It is not difficult to find any number of obituaries for culture, the death thereof, in Pakistan. Despite these premature laments there are a growing number of large-scale annual events across the country that point not so much to the demise of culture as a rejuvenation. Literary festivals are a case in point with Lahore and Islamabad festivals well established and Karachi leading the field. The Karachi Literature Festival 2017 (KLF) started with the literary equivalent of a large bang with a discourse in Urdu to the effect that the need of the hour was ‘Zarb-e-Qalam’ — War With the Pen. The pen can be the voice of the voiceless, the voice of the diverse cultures and communities resident in the city.
The other opening speaker noted — in English — that the peoples of the Indo-Pak region had fallen as ‘slaves to barbarity’ and that we existed in a ‘chronic state of depression’. This may not be the most cheerful way of kicking off a literary festival, but it at least suggests that freedom of speech is not yet entirely stifled in a land where bloggers with a discomforting precocity can be made to disappear for weeks on end.
The KLF as do the other similar events also says, loud and clear, that reading is not dead. And neither critical thinking. Nor creativity. All very much alive and part of a cultural fabric that stretches countrywide. Pakistan needs to see more of these events in smaller towns and cities, with support from civic administrations and not just made to happen by the efforts of a core of dedicated bibliophiles. The founders and later promoters of literary festivals are creating gateways for new readers to pass through, and bastions of culture on which may be built future literary ambitions and endeavours. They are also a showcase for the best of Pakistan, that the country is not all bombs and bullets and chaos and misery. Long may they survive and thrive.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 12th, 2017.