Cultural summits

Published February 29, 2024
The writer is an author.
The writer is an author.

THE advent of spring was celebrated each year with the Basant festival. Now, its arrival is heralded by cultural festivals — this spring in quick succession by the ThinkFest, the Faiz Festival and over the last weekend the Lahore LitFest. All three provided more than food for thought; they were an irresistible invitation to intellectual gluttony.

It is the irony in which Pakistan specialises that some years ago, the Lahore LitFest was denied the Lahore Arts Council complex as a venue. Today, the chairmanship of the LAC is occupied by Razi Ahmed — the prime mover behind the same Lahore LitFest. Sic transit potentia.

Since its debut in 2013, the Lahore LitFest has grown into a cultural octopus that can perform separate functions simultaneously. To demonstrate its flexibility, it spreads itself over five covered halls and numerous open-air lawns in the Al Hamra complex.

If one has reason to cavil about LitFests, it is that too many programmes are cram­med within too few days, with sessions of interest competing unfairly with each other. At the Lahore LitFest, for example, a visitor had to choose between discussions during the same hour on ‘Museums in the West and Pakistan’, ‘Plants of the Quran’, ‘Sufi Literature’, and ‘Industrial Sustain­ability’. Oh, for the magical powers of replication! And yet therein lies the strength of these LitFests. They offer diversity in scarcity.

Who knows how soon AI will replace live authors?

LLF 2024 opened with a qawwali and then a film (Songs of the Sufi) about the origins and growth of qawwali in the subcontinent, made by Kamran Anwar, a banker-turned-film producer. The following morning, four novelists discussed their individual approach to character formulation — Monica Ali of Brick Lane fame, Portuguese author José Luís Peixoto, H.M. Naqvi and our own home-grown Hemingway Mohsin Hamid.

A small hall overflowed to hear Alejan­dro Vergara of the Museo del Prado, Mad­rid. His informed discourse on European art compensated those whom visa restrictions deny the chance of seeing the originals.

The plight of Pakistani womanhood had three articulate proponents of gender equality — Roshaneh Zafar of Kashf, Momina Saeed of IFC, and Sadaffe Abid. They spoke from personal experience of helping thousands of Pakistani women squirm out of poverty. Millions more could benefit, they said, from the use of smartphones to expand home-based e-commerce. Remember: it took two world wars in the West and two revolutions in Russia and China for their women to become emancipated. Women in Pakistan are gaining — slowly, too slowly — their innate rights in a battle against suffocating patriarchy. Politicians have provided poor role models. A woman prime minister (Benazir Bhutto) and now a female chief minister Punjab (Maryam Nawaz) both had to rely upon their maiden names to advance their careers. No Margaret Roberts (later Mrs Thatcher) here, just as a President Mrs X has yet to occupy the White House.

For those who could not attend the LitFest, technology offers a virtual substitute. They can download the recordings of the sessions. Particularly recommended is one on the ‘Future of the Written Word in an age of AI’. Four writers assessed their vulnerability to AI. Each of them — Monica Ali, Mohsin Hamid, the novelist Hannah Dubgen and the American humorist David Sedaris — read out AI-generated texts which, at the press of a cursor, produced a pastiche of their individual writing styles.

Sedaris read out an AI version of a fictitious story involving a man trapped in a latrine, and then his own description of the same incident. The contrast could not have been shar­per — insipid chalk vs a tangy, mature cheese. All four arg­ued that AI does not produce literature — culled after centuries of learning, fuelled by inspiration. It is most probably the byproduct of three or four unseen minds, expressing themselves through words, spawned from binary codes. Sedaris dismissed an AI-produced text as one composed by an eight-year-old, relying for options on a thesaurus.

But even eight-year-olds grow up. Man-made technology is maturing faster than God’s humankind. Who knows how soon AI will replace live authors? Sooner than we fear. Authors (and especially university professors) are all too aware that attentive readership is waning, being replaced by bytes and sound-bites and fabricated prose.

Many attendees found the most inspirational session to be a film Above the Sleeping Giants, produced by the DARD foundation on the achievement of a young Pakistani mountaineer Shehroze Kashif. He has planted his country’s flag on 13 of the highest mountain peaks in the world. Recently, an ageing Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan with a plan to scale the same PM-ship, for the fourth time. Shehroze, not yet 22, waits to conquer his 14th summit. It is a generational thing.

The writer is an author.

www.fsaijazuddin.pk

Published in Dawn, February 29th, 2024

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