Celebrating art and resistance

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Maliha Diwan

At the inauguration ceremony of the Islamabad Literature Festival (ILF), Ameena Sayyid, co-founder of both the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) and the ILF, spoke about how “the festivals are open source, there is no copyright,” and emphasised that such events need to be owned by the community, and held in every village and corner of the country. Going by the throngs of crowds and jam-packed sessions at the 3-day event held from April 24-26, the demand and need for such an event is certainly overwhelming.

The denizens of Islamabad were given the opportunity to discover new books and participate in intellectual debates, and they turned up in thousands. Indeed, there were plenty of book launches — from Hamra Khalique’s memoir Kahan Kahan say Guzray: Meri Zindagi ki Kahani and Sorayya Khan’s novel Cities of Spies to the beautiful photo feature Birds of Sialkot by Kamran Saleem and Mustansar Husain Tarar. And there was something for everyone at the ILF: from poetry recitations in English, Urdu and Punjabi, and debates on Pakistani art to frank discussions on gender, Partition, Pakistani cinemas and school education in the country.

For those who relish the visual and performing arts, an exhibit on photographs in crisis zones called ‘Visual Reportage in Crisis’ and another one of sketches in ink, ‘Renald Deppe: Seeing with your Ears, Hearing with your Eyes’ was on display. The opening ceremony showcased a mesmerising performance by Feriyal Amal Aslam which was choreographed by Indu Mitha and was based on Kishwar Naheed’s poem ‘Yeh hum gunaghar aurtain hain’. And who can forget the Sufi music performance by the Rafi Peer theatre group in front of an enthusiastic audience?

Asif Farrukhi, co-founder of the KLF and ILF, had emphasised that such events are needed to cultivate a love for books and literature. Going by the number of people that thronged the numerous book stalls set up at the venue, it seemed like the organisers had succeeded in that goal. There was something even for aspiring writers with a stall set up by the Desi Writers Lounge. Who knows? Maybe the next Bapsi Sidwa or Mohsin Hamid will be inspired to write, here, in this very space?

Aspiring writers, closet poets and bookworms had plenty of sessions to choose from if they wanted to talk to their favourite author or get insight into the industry and the art of writing a book. The session, ‘Midwifing the Masterpieces’ saw literary agent Jessica Woollard, Indian publishers Urvashi Butulia and Ashok Chopra, along with the Indian book distributor Om Arora discuss the publishing industry in South Asia. While the discussion was extremely engaging and interesting, the one thing missing was the Pakistani perspective.

While Woollard focused more on how a book can succeed in the US and UK, Butulia and Chopra were more interested in exploring the regional markets. Butulia, who established the first feminist publishing house in India, Kali for Women, pointed out that most books are not written to cater to a Western audience, nor should authors feel the need to do so. The publisher, who has worked hard to ensure alternative voices reach readers, pointed out that “one of [our] most successful books in terms of money and politics is on a domestic worker who learnt to read and write”.

Chopra, on the other hand, seemed more cynical about publishing, bluntly stating “Indians will buy expensive shoes but not books”. He emphasised that while there are authors whose books will have a print run of a 100,000 printed copies, they are still the exception. Most books, he argued still have a print run of 2,000 copies — the same average that existed in the industry 40-odd years ago.

Chopra may be the eternal pessimist when it comes to publishing but perhaps all that is needed is a Paul Harding or two in the country to get Indians reading again. In a tête-á-tête session between Shandana Minhas, the author of Survival Tips for Lunatics and the 2010 Pulitzer prize winner, the two talked about the lengths the writer went to to get people to read his book Tinkers. Rejected by all the major publishers in town, Harding said he “rejected the rejection letters,” and then went out of his way to promote Tinkers. “If people were having a book-reading club, I would tell them that if it was within 200 miles, I will come to [it].”

While some sessions tackled the how of publishing and selling books, others looked at why writers choose to pen a book in the first place and the writing process they go through. ‘Why We Write?’ saw the fiction authors Khan, Minhas and Harding explore their journey, and how they tackle writing in the midst of their very busy days. Asked by the moderator Framji Minwalla about why they write, most of the panellists found it hard it to pin it down to a particular reason. However, the wittiest reply came from Minhas: “it’s the most fun I can have with my clothes on”.

For some festival goers, though, the ILF was less about the exploring the process of writing and more about the ‘celebrity’ factor. For those who were hoping to catch a glimpse or maybe snap a photograph of their favourite literary figure, there were plenty of opportunities to do so. Scriptwriter Hasina Moin and poet Kishwar Naheed were often spotted besieged and surrounded by adoring fans who wanted a photograph or autograph. But the most popular delegate at the ILF seemed to be the transgender activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi whose sessions didn’t even have standing space and who was mobbed by fans wanting a ‘selfie’ as she wound her way across the lobby to attend her session.

Tripathi, who launched her book, Me Laxmi, Me Hijra, at the festival told me how she feels she has “started a new phase of activism” by authoring her memoirs. Indeed, art does have a way of transforming and impacting people’s lives in different ways, something that was also discussed following the screening of Life’s Worth Living. According to the filmmakers Alison Gilkey and Eric Neudel, the documentary, which focuses on the movement of rights for people with disabilities, has inspired activists across the globe. The countries where Life’s Worth Living has been shown include Russia, Korea, Laos and Vietnam. Gilkey pointed out that “most countries have fledgling disability rights movements. When we show these films, it mobilises them, encourages them.”

Indeed art has a way of inspiring and creating an inclusive space. And this was evident in the way the festival drew people from all walks of life. As a girl who had come all the way from Attock to attend the ILF succinctly put it, “I am enjoying this so much. And I like how you see and meet so many different people here.” Most festival goers could be seen enjoying the festival whether it was buying books, eating snacks or listening to the poet Zehra Nigah read from her collection of poetry.

However, the one thing that cast a shadow over ILF was Karachi-based activist Sabeen Mahmud’s murder on Friday evening, the first day of ILF. The tragedy loomed large over the festival, particularly on the second day; a minute of silence was observed at the beginning of every session and no talk could escape the mention of the popular activist. For instance, the academic Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, at the end of the session ‘Rights and Wrongs of Transgender Issues’, pointed out that “the state is not your friend…who killed Sabeen Mahmud? If anyone tells you it’s not the state, they’re lying”. Judging from the hoots, shouts and fervent clapping, the crowd seemed to wholeheartedly agree with his statement.

Towards the end of the second day, an impromptu session to pay tribute to Mahmud was organised. The panellists Minwalla, Minhas, Farrukhi, Sayyid and Nigah paid homage to her while a rapt audience listened on. Farrukhi summed up what everyone in the room was thinking when he said that she was “one of the bravest voices in Pakistan”. An acquaintance from her college days reminisced about how “she was always 10 to 20 years ahead of everybody; she was the voice of my generation”.

But for all the doom and gloom, there was hope with many speakers and panellists emphasising that they will not be silenced. The closing ceremony saw Minwalla read out a delegate’s petition stating, “we celebrate the depth and nuance of language of words, of movement, of image, of sound or of numbers. This is what Sabeen Mahmud stood for. This is what the Islamabad Literature Festival stands for. This is what we all stand for, together, with the fallen and the living.”

And with that silver lining in the cloud, that bittersweet message, that art has the ability to not only transcend but transform and resist, the ILF came to an end.

Maliha Diwan, “Celebrating art and resistance ,” in Dawn, May 3, 2015. Accessed on May 3, 2015, at: http://www.dawn.com/news/1179533/cover-celebrating-art-and-resistance

The item above written by Maliha Diwan and published in Dawn on May 3, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on May 3, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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