As a student and practitioner of poetry, the find for me in the Karachi Literary Festival (KLF) 2016 was the poetry of Rafiq Kathwari, the middle-aged but youthful Kashmiri-American poet. The festival had much more to offer in terms of the content and continued with its booming success for the seventh consecutive year, but meeting with, listening to and reading from the book Kathwari presented me was something I cherish the most.
From about a hundred sessions, opening and closing ceremonies, music and theatre, I could attend a handful of sessions and some plenary sessions which was only humanly possible in such a large event. But like others I met loads of friends, comrades and acquaintances and had useful exchange of views. What happens on the sides of such events and the conversations that take place in the lobbies, corridors, restaurants and rooms must neither be undermined nor overlooked when discussing their utility.
Offering accolades to the organisers or criticising their effort is again a usual happening every year during or after the event. But first, let me speak about Kathwari’s work and some other things that I found inspiring or enjoyable in the sessions I attended before coming to my understanding of the criticism made on this festival or similar ones happening in Karachi or elsewhere.
Kathwari’s collection of about forty odd poems, ‘In Another Country’, is not only dedicated to his mother but revolves around her. She was schizophrenic and her hallucinations were such that not only the linearity of time ended for her but she made the concept dwindle in the imagination of her son as well. From Srinagar to Murree, from Murree to Karachi, Karachi to Delhi, back to Srinagar, from Murree to Lahore, Murree to Manhattan, Manhattan to Srinagar, so on and so forth, she would travel or write to people from Sheikh Abdullah to Indira Gandhi to the Turkish and American ambassadors in Pakistan to President Eisenhower of the United States.
The depth of her pain or pains, from being a young vulnerable bride in a patriarchal society to a mother shattered by the partition of her land and consequently her family, her zeal for a liberated Kashmir to her madness and surreal dreams shared with her doctor – Harry the shrink – all are expressed with such phenomenal ease and piercing pathos in Kathwari’s work. There is a blend of candour and subtlety in his poems. The book humanises the politics of Kashmir in a way that it turns the issue from a territorial dispute between two parties or three to a human tragedy of insurmountable proportions.
His rootedness in the suffering of Kashmir helps Kathwari understand human suffering better. He moves to write about other things including the festering wounds of Palestine, the meaningless brutality of those who were the most persecuted minority in history against those who are the most dispossessed tribe. He calls Palestinians ‘victims of the victims’ and dissects the Israeli apartheid against the Palestinians without losing poetic aesthetics. Besides, he writes about his other family, dedicates poems to friends and loved ones and presents to his readers a bouquet of flowers with exceptional fragrance but thorns intact. No wonder he is the recipient of the prestigious Patrick Kavanagh Award from Ireland for this work. Earlier, Kathwari had translated Allama Iqbal’s Urdu work.
Speaking of Iqbal, Dr Syed Noman-ul-Haq spoke to a spellbound audience on Dante and Iqbal. His unmatched scholarship and the ability to break binaries in this highly polarised ideational world of ours has earned him a reputation of an unmatched scholar, notwithstanding that some of his readers or listeners may disagree with a few of his inferences. Dr Haq currently teaches at the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi, helping them establish the disciplines of humanities, liberal arts and social studies.
Iqbal, to me, is the most misunderstood of the great poets we have produced. Half the opinion in the country reveres him for things he is made to stand for by the Pakistani state based on selective understanding and political motives. The other half rejects him for the same reasons that the first half reveres him for. It is rather interesting to note that Dante from the thirteenth century and Milton from the seventeenth century can be considered universal poets despite their fundamental Medieval European Christian view of the world but Iqbal has to be categorised in the category of ‘Indian Muslim’ poetry.
Also, the great Rabindranath Tagore’s fictional work recognises little the Bengali Muslim identity (the only significant Muslim character in his work actually comes from the north-west of the South Asian subcontinent, ‘Kabuli wala’, and one short story he wrote two months before his death, ‘The story of Musalmani’). But he is seen as a universal writer. Iqbal, with his weaknesses and strengths, needs a compassionate review as a poet through unprejudiced ways of critical inquiry, something Dr Haq offers.
This brings me to the criticism on this year’s KLF. One biggest criticism offered is that Urdu and other Pakistani national languages are not afforded their due share. I cannot speak about Lahore but what I have witnessed in Karachi over the years is that there is an ongoing transformation. I am sure Lahore will witness the same as the event evolves. To begin with, the keynote speeches delivered in the opening session by arch-poet Fahmida Riaz and leading physicist and social critic Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy were both in Urdu. About a third of the sessions were in Urdu and about half were bilingual. Sometimes it does not get reflected in the printed programme because the information is published in English.
The main film shown, Manto, and the main poetry reading (mushaira) were both in Urdu. The closing ceremony had keynote speeches by Prof Ziauddin Sardar, British academic, speaking in both English and Urdu, and Dr Arifa Syeda Zehra, Pakistani educationist and cultural critic, speaking in Urdu. The Urdu poetry reading had Sindhi works recited and a major Sindhi writer and thinker, Amar Jaleel, attracted most attention in the festival. So did I A Rehman, perhaps the most significant progressive public intellectual and human rights defender.
In the past also, some sessions on other languages have been put together but I agree that more dedicated sessions for Pakistani languages in addition to Urdu must certainly be organised in the future. Nevertheless, it is an international festival and gives Pakistani writers and academics a chance to interact and learn from their counterparts from other countries. Besides, Oxford University Press (OUP), an international publishing house working in Pakistan since 1948, does not stop Sang-e-Meel or Ferozesons or any other Urdu or Sindhi or Pashto academy or institution – from the Pakistan Academy of Letters to the Sindhi Language Authority – from organising similar events.
By the way, some of these organisations mentioned here, including the Arts Council of Pakistan, do similar work but do not get similar coverage in the media, something the media needs to think about. Therefore, criticising the KLF for not catering to everyone’s needs is going a little overboard.
The KLF is where you meet people not just from all parts of Karachi but also from interior of Sindh and Balochistan. Perhaps not during the first two or three events, but for the past few years at least the criticism of the festival being open to all and accessible to some is not entirely valid.
As far as politics is concerned, no one stops anyone from raising the issues that Pakistan faces. The list of authors and speakers invited can be referred to before making an argument about real politic not being discussed. I think it is more of an issue with our writers – and less with organisers – who need to re-explore the link between contemporary thinking and writing and the dispossession and oppression faced by ordinary citizens today, particularly the working class.
The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.