Now that more than a year has gone by since the pandemic disrupted our usual way of life, people have started to become acclimatised to online events, even finding them comforting as they become increasingly familiar. The 12th Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) was enjoyed from the safety of one’s home, as intellectuals brought a nuanced debate to a world still grappling with the new normal.

Changing balances of power

In his keynote address, ‘The Future Frontiers’, Iranian-American scholar Vali Nasr spoke about the significant shifts in the global arena across technology, economics and foreign politics, and how countries need to function in this new environment.

In particular, he discussed the rise of China and the threat it poses to the West, especially the United States, and how both countries view each other as adversaries.

Nuanced discussions about the changing landscapes of global politics and domestic social dynamics marked many of the sessions at this year’s Karachi Literature Festival

One reason that is causing this change in power dynamics is the lessening of US interest in the Middle East and South Asia. “This is [because of] Covid, domestic problems, as well as the rise of China. The US wants to deprioritise these regions,” said Nasr.

Another interesting shift, he explained, is that Western populations, especially the US, no longer view extremism as the most urgent national security threat, or something that is likely to disrupt their lives and the economy. “There are a host of other, more urgent challenges that people see before them, from migration, to China, to the pandemic, as well as divisions within American politics. This combination has created an environment in which the US is more aggressively looking to leave. And this departure is a structural shift to this region. As is the escalation with China, which is a structural shift in the Indo-Pacific region.”

For Pakistan, in particular, it is the departure of the US from Afghanistan that will change the way this region functions, and how the US will engage with it, he added.

Women writers find their voice

In the session ‘Khawateen Aur Pakistani Zabaanon Ka Maujooda Adab’ [Women and Contemporary Literature in Pakistani Languages], Sindhi writer and poet Noorul Huda Shah and Urdu poet, translator and educator Yasmeen Hameed discussed how, after a long period of silence, women writers found their voice in the 20th century, not just in this part of the world, but all around.

Hameed maintained that there is an attitude reserved for women in the literature of this region, that they are always commented on separately. “Why are women not included in the mainstream? Topics such as ‘Khawateen Aur Pakistani Zabaanon Ka Maujooda Adab’ do this, as if the literature women produce is different. Even a mediocre male writer is included in the mainstream, but a superior female writer is sidelined,” she said, adding “I have realised this because a woman’s age of writing is much less as compared to that of men, and this is because she has been silenced for almost 3,000 years.”

For Shah, there is no dearth of women writers and poets in our various Pakistani languages, but despite that, they are routinely ignored. “In Sindh,” she said, “female writers and poets are actively taking part in the struggle for their rights. Even till about 15 years ago, [it] was unheard of in Sindh that women would be part of this struggle. There was a time when female writers did not even write under their real names. But today I see a large representation of women who are moving forward.”

She also spoke about Baloch female poets who are facing immense pressure, yet are still producing extraordinary poetry in Balochi.

Pakistan’s pandemic resilience

In the panel discussion ‘Post Pandemic Economy of Pakistan’, an impressive line-up of panellists — including adviser to the prime minister and former governor of the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), Dr Ishrat Husain; deputy governor SBP, Dr Murtaza Syed; president and chief executive officer of the Bank of Punjab, Zafar Masud; and chief financial officer of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) Khalilullah Shaikh — discussed the effects of Covid-19 on the economy in Pakistan.

According to Dr Husain, one serious change about economic thinking that has taken place is the enlarged and enhanced role of the governments, even in countries such as the US. “Governments realised they needed to take charge and alleviate the miseries of the people.”

He added: “When Covid-19 broke out, the federal government and the SBP realised that they needed to make concerted efforts to reach out to poorer segments of the economy who had lost their jobs. The government had to not just help out daily wage earners and hawkers, but also support businesses to run efficiently to keep the economy running.”

Dr Murtaza Syed gave an optimistic overview of Pakistan’s economy: “Pakistan’s economy during the pandemic remained resilient and the country came out much better than other emerging markets,” he claimed.

The forgotten

At its launch, Senator Raza Rabbani’s book, The Smile Snatchers, was introduced as a novel that explores art, creativity and imagination and narrates the real and surreal experiences of an accomplished artist named Zaheer. The book highlights the suffering of children in various situations, including the 2014 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, military action in Kashmir and the migrations to the West. The book also includes references to a number of painters, most prominently French artist Jean Courbet, by whom Zaheer is very much inspired.

Art and literature are a reflection of society, and by using them as the medium, The Smile Snatchers highlights the anguish of children caught in adverse circumstances. “All of the children included in the novel are real people and not fictitious,” he said in conversation with Muneeza Shamsie.

“The incidents mentioned have taken place. These stories would hit the headlines and social media, but be forgotten in a matter of days. There was no follow-up and no describing as to how [the children] reached that stage, why their smiles had been snatched and why the imperialist world is so cruel in attaining [its] geopolitical and national security objectives that [it does] not even bother about women and children.”

The writer is a senior content writer at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums)

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 4th, 2021

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