Just back from Pakistan where I spoke at the Karachi Literature Festival. The event was glorious; perfect spring weather and a breeze blowing in from the Arabian sea, marquees, book stalls, tea and kebabs in the shade of an old hotel. Writers such as William Dalrymple, Hanif Kureishi and Vikram Seth speaking to very large crowds of engaged, intelligent folk. It was very easy to forget the other things going on in Karachi; at the same time that I was there, there were stories in the paper about targeted assassinations including a university professor and a policeman’s young son, alongside the usual round of bomb scares, massive demonstrations and political gang warfare. As others pointed out it was hardly a representative Pakistani crowd at the book fair – I could count on one hand the headscarves and beards; there were many of the bejewelled and elegant Karachi elite; an articulate crowd with backgrounds in journalism, education, design, medicine and business.

Local newspapers didn’t let the elite nature of the crowd go uncommented; as one person pointed out to me, it was striking that the location of the festival was unreachable using public transport. Nonetheless, it seems churlish to give this too much emphasis. It was free and open to the public and the organisers (Oxford University Press Pakistan and British Council) placed a lot of emphasis on panels in Urdu as well as English. As many people were at pains to stress, Karachi needs these events. The decline in tourism and the apprehensions about security mean that a once multinational port city has become increasingly isolated; literally and metaphorically on the defensive.

Again and again speakers came back to the role of literature in a state suffering such extensive chronic violence and strife. Do books make a difference? There was a second question constantly hovering in the background: how bad has it really got in Pakistan? Anatol Lieven got spontaneous applause for saying ‘events like this don’t happen in a failed state’ (or words to that effect); on the other hand Hanif Kureishi disappointed the audience with a reference to the ‘war-torn’ appearance of the city (not something I would agree with either).

By the end of the festival Kureishi spoke with great effect about the ‘urgency’ of much of the discussion he had heard, the need for literature in Pakistan, combating lying politicians and the production of the ‘democratic mind.’ There is no doubt that brilliant artists and novelists are being produced in the fractious and tense current climate. He may have been preaching to the converted. But the big problem in Karachi is how to share power with the ‘masses’ – even if they have different priorities and views – exactly the people who weren’t at the festival – and this was left unsolved.

 

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