Saturday July 20, 2024

Not an elitist festival

The KLF encompasses fields ranging from economy and education to gender and human rights

By Dr Naazir Mahmood
February 26, 2024
This screenshot is taken from a Facebook video released on February 18, 2024. In this screenshot, participants on stage at the Karachi Literature Festival are interacting with the audience. — Facebook/Karachi & Islamabad Lit Fests
This screenshot is taken from a Facebook video released on February 18, 2024. In this screenshot, participants on stage at the Karachi Literature Festival are interacting with the audience. — Facebook/Karachi & Islamabad Lit Fests

Despite all the criticism for being an ‘elite’ show for ‘burger’ families, the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) organized by the Oxford University Press (OUP) remains a fest for those interested in topics much beyond literature.

The KLF encompasses fields ranging from economy and education to gender and human rights. The 15th KLF was even more significant as it invited a sharp critic of Israeli atrocities – a British citizen of Palestinian origin Selma Dabbagh. She exposed the hypocrisy with which most of the West – including the EU, UK, and US – has been blatantly supporting the Zionist regime; more on her later.

From February 16 to 18, the KLF featured 200 activists, analysts, communicators, development professionals, doctors, educationists, finance wizards, experts from abroad, gender trainers, historians, human resource managers, and of course literacy personalities.

Since 2018, Arshad Saeed Khan has been leading the OUP team, and with Raheela Baqai and Muniza Ali, the KLF has expanded its accomplishments and outreach. This year, in the opening ceremony nobody expected the German and US diplomats to mention the besieged strip under relentless bombardment – and they did not.

But it was a pleasant surprise when the consul general of France talked about human rights violations the world over, especially the killings of thousands of innocent people in recent months.

Keynote speeches by Arif Hasan and Selma Dabbagh stole the show. Arif Hasan is a renowned activist and architect who needs no introduction, thanks to his immense contribution to teaching, planning, and research that he has presented in dozens of books and hundreds of articles and essays.

His keynote at the opening ceremony revolved around the theme of sustainability which he elaborated on in his peculiar style by exposing the exploitative nature of the global economy that the neoliberal narrative has expounded. He reminded the audience that at times, civil society organizations (CSOs) and non-government organizations (NGOs) in developing countries end up promoting the same agenda, and such organizations are a relatively new phenomenon.

Selma Dabbagh’s speech was a real tour de force of the event. As a British-Falesteeni lawyer and writer, she has been a prominent voice for the rights of the Falesteeni and a strong critic of the West for its support to such war crimes. After the 2008 war, her novel ‘Out of It’ attracted wide attention and received a nomination for a Guardian Book of the Year award in 2011.

In her address at the KLF, Selma called the ongoing violence in ME an exceptional series of atrocities that has no parallel in history. She added that over a period of five months, thousands of innocent children, senior citizens, and women have become victims of a planned and systematic campaign of extermination while the world keeps watching.

The KLF also organized specific sessions to remember the legends that we lost recently. The session on Ahmad Salim and Babar Ayaz discussed the contributions of the two writers who promoted enlightenment in society in their way. While Ahmad Salim compiled and wrote over 100 books, Babar Ayaz focused more on journalism and public relations.

Both were activists too with a communication style of their own. They defended human rights and espoused fairness in society. Among other panellists, Nausheen Ahmad, a prominent barrister, was exceptionally good in paying her rich tributes to Babar Ayaz.

Featuring various book launches, the KLF had an exclusive session with one of the most promising novelists of Urdu in recent years, Rafaqat Hayat. He is no more a new name in Urdu fiction as his first novel appeared nearly 30 years ago. Now he has penned a new novel – ‘Rolaak’ – spanning over 650 pages that chronicles the journey of a vagabond from a small but historical city in Sindh. The protagonist of ‘Rolaak’ is a young man Qaadir Bukhsh who faces numerous challenges in his life, which later become major obstacles due to his father. The novel is worth reading and is likely to become a major hit with the lovers of Urdu fiction.

One of the most interesting sessions was on the political economy of Pakistan titled ‘The evolving federation’ which featured Asad Umar, Faisal Siddiqui, Kaiser Bengali, and Shabbar Zaidi. Amber Shamsi as the moderator was at her best. Shabbar Zaidi was all praise for the 18th Amendment that has changed the dynamics of the Pakistani political economy in the past 14 years.

Asad was more interested in devolution from the provinces to the districts in Pakistan. Kaiser Bengali elaborated on the Seventh National Finance Commission (NFC) Award of 2010 and shared with the audience his experiences while being a member of the NFC team. Faisal Siddiqui differentiated between the de jure and de facto rulers in Pakistan who have been involved in a consistent power struggle in the country.

The late IA Rehman and Irfan Husain were the focus of another session. Ghazi Salahuddin, Jaffar Ahmad, and Zohra Yousuf discussed the life and times of the two personalities who feature in the books ‘A Life Lived with Passion’ and ‘A Lifetime of Dissent: A Memoir’. Both Irfan and Rehman were public intellectuals who devoted their energies and time to the cause of an active citizenry in Pakistan. Both hated religious extremism; they used their pen to highlight the violations of human rights in the country and protested against social injustices in society.

Shaheen Salahuddin moderated the book launch of ‘A History of the Baloch and Balochistan’ by Mir Naseer Khan Ahmedzai. It is an abridged English translation of an eight-volume book in Urdu that attempts to condense Balochistan’s history from ancient to modern times. Apart from the main text, the book also includes an extremely well-written introduction by Martin Axman who is a political scientist specializing in ethno-nationalist movements in South Asia.

The first part of the book covers the period from the ninth century BC to the 16th century CE while the second part spanning nearly 350 pages chronicles the history of Balochistan up until 1988.

Another interesting session was about the Urdu novel on celluloid featuring Asghar Nadeem Syed, Bee Gul, and Nasir Abbas Nayyar who discussed the adaptations of Urdu novels to film and TV. It was interesting to learn how General Mujib as the information minister of Gen Zia imposed a trend on TV to promote patriarchy and tried to inculcate certain levels of religiosity both covertly and at times in an overt manner. The speakers shared their personal experiences of how not only PTV but also private channels as well select novels and stories that are regressive.

Though there were dozens of informative sessions, I would like to conclude by appreciating Ali Usman Qasmi’s new book ‘Qaum, Mulk, Saltanat’ which is an extensive piece of research from mostly inaccessible national archives.

The evolution of citizenship is the main thrust of the book that dissects the legal and political dimensions of Pakistani society as it has evolved in the past nearly eight decades. It is not a normal history book that you find in college libraries across Pakistan, rather it is a treatise that challenges the narrative imposed on our students from schools and colleges to universities.

With this rich tapestry of sessions and speakers who would call the KLF an ‘elitist’ affair? The participation of women, youth and even the elderly from various segments of society was a commendable feature of the KLF. Congratulations to the KLF team for enriching our lives through their grand efforts.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets/posts @NaazirMahmood and can be reached