Since October 2023, the Israeli bombing in Gaza continues unabated. At the time of writing this piece, the official death toll of Palestinians exceeds 30,000. It includes the ‘massacre of the innocents’ — no less than 12,000 children have been killed. The earth of Gaza is singed, blackened and charred by those who still believe that it is a part of their own ‘promised land.’

I remember attending a candlelight vigil at the site of a concentration camp in Poland in 1996. Coincidentally, it was the same year that Germany began to mark January 27 as the Holocaust remembrance day. Among the blondes and brunettes, I was the only dark-skinned, Indian-looking young man who could have passed for being a Falasha or Mizrahi or, perhaps, a Sephardic Jew.

The organisers had already spotted me from the beginning and, towards the end of the ceremony, wanted me to say a few words. When I was speaking I could see the orange flame of the candle in front of me turning blue from time to time.

You have to be cold-blooded and inhuman to find a reason to support what Hamas did to Israeli women and men a day before the bombing began in Gaza. It can neither be rationalised in the name of strategy nor it can be ethically right to support the killing of unarmed, non-combatant civilians anywhere. A random man, woman or child being killed in Israel by a random rocket fired from Gaza or Lebanon cannot be condoned either.

The plight of Palestine thickened the air in both Lahore and Karachi on the occasions of the Faiz Festival and the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF). I am sure the same will happen in the upcoming Lahore Literary Festival. The festivities are turned into sessions of collective mourning.

But doesn’t the same hold true for Palestinians? And, at a much, much larger scale. What began in October 2023 with Hamas’s attack did not actually begin in October 2023. Since years unending, every single day, Palestinians are humiliated and their dignity trampled under Israeli boots. Every other day, there are incidents of violence against them, which cause all types of casualties including deaths in both Gaza and the West Bank.

The plight of Palestine thickened the air in both Lahore and Karachi on the occasions of the Faiz Festival and the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF). I am sure the same will happen in the upcoming Lahore Literary Festival. The festivities are turned into sessions of collective mourning.

This mourning is further deepened by the helplessness felt by people at large. Across the world and across countries, there are a few who make certain decisions and there are populations who suffer due to the callousness of these decisions.

The master Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz — in whose name the Faiz Festival is organised in Lahore every year — lived in times when labour and resistance were connected internationally, like capital that has a global connection since forever. But in the current times, it is only capital that is connected beyond borders and thriving — meaning, thereby, that we live in a world where the wealthy are connected but the poor are not.

Faiz lived in a different world. He was not just emotionally invested in Pakistan and India, he was equally concerned about Palestine, Iran, Chile and Vietnam. Even before living in Beirut for a few years and editing a journal there, he had written haunting poems about Palestine. Those were not just mentioned but rendered at the Faiz Festival in Lahore.

At the KLF, it was the British-Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh who made one of the keynote speeches at the outset and declared that she is not alone in feeling that the months since October 2023 have permanently scarred her emotional and intellectual framework.

She said: “I have become extremely intolerant of those who have remained silent. But it feels ungracious to indulge in the luxury of venting my anger, when many of those trapped now in Rafah, with the Israeli army lining up their tanks against them, are giving, when the opportunity arises, the most humane, measured and dignified of accounts of their situation to the media, despite their fears, despite their losses and their hunger.” Dabbagh sums it up for all of us.

Something that distinguishes KLF from other literary festivals, gatherings and meetings in Pakistan is the cosmopolitan character of the audience. That has less to do with the organisers and more to the character and composition of the city of Karachi.

It was the presence of the young Baloch women and men — ones agitating for their legitimate rights to live with dignity in the state of Pakistan — whose presence was formidable in every other session of the festival. Led by the veteran rights activist Mir Muhammad Ali Talpur, the young women and men from Balochistan and Sindh successfully claimed their stake in the cultural space created by KLF.

Finally, I wish to say that Pakistan must not emulate Israel in dealing with people whose rights must be respected and realised. Being of Kashmiri descent, I know what it means to be persecuted since forever.

The writer is a poet and essayist. He has recently edited ‘Pakistan Here and Now: Insights Into Society, Culture, Identity, and Diaspora’. His latest collection of verse is Hairaa’n Sar-i-Bazaar.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 25th, 2024

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