Khalq Movement, revealed why the two panellists were absent. One chair on the panel was left empty as a symbol of the ‘missing panellists’. Ali Wazir of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) and journalist Rashid Rehman were two others who were part of the schedule, but removed from the panel just hours before the event. The authorities had allegedly asked the organisers to change them as both Jan and Taimur took to social media to give reasons for their absence. Taimur was allowed only to perform, which he did.

However, despite this alleged suppression, discussions were held on topics which have become almost a taboo in the media and one doesn’t read much about. Ismat Shahjahan of the PTM took on the establishment for its problematic policies on religious extremism and extremists and its flawed operations, revealing how extremists are surviving in the northern parts of the country, to which she belongs. Hanif also talked about the Okara farmers and the missing persons phenomenon which, in his words, started from Balochistan and has spread across the country, including Lahore and Sindh. Jibran Nasir questioned why politicians of out-of-favour political parties were being persecuted for contempt of court by the higher courts of the country, but not Khadim Hussain Rizvi of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan. He also discussed hurdles for new entrants into the political arena.

The Faiz International Festival has now become a successful brand on the literary landscape of Lahore, in contrast to its inaugural edition in 2014, when very few people turned up to attend it. Now the throngs are so thick that one can hardly find a place, even on the lawns. There were food courts, bookstalls and amazing performances but, despite the apparent success, the festival was not without issues. There were people among the panellists, including some seniors and hosts, whom one sees in every edition of the festival and it seems a template is followed even in the topics. There is no space for literature from regional languages; one session of Punjabi is included perhaps only as exigency and some members of the Faiz family take to the stage just because they are related to Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

However, despite these concerns, the Faiz Foundation must be appreciated for the efforts they put in to make the festival almost equal to the Lahore Literary Festival. Coming back to Bakhtin, in medieval societies, the carnival could spiral out of the control of those in power, as it does away with the power structure, even if for a short time. The clown in the garb of king becomes the subject of criticism, satire and ridicule and ultimately exposed. That’s where the significance of the carnival (festival) lies and that’s what matters.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 25th, 2018