Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk (second from right) was eagerly awaited by the Lahorites | Murtaza Ali
Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk (second from right) was eagerly awaited by the Lahorites | Murtaza Ali

The Lahore Literary Festival (LLF), held this year at the Alhamra Art Centre from Feb 21-23, has become somewhat of a symbol of resistance for Pakistani culture and languages. Just like culture and language in this country, it has persevered and survived in the face of umpteen hurdles hurled at it from all around. It has previously faced the risk of being cancelled, been denied the use of the government-controlled and central Alhamra Centre, moved to a hotel in truncated form and then to another hotel but, despite all this, the organisers have somehow managed to keep the show going.

This year, the LLF faced a forced reduction in time as, on all three days, it was told to end by 5pm without having any sessions in the evenings because Lahore was also hosting the Pakistan Super League (PSL) cricket matches — with its own security concerns — on all three days of the LLF. However, the organisers did try to keep the number of sessions unaffected by shifting them to the first day — Friday — which, in all previous editions, was dedicated to only the opening ceremony and performances.

The highlight of the LLF 2020 was Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, whose presence had been keenly awaited by the Lahorites. William Dalrymple was another attraction as his new book, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, is receiving rave reviews around the world. The LLF did well by successfully roping in Pamuk, whose participation in the festival was being talked about for years now. The first session with Pamuk — titled ‘My Name is Red’ — was moderated by Ahmed Rashid, who did a pretty decent job by asking Pamuk questions about his novels and themes, the art of writing, his love for Istanbul and his obsession with colours in the titles of his novels. Pamuk talked at length about how he started writing, why Istanbul was a recurrent theme in his fiction and how he goes about researching for his books. He spoke about the women characters in his novels and the role of feminism in how he creates his women characters.

However, the second session with Pamuk — ‘Writing Away from the Centre: How Literature Can Be Used to Shape a More Democratic World’ — on the last day of the festival, was a tad disappointing as the moderator did not seem to have prepared for the job at hand. Author Mohsin Hamid was supposed to be the other speaker at this, but could not make it to the event. Meanwhile, moderator Shahid Zahid was all over the place, asking questions that were not as targeted as those asked by Rashid. Despite this, the attraction of the Turkish legend was too strong; it was inconceivable that anyone would want to avoid the session and the biggest hall of the Alhamra Art Centre was jam-packed.

Historian Dalrymple launched his book in the session ‘The Anarchy: Post Mughal Politics’, introducing it to the audience with pictures. In giving an overview of his book, he spoke about how the East India Company went from being a small office of merchants and businessmen in England to ruling almost the whole of India. According to Dalrymple, it took just 2,000 men to conquer the Subcontinent — in other words, the British succeeded in India only through native collaborators.

Despite being forced to close early on all three days and the organisers’ efforts to keep the agenda apolitical, the Lahore Literary Festival kept the show going with some worthwhile sessions

Dalrymple’s session was one of the best-attended. He reappeared with F.S. Aijazuddin in ‘Punjab: A Syncretic Land — Art and Portraiture from the Sikh Court of Lahore to the Opening of Kartarpur Peace Corridor’ in which Aijazuddin discussed art during the Sikh rule in Punjab and explained the prevalent political and social conditions through it.

Festivals, especially litfests, are a good place to gauge the state of affairs in terms of freedom of expression and suppression in any society. The efforts to keep the LLF 2020 apolitical and restricted were too obvious to go unnoticed. Former minister of information and PPP leader Sherry Rehman — who was also once the managing editor of Herald — appeared in ‘Critical Concerns for Pakistan in the Years to Come’ but, despite being a politician and former federal minister, she did not refer to any critical political and social issues. While there is no denying that water shortage and climate change are important issues, the people who attended her session were there for her politics and journalism — both topics which Rehman avoided while repeatedly telling the audience, “this is also important” and “nobody knows about it.”

But a festival is a festival and nobody can control it completely. There were occasions when the state of Pakistan and suppression in society by state institutions became points of reference. In the session ‘Nazar Ki Umang: A Translation [by Julien Columeau] of Salima Hashmi’s The Eye Still Seeks: Pakistani Contemporary Art from English to Urdu’, educationist Arfa Sayeda Zehra said, “The state [of Pakistan] has lost the concept of a state. Its vision is confined to the tenure of the government. The curbs on freedom of speech right now are worse than those during General Zia’s regime. If the state says that the censor of Sarmad Khoosat’s film would be decided by the [religio-political party] Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, how can it provide protection to the fine arts? How can a state keep the fine arts alive, if it violates the self-respect of people?”

A festival is a festival and nobody can control it completely. There were occasions when the state of Pakistan and suppression in society by state institutions became points of reference.

In ‘Speaking Truth to Power: Decades of Unwavering Journalism — Herald and Newsline’ — which saw former Herald editor Talat Aslam, and assistant editors Tehmina Ahmed and Zahid Hussain as panellists — journalist and human rights activist I.A. Rehman also broke shackles when he bemoaned the current state of affairs in the country by saying that authoritarian regimes were far more authoritarian these days. “They were not so in the past. There was [at least] some respect for the laws.”

Rehman said that the women who held sway at both the magazines (Herald and Newsline) would take on anybody and were thrilled by challenging situations: “Society has become timid now and the journalists don’t have anyone to look up to. Now journalists face a difficult situation and the process of degeneration in society has seeped into journalism, too.” He pointed out that there is so much self-censorship in society that even he has to think twice before writing anything. “They [authorities] want to control Google and WhatsApp, too,” he said, lamenting that Pakistan had become unsafe for journalists.

In ‘Digital Trumps Print: A Discussion on How Traditional Media Outlets Are Coping With the Rise of Social Media’, journalist and filmmaker Munizae Jahangir alluded to the self-censorship in mainstream media which is increasing the significance of social media. She said sympathisers and members of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (perhaps the only time any group facing persecution was referred to in the festival) were using social media platforms to tell stories of Pakhtun victims to bypass restrictions in mainstream media. Pointing out the sorry state of affairs in Pakistan, Jahangir said mainstream media was barred from talking about certain issues while the state was putting curbs on social media as well through vague new regulations.

The first Urdu book by English-language fiction writer Aamer Hussein, Zindagi Se Pehle [Before Life], was launched in a session moderated by Asif Farrukhi. Hussein talked about his interactions with the stalwarts of Urdu literature and his writing in different languages and his writing style. In ‘Jaun Elia: Khud Ko Tabah Kar Diya Aur Malaal Bhi Nahin [I Destroyed Myself and Have No Regrets]’, Syed Nomanul Haq, Asghar Nadeem Syed and Amjad Islam Amjad discussed the life, behaviour and works of the poet who, quite surprisingly, has been resurrected in recent years and become popular among the youth — not only in Pakistan, but India as well.

The 2020 edition of the LLF had a better count of Urdu and Punjabi sessions compared to previous editions. But the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz now has an entire, exclusive festival held in his name every year and so deserves a break from the LLF — or, at least, the panellists need to be changed as they have begun repeating their statements on Faiz word for word in sessions on him. The people who have been reappearing in the Urdu-language sessions also need to be changed.

However, the literati are not the only people interested in LLF; many people become a part of it simply to socialise and meet friends. Buying books at special discounts is another important aspect; one could see queues of readers getting their books signed by Dalrymple, while Pamuk’s books sold out so quickly that the stall managed by Liberty Books had to get additional copies from Readings.

Though it seems that the early closure of the festival on all three days affected the attendance of people who usually pour in by afternoon and evening, the steadfastness of the organisers for sticking to the schedule, despite the PSL, is laudable. It was still quite an occasion and must have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many in Lahore to see and hear Orhan Pamuk live.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 1st, 2020