Frere Hall — Karachi’s Venetian Gothic landmark — was the venue for the 2022 Adab Fest, held on November 26-27. The annual showcase of cultural talent brought together Pakistan’s literary big hitters and their admirers, who flock to the event year after year to meet their favourite writers and find exciting new reading material.

The theme of this year’s fest — the fourth since its inception in 2019 — was ‘Climate Crisis’. The thought-provoking choice considered the recent devastating floods that hit the country, and the aim was to create awareness about the pressing need to safeguard Karachi’s ecosystem and rejuvenate the campaign against the relentless destruction of the city’s mangrove forests.

Delightfully, the proceedings began with a taraana [anthem] titled ‘Kitaab Se Dosti’ [Friendship with Books], penned especially for the Adab Fest by Sister Elizabeth Niamat Chauhan, principal of St Joseph’s Convent School. Following its mellifluous rendering by the school’s student choir were inaugural addresses by the festival’s co-directors, Ameena Saiyid and Shama Askari.

Deputy director British Council Maarya Rehman, president Habib University Wasif Rizvi, environmentalist Tariq Alexander Qaiser and Minister for Climate Change Sherry Rehman all emphasised the environmental impact Pakistan is having to face. Poet Dr Tanveer Anjum, meanwhile, reminisced about the integral role in the festival’s history played by the late Asif Farrukhi.

This year’s Adab Fest focused quite a bit on climate change in the wake of the recent floods, but also explored language, art, mental health and the very process of creativity

The two-day event featured more than 150 speakers and performers who enthralled the crowds with a bevy of talks, workshops and performances. As well as art exhibits, visitors were treated to film presentations, dramatic readings, debates and discourse, stand-up comedy, music and dance.

This year, I brought my children along. We attended artist and children’s author Rumana Husain’s interactive storytelling session on the environment, and the communicative theatrical performance by the multi-faceted performer Atif Badar brought the youngsters’ pavilion to life. The sessions left quite the impression — my kids could not stop talking about planting trees and coming up with ways to reduce the use of plastic bags until well past their bedtime.

My next stop was the launch of Peerzada Salman’s short story collection Ephemera. In an engaging conversation with Amber Paracha, the author was asked to share his thoughts on the death of the reading culture. He replied it was “because those who need to read are writing, and those who must write are reading.” The session ended with actor Adnan Jaffar’s dramatic oration of a story from the collection.

Another session I was eager to attend was the launch of Moni Mohsin’s new novel, The Impeccable Integrity Of Ruby R. Publisher Safinah Danish Elahi held a very relatable conversation with Mohsin about women, socio-economic issues and political freedom of expression, reminding us that we still have a long way to go in terms of ending disparity against women. The session ended on a hilarious note, as Mohsin related a rendezvous with a person who criticised Pakistani — and many South Asian authors — for depicting a negative image of Pakistan.

The author asserted, “This is why it is all the more important to write the truth. To tell the story as it is.” She said that, while Pakistan is an immensely kind country, what needs to be told must be spoken truthfully.

Between these two sessions, I managed a quick peek at ‘A Story Of Survival: Replanting Pakistan’s Mangroves’, a multimedia presentation by Tariq Alexander Qaiser that was as real as it was moving.

‘Work in Progress: A Conversation Among Novelists on How Most Novelists Spend Most of Their Time’ tickled my fancy. H.M. Naqvi, Saad Shafqat and Syed Kashif Raza spoke about what happens between conceiving a novel and its completion. The influence of reality on their writing was something all three had in common.

Their discussion considered how characters were developed, what was the writer’s thought process and if prose and poetry required equal measures of depth and meaningfulness. One came away with quite a new understanding of how painstaking the entire process of imagining literature is.

The fest also explored the connection between arts and climate change efforts, and how the two can collaborate to bring forth a creative response, initiate vital discourse, carve veracious narratives, stimulate the right conversations, foster sustainable possibilities and drive transformational change for an environmentally cognisant future of Pakistan.

Artist and author Fauzia Minallah’s exhibition in the Sadequain/ Goethe Gallery — titled ‘The Lost Lullaby Of Mother Earth’ and curated by Pomme Amina Gohar — was the high point of the day. The phrase ‘turning trash into treasure’ fit like a proverbial glove as all the featured art was created from waste and recycled materials, hitting the bull’s eye of the festival’s theme.

Several books were launched, including Anis Haroon’s Covid Diary; the English translation of Muhammadi Begum’s memoir A Long Way from Hyderabad: Diary of a Young Muslim Woman in the 1930s Britain; Fouzia Saeed’s Tapestry: Strands of Women’s Struggles Woven into the History of Pakistan; Shama Askari’s translation of Ibn-i-Said’s (M.H. Askari) Urdu book, titled in English as Hiroshima and Other Stories; Pramod Kapoor’s 1946: The Last War of Independence — The Royal Indian Navy Mutiny; and Jinnah: A Life by Yasser Latif Hamdani.

Fouzia Saeed was an inspiring speaker. A survivor of a horrific car accident last year in Balochistan, she has overcome adversity with such a positive attitude, and it was a delight to see her back on her feet. I was amazed at the resilience, positivity and sheer determination of her conversation.

One of my favourite panel discussions was a conversation with Nadeem Farooq Paracha (NFP), very ably and humorously chaired by George Fulton, on the former’s book For Faith, State and the Soul. NFP might be one of the most outspoken writers I’ve come across and it was refreshing to hear his perspective as a man navigating journalism on a daily basis. While his writings in the newspapers tend to be on serious political topics, the rendezvous was a chance to meet the not-so-serious person behind the pen.

I also dropped into a session on media and mental health, where journalists Sahar Ghazi and Azhar Abbas and psychologist Dr Humair Yusuf presented discerning opinions on social media, gender and inclusivity, cyberbullying and trolling, and regulatory processes surrounding the same. All presented their differing points of view with respect, candidness and tolerance.

This issue has not always had the public attention it should have, so it is good to see more scholars and writers discussing it in recent years. An honest look at our post-pandemic health is surely the main way forward for a mentally healthy future.

Alas, with only an hour available, I was able to spend barely 30 minutes listening to the reasons for burnout and anxiety caused by social media usage, and for giving mental peace and solace higher value in order to live a more fulfilled existence. But I guess taking time out from a busy schedule for such a talk already constitutes a healthy awareness of our wellbeing.

The last session I attended was ‘Jin Ko Hum Ne Dekha Tha’ [Those Whom We Saw] — a stirring conversation between poet Zehra Nigah and educationist Dr Arfa Sayeda Zehra, reminiscing about conversations and interactions with the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and highlighting the importance of tehzeeb-o-tarbiyat [manners and upbringing]. The session was a great reminder of why I love festivals so much as places of informal learning; they serve up much food for thought.

Over the festival weekend, authors, readers and publishers from Karachi discussed their work alongside the most urgent issues of the day, from media and mental health to climate change and everything in between, and book signings had readers eagerly lining up.

The culmination was riveting, an exploration of the relationship between language and art, with singer Rosemary Mushtaq paying tribute to the late singer Nayyara Noor, Shayma Saiyid’s Kathak dance performance to Faiz’s poetry, and concerts by rapper Kaifee Khalil and Laal Band.

One would call it a perfect event, but perfection is a myth. As with all large-scale festivals, it was tricky to decide which session to attend and I had to try hard to avoid looking at the programme too much, because I didn’t want to regret the sessions I’d have to inevitably miss during the literary marathon.

Speaking of the programme, I do hope organisers of future Adab Fests will address how information in it is disseminated. Listing topics and speakers is not quite enough; it would help if we could know what the talks aim to achieve. It would also be lovely to have foreign authors and speakers. One final request: seeing the overspill of energy and people, perhaps a larger venue next year?

The reviewer is a Karachi-based writer and tweets @sarashraf

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 4th, 2022

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