White marquees covered the lush green gardens of Governor House in Karachi as security personnel and volunteers got ready to greet guests for the very first Adab Festival, held over the first three days of February. The slight winter breeze, intellectual debates, hot Kashmiri chai and pakorras made the outdoor literature festival — the brainchild of Ameena Saiyid (OBE) and Asif Farrukhi, former organisers of the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) — an instant hit.
Considering the controversy surrounding the festival — it had been the target of a lawsuit from the Oxford University Press which had exerted its ownership of the KLF brand, forcing the organisers to resort to the Adab name — and doubts it would even be held at all, it is remarkable that the festival was able to pull this off.
Men and women in silks and Burberry scarves, tweed jackets and corduroy pants or crisp, white shalwar kameez attended the many sessions that included the launch of Nasim Zehra’s book From Kargil to the Coup: Events That Shook Pakistan, lawyer Faisal Siddiqui and Professor Noman Ahmed’s discussion on encroachments in Karachi and the demolition of the same, the forgotten history of women’s travel writing in Urdu and some rousing qawwali performances by the Sami brothers.
The latest entry on the literary festival circuit is the Adab Festival which took place in Karachi from February 1 to 3. It may be new, but its organisers have much experience to draw upon
Talking about encroachments at the well-attended session, Siddiqui had some some chilling words to impart: “The authorities in charge of Karachi have destroyed the city. There has been unthinkable corruption by them in conniving with landgrabbers. Now they have to hide their incompetence, so the Sindh Building Control Authority has shifted its guilt on to others.”
Other crowd-pulling events included a conversation with Irani-American academic and dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Seyyed Vali Nasr; a talk on Partition by Sayed Amjad Hussain; Ishrat Hussain’s session on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC); the launch of H.M. Naqvi’s book The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack; Fasi Zaka and Nadeem F. Paracha’s session of humour and satire and Mohammed Hanif in conversation with author Syed Kashif Raza whose debut novel Chaar Dervesh Aur Ek Kachhwa came out recently. On the last day, singer Shehzad Roy and activist Jibran Nasir stole the show at separate sessions.
Usually a literary festival conjures up images of intellectuals and philosophers milling around, engaged in a deep, thoughtful exchange of ideas. So it is always heartening to see the younger crowd take an interest. The Adab Festival had schoolchildren in blue uniforms running around the gardens and posing for photographs in front of the Mercedes and Audis parked near the main fountain. A string puppet show featuring the different cultures of the four provinces of Pakistan, through music and some very energetic dancing, was quite a treat; for some youngsters — and even a few adults — it was actually the very first time they had ever seen a live puppet show, so a shout out of encouragement is in order for the Thespianz Theatre for doing what they can to revive a dying art.
“We are very excited to be here,” said 12-year-old Sundus, adding that she wished they could have also seen the Governor House from the inside.
Meanwhile, Ali — a teenager who developed an interest in reading after taking his O’ Level exams last year — said, “It feels strange to walk in the same space as writers such as Mohammed Hanif and Omar Shahid Hamid, especially since I just read their books.” The discovery of new books and new bookshops at a literary festival is also exciting and Ali admitted that he was surprised to see displays managed by names other than the very few and familiar.
Enjoying former senator Javed Jabbar’s session on ‘Pakistaniyat’, one attendee said that she thoroughly enjoyed learning about his creative side and passion for language. “He has an amazing baritone. Just listening to him makes me happy. This session was lovely. I felt like I really knew him when he talked about his mother encouraging him to write,” she said. At the session titled ‘Who’s Afraid of Umera Ahmad’, the panel talked about class, gender and religion in the author’s novels along with the idea of the modern, immoral woman versus the traditional, moral woman.
Shams Hassan, who was in the city on a short trip from the United States, said he felt lucky to have attended the Adab Festival. “It is quite refreshing to be here and attending such an event. I live in California and, when I was planning my visit, I was really looking forward to attending a literary event. This is very good, I’ve been here for two hours now and attended two sessions and hope to attend more,” he told me.
Of course, as with anything attempted for the first time, some mistakes were made in the organisation and execution of the event. Hassan, for one, was disappointed that he could not find the programme online. “I was hoping to attend the mushaaira, but [had] a prior commitment. Had I been able to locate [the programme] I would have been able to plan my weekend better,” he rued.
Psychologist Atiya Naqvi, attending the session ‘Is Life Worth Living?’ where her husband Azfar Naqvi spoke on the subject of suicide alongside journalist Zarrar Khuhro, Dr Murad Moosa, president of the World Association for Suicide Prevention, and Dr Ayesha Mian, who heads the psychiatric ward at the Aga Khan University Hospital, said, “The day is beautiful [but] I feel maybe the venue is too big and the fervour [of earlier festivals] is being missed.”
A dapper visitor, Ashraf Khan, said that he attended quite a few sessions over the weekend and enjoyed the intellectual and insightful debates, but felt the event seemed a tad disorganised. “I was looking for the Haleeb Pavilion and asked the volunteers, who were clueless [yet] standing in front of the pavilion where I wanted to attend a session,” he said, adding that some of the events started late, “but you can cut them some slack as this is their first festival.”
Naima, who came with her mother, said events such as the Adab Festival should be held every six months. “I think the festival went well. We need more of these events at such spaces, but I feel more stuff should be in Urdu. The idea that this is free and open is good, but we need more inclusivity,” she said.
Waiting for former inspector general Sindh Aftab Nabi’s session on the Hur insurgencies to begin, attendees Shamshad and Kausar said they were very impressed with what the organisers had done. “It is well organised. I feel it is a good way to learn about people who are literary and thinkers,” said Shamshad. But at the other end of the spectrum, another visitor was in a huff over the fact that there was no valet service. “My husband was stuck in that parking lot trying to park the car for two hours. He missed the session he wanted to attend!” Of course, as any seasoned Karachiite would know, festival or no festival, there is never any parking in the heart of the city where the Governor House happens to be. So the best way to ensure you do not end up driving round and round in search of a parking space is to simply leave your personal vehicle at home.
Talking to Dawn, organiser Asif Farrukhi said he was quite happy with the event and turnout. “The three-day event was like magic. There was greater ambience, greater freedom of expression and content and some of the sessions were amazing and of very high quality,” he said. “We took a long, painful route to reach here. For me, it is not that we just managed to bring so many people together or have thought-provoking sessions, but that, against all odds, we managed to do anything at all.”
As for future editions of the festival, Farrukhi has high hopes. This one had been a difficult experience with a lack of funds, legal issues and a small team, but “For the next festival, we will review what worked and what didn’t work. We want to cover more of all the arts and social issues. It will be bigger and better.”
The writer is a member of staff
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 10th, 2019