Reclaiming lost space

Lyse Doucet, BBC’s chief international correspondent, wrote a very nice piece on the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) recently. The headline said: “Book lovers defy the bombers”. While it is literally true that despite real security threats, people still thronged the LLF, it also reminds one of how there are not enough events to celebrate literature, art and culture in Pakistan. Most of us do not like it when people say we are defying bombers or the Taliban by holding such events, or that we are a resilient nation. Yes, it may be literally true, but then again, we also know that we cannot escape bombs and bullets so we may as well make the most of our lives while we are at it. This is why the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) and the LLF are events that people look forward to attending every February.

A Pakistani policeman stands guard at the site of a bomb attack that took place near the Lahore police headquarters just days before the Lahore Literary Festival. Despite that, thousands attended the event. Pic/AFP
A Pakistani policeman stands guard at the site of a bomb attack that took place near the Lahore police headquarters just days before the Lahore Literary Festival. Despite that, thousands attended the event. Pic/AFP

The organisers of both events must be commended for their dedication and hard work. It is not easy to convince locals, let alone foreigners, to participate in such public events. But, in my opinion, the key to their success is also related to the thirst of the Pakistani people for learning something new about international/regional politics, for having some form of entertainment in their lives, their penchant for celebration, their love of art and culture despite the rising intolerance, and, also, for escaping the harsh realities of their everyday lives, even if it’s only for a few days.

Thousands of people attended both KLF and LLF. The atmosphere at the events in both Karachi and Lahore was exuberant. Both festivals had interesting panel discussions on a wide array of subjects, and gave people a chance to interact with writers, artists, journalists, scholars, academics, civil society activists, and many more celebrated figures one would not get a chance to meet otherwise. It also gave people a chance to meet friends, catch up with people they have only interacted with on social media, eat (yes, we really enjoy our food!), mingle around, or just enjoy the energy all around. It also gave people a chance to reclaim their lost space the right to gather at a public event. This is something that most countries around the world take for granted, but Pakistanis have been gradually ceding this space to the religious Right over the years we do not have musical concerts as often as we used to in the past; the number of theatre performances have also gone down (especially in Lahore); literary events are few and far between; instead we see militant organisations and religious parties holding more rallies, public events, etc. Apart from economic reasons, in part this is due to the security situation in Pakistan, and in part due to the rising intolerance in our society.

I A Rehman sahib wrote in Dawn, “The organisers at both festivals (KLF and LLF) had their security scares. The lesson is that the fight against intolerance and violence is necessary, among other things, for reclaiming the people’s right to write, paint, and sing the way they want to and wherever they want to. Without that right, human life will be no better than a wild growth of grass.” No one could have said it better. It is time to defy all odds and reclaim our lost space, organise/support events like the KLF and LLF, and celebrate life.

The writer is a Pakistani journalist. Reach her at mehmal.s@gmail.com

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