In ‘tumultuous times’, KLF begins with focus on sustainability

Published February 17, 2024
Selma Dabbagh speaks at the inaugural session of the KLF on Friday.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
Selma Dabbagh speaks at the inaugural session of the KLF on Friday.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

KARACHI: Only a whiff of winter remains and spring hasn’t announced its arrival yet. But on Friday evening, as the three-day 15th edition of the Karachi Literature Festival organised by Oxford University Press (OUP) began, there was a fuzzy, warm feeling in the air caused by palpable excitement of a not so big number of book readers who trickled into the Beach Luxury Hotel to listen to the speeches at the opening ceremony and to attend a few sessions that were lined up after it.

In his welcome address, Arshad Saeed Husain, managing director, OUP Pakistan, said the festival was a testament to the power of the written word. He pointed out that last year was the hottest year ever recorded, there were deadly floods and other catastrophic phenomena, therefore “we need to change our ways”.

He then mentioned the theme of this year’s event: sustainability. According to him, there are three pillars of sustainability — environmental, economic and social.

There were three guests of honour on the occasion. The first one was US Consul General in Karachi Conrad Tribble. He said literature and poetry had played a pivotal role in strengthening society in the US. He gave quite a few references to writers in his speech such as Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Amanda Gorman.

Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany Dr Rudiger Lotz was the second guest speaker. He in the beginning talked about Allama Iqbal’s admiration for Goethe and at the end of his speech quoted from a verse, ‘It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness’.

Mohsin Hamid, Hammad Niazi and Farrukh Yar get awards for their literary works

France’s Consul General Alexis Chahtahtinsky said KLF was the cultural event not to be missed.

One of the sponsors Ali Habib also spoke.

Next up were the two keynote speeches, the first of which was given by eminent architect and town planner Arif Hasan. He said sustainability was essential for the world to survive. Words, however, are a double-edged sword: they can be used for the good of the planet and can also be used for genocide as we are experiencing it today [in Gaza]. Words are even more important due to the existence of social media, AI and emerging new technologies which can distort their meanings. “Control the media and promote misinformation.”

He said he began his architecture practice more than 50 years ago. At that time many words commonly used today did not exist. Nor was there the concept of NGOs or civil society. Today, these are powerful entities. Sustainability, too, did not exist in those days. But then a Norwegian prime minister in 1983 wrote a book Our Common Future. Its words became a subject of considerable controversy. She [the prime minister] argued that at the rate with which we are consuming natural resources we would have no resources left soon, and civilisation would die. In 1987, the UN picked up her ideas and built programmes around it. As a result, a lot of new words and concepts emerged; sustainability and well-being were two of them. “I think a better definition of sustainability is: meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their needs.” We naturally have to cut down on our consumption which is not easy as the world economy is built around a capitalist model of production, he added.

British-Palestinian writer Selma Dabbagh in her moving and impassioned keynote address said that it was good to be there [Pakistan] where solidarity and support for Palestine was etched into its psyche. She underlined that she was speaking “as we move into a world that has quite rightly been declared unsustainable if it continues on its current trajectory”.

She said she’d try to persuade the attendees and herself through use of words that mindsets could be changed and another world was possible, though it was not a small task. “I’m a woman in a country that’s not my own. I’m a British Palestinian whose heritage straddles both the colonial and the anti-colonial. My English grandfather was in the British marines. My other grandfather actively resisted the British in Palestine and was repeatedly imprisoned by them.”

She said at a time when we’re witnessing a cataclysmic and brutal assault against the young people in Gaza, it’s daunting [to speak]. “It feels a little like standing in a pool of blood… I was asked recently whether in times like these there was no time for literary sensibility. There was no fitting response to what’s going on other than with every means possible we have to call for a ceasefire. I’m not alone in feeling that the months since October [2023] have indelibly marked my emotional and intellectual framework. I have become extremely intolerant of those who have remained silent. But it doesn’t feel right to indulge in the luxury of venting my anger when many of those trapped now in Rafah where the Israeli army lining up their tanks against them are giving, when the opportunity arises, the most humane and dignified accounts of their situation to the media despite their fears, despite their losses and despite their hunger.”

Ms Dabbagh talking about numbers and stats in the Palestinian context said, “Three is the equivalent number of atomic bombs to the amounts of explosives that have been dropped on Gaza in recent months. Three is the number of years it would take to remove the 800000 metric tons of debris that’s been created by bombing to date. Twelve is the number of universities in Gaza that have been bombed. Thirteen is the number of Palestinian libraries destroyed. Fourteen or younger is 40 per cent of the population of Gaza. Seventeen is the number of years Gaza has been under siege. Twenty-eight is the number of kilograms of explosives per capita dropped on the population. Thirty-two is the number of attacked hospitals. And 28,000 is the number of Palestinians killed.”

She added, “Numbers can create at best a basic impression but they cannot convey the interiority of a character, it’s rational and emotional composition in the way that words can.”

Ms Dabbagh went on to deliver her heartfelt address by dividing its last part into three sections: authenticity, justice and search of beauty.

Awards were given in the second segment of the inaugural session.

Mohsin Hamid won the best English fiction prize for his novel The Last White Man; Hammad Niazi won the best Urdu poetry prize for his collection Duaon Bharey Daalaan; and Farrukh Yar won the best Urdu prose award for Ishq Nama: Shah Husain.

The Little Book Company’s readers’ choice awards for best books were given to: Mudassir Bashir’s for Chhati Chobara (Punjabi), M Khattak for Dalagati Jang (Pashto), Mumtaz Bukhari for Be Rang (Sindhi) and Hameed Leghari for Ishq-i-Rulaghey Guni (Balochi).

A dance performance by Nighat Choudhry to Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poems was the last item on the opening programme list.

Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2024

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