"Variety is the very spice of life,” wrote poet William Cowper and nowhere was it better illustrated than at the Quetta Literary Festival (QLF) 2019, held on June 17-18 and organised by the Balochistan University of Information Technology, Engineering and Management Sciences (BUITEMS). A plethora of issues were discussed, but they were topical and gripping, not meandering like a stream. There were interactive discussions, the opening up of minds and hearts, the dispelling of ignorance and mercifully short speeches.

The QLF kicked off with the session ‘It’s Hilariously Political’, moderated by Fasi Zaka with panellists George Fulton and Nur Nasreen. Both Nasreen and Fulton are producers of satire news shows; the former is the producer of Netflix’s Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj and the latter has produced Hard Talk Pakistan and News, Views and Confused. The panel discussed the need for accurate research when producing satire, especially in a world where error-prone populism is going from strength to strength.

Zaka brought up the recent Pemra notice banning satirical content on television. The internet is a beast that is hard to control and the panellists pointed out how the net has changed how censorship works. Even if you ban content, it finds its way out and becomes even more popular because of the interest generated. Nasreen related how, after one of Patriot Act’s episodes was banned in Saudi Arabia, it got thousands of new views on YouTube.

The Quetta Literary Festival lived up to its hopeful tagline, discussing subjects ranging from the political to the historical and incorporating a strong focus on the literature of the region’s indigenous languages

Why do leaders fear criticism? Nasreen said that it was mostly male leaders who were insecure about anything critical being said about them, which led to a smattering of applause from the women present in the audience. The panel highlighted effective methods of poking fun at different figures, highlighting comedy techniques which involve “punching up” and not “punching down”, which means making fun of people in power instead of the people who are the victims.

In the session ‘Journalism in Balochistan: Challenges and Future’ moderated by Shahid Rind with journalists Shehzada Zulfiqar, Salim Shahid, Syed Ali Shah, Sadia Jehangir and columnist Yasir Peerzada on the panel, the difficulties faced by journalists in the province were discussed; these included threats from non-state actors, financial issues and the non-payment of salaries for months. One panellist revealed that government ads were often given to dummy newspapers, commenting wryly that this government promised “tabdeeli” (change), but the only tabdeeli we have seen is people being fired from television channels.

In the session ‘Pakistan’s Economy: What Alternatives Are There?’ journalist Khurram Husain and researcher Ammar Rashid discussed the controversial budget, with Husain saying that every government goes into survival mode as soon as it comes into power and that that is no way to run a country.

The session ‘Women in Words: Depiction of Female Characters in Literature and Art’ was moderated by Neelum Afridi and the panellists were Rimsha Ashraf and myself. The stereotypes woven around female characters in the arts were laid threadbare, but for every dramatist Umera Ahmed on television, there is also a Haseena Moin. When I conducted a student poll asking how many did not want to see oppressed women in television dramas, almost all the students raised their hand. Students were encouraged to read Sara Shagufta, Leo Tolstoy and Saadat Hassan Manto — although one participant asked why we were not recommending Bano Qudsia.

One of the most interesting sessions was ‘Men for Men: Toxic Masculinity and its Impact on Men’ which was moderated by teacher Aqsa Maryam and the panellists were public policy specialist Rafiullah Kakar, Fasi Zaka and George Fulton. They discussed how men are raised with expectations foisted on them. This socially destructive toxic masculinity then impacts the lives of women and traps men into hyper competitive domination and distorted perceptions of women, leading to insularity and rigidity in relationships. The session explored how men should reject stereotypical notions of masculinity and embrace a more inclusive masculinity.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi moderated the session ‘Shredding the Skin of the Text’ with journalist Iftikhar Firdous, spoken word artist Kayenat Hameed Khan Javeri and poet Neelum Afridi as panellists. The conversation touched upon the choices authors make in their work and how they are informed by what they read. Firdous asked the moderator if something could compel him to read Tarzan Aur Banmaanas [Tarzan of the Apes] to which Farooqi replied that if the choice was between that book and Bano Qudsia’s Raja Gidh, the feral apes would by far be the better company.

In ‘Fierce Words: The Flip-Side of Peace’ moderated by Fasi Zaka with panellists Iftikhar Firdous and Amir Rana who is the director of the Pak Institute of Peace Studies, the focus was on hate speech, intolerance and radicalisation in Pakistan.

The only critique of the QLF is that since the sessions were so appealing, perhaps it could have been stretched to three days so that more people could have participated. In Balochistan, there is a great eagerness to learn and understand issues, especially those impacting it from a national level.

Moderated by academic Hammal Aslam, ‘Fresh Blood in Politics’ featured young politician Nizamuddin Salarzai, Balochistan MPA Mahjabeen Sheran, barrister Saifullah Magsi, political analyst Dr Adnan Rafiq and Ammar Rashid and the enthusiasm of the packed house grew whenever the panellists discussed freedom of speech and the freedom to conduct politics without external pressures. After the session, Salarzai commented, “It seemed that for the first time in my life I was talking to a young crowd that understood the negative impact of censorship and political suppression. If the students of an education institute [such as] BUITEMS reflect an image of a young society living in political uncertainty, one can only imagine how it is outside those walls for common people. The state needs to rethink and re-evaluate how to deal with a bulging population that is far more sensitive about its rights enshrined for them by the very constitution of the state.”

An interesting discussion also took place on the rich history of the region in ‘The Frontier of Al-Hind: Political Transformation of Medieval Balochistan 700-1050 AD’ which featured anthropologist Dr Hafeez Jamali, historian Jahanzaib Khan and archaeologist Dr Kaleemullah Lashari. Another session which generated a lot of debate was ‘Drama Hai Ya Dramaybazi’ with director Sarmad Khoosat and actors Hameed Sheikh, Jamal Shah, Ayub Khoso and poet and dramatist Mohsin Shakeel, moderated by well-known Pashto actor Amanullah Nasar.

Many books were launched at the QLF, too, including Rimsha Ashraf’s Enmeshed, Faizullah Khan’s The Prisoner of Durand Line, Kayenat Hameed Khan’s A Decade of Light and, of course, my book of short stories.

In the Kids’ Corner, Musharraf Ali Farooqi spoke about his Storykit Programme for children in which interactive storytelling, picture books and games based on stories are used as activity-based learning components to teach communication skills to children.

One goal of the QLF — that sets it apart from other literary festivals — is the promotion of literature written in indigenous languages on the same scale as English and Urdu. This year, a grand Urdu mushaira was arranged and time slots were also dedicated to poetry recitals in Balochi, Brahui, Hazargi and Pashto. The poets presented their kalaam on various themes. Apart from mushairas, there were sessions on works of art and literature in these four languages as well.

The QLF ended on a high note with a performance by the popular Pashto music band Khumariyan, who won the hearts of the audience with their amazing repertoire. In the middle of their performance, they called on stage members of the Quetta experimental rock band Error, who had been slated to perform before Khumariyan but who could not do so because of the delayed start of the concert. Not only did Khumariyan jam with Error members, but they also called for a round of applause for the Quetta boys which showed their sporting spirit.

The only critique of the QLF is that since the sessions were so appealing, perhaps it could have been stretched to three days so that more people could have participated. In Balochistan, there is a great eagerness to learn and understand issues, especially those impacting it from a national level. Despite being marginalised in the national narrative, the province seems to stand head and shoulders above the others on an intellectual level. Perhaps nothing summed up the spirit of the Quetta Literary Festival more than the tagline given to the QLF: Umeed-i-Nau. A New Hope indeed.

The writer’s first book, The Mercurial Mr Bhutto and Other Short Stories was recently published

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 30th, 2019