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November 25, 2018

Poetry in a time of terror


November 25, 2018

What they call Black Friday in the States is a Friday of big bargains for frenzied shoppers. It comes a day after Thanksgiving.

This Black Friday came day before yesterday, but became a black day for us in an entirely different context. Pakistan was shaken by two brazen acts of terror and there was another reminder of the dark passions that periodically engulf our society.

But, personally, I found safe refuge from much of this gloom in a city I was visiting for the first time. On Friday, the fifth edition of the Faisalabad Literary Festival was launched and I participated in its first session. I sought to underline the healing power of literature and arts in a society that is so deeply wounded.

Yes, any reference to literary and cultural pursuits in this country also awakens a sense of loss and deprivation. It has been my refrain that while we devote so much attention to politics and to the economy, we generally ignore the deteriorating state of our society in terms of its intellectual, moral and cultural resources. The point to stress is that our progress and prosperity also depend on, say, books and libraries – and the dreams that would enrich the lives of our ordinary citizens.

We do have our literary festivals and cultural events. On Thursday, a three-day international Urdu conference was inaugurated at the Arts Council in Karachi. It is sad that the iconic Karachi Literature Festival – KLF – is in crisis this year. However, a limited group of literati should be grateful for these annual features that allow fruitful interactions with writers, poets and critics.

Overall, of course, the scenario is bleak and depressing. What we may define as intellectual infrastructure is in an exceptionally poor state. Against this backdrop, the urgency of developing our intellectual and human resources is no less pressing than the need to balance the budget and strengthen the economy. In fact – and this was one aspect of my presentation at the FLF on Friday – we need the creativity of our writers and artists to trigger an economic and material breakthrough.

Hence, it became instructive to speak about literature on a day that had seen two significant acts of terror in distant corners of the country. In Karachi, an attack on the Chinese consulate was foiled and all three terrorists who attempted to storm the consulate were taken down by our security forces. Two policemen were killed in this encounter but, thankfully, the Chinese diplomatic staff was unhurt.

Far away, in the Orakzai district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, more than 30 persons were killed when a bomb ripped through a busy weekly market. It was another outrage in an area afflicted with violence. We are familiar with the spread of violent extremism and intolerance in the Pakistani society and know that this is a battle to be ultimately fought and won in the minds of men.

A literary festival projects the argument that poetry and fiction and arts are weapons in this battle for our survival. Formal education only provides a foundation for what we need to build to foster creativity and innovation and fundamental human values. Essentially, we have to learn to dream and to imagine and only creative arts can help us do that.

Talking about literature, we had to suffer a major loss on Wednesday with the death of Fahmida Riaz, poet, writer and translator of extraordinary merit. In many ways, she was a role model when we think of the poet as a warrior in the struggle for progressive social change. Fahmida belonged in the category of the best we had in contemporary Urdu literature.

I am unable to even attempt a cursory introduction to the great work she had done. There is an emotional reason for this hesitation because I had known her so well for such a long time. She was my wife’s friend from their college days. But there is something that I want to say about her that is relevant to the main theme of this column. It breaks my heart to report that a truly creative writer and a precious human being of Fahmida’s calibre had to suffer so much to survive in a society she had enriched with her invaluable literary contributions.

Naturally, we remembered her fondly at the FLF. Asghar Nadeem Syed, who introduced the session in which I spoke, shed light on how Fahmida was absolutely the forerunner in the history of Urdu poetry in portraying the inner feelings of a woman. She had the courage of her convictions as a writer and a social activist.

In my remarks, I laid stress on the importance of reading fiction and dreaming dreams. This would include day-dreaming. I invoked Einstein’s dictum that “imagination is more important than knowledge” and his advice that parents should read fairytales to their children. If the habit of reading for pleasure is inculcated among our youth and if there are libraries and other manifestations of an intellectual infrastructure, Pakistan’s future would be ensured.

For example, it is repeatedly pointed out that Karachi is the only city of its size that does not have a public transport system and the consequences are obvious. Come to think of it, Karachi also does not have a proper public library and the consequences in this respect should be obvious to those who understand the meaning of what progress is all about.

In passing, I feel obligated to compliment the organisers of the literary festival in a city that is more famous for its clock tower and its industry. It is the realisation of a dream dreamt by four enterprising women who were together in a Lahore college many years ago. Now the festival is the pride of Faisalabad and I was very impressed by its content as well as its very lively presentation.

For that matter, it was a privilege to be speaking to such an enthusiastic audience that included a large number of young people. We keep harping on about our youth bulge and believe it to be a great asset. But if these young people are not educated and if they do not learn to dream, they are bound to become an unbearable liability.

Surrounded by extremism and intolerance, we must remember that literature and the arts promote an inclusive society, tolerance and acceptance of diversity. In the present environment, our freedom to think and to imagine and to dream is under pressure. On this front too, we have to build a ‘Naya’ Pakistan – if only those who are at the helm now have time to deliberate on these issues.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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