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10 December 2023

Books not bombs at Pakistan literature festival


Pakistan has hosted one of the world's youngest and fastest-growing literary festivals, a showcase of new talent where writers urged citizens to reverse the tide of Islamist extremism and global isolation.

Now into a second year and determined to become an annual fixture on the international circuit, the Karachi Literature Festival portrays the softer face of a country more often associated with terrorism than award-winning prose.

Students, authors, budding writers and avid readers descended on a hotel in an exclusive neighbourhood near the Arabian Sea for two days of book launches, workshops, dance, music and theatrical exhibits that ended Sunday.

"It's to promote our authors, who are underrated and do not get the credit they're due, and also to interest people in reading and buying books," organiser and Oxford University Press managing director Ameena Saiyid told AFP.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was a British former Roman Catholic nun who pulled the biggest crowds -- children and glamorous housewives were reduced to sitting on the floor to hear her speak.

It was a rock-star welcome for Karen Armstrong, the best-selling author on religion. Her call for a more compassionate society resonated strongly with an audience deeply rooted in religion but fearful about the rise of radical Islam.

At other events, some of Pakistan's best known novelists offered a tantalising glimpse into their creativity, while Indian literary TV host Sunil Sethi launched his book "The Big Bookshelf" and dispensed interviewing tips.

"It's the most fabulous development for Karachi," said Aliya Naqvi, a doctoral student in Islamic history and wife of author H.M. Naqvi, whose debut novel "Home Boy" recently won an Indian prize for South Asian literature.

"Life goes on. You take a risk every time you step outside... But to ignore the rise of extremism would be disingenuous. It has to be acknowledged," she told AFP.

Gathering nearly 100 authors and moderators, a handful from abroad lent the event a veneer of cosmopolitanism, although organisers complained that the government denied visas to some Indians who had been invited.

India is considered by many in Pakistan to be the country's greatest enemy and peace efforts have been stagnant since Islamist gunmen killed 166 people in Mumbai in 2008. India blamed the attack on Pakistani militants.

At the festival, where up to 5,000 people turned up to listen to their favourite authors -- about twice as many visitors as last year -- some felt there was a duty to confront growing extremism.

Ironically, the September 11, 2001 attacks put Pakistani writers on the international map as inquisitive Westerners searched for insight into the Taliban and Islam, at the same time as throwing the country into war and chaos.

Ahmed Rashid, whose book "Taliban" became a US bestseller, delivered a thundering address, saying it was time Pakistan faced up to its own mistakes rather than blame the United States.

"We have to do something to save ourselves," he said, accusing Pakistan of meddling in Afghanistan, obsessing about India at the expense of national interest, failing the economy, sheltering Al-Qaeda and sponsoring the Taliban.

Nuclear physicist and social activist Pervez Hoodbhoy went further, warning a packed session on "Taking Stock: Where is Pakistan Now?" that the country was on "a knife-edge" and at risk of being overrun by a "clerical tsunami".

Mohsin Hamid, best-selling author of novels "Moth Smoke" and "The Reluctant Fundamentalist", said he did his best to look for the positive but conceded: "Fear is fundamental to what it's like to live in Pakistan right now."

The revolts in Egypt and Tunisia have resonated widely in Pakistan and were touched upon in questions from the audience. In response to one man, Hamid said it was not for him to lead a social movement onto the streets.

Inevitably in a country where English remains the preserve of the elite, who often live more luxuriously than the middle classes in the West and where the poor struggle on less than a dollar a day, there were cries of elitism.

US-educated novelist Bina Shah, whose new book "Slum Child" was snapped up like hotcakes, was asked how difficult she found it to write about a slum when she herself did not use public transport or go out to work.

"I've been in a rickshaw!" she hit back.