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Smokers’ Corner: No country for old men

December 16, 2012

I don’t just read books. I devour them. One of my favorite things to do even while I’m travelling is to spend hours on end in book stores. And yet, till only recently I had never visited the annual Karachi International Book Fair.

It’s an event that has been taking place for the past eight years and has grown in size and scope with each passing year. All leading publishing houses in the country along with those from India, Turkey, Iran and Bangladesh have continued to participate in the event.

But why did I continue to ignore it? I thought about this a lot and the only convincing answer I kept coming up with, was that instinctively I knew there was nothing special about the fair and that I would be disappointed.

Now that’s a major concern for a person like me. I actually get depressed at book stores where inspite of spending hours browsing across section after section of books, I come out empty handed.

Well, despite my instinctive misgivings about an event that I had never been to, I decided to finally go. And, boy was I stunned! No, I wasn’t gleefully and euphorically swept away by a tidal wave of books of all shapes and sizes.

Instead, my senses were bombarded by the kind of loud religiosity I had last encountered while doing a newspaper feature on the Tableeghi Jamaat in Raiwind back in the early 1990s.

As I entered one (of the three) main halls where the fair was being held, I was instantly swept in by a sea of (urban middle-class) humanity, largely made up of women in jet black abayas, men with long, curly beards, and kids. Very noisy kids.

Sure, nothing wrong with that (as such). But as I tried to make my way through this very pious looking crowd, the deafening PA system suddenly came alive with some guy shouting about how Pakistan was created in the name of Islam and then went on to literally scream: ‘Pakistan ka matlab kya… ? (What is the meaning of Pakistan?).

His rhetorical (and very loudly put) question was answered by what sounded like a bunch of kids about to storm an infidel’s castle: ‘Lailahaillalah!’ Answered the kids.

This went on and on and on, until I decided to check out where the chanting was coming from.

It was emerging (like a hurricane of disembodied voices) from huge amplifiers set-up at a big ‘book stall’ run by a religious publishing house.

There was this huge bearded man with a microphone addressing a group of cute little kids (with their abaya-clad moms).

He wasn’t just selling them books. He was selling them an ideology.

‘Pakistan ka matlab kya …?’ He bellowed. ‘Laillahaillalah!’ Answered the kids in unison, but without ever letting go of their lollipops, popcorn and packs of fruit juice.

I looked around to see if anyone else was as flabbergasted by this as I was. I found none.

And how could I? I finally realised that more than 70 per cent of the book stalls in this large hall were owned and run by publishers that only offered religious literature.

But wait a minute. It wasn’t as simple as that.

As I turned away shocked by looking at more than a dozen young kids mindlessly mouthing what some seriously warped elders of theirs had told them to, I came face-to-face with yet another bearded fellow who shoved two A-4 size glossy pamphlets in my face.

‘Take!’ He said. So I took. A casual, confused glance at the glossies told me they belonged to yet another religious publishing house. But that’s all I could understand because most of the pamphlets were in Arabic!

So, without taking names here, I must tell that the guy shouting in the microphone was representing a ‘publishing house’ associated with outfits advocating one particular sunni Muslim school of thought while the one who had handed me the pamphlets was representing another sunni sub-sect.

The Pandora’s box was now wide open. Stall upon stall that I passed had mountains of books, all on Islam, or rather, the Islam according to the stalls’ particular sub-sect and denomination.

A friend cynically said about the event, “There were 72 sects there, all trying to convert Pakistani Muslims to their particular strain of Islam.”

Baffled by what looked more like a recruiting ground for all kinds of Islamic evangelical outfits than a book fair, I frantically began to look for non-Pakistani stalls. And voila! I found one belonging to a Turkish publisher.

Ah, I thought. Good old secular Turkey. But, alas, it was Pakistan that the fair was being held in. But all that this particular stall carried was literature by Turkish Islamic author, Fetullah Gullen.

So amidst the loud chanting of aggressive sloganeering over the PA, abayas, beards and book after book after book claiming to contain the ‘true essence of Islam,’ (for mama, papa, Bablu and Baby), I loped out to check the other two halls.

Though things were a bit quieter here, but here too, the majority of the stalls were piled up with books, DVDs and CDs about Islam for men, women, boys, girls, kids, old people, bankers, economists, wives, husbands and more wives…

I finally came to three stalls that had nothing to do with faith. Or rather they had more than just books about how to become a ‘true Muslim.’

The tiniest of these was a stall selling books on MQM chief Altaf Hussain. I moved on because I had already read most of the stuff that they were selling.

Next was a stall run by a Sindhi publishing house. Impressive stuff on Sindhi culture, politics, art and the poetry of Shah Latif was on display. But unfortunately, most of it was in Sindhi.

The third was an impressive stall run by ABC Publishers and Random House.

These guys too had a religious section (who wouldn’t in Pakistan), finally, I could look at books on politics, music, philosophy and history as well.

Forget about secular space in Pakistan. It vanished a long time ago. This book fair proves that now even neutral space too is becoming a rarity.

Also, never underestimate the myth of subliminal messaging. Guess which book I did end up buying at the fair: Islam in South-East Asia.