Arif Hasan | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Arif Hasan | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

The 15th Karachi Literature Festival (KLF), organised by the Oxford University Press at the Beach Luxury Hotel from February 16 to 18, allowed — like all such festivals — for an exchange of ideas about creativity, concepts, cultures, politics, sustainability, mindsets, challenges, concepts, creativity, places, environment, and much else besides.

The Festival kicked off with keynote speeches by architect, planner, activist, social researcher and writer Arif Hasan and British-Palestinian writer and lawyer Selma Dabbagh. Arif Hasan offered insightful perspectives on the intersection of urban planning, social activism, and provided thought-provoking insights into the themes of identity, justice, and storytelling within the context of literature and social change. “I began my architectural practice 50 years ago when so many words that are common today didn’t even exist,” he said.

“The word ‘sustainability’ also did not exist back then. Then in 1987 came a book titled Our Common Future with arguments, which took a long time to be taken seriously. A lot of new words and new concepts emerged, such as sustainability, climate change, etc,” he added.

With her keynote, Selma Dabbagh brought Palestine and what is going on there front and centre for those attending. “It feels a little like standing in a pool of blood,” she said.

The 15th Karachi Literature Festival encouraged many thought-provoking sessions on myriad subjects but was often overshadowed by the burning desire within the audience to discuss contemporary Pakistani politics

The talks and panel discussions that followed also opened minds, along with helping the audience get a grip on reality. The most talked about subject in the aftermath of the recent general elections has been Pakistan itself and where it is headed. The KLF was no exception here, as many of its sessions focused on the future of the country.

“Everything was set so the elections were to happen. But what happened no one was prepared for,” said journalist Zarrar Khuhro in a session titled ‘Election Se Zara Hat Kay’. Addressing the establishment, he then said, “You are fighting using a dial-up modem in an AI world.”

During a book launch of Qaum, Mulk, Sultanat — Citizenship and National Belonging in Pakistan by Ali Usman Qasmi, when a question was raised about India and what is keeping it together as both Pakistan and India were so similar, the hammer on the nail was hit by the book’s author when he replied with a single word — “Democracy”.

The contemporary politics of Pakistan inevitably came under discussion on a number of other panels, including those about human rights, city planning and satire. It seemed that attendees themselves were eager to discuss developments, especially in the wake of the recent elections. And more often than not, the festival audiences were as polarised as the rest of society. This polarisation of views even overshadowed, sometimes, the anger at the ongoing carnage in Gaza.

A huge number of new books were highlighted through book launches throughout the three days, beginning with the fun launch of Nadya Chishty-Mujahid’s refreshing Timeless College Tales. Speaking about her book, the author, who is Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), said that it gives a voice to students, which would also help the reader know them better.

While on the subject of the young, three young authors — Nigar Alam, Safinah Danish Elahi and Taha Kehar — showcased each other’s books in the session ‘Woven Words’. It was a very different session, where the three authors were the moderators as well.

Nigar’s debut novel Under the Tamarind Tree, set in Karachi, had two timelines, 1964 and present day. Safinah Danish Elahi’s second novel, The Idle Stance of the Tippler Pigeon — that has also been long-listed for the Asian Fiction Prize 2023 — is a story about haves and have-nots. And Taha Kehar’s third novel No Funeral For Nazia has its protagonist, Nazia, dead from page one. The story then constructs her character for the reader through how her friends remember her at a party, which is being organised in place of her funeral, as was Nazia’s wish.

Another book launch that also took place on KLF’s opening day was architect Mukhtar Husain’s Foundations and Form: Memoirs of a Pakistani Architect, which the author has primarily dedicated to his grandchildren, for them to know their legacy as they all live abroad. “It’s about Pakistan and the many countries I have travelled to. But I always come back to Karachi,” he said at the launch.

The second day saw several more launches of important books, including, Development Pathways: India-Pakistan-Bangladesh (1947-2022) by Dr Ishrat Husain and Imran Khan: Myth of the Pakistani Middle-Class by Nadeem Farooq Paracha.

While speaking at the launch, Dr Ishrat Husain said that his book highlights the fact that, between the years 1947 to 1990, Pakistan was one of the top 10 developing countries of the world. “Its GDP growth was almost six percent per year. Its exports of manufactured goods in 1970 were higher than those of Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, and look where those countries are and where we are today.

“Our per capita incomes were 70 percent higher than India and 100 percent higher than Bangladesh, our poverty rate was much lower than that of India,” he added, sharing some eye-opening facts and figures.

The third and final day of KLF had the most book launches, 10 to be exact. These included Aamir Jafarey and Asra Jafarey’s A World of Her Own: Ada Jafarey. And Dr Naseem Salahuddin’s Among My Own: The Untold Stories of My People. The author’s spirit of inquiry and adventure took her to setting up clinics in the mountains, deserts and other remote places and she had been carrying the 55 stories in the book in her heart for years until she had them published in book form.

Language and culture was dealt with in many sessions. While still talking about book launches, there was the collection of interlinked short stories titled The Whispering Chinar by Ali Rohila, a banker and the son of poet Parto Rohila, that deserves a mention here. The book’s stories about Pakhtun culture are set in an imaginary village near the Tarbela Dam, where there is a huge chinar tree that bears witness to all that happens under it. The tree is also the narrator of the stories.

More on language unfolded in sessions such as the one titled ‘Translations of Sindhi Classics: From Shah Abdul Bhitai to Shaikh Ayaz’ that had writers and intellectuals such as Noorul Huda Shah, Attiya Dawood and Mumtaz Bukhari speaking to Amar Pirzado about Sindh’s literature. It was concluded that today’s Sindhi literature takes its inspiration from Shah Latif and Shaikh Ayaz.

Conversations with authors, readings and poetry, film screenings and live performances added more value to the literary grand gathering, where the common person rubbed shoulders with literati, asked them questions, bought their books and also got them autographed. Those who could not visit the festival in person also had the option of attending online, since the sessions were beamed live on Facebook and then later on YouTube.

All in all, there were some 76 sessions in both English and Urdu, including 25 book launches. A total of seven literary awards for Pakistani authors were also announced during the inaugural session. These included prose and poetry books written in English, Urdu, Sindhi, Balochi, Punjabi and Pashto.

Mohsin Hamid won the best English fiction prize for his latest novel, The Last White Man, a story in which all the white men are gradually turning brown. Meanwhile, Farrukh Yar won the best Urdu prose award for Ishq Nama: Shah Husain. The Urdu poetry prize was presented to Hammad Niazi for his collection titled Duaon Bharey Daalan.

Finally, the closing ceremony also saw KLF not forgetting their longtime supporters and guides, the literary luminaries Zehra Nigah, Itikhar Arif, Kishwar Naheed and Muneeza Shamsie, who were honoured amid applause and standing ovations.

Zehra Nigah said that festivals such as the KLF are important as they help people leave their worries of the world to come and lose themselves in the world of books.

Iftikhar Arif said that even though he no longer lived in Karachi, he keeps returning to it and is always saddened to leave it again.

Kishwar Naheed said that she was glad to meet people from all the provinces of Pakistan at KLF as it was great to be exchanging thoughts with them.

The writer is a member of staff.

X: @HasanShazia

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

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