Speakers at the session ‘Playing Against the Odds — Celebrating Balochistan’s Sporting Heroes’
Speakers at the session ‘Playing Against the Odds — Celebrating Balochistan’s Sporting Heroes’

Recently, I attended a literature festival for the very first time in my life.

It was the third edition of the Quetta Literary Festival (QLF), held on June 27-28. I hadn’t been to the first two (2018, 2019 and then a two-year pandemic break). This one I could not avoid, because I’d been assigned to cover it, so I went with the attitude of someone who must get a job over and done with. My indifference most likely arose from the feeling I had been harbouring for quite a while, that my city, Quetta — like myself — had lost its zeal and enthusiasm a long time ago.

I was so wrong.

The energy I thought was dead was palpable before I even reached the venue. The road leading up to the Balochistan University of Information Technology, Engineering and Management Sciences (BUITEMS) swarmed with traffic. At the place itself, the crowd — mostly students and youngsters — was more than I could have imagined.

The third edition of the Quetta Literary Festival — held after a two-year pandemic break — disabuses an observer of the notion that the city has lost its zeal and enthusiasm for intellectual engagement

The QLF 2022 inaugural ceremony was held at the large Markhor Auditorium on the BUITEMS campus grounds. The hall was jam-packed, and those who could not secure a seat either perched on the steps, or stood wherever they could find an inch of space.

Titled Saqaafat: Kal Aur Aaj — Arfa Sayeda Zehra Aur Amjad Islam Amjad Ke Saath Aik Mukaalma [Culture: Yesterday and Today — A Conversation with Arfa Sayeda Zehra and Amjad Islam Amjad], the opening session was moderated by Quetta-based writer, actor and director Adeel Afzal.

Dr Zehra stole the show. Humorous and blunt, she — along with poet and playwright Amjad — spoke on culture and civilisation, stressing upon the importance of tolerance as well as respect for the others’ views.

The crowd loved her and her wry observations. When her microphone malfunctioned, she remarked that it had “turned out to be nalaaiq [useless], like me”, eliciting a burst of laughter from the audience. When she called the land of surmaee [gray] mountains her second home and stated that Balochistan and its people were the very embodiment of the concept of hospitality, ready to share their bread with even a stranger, applause thundered through the hall.

Meanwhile, I — there in my capacity as a journalist on assignment — sat with my pen poised over my notebook and mostly forgot to write anything down because I was so engrossed in Dr Zehra’s and Amjad’s conversation on stage. What I can say, though, with the authority of one who had an absolute blast, is that their session was the biggest jewel in the QLF crown.

Another thoroughly engaging session was ‘Why Write? A Talk with Contemporary Writers’, moderated by Quetta-based writer Farid Kasi. The guests were poet Fatima Ijaz and novelists Omar Shahid Hamid and Taha Kehar.

With five novels to his name, Hamid needs no introduction. His latest, Betrayal, is especially significant as a large chunk of the plot is set in Balochistan. He had also been on my mind for quite some time now, ever since I learned from a senior intelligence officer that Hamid would be joining the Quetta offices of the Intelligence Bureau.

This was a talk I could not miss, so, as soon as the mukaalma between Dr Zehra and Amjad Islam Amjad was over, I ran like the devil to BUITEMS’s Pink Hall. Smart move, because it was abundantly clear that a great number of other people had also decided this was an unmissable session. I consider myself lucky that I was able to get one of the 120 available seats, albeit in the back row.

Kasi, Ijaz, Hamid and Kehar conducted a lively conversation and there was no dearth of questions from the audience. As expected, most were about the necessity of literature and the business of writing fiction. One student asked the panellists about the number of books they had read. They responded that it was not important to keep count. What mattered was that one read the books one liked.

Some of the audience were concerned about taking up writing as a profession. Was it feasible? Knowing that writing fiction is not a good source of income, does it have a future in the country? “It’s a passion project everywhere in the world,” was Hamid’s plainspoken reply. He added that if it weren’t for the need to earn a living, he would move to an island in the West Indies and just write stories.

Noted novelist Mohammad Hanif once joked that Hamid has an unfair advantage: being a police officer, he is privy to some very good stories. Hanif was of the opinion that Hamid should share the stories so that other writers could write them. Or that there should be a law against serving law enforcement officers writing books.

Moderator Kasi wanted to know how a writer could harness creativity when there were so many restrictions, especially on freedom of expression. “Creativity flourishes in such situations,” countered Hamid, citing the example of the ‘great Russian novels’, many of which had been penned in greatly restrictive circumstances.

Balochistan has long suffered as an underdeveloped province, lagging behind other parts of Pakistan. This is the prime cause for most of its woes, particularly of the economic kind. An informative session on this concerning aspect, titled ‘Towards a Political Economy Analysis of Underdevelopment in Balochistan: A Historical Analysis’ was conducted by development practitioner Saira Lehri.

Panellists included renowned economist Dr Kaiser Bengali; Dr Mir Saadat Baloch, president of the Balochistan Council for Peace; public policy consultant Rafiullah Kakar; and Khalid Khan, associate professor and chairman of the economics department at the Lasbela University of Agriculture, Water and Marine Sciences (LUAWMS).

Dr Bengali is an expert on the subject, having authored the book A Cry for Justice: Empirical Insights from Balochistan. He spoke extensively, noting that “development in Balochistan has never taken place” and called the province “a goldmine to be exploited.”

Kakar opined that strengthening and developing a province does not mean leading it to secessionism. Rather, it would encourage the very opposite.

The Purple Hall erupted frequently into roaring applause as the guests on stage held an honest and sincere discussion about Balochistan being deliberately pushed to economic backwardness by the state.

Although the QLF ran for only two days, it was a plethora of events. More than 150 speakers discussed topics ranging from literature and art, to the water crisis in the province and the area’s untapped tourism potential. Nine books were launched, including Nilofar Afridi Qazi’s Culinary Tales from Balochistan. A mushaira [poetry recitation] marked the end of Day 1, while qawwal Farid Ayaz and his crew were supposed to bring a melodious end to Day 2.

Maybe that is also why the festival felt somewhat rushed. Two days were really not enough for the almost 50 sessions that were held. Many visitors were dismayed by the extremely tight planning, since attending one nearly always required skipping another that was scheduled for the same time. It was two days of having to make some very tough decisions.

It was heartily enjoyable, nonetheless. Quetta is often in the news for all the wrong reasons, so it was a matter of immense pride and pleasure to witness the passion for knowledge evident in the attendees. The speakers — especially those from out of town — commented upon this as well. In turn, the attentive crowd encouraged them to speak their hearts out, without mincing any words.

It was also clear that the city’s inhabitants are eager for more, as (unfortunately) seen by the varsity administration’s cancellation of Farid Ayaz’s qawwali performance: so many people showed up to hear the maestro sing that there was just not enough space to accommodate the audience.

Despite this closing disappointment, though, the result was an event that — I’m happy to say — put paid to any misconceptions of Quetta having lost its energy and passion.

The writer is a member of staff.

He tweets @Akbar_notezai

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 10th, 2022

Opinion

Editorial

Cipher inquiry
Updated 04 Oct, 2022

Cipher inquiry

Inquiry will likely end nowhere, or, worse, be used as a tool of victimisation.
Further delay?
04 Oct, 2022

Further delay?

KARACHI Administrator Murtaza Wahab’s announcement that the second phase of Sindh’s LG polls — primarily...
Losing to England
04 Oct, 2022

Losing to England

AFTER tantalisingly close finishes in the fourth and fifth matches against an England side visiting the country for...
An inexplicable delay
03 Oct, 2022

An inexplicable delay

AFTER a flurry of activity a couple of months ago, geared towards filling the vacancies in the apex court — an...
Dire situation
Updated 03 Oct, 2022

Dire situation

If there is any time for the civilian leadership to show unity, it is now.
Russian annexation
03 Oct, 2022

Russian annexation

AS Russia and the West play a zero-sum game in Ukraine, Moscow’s official annexation of four Ukrainian regions it...