The festival season

November 12, 2023

Do literary festivals really matter?

The festival season

Dear All,


ovember seems to have been a busy month for those associated with the literati/ culture-vulture circuit in Pakistan. Preparations are under way for the Lahore Literature Festival (in spring), even as Islamabad and Karachi festivals have bookended weekends in November.

But how much do such events really matter in the cultural context? Are they now becoming a little tired and predictable in terms of content and participants?

The current trend of large, open-to-the-public lit-fests in urban Pakistan began in 2010 when Oxford University Press-Pakistan started the festival. The then-managing director of OUP, Ameena Sayyid and the author and educator, Dr Asif Aslam Farrukhi, founded it. At that time, Pakistan was still reeling from the violence of the militancy and deadly terror attacks had become an almost daily occurrence all over the country. In that environment, an event like a literary festival seemed to mark the start of a process of healing. People came together, they discussed things, they spoke about life and love and literature, they spoke of the repression and violence they were living through and how they could express this in their work. They discussed domestic and international politics through the context of new publications.

The OUP festival seemed to grow from strength to strength, and in 2013, the OUP took it out of Karachi by establishing the Islamabad Literature Festival. By this time, a rival festival, the Lahore Literary Festival, had been founded. It, too, was initiated in 2013. The LLF has been held in Lahore’s Alhamra every spring. It has been accessible to the public. It has also been exported as a ticketed event to London and New York. As if this was not enough, the Adab festival (adab – not adaab as some people tend to mispronounce it) entered the scene in 2019. This was also founded by Ameena Sayyid and Dr Asif Aslam Farrukhi after Ameena Sayyid had left the OUP. The parting of ways had, reportedly, been somewhat acrimonious.

The KLF has been an OUP event; it remained an OUP event, so its founders set up their own festival. Although this suffered a setback with the death of Asif Farrukhi in 2020, the Adab festival has been held at various venues for the last four years. Earlier this year, they held the Pakistan Literary Festival in London (OUP held a KLF in London in 2017 as part of the South Bank Centre’s Alchemy Festival).

So now, three large literary festivals are operating in Pakistan and at least two of them (KLF and Adab) seem to be in direct competition for the same sponsors and funding. The LLF competes for speakers and attention but perhaps less so for sponsors (its founder and CEO is Razi Ahmed, whose family owns Newsweek Pakistan and various other ventures). So, has this competition increased the quality of the festivals or has it had the opposite effect?

As somebody who has had the privilege to be a delegate at many of these events, I have to say that while I love attending them and being part of the discourse, I have begun to question how they are curated or the point of some of the panels. The recent OUP Islamabad Literature Festival, held a week ago, was a huge and successful event but as is increasingly common in some of these events, many panels had nothing to do with publications, books or literature (although they did tick other boxes in terms of discourse, meaningful exchange, intellectual activity etc).

The ILF 2023 had some absolutely outstanding sessions. For me, the most memorable ones turned out to be those linked to actual books: the one on Quratul Ain’s Aag ka Darya, for example, or the one on Syed Irfan Ashraf’s The Dark Side of Journalism. At the former, Dr Amir Hamid Jafri and Professor Agha Sajjad Hussain spoke with the moderator, Dr Arif Azad, about their work in creating an e-book of Quratulain Hyder’s 1959 novel along with annotations and an extensive glossary. They spoke about the challenges of making a relatively difficult novel both more accessible and ensuring that the pronunciation and etymology of much of the vocabulary used was clear and correct. Dr Jafri’s animated style and his utter delight in discussing the work referencing genres and literary traditions was especially inspiring.

The Dark Side of Journalism discussion also had a stellar panel: the author Dr Syed Irfan Ashraf (an academic and journalist), Hamid Mir, Afrasiab Khattak and Saba Gul Khattak. Intelligently moderated by Fasi Zaka, the discussion was in the context of the book, which looks particularly at the evolution of the ‘fixer’ over the years of the so-called ‘war on terror’ and the wars in Afghanistan. There was discussion on how fixers are local journalists whose local knowledge and ‘cultural capital’ is bought at a relatively cheap price by media outlets for confirmation of information, setting up interviews or just feeding stories to a correspondent who then takes the by-line and credit for the report. Not being actual staffers, fixers are vulnerable since agencies and outlets have no duty of care for them. Often they are just cannon fodder. Hamid Mir reminded the audience of the case of Hayatullah Khan, a local journalist in North Waziristan: the one who exposed the reality of US drone attacks in the tribal areas (until then vehemently denied by the state) by managing to salvage a fragment of a US drone that crashed. He was eliminated soon after (abducted and then killed) in 2006. Members of his family who tried to pursue the investigation into his murder were also killed.

The level of discourse and insight at both of these discussions was impressive and engaging. The fact that they revolved around writing and scholarship made sense because somehow one wants literary festivals to be about writers and writing – but the fact of the matter is that any thoughtful discourse – whether linked to a publication or not – is welcome.

The answer to my own question is: these festivals do matter. They matter very much. They encourage people to listen, exchange opinions and learn from experts and researchers in various fields. Even if the schedules do include some dull or sifarshi panels, a few top-notch discussions make the whole experience worth the effort.

The worry now is: will the competition for funding and speakers make these events less well thought out and carefully curated than they have been in the past?

Best wishes,

Umber Khairi

The festival season