Pakistan’s literary scene is seeing a spirited revival, with packed festivals attracting tens of thousands in a rock concert-like atmosphere that defies security threats in a growing cultural renaissance.
Events such as the raucous Lahore Literary Festival, held over the weekend, are reclaiming the ‘cultural space’ that has shrunk significantly in the conservative Muslim nation in recent years amid a raging Islamist insurgency.
The festivals—platforms for all forms of cultural expression, from architecture to film to food writing and feminism, as well as poetry and a recital by Central Asian musicians—are becoming a forum for exchange of liberal thought across the Muslim world.
“It’s great—one of the saddest things when you keep talking about Islam, the Muslims, the Ummah (the brotherhood of Muslim countries) is we don’t know what their writers are, we don’t know what their stories are,” said Mohammed Hanif, whose internationally renowned 2008 novel “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” weaves a dark comedic narrative around the death of dictator Zia ul Haq.
“And there is very little that gets translated from these languages. So it’s great to have Palestinian writers, Egyptian writers,” he told AFP at the Lahore festival.
The event began with an interview with veteran Indian actress Sharmila Tagore, who received a standing ovation after discussing her storied career in Bengali and Bollywood cinema.
She hailed the cross-pollination of artists across the two rival countries’ borders as an important part of “cultural diplomacy”.
Other top-billed speakers included outspoken Egyptian-American feminist Mona Eltahawy—whose vociferous denunciations of patriarchy and the politics of the hijab gave the festival some of its most energetic and controversial moments.
“When we talk about the Global South, when we talk about women of colour, the issues that we talk about... it’s very important for me to be able to come to Lahore and say, ‘Look, the issues that I have written about in my book are very similar to issues in Pakistan that feminists are fighting over’,” she told AFP.
“I want to talk about how as Muslim women we are reduced to what’s on our heads and what’s in between our legs and I want to talk about the sexual revolution.”
Critics say successive Pakistani governments, influenced by the religious right, have done little to encourage artistic expression or have even curtailed it—including banning Lahore’s spring kite-festival of Basant in 2007, which Islamists accuse of propagating Hindu thought.