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FESTIVAL: THE AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT METRIC

June 30, 2019

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Among the audience was Jalila Haider, the first female lawyer from the Hazara community, who had gained fame when she went on a hunger strike to protest targeted killings last year. This led to Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa coming to Quetta to reassure the community about their security | Photo courtesy Quetta Literary Festival
Among the audience was Jalila Haider, the first female lawyer from the Hazara community, who had gained fame when she went on a hunger strike to protest targeted killings last year. This led to Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa coming to Quetta to reassure the community about their security | Photo courtesy Quetta Literary Festival

Writing about literature festivals usually focuses on the quality of its curation — the topics and speakers selected by the organisers — and the content of those sessions, as expressed by the panellists and the moderators. Sometimes writing about litfests also takes into account logistics and organisational forethought. All of these are, of course, very valid ways of looking at the talk fests, which attempt to bring more intellectuality and academic discourse into the public space and which, fortunately, seem to be steadily increasing across Pakistan.

Attending the second edition of the Quetta Literary Festival (QLF) — which took place over two days, June 17-18 — however, I was struck by another metric of assessing such a talk shop: the audience. Not so much the numbers of those attending — although the QLF was very well attended, the Karachi Literature Festival and the Lahore Literary Festival, for example, understandably draw larger numbers, situated as they are in far larger metropolises — but in the quality of audience engagement and interaction with the speakers on the stage and with the topics and the world around them.

What struck me the most about the QLF was the political awareness, intellectual curiosity, fearlessness, willingness to engage and maturity of its largely youthful audience — the festival is, of course, organised by and takes place at the Balochistan University of Information Technology, Engineering and Management Sciences (BUITEMS). In session after session that I managed to attend, the quality of questions and the discourse was on a level higher than I have witnessed in any other festival so far. Quetta has always had a tradition of producing thoughtful students and the political issues surrounding Balochistan are, no doubt, a factor in this. But it still fills you with hope to witness this — the hope that, if this kind of engagement is nurtured rather than suppressed, the future of Pakistan is in good hands.

The 2nd Quetta Literary Festival was remarkable in particular for the quality of its audience, showcasing its political awareness, intellectual curiosity, fearlessness, willingness to engage and its maturity

I will come back to this but, first, a word about some of the few sessions I did manage to attend. At other festivals, I tend to avoid sessions where I feel I already know what will be said, often the case when it’s the same lot of speakers one has heard many times before. This being a relatively new space for me, I gravitated towards sessions where I hoped to get a pulse of the current vibe of Quetta and Balochistan. Among the ones I attended, there were two that helped me most get a feel of the specific political environment.

One was a session on the challenges and future of journalism in Balochistan. It included veteran journalists Salim Shahid, Shehzada Zulfiqar and Syed Ali Shah as well as relatively younger practitioners such as Sadia Jahangir and columnist Yasir Peerzada. Despite the moderator Shahid Rind interjecting too often, the panellists presented not just an all-too-real picture of the difficult balancing act performed by journalists caught between militants on the one hand and the military on the other, but also their frustration at the marginalisation of Balochistan in the national news media.

Another was the launch of the book Rethinking Pakistan: A 21st Century Perspective with co-editor and publisher Bilal Zahoor, and public policy and development consultant Rafiullah Kakar in conversation with academic and counter-terrorism expert Amir Rana. The book itself (which has already been reviewed in these pages) presents a secular, progressive view of Pakistani politics and issues and a chapter by lawyer Reema Omer was highlighted by Zahoor which deals with enforced disappearances, a topic Balochistan has had much experience with. But what was really remarkable about this session was the impassioned perspective provided by Kakar, who is himself currently serving as the Balochistan government’s representative in Islamabad. Drawing on his own experiences, Kakar stressed the need to look beyond personalisations of ‘good people’ with ‘good intentions’ and focus on the systemic and structural issues that result in the province’s deprivation and marginalisation at the federal level. In his view, the issues that bedevil Pakistan’s Balochistan relationship will not be solved until and unless the very relationship between the federation and its constituent elements, ie the provinces, is rethought.

That such a point of view should come from someone with an ostensible stake in the current structure, provides an indication of the level of dissatisfaction within Pakistan’s largest province.

So what about the audience? In both these sessions as well as others I attended, and one that I moderated, one felt there was a genuine interest to engage and to question, not simply as a means of holding forth (that dreaded bane of any litfest moderator’s life) but to actually try and make sense of the world. I had arrived at the QLF expecting the issue of disappearances and perhaps the situation of the Hazara community to be the main topic of discussion among the politically aware audience members. But in session after session, the overwhelming interest was about the Pashtun/Pakhtun Tahaffuz Movement and the state’s response to it. Inevitably questions from the audience would touch upon or address this burning question, the only uncertainty being whether such a question would be the second, third or fourth one from the audience.

This could partly be because Quetta has a plurality of Pashtuns who obviously have an ethnic and linguistic relationship with their brethren across Pakistan. But it did not mean that other issues were not important in the audience’s eyes — only that in framing their priorities, the audience was touching upon what it viewed as the political issue as the most neglected in the mainstream media. One could not come away without the feeling that no amount of official media suppression could stop people talking about the things that they feel concerned about.

It should be a lesson in humility for those who seek to control public narratives. But also an eye-opener. Isn’t encouraging civil discussions and engagement in public spaces and nurturing intelligent, curious minds better for the future of the country than the silence of the graveyard?

The writer is Dawn’s Editor Magazines

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