15th International Urdu Conference gets under way

Published December 2, 2022
LITERATI listen to Anwar Maqsood at the opening ceremony of International Urdu Conference at Arts Council on Thursday.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
LITERATI listen to Anwar Maqsood at the opening ceremony of International Urdu Conference at Arts Council on Thursday.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

• Moot celebrates language as expression of culture: Dr Alex Bellem
• Smart technology knows about us more than we know about ourselves; we are being digitally colonised: Nasir Abbas Nayyar
• Inflation and loss of reputation have divested people of their right to live an honourable living: Zehra Nigah

KARACHI: It was good to see a large number of book lovers turn up at the opening ceremony of the four-day 15th International Urdu Conference at the Arts Council of Pakistan on Thursday evening.

The inaugural ceremony began with two keynote speeches, the first of which was delivered by distinguished linguist Dr Alex Bellem. She said the conference celebrates language as the expression of culture. “The linguistic landscape of Pakistan is rich and verdant. As a speaker of English from the UK, I admire this landscape which I have been hearing all around me since I arrived in Karachi. Everybody I meet here speaks at least three languages, often four or five or six. This multilingualism is a way of life that speakers navigate in subtle and often unspoken ways. As a linguist who specialises in Arabic and the languages of the Middle East and West Asia, I have a great interest in the ways with which people navigate their multilingualism.

“In the mid-1990s I was working with a poet from the south of Iraq who was living in exile in London. He wrote his poetry not in classical Arabic but in colloquial Iraqi Arabic, and specifically the Arabic of southern Iraq. One line of his poetry was difficult to translate because there was no equivalent in English. There was a tricky word in it which meant a pitchfork, a spear for spearing fish, having five prongs. The problem was not just translating it into English but many speakers of Arabic would also not know what that word was. Outside of Iraq, people wouldn’t know the word although they equally considered themselves to be speakers of Arabic.”

Eminent critic and writer Nasir Abbas Nayyar was the second keynote speaker. He started off his address by asking what a writer needs from the world, and replied that he doesn’t need any honour of position. He needs a distance between him and those who bestow honour on others so that he can keep his freedom intact – the freedom to ask questions and to say what he wants to say. “The best moments in the life of a writer are those when he meets up the person within him who makes him write what he wants to write, even at a time when his contemporaries reject him summarily. A writer’s identity lies in the fact that where, when and in front of whom he speaks. He wants to tell the stories of the darkness in people’s inner lives and the ruthlessness of the world outside without any fear.

“For the last few years, we’ve been witnessing some unique things which are a challenge for the writers and literature of our time. The first three years of the 21st century were shaped by the 9/11 events where we were being monitored constantly by an unseen force. [Now] smart technology is making us say each and everything about us all the time. In the 17th century, those in the West espoused the idea, ‘I think therefore I am.’ In the 19th and 20th century, people of Asian, African and those who lived in neocolonial countries believed in, ‘I resist therefore I am.’ These days, the following is being adopted in the whole world: ‘I share therefore I am.’ This smart technology knows about us more than we know about ourselves. Instead of being a thinking and resisting lot, we are now becoming a creature that unabashedly reveals everything about ourselves which is being stored as data. Today there’s no personal life for anyone.”

Mr Nayyar argued that digital colonialism is the most distinct form of colonialism. In the old forms, there was at least some scope of resistance against it. He then went on to talk about the importance of having multiplicity in society but pointed out, “Everyone has the right to their opinion, but that opinion should not be turned into a sword or a dagger.”

The council’s President Ahmed Shah informed the attendees about the plans that his institution has for the future for which he sought the Sindh chief minister’s support. He said that on Jan 13, 14 and 15 next year, his team will hold Pakistan Literature Festival in Gwadar. Similarly, events will be held in Lahore in February and in Toronto and the US in July and onwards.

Provincial Minister for Culture Syed Sardar Ali Shah said Mr Ahmed Shah has made the Arts Council a worthy cultural space.

Writer Anwar Maqsood also lauded the efforts of the council as well as of the chief minister in assisting it.

Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah was the chief guest at the event. He said the province of Sindh is known for its Sufi culture. It’s also called Babul Islam because Islam came to the region through Sindh. “We are proud of another thing – one hundred metres from here there’s the Sindh Assembly which was the first one to pass a resolution in favour of Pakistan because of which the country came into being. Our province has always sent out the message of peace and brotherhood. Our people are like that. Even when try and misbehave, we can’t.”

The chief minister took the opportunity to tell the audience about the positive things that the PPP’s government has done in the province. The first thing that he mentioned in that regard was the most “modern cancer treatment facility” at the Jinnah Hospital, which is only available in 27 other countries.

Poet Zehra Nigah presiding over the opening ceremony said Pakistan is facing crises both externally and internally and the common man is unable to understand them. Inflation (barrhti hui mahengai) and the loss of reputation (girti hui saakh) has not only broken the backs of the people but has divested them of the right to live an honourable living. Under such circumstances, arranging an event like the Urdu conference is a brave attempt.

The next sessions included a discussion on Iqbal and a recitation of literary works in Urdu by Zia Mohyeddin.

Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2022

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