Pakistan is hosting one of the world’s youngest and fastest--growing literary festivals, a showcase of new talent where writers urge citizens to reverse the tide of Islamist extremism and global isolation.
Now into a second year and determined to become an annual fixture on the international circuit, the Karachi Literature Festival portrays the softer face of a country more often associated with terrorism than award-winning prose.
Students, authors, budding writers and avid readers descended on a hotel in an exclusive neighborhood near the Arabian Sea for two days of book launches, workshops, dance, music and theatrical exhibits, which ended yesterday.
“It’s to promote our authors, who are underrated and do not get the credit they’re due, and also to interest people in reading and buying books,” organizer and Oxford University Press managing director Ameena Saiyid said.
Women in T-shirts and skinny jeans rub shoulders with religious girls cloaked in Islamic veils at events with standing room only, as pensioners on crutches fold themselves into chairs and children race up the aisles.
Gathering nearly 100 authors and moderators, a handful from Britain, France, Germany and the US give the event a veneer of the cosmopolitan, but the government denied visas to three of six Indians invited, organizers said.
Peace efforts between India and Pakistan have been stagnant since Islamist gunmen killed 166 people in Mumbai in 2008. India and the US blamed the attack on Pakistani militants.
Pakistan denies it is not doing enough to shut down Islamist terror groups, in a country where more than 4,000 people have been killed in Taliban-related bomb attacks in three years.
At the festival, where up to 5,000 people devoted their weekend to listen to their favorite authors — about twice the number of visitors compared with last year — some felt there was a duty to confront growing extremism.
“It’s the most fabulous development for Karachi,” said Aliya Naqvi, a doctorate student in -Islamic history and wife of author H.M. Naqvi, whose debut novel Home Boy recently won an Indian prize for South Asian literature.
“Life goes on. You take a risk every time you step outside ... but to ignore the rise of extremism would be disingenuous. It has to be acknowledged,” she said between sessions.
The Sept. 11 terror attacks put Pakistani writers on the international map as inquisitive Westerners searched for insight into the Taliban and Islam, at the same time as throwing the country into war and chaos.
Ahmed Rashid, whose book Taliban became a US bestseller, delivered a thundering address, saying it was time Pakistan faced up to its own mistakes rather than blame the US.
“We have to do something to save ourselves,” he said, accusing Pakistan of meddling in Afghanistan, obsessing about India at the expense of national interest, failing the economy, sheltering al-Qaeda and sponsoring the Taliban.
Nuclear physicist and social activist Pervez Hoodbhoy went further, warning a packed session on “Taking Stock: Where is Pakistan Now?” that the country is on “a knife-edge” and at risk of being overrun by a “clerical tsunami.”
Mohsin Hamid, best-selling author of novels Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, said he did his best to look for the positive, but conceded: “Fear is fundamental to what it’s like to live in Pakistan right now.”
The revolts in Egypt and Tunisia have resonated widely in Pakistan and were touched upon in questions from the audience.
Inevitably in a country where mastery of English remains the preserve of the elite, who often live more luxuriously than the middle classes in the West and where the poor struggle on less than a US$1 a day, there were cries of elitism.
While the event was free to all, sponsored by the British Council, Oxford University Press and USAID, some complained it was not on the public bus route.
US-educated novelist Bina Shah, whose new book Slum Child was snapped up like hotcakes, was asked how difficult she found it to write about a slum when she herself did not use public transport or go out to work.
“I’ve been in a rickshaw!” she hit back.
“My experience of a slum is obviously going to be different. It should convince you enough that a slum person could have told the story,” she said.
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