Same difference

November 12, 2023

This year’s Islamabad Literature Festival seemed to have an optimistic slant

Image by Hasan Saeed via Twitter.
Image by Hasan Saeed via Twitter.


heodor Adorno, the German philosopher, points out the flaw in lensing the world through the one concept that culture is ideology. “Comforting and lulling,” he writes, culture “serves to keep alive the bad economic determination of existence... But to act radically in accordance with this principle would be to extirpate, with the false, all that was true.”

For Adorno, rationalism led inevitably to the irrational. More than knowing it, we all feel this now. We share his horror. Under the circumstances, “high culture” can appear a trifling business. It’s purely anecdotal – but people do not seem terribly excited by much that they come across in galleries these days. It appears that according to the logic of commodities, art consumers, like those in other realms, want relief and distraction in the form of something new.

“It is not so much by the things that each day are manufactured, sold, bought but rather by the things that each day are thrown out to make room for the new. So you begin to wonder if the city’s true passion is really the enjoyment of new and different things, and not, instead, the joy of expelling, discarding.”

On the face of it, the title of this year’s Literature Festival in Islamabad, People, Planet and Possibilities, seemed to have an optimistic slant: small gestures (read small-time talks) adding up to something great, persistence being rewarded, the invincible being defeated by a weak force. But the Festival itself was hardly uplifting. Its formal dominant trope was Democracy, Bureaucracy and Judiciary. No wonder you were bored; under the skin of newness lay the same old hardware.

Islamabad has always seemed to labour under the imperative of novelty more than the Biennale or the KLF and the LLF. Unlike those shows, it seems to be construed as a venue that gives senators, politicians and bureaucrats their first big breaks – not a drip-by-drip on stone but a hammer to the wall. The current chapter of ILF has had old things on its mind; it was more or less a reminder to the city whose name it bore, to Islamabad’s status as a physical place bereft of cultural entertainment, that inflects the art made here and as the incubator of premature policies. There’s an inherent tension here with emphasis on the ‘emerging’ that is typical for Islamabad and its periodic showcases.

It appears that ILF’s overarching concern this time was the importance of the past and its existence in the present, and in a sub-textual way, the preciousness of what it cannot be. The Festival’s tone was set in a lobby with a display of counters that served as dividers during Covid-19 days when this fort-like structure made of stone and glass standing in F-9 Park called Gandhara Cultural Centre served as a centre for vaccination.

Predicated on the principles of lost and found, the available and the unavailable, the Oxford University Press managed to throw in a sizeable cast of moderators and speakers at its beck and call, even this time.

Safinah D Elahi with Taha Kehar.
Safinah D Elahi with Taha Kehar.

Within art, we can still be excited that something new may appear; we retain the ability to hope.

In an essay about Natalia Ginzburg, the Chilean novelist and critic Alejandro Zambra writes,” When someone repeats a story, we presume they don’t remember that they’ve already told it, but often we repeat stories consciously, because we are unable to repress the desire, the joy of telling them again.” Of course, the compulsion to retell a story is not always situated in joy’s lofty terrain. We might repeat a story in the hope of shrinking it to a manageable bite, or because it reminds us of another story, or to shine up disagreeable aspects of our lives, or to mock it, perhaps secretly wishing it will deflect mockery from our more vulnerable selves. Or, as a corollary, the storyteller did not know any better or was unable to weave a new narrative around an old tale. Or worse still, such was the demand of the situation where the writer(s) continue to wallow in brackish waters of stagnation. The 9th edition of the ILF, organised by the OUP, held between November 4 and November 6, began this way – with an oblique romance that wavered like a dart just thrown at a map, with literary leanings and flat bureaucratic types yawning in the background. Then there were those signature sentences, those reckless, rambling sentences that proceed like sleepwalkers traversing the same crosswalk, heedless of traffic lights.

Time almost always moves forward – one generation gets a moment in the sun, governments transition – but more to the point, in the session titled, Ishqnama Shah Hussain: Tassawuf, Malamat, Sangeet, Kalam occasionally self-referential author-voice changed and became less tortured and vain; and more attentive as the pages turned. This voice never remarked naively upon its own progress or belittled the journey at its end but changed constantly, subtly, over time and line by line, through processes of repetition. Eventually, Farrukh Yar recentres the picture, and his more mature, or at least subdued, consciousness accounts for some of this shift. Styles breezily adopted and sanctioned in earlier sections were pulled from the subconscious of the text and dissected, or objectified as punch lines, in later passages. During the session, Farrukh Yar reiterated how Shah Hussain’s stature as a malamati poet of the Qadiri order rises above the episodes associated with his life concerning the presence of Madho Lal.

While nomenclatures such as Foreign Affairs, Security Policy, Harmony Across Borders, Economic Challenges, Curriculum, Textbook, High-Stake Assessments buzzed around the entire Festival, from one hall to the other, as mere syllogisms, the Festival also had some moments of respite. While Moneeza Hashmi poignantly recalled the years of growing in her father’s shadow in Conversations with My Father: Forty Years on a Daughter Responds, Najeeba Arif accoladed Iqbal as an epoch-making poet followed by recitation of Iqbal’s verse by Ahmed Ata. Yasmeen Hameed beautifully explained the currency of translation during the session, Tarjuma Nigari ki Ahmiyyat, while Safinah Danish Elahi launched her second book, The Idle Stance of the Tippler Pigeon. In conversation with Taha Kehar, the writer shed light on the complex plot of her novel that circumvents the lives of three characters, forming a triumvirate.

One of the more productively wrongheaded criticisms I’ve heard voiced about Islamabad is that it looks too much to the past. The work it presents isn’t new or current enough. This mood is what distances it from us. Today’s downcast quality is different: at times, it has an ironical aspect, vigorous and briefly refreshing but bubbling into dissipation; else, it seems tranquilised into dissipation.

We are looking at our present in a way that is heavily informed by the experience of having recently lived through monumental historical events. For us, the present is the past. For us, the present is the future, one that we simultaneously obsess over and deny. Within art, we can still be excited that something new may appear; we retain the ability to hope. In a world-historical sense, the trends are easy to forecast. And the memory fog we all seem to suffer may not be the product of technology, as it’s so often framed, but rather the expression of a mass desire to get on with things. The crises of today have such radical ends that, subconsciously or otherwise, we can only see what’s happening today. Or we at least want to get to the end of the story, to get it over with, so we can turn out the lights.

The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad

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