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By Sumera S. Naqvi

IN the session ‘Cultural Enlightenment: Challenge and Opportunity’ the moderator had to pull out at the last minute, leading to the three panellists trying to conduct the discussion among themselves and at times, digressing from the demands of the topic. But most of the discussion was restricted to exploring the definition of the term and whether it applied to Islamic intellectual traditions.

French scholar Michael O’Dea gave an account of Rousseau’s life, the political philosopher whose influence was instrumental in propelling the French Revolution. He seems a pertinent figure, O’Dea said, when we raise the important questions of challenging authority and marginality. He was a Protestant and made his career in  the presence of the authority of a powerful church in the 18th century. The author of Of the Social Contract, or, Principles of Political Right, was entirely self-taught and led the life of a vagabond.

O’Dea concluded by stating Rousseau’s relevance to issues of cultural  enlightenment today and said that a writer needs to attempt to digress, to search for freedoms that would help create a better world.

Dr Nomanul Haq, a scholar of Islamic history and philosophy and another member of the panel, considered cultural enlightenment to be a western phenomenon. The issues of cultural enlightenment, he said, need to be seen in a larger context. He stated that in the Muslim intellectual tradition, the transmission of knowledge was twofold: Graeco-Arabic and Arabic to Latin.

Dr Moonis Ahmar, the third member of the panel, posed some pertinent  questions: why was the culture of enlightenment non-existent in Pakistan? Can the issues of intolerance, extremism, radicalisation and terrorism be successfully dealt with by promoting the culture of reasoning, tolerance and humanism at the grass-roots level? And what are the impediments in transforming the culture of intolerance, extremism, radicalisation and stagnation prevailing in Pakistan these days? These questions relate directly to our context and are ones we desperately need answers for.



‘The Resonance of Pulp Fiction in Popular Imagination’ needed to be better moderated as it led into unknown intellectual territory, defeating the purpose of the original topic. Moderator Kamran Asdar Ali was joined on the panel by writers Zahida Hina, Amjad Islam Amjad and Shakeel Adil Zada.

While defining pulp fiction, Ali said that it is defined as low-brow fiction but he seemed to digress from the topic by stating that it mostly circumferenced women’s fiction that has been seen in a negative light. Also, in Urdu literature, pulp fiction leans more towards digests that carry stories with women as target audience. Columnist Zahida Hina disagreed with this assessment and pointed out that while she was editor of Aalmi Digest, a popular Urdu digest, many stories considered high-brow literature were published in it.

Both she and Amjad mentioned the popular writer Ibne Safi whose detective stories and Imran series were iconic as far as pulp fiction in Urdu literature is concerned. Defending pulp fiction from the charge of low-brow, Amjad said that all of it does not fall into that category.

Shakeel Adil Zada narrated the history of Sabrang digest which he used to publish. He said that while the topics of the stories, such as hunting, war and so on changed with times, quality literature was always included. “I asked Krishan Chandr to write a short story for us and he wrote, “Sonay ka Sansaar,” but we felt that it wasn’t good enough. We then told him that it didn’t fit with our format.”

After a brief rundown on pulp fiction, the question was whether there is a resonance of the western idea of pulp fiction in our popular imagination. For instance, do we find the typical western pulp fiction character of a ‘hardboiled detective’ in our stories? Perhaps Amitabh Bachan’s persona of the angry young man in the ’70’s was close to that figure.

The writer is a Dawn staffer