Democratising ideas

March 17, 2024

With each edition, the Peshawar Literature Festival has expanded in length and breadth

Democratising ideas


eshawar Literature Festival (started in 2022 with collaborative efforts by a few literary volunteers, as they describe themselves. Most of them were academics. Since its inception, the event has been growing, both in breadth and length. The first edition consisted of three days, the second lasted for five days and the third edition, which ended a few days ago, went on for 11 days.

The third edition was different on various counts. First, while it widened in terms of space and time, it also deepened in terms of contents and audience. Spanning over eleven days this year, the PLF spread out to peripheral regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as sessions were also held at Women University, Mardan; Khushal Khan Khattak University, Lakki Marwat; and Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Women University, Peshawar. The sessions focusing mainly on technology, called Brainstorm, were hailed at BRAINS, an IT Institute in Peshawar. Moreover, a three-day Children’s Literature Festival was arranged at the University Public School in Peshawar.

Overall, there were more than 150 sessions. These included panel discussions, book talks, book launches, author talks, translators’ talks, keynote addresses, language courses, workshops and a unique session at the late evening called Hujra-i-Mir aimed at reviving the hujra, a key component of Pashtun culture.

Interestingly, all the events were held at educational institutes that serve not only as springboards of thought but also are easily accessible to both the students and the public. Asked why they had chosen universities instead of hotels for the events, Dr Altaf Qadir, one of the organisers of the festival, said, “Most of us don’t have the appropriate clothes for visiting luxury hotels, let alone the lower social strata of society, which is our primary target audience.” He said, “Our goal is to make ideas and literature accessible to everyone and to connect the public with the public intellectuals.”

Another distinctive feature of the event was that instead of showcasing celebrities, it sought to bring out the local talent. Instead of gathering crowds around celebrities of various sorts, it provided space to emerging scholars and budding intellectuals. During the preparatory stage of the event, when someone suggested the name of a well-known intellectual of the country for a panel discussion, Aslam Mir pointed out that “his stardom will attract a huge crowd here, but he and his ideas are already known to everyone. We want to present those who are not that popular so far but need to be heard.”

Most of the sessions were held at the University of Peshawar in the Departments of Philosophy and Social Work, but the Department of History and Arabic also played key roles this year.

Democratising ideas

A distinctive feature of the event was that instead of showcasing the celebrities, it sought to bring out the local talent. 

The Department of Arabic, headed currently by a female literary enthusiast who doesn’t believe in confining her mission to the classroom hours lone, added colour to the event. The DoA halls were full of audience including many madrassa students and prayer leaders studying for a degree in Arabic language and literature. Tea and qahwa were offered not only to the speakers but also the audience.

A panel discussion was held at the DoA on exploring human dignity in Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. The panellists included a mufti, a pastor and a pundit who explained how each religion holds humans in high esteem. They argued that most of the shackles that have chained human freedom were usually socio-cultural and political-economic but were dyed in religious colours to seek vital legitimacy among the masses.

Dr Zahir Shah, a professor at the Arabic Department and head of the Seerat Studies Department, said, “Most of the girls and boys coming to our department have a background in madrassa education.” “In a madrassa,” he explained, “students are usually trained in reverence for the teachers and are not encouraged to ask critical questions. Additionally, extra-curricular activities are rare. Because of this madrassa students often lack confidence and shy away from asking bold questions.” “Therefore,” Dr Shah added, “I have persistently asked my students to attend all the events in the literature festival.”

Dr Salman Bangash, who heads the Department of History and has authored a book on the history of the tribal belt, The Frontier Tribal Belt: Genesis and Purpose Under the Raj, said, “Historically, Pashtuns have been depicted by Western scholars as ‘noble savages” and “bloodthirsty creatures.” He explained that most books on Pashtun’s history and culture depict a man with a wrinkled face, a turban and a gun. “That’s the image of Pashtun shown to the world, mostly by outsiders,” he maintained.

Democratising ideas

Dr Salman recalled that when his book was accepted for publication by the Oxford University Press, the publisher sent him three images asking him to select one among them for the book cover, those images, he said, contained a picture of a wrinkled man holding a gun. Instead, he said, he went for the one that showed a map of the tribal belt.

Dr Bangash hoped that these activities would not only inculcate a book-reading culture in the locals but also show the world that a Pashtun is not ‘martial’ by birth.

The eleven-day literature extravaganza concluded on March 02, with a well-attended session on Universities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa: Prospects and Challenges. The panellists included vice-chancellors of some universities in the KP. They discussed the gap between the demand and supply of academic produce and stressed some key policy and practice interventions that need immediate attention.

The coming edition of the PLF, with a theme of Re’naaye-e-Khayal is scheduled from February 11 to 22, 2025.

The writer has a background in English literature, history and politics. He can be reached at X@nadeemkwrites

Democratising ideas