PUNJAB PROVINCE, PAKISTAN – Pakistan’s literary scene is seeing a spirited revival, with packed festivals attracting tens of thousands in a rock concert-like atmosphere that defies security threats in a growing cultural renaissance.
Events such as the raucous Lahore Literary Festival, held over the weekend, are reclaiming the “cultural space” that has shrunk significantly in the conservative Muslim nation in recent years amid a raging Islamist insurgency.
The festivals — platforms for all forms of cultural expression, from architecture to film to food writing and feminism, as well as poetry and a recital by Central Asian musicians — are becoming a forum for exchange of liberal thought across the Muslim world.
“It’s great — one of the saddest things when you keep talking about Islam, the Muslims, the Ummah (the brotherhood of Muslim countries) is we don’t know what their writers are, we don’t know what their stories are,” says Mohammed Hanif, whose internationally renowned 2008 novel “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” weaves a dark comedic narrative around the death of dictator Zia ul Haq.
“And there is very little that gets translated from these languages. So it’s great to have Palestinian writers, Egyptian writers,” he says at the Lahore festival.
The event began with an interview with veteran Indian actress Sharmila Tagore, who received a standing ovation after discussing her storied career in Bengali and Bollywood cinema. She hailed the cross-pollination of artists across the two rival countries’ borders as an important part of “cultural diplomacy”.
Other top-billed speakers included outspoken Egyptian-American feminist Mona Eltahawy — whose vociferous denunciations of patriarchy and the politics of the hijab gave the festival some of its most energetic and controversial moments.
“When we talk about the Global South, when we talk about women of color, the issues that we talk about … it’s very important for me to be able to come to Lahore and say, ‘Look, the issues that I have written about in my book are very similar to issues in Pakistan that feminists are fighting over,’ ” she says.
“I want to talk about how as Muslim women we are reduced to what’s on our heads and what’s in between our legs and I want to talk about the sexual revolution.”
Critics say successive Pakistani governments, influenced by the religious right, have done little to encourage artistic expression or have even curtailed it — including banning Lahore’s spring kite festival of Basant in 2007, which Islamists accuse of propagating Hindu thought.
But overall levels of violence have fallen in the past two years as the army has stepped up its campaign in the Taliban’s border tribal regions.
The Lahore festival’s fourth edition glossed over a last-minute change of venue due to security fears and brought together writers and artists from across the region.
It came hard on the heels of a similar festival in Karachi and ahead of one in Islamabad. Organizers estimated around 100,000 people attended.
“The show must go on in spite of all the odds,” the festival’s CEO and founder Razi Ahmed says.
“It’s important to reflect to the wider world that we’re not a country which is closing its doors but we’re opening space that is going to allow us avenues for free thought and critical inquiry.”
Pakistani authors have garnered increasing international attention in recent years, particularly those writing in English like Hanif and Mohsin Hamid. His novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” — the fictional story of a disaffected Pakistani-American’s journey toward extremism — became a hit film in 2012.
Closer to home are newer works such as Saba Imtiaz’s “Karachi, You’re Killing Me!” about a tenacious reporter looking for love as she works her beat covering extremist attacks — a sort of Pakistani Bridget Jones.
Despite the cultural revival, the Islamist insurgency that has racked the country for more than a decade is still ongoing.
But Lahore has long captured the imagination of writers — from Britain’s Rudyard Kipling to revolutionary poets like Habib Jalib.
Festival founder Ahmed says he hoped it would continue to do so. “Lahore is a global site of ideas,” he says. “We are trying to reclaim that.”