Karachi Literature Festival 2020: Opening Day

Public social events in Karachi generate a lot of excitement. However, the 11th Karachi Literature Festival did not seem to be generating a lot of buzz. Instead, the three day festival of books, ambled to a start on Friday, 28th February 2020 at the Beach Luxury Hotel. As one came through the entrance of books through the security cordon, one was met with the familiar sight of the food court to the right, and the path leading to Beach Luxury Hotel’s entrance was lined with sponsored stalls.

The crowds were sparse on the Friday evening that the Literature Festival was going to begin, but the omens, became the portents began to turn sour when one hit up the tea stall to find, (1) it wasn’t operational (2) once it would be, they would charge patrons for tea, rather than distribute it freely as they had done in previous years’ KLF’s. We were to discover that there would also not be any distribution of free water bottles at semi-regular intervals at the Literature Festival, either. This is the sort of corporate cost-cutting that makes a small amount of savings, but makes things a little less bearable for the general audience.

The crowd inside the hotel’s lobby was a little larger, and in the main garden, the opening ceremony was proceeding at a slow trot. The first day’s speakers seemed like a decent group of people. The keynote speeches were by William Dalrymple and Zaheda Hina who are respected writers. While Zaheda Hina is an excellent Urdu columnist and novelist and William Dalrymple is an accomplished popular historian of the British Raj but they might not be among the most well-known writers for the younger generation of Pakistanis. Considering the fact that 60% of Pakistan’s population is under 30, this might be a relevant demographic observation. The first day did not feel like it was for those who are relatively young.

Zaheda Hina, in her keynote speech, did make relevant observations about how the government should preserve freedom of expression and the ability to think, speak and write freely, even in internationally and domestically unforgiving times. The widow of poet Juan Elia, Hina proved here literary stature in her own right, in a solid Urdu speech where she went on to describe the consequences for governments that gag their people and institutions and leave themselves and their publics blind to oncoming dangers.

On my way to the “Women of Substance” panel, I ran into Omar Shahid Hamid, author of The Prisoner,The Spinner's Tale,The Party Worker andThe Fix. I had run into him earlier and asked for his business card, which listed him as being in the Intelligence Bureau (IB). That Friday, I asked him about what this less spoken about but traditionally prime intelligence agency’s directive is and the answer I got was, “Basically, we are the Prime Minister’s eyes and ears.” That was good enough, because we were both going in different directions. 

The next session I went to was, “Women of Substance: Fatima Jinnah, Benazir Bhutto, and Asma Jahangir” in which the speakers were Victoria Schofield, Sheema Kermani and Karamat Ali, while the moderator was Fouzia Saeed. Victoria Schofield was a friend of Benazir Bhutto from their university days at Oxford, and spoke of her courage in the face of Zia-ul-Haq constantly jailing Benazir under abject conditions. She also praised Asma Jahangir and her courage, who she had also met, besides Benazir. Sheema Kermani praised Fatima Jinnah, as well as Asma Jahangir and Benazir Bhutto by pointing out how they showed the way to stand up for your rights. The audience was provided a practical example of this when during the Q and A session when Karamat Ali defended democracy to a frustrated questioner who was angry about the weakness of democracy in the face of inflation. Karamat Ali shot his words down by bringing up how all the rights that citizens have are derived from voting and the civic rights democracy gives people, while the era that saw workers’ wages rise was the democratic era. When another questioner called some of the women who were the subjects of the panel’s discussion beneficiaries of nepotism, specifically Benazir, the next questioner didn’t ask anything, but rather informed the gathered audience that she had been Benazir’s school mate from Convent of Jesus and Mary, and then rattled off the list of hole-in-the-wall like jail cells from Karachi to Sukkur, where Benazir had been held by Zia-ul-Haq after her father’s execution. The speakers quietly assented to this defence of one of the topics of their discussion. 

On the first day, it turned out that in a sea of dignitaries, diplomats and varying securocrats, the women writers were practically addressing current problems.

As I wandered around the book stalls in the back, I saw them get sparse at the mid-way point and then give way to a bunch of stalls dealing in religious literature, and a sight I could not believe: There was a Scientology stall at the back of the Karachi Literature Festival.  

I knew the organisers from Oxford University Press may not have looked kindly on competition, but the sudden drop-off actual book stalls, and the presence of an actual and notorious religiouscult at the back of KLF was a shock. Things are bad enough in Pakistani society, as is.We clearly needed the space at the back filled with actual bookstalls, not….this.

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