Irfan Husain reports that Pakistan’s High Commissioner was one of the few who didn’t enjoy an event-packed day

It’s a long way from Karachi’s Beach Luxury Hotel – home to the Karachi Literary Festival – to London’s South Bank, but the organisers managed the transition seemingly without a hiccup.

The literary event has become a popular fixture on Karachi’s cultural calendar, and on its eighth iteration, it drew 100,000 visitors over three days. Much of the credit goes to the Pakistani branch of the Oxford University Press that has been the driving force behind the KLF. One reason for its popularity is that it doesn’t charge for entry, so families turn the event into a genuine festival, with children flocking to their own special events. People amble into talks, and head to another if they get bored. The mood is laid back, and part of the fun is in socialising with friends you bump into.

At South Bank, however, the KLF was hosted by Alchemy – a body dedicated to bringing in cultural events from South Asia – and was more tightly run. Events began and ended pretty much on time, and the largely expatriate audience participated actively in the proceedings.

One person who clearly didn’t have a good time, however, was the Pakistani High Commissioner. Seated on the dais next to Mohammed Hanif, the keynote speaker, he was reduced to playing with his cell phone as the satirical author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes tore into Pakistan’s dictators, and savaged the country’s intelligence agencies for their role in ‘disappearing’ journalists, dissidents and bloggers. At the end of his speech, the High Commissioner was the only one who didn’t applaud. One could only feel sorry for him: clearly, he didn’t want to be reported by the Pakistani spooks who must have been in the audience.

One problem with the festival was that there were too many speakers and themes on the over-ambitious programme, and not enough time. This forced the organisers to stuff too much into each session, thus making for a bit of a kedgeree or, as we would say in Urdu, kitchree. And as several sessions were held simultaneously, there were difficult choices to make.

In the panel discussion on ‘Blaming the Elite: Class, Greed and Gender’, for example, we had a young leftist academic, Taimur Rahman, giving a succinct and sharply-focused talk on Pakistan’s class conflict, while Moni Mohsin and HM Naqvi read from their respective novels. All three were fascinating in their own way, but the discussion did not mesh together as there were few commonalities in their treatment. And gender wasn’t even discussed.

One potentially riveting subject on the programme was ‘Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: Diaspora Pakistanis Caught in the Brexit Hate-Storm’. Although the strong panel included Ziauddin Sarkar, Farooq Bajwa and Iftikhar Chaudhri, the discussion rarely focused on the Islamophobia that raised its ugly head after last year’s Brexit referendum. And panellists and the audience pussyfooted around the issue of integration by Muslim migrants.

‘Against All Odds: The Price of Prosperity in Pakistan Today’ had another group of heavyweights, including Maleeha Lodhi (Pakistan’s current ambassador to the UN); Shuja Nawaz (author of Crossed Swords, a comprehensive book on the Pakistan army); Ishrat Hussain (ex-governor of the State Bank of Pakistan); and Victoria Schofield (author of numerous books on Pakistan and Kashmir). While all the speakers patted Pakistan on the back for functioning when many around the world had written it off as a failed state, they didn’t get to grips with what had pushed it to the brink in the first place.

All in all, having over 60 speakers in a single day produces its own problems. While the organisational ones were overcome, it was clearly difficult to examine serious themes in any depth. This was a case of ambition exceeding the time available.

Perhaps more serious is the tendency at many literary festivals to include a range of subjects, from politics to economics to sociology. Straying far from prose and poetry, such events pull in journalists and academics who have specialised in a wide array of subjects. These speakers may add intellectual heft to the proceedings, but creative writing is pushed to the margins. This is specially true of the Karachi Literary Festival where, over the years, the programme has come to be dominated by columnists, ex-diplomats and academics. In part, this is because of the welcoming space provided by an annual event in a city that has acquired a reputation for criminal, sectarian and ethnic violence.

The fact that the KLF has provided the inspiration for other cities to hold their own literary festivals reveals the hunger many Pakistanis have for intellectual debate. And the crowds that flock to these events attest to a creative, vibrant society that is far from a failed state.

Irfan Husain is a columnist for Dawn, Pakistan’s biggest-selling English-language newspaper, and has also written for many other international publications, including The Economist, the Christian Science Monitor and The Times of India. He is the author of the prize-winning book Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West

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