Karachi Lit Fest: Liberalising the liberals

The festival was an orgy of judgmental statements and liberal diatribe. Are intellectuals just talking to themselves?

Zahra Sabri February 08, 2011
"And if the festival is attended predominantly by people from one part of town,” said co-organiser Asif Farrukhi in his opening address, “so what?”

Really – so what?

Even if the venue had been more central, the odds are that people from across the bridge wouldn’t have turned out in throngs. It is people from 'this side of the bridge' who generally attend these literary or literary-ish events, and the Carlton Hotel, however ill-appointed its halls, was a terribly convenient venue for the Defense crowd. At least the rooms and auditoriums were overflowing with enthusiasts.

No, I am not going to make snide remarks about the venue, the ambience or the attendees' income level. Just because the crowd was largely elite does not mean the event was elitist or exclusionary. After all, along with resident and expat English writers, there were also significant representation from the Urdu literary scene, and even the token Sindhi and Punjabi writer. What else could the awaam desire?

But no, the event was, to a large degree, elitist. And exclusionary. And that was because of the tenor of some of the discussion. Deep and cutting lines of me vs. you and us vs. them were drawn.

Who pays for our culture?

The opening session was dominated by an air of officialdom and industry, given that Oxford University Press had to secure funding from the British and American governments because Pakistani sources were reluctant to come forward despite the success of the festival last year. And that is the primary difference between the Jaipur Literature Festival and ours. With no money, we cannot afford even to indulge in nationalistic debates about the role of prior and present colonial masters in our literary festivals. We are just grateful for all the help we can get.

It was inevitable, therefore, that we should have to hear speeches from British Council officials and Marilyn Wyatt, the wife of the US Ambassador to Pakistan.

Love is the answer. We forgot the question.

Then followed a speech by the much-awaited Karen Armstrong. After the initial glow of being in the presence of a best-selling author, unpretentious citizens were soon reduced to confusion and exhaustion by the effort to comprehend the twelve steps of compassion, and the various ways in which Greeks showed compassion by entering the minds of Persians via tragic drama. Those who did not expect pontification from a former nun were doomed for disappointment. “Believe in all religions,” Armstrong said, blithely discounting the difficulties to be encountered therein. Is that the new, humanist philosophy of love?

Question: What do we do when the doctrines of one faith clash with another?

Answer: Forget about the doctrines and pin a cross, star and crescent to a satchel, made with rough-hewn Indian cotton and printed all over with the letter ‘Om’.

Dislike, ignorance and other convenient truths

As divinity and compassion are the basis of all religions, Armstrong had this to say for anyone who disbelieves or dislikes the teachings of any one religion:
“His dislike is based on ignorance.”

I looked around and wondered how people felt. After all, wouldn’t two sets of people be completely justified in being offended by this ‘fatwa’ – the atheists who absolutely refuse to believe in any religion and the Muslims who believe in what they do because they think it makes more sense than other systems. Apparently, respecting other people’s beliefs is not enough. We have to believe in what they believe too. This warm, cuddly literary love versus the forces of extremism served as the keynote address for the festival which was dominated by themes of rising militancy and extremism viz a viz the shrinking space for liberals in society and the need for a battle to be waged by ‘educated’ forces.

It was not in the mawkishly sentimental tone of Karen Armstrong that this battle was waged over the weekend. The tone quickly became more acerbic when Madeeha Gauhar refused to recognize how the title of her play “Burqawaganza” and its even more mindless subtitle “Love in the time of Jihad,” could have offended people’s feelings enough for the government to force her to change the title.

In a display of great sensitivity, she referred to all those parliamentarians who recommended the title change as the “hidden beards amongst us”, as if ‘beard’ is in itself a great insult. It may have been better for her to point out that alongside safeguarding the feelings of burqa-wearers, the government should also effectively stop burqa-wearers from offering insult to those who dress otherwise.

Kishwar Naheed was just as subtle in calling for the removal of the headgear of pagri-wearers so that “their minds may open up.” Spotting a bland-faced bearded person or someone with their head covered in the crowd, I wondered what they thought of all this.

Are these people not supposed to be here then? Or if they are here, are they not supposed to look like that.

These jokes are in the best tradition of so-called Western racism and they would have made Ataturk happy too. Such discourse at a literary, bordering on academic, conference would have been loudly denounced in most educated circles in the West as being offensive to a particular religious community. But in Pakistan, they got away with it.

And in great style too, since much of this was swallowed as conventional wisdom by the educated audience.

Air kissing the liberal fascists

Certainly, people clapped loudly often without listening too closely, as ladies stood up mid-session to kiss the air next to the cheek of the face of a long-lost friend.

Zahida Hina’s comment about Pakistani intellectuals being a tribe of liberal fascists was quickly sidelined and dismissed. Perhaps this was because the audience had never read about the term at college in Massachusetts.

When the audience were such convinced progressives, who was the festival meant to liberalise? As I left the hotel, I walked past a car with its front window rolled down. Waiting for the owner, the driver reclined on the seat. Blaring from the speakers was an Urdu sermon in a Pashto accent, enlightening us in simple, yet powerful tones about what awaited us in heaven or else in hell.
“Ye festival awaam ka kuch naheen bigaar saka”

I thought, not knowing whether to feel distress or relief.

Our little social clique of an ‘intelligentsia’ has just no idea how irrelevant their little debates are to everyone else. This is the time of fear. We package and sell fear eloquently, convincing foreign embassies to give funds to spread the message of love (for them) and peace (not stand up to them) which we spend on fun little parties.

So what? It’s good.

At least, some genuinely good writers get a side room to display their talents and true lovers of poetry got a chance to discover them.
Zahra Sabri A researcher and translator with a Masters in South Asian Studies, Urdu and Persian from Columbia University.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Afreen | 12 years ago | Reply Awwww.. this was so sweet!! loved how you ended it. I couldnt agree with you more. I just wish we could stand up to them and not get blinded by their thoughts and credentials 2 Literary Fests and we are still in search of an identity! They should invite more regional writers who would inform us about our culture that our liberal fascists have long forgotten. We need to revive our own values and traditions instead of following the deranged philosophy of the West.
Kamil Rextin | 13 years ago | Reply Lets all go slumming? Granted the event was attracting a 'certain' kind of people. But what did you expect?
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