Long on Talent, Short on Time

Despite ongoing political difficulties in Pakistan, a thrilling but all-too-brief literature festival took place on 11 and 12 February in the nation's largest metropolis. Impressions from Karachi by Stefan Weidner

By Stefan Weidner

Literature festivals are popular – in Germany, in Europe, and indeed throughout the world. More often than not, we see the same authors in the space of a few weeks in Berlin and in Jaipur, in Erbil in northern Iraq, Asila in Morocco and the Colombian city of Medellin – a city not only famous for its involvement in the drug trade, but also for its excellent festival of literature.

For sure, these festivals often appear like space ships landing in a random area and discharging a cargo of writers, books and international culture onto the bewildered natives, if these are at all interested in such exotic goings-on. And if such a space ship can land in Medellin, why not in Karachi?

Many local fans

An all-star line-up for an enthusiastic and highly educated public: The third Karachi Literature Festival featuring major international voices and lesser-known younger writers was a thrilling event, writes Stefan Weidner

​​In February 2012, it actually landed there for the third time and has in the meantime attracted a strong local following and a large, very enthusiastic, highly educated audience – so enthusiastic and educated in fact, that for a moment you might have been forgiven for thinking that the fans hitched a ride on the space ship.

Organised by the British Council with support from the Goethe Institute, the US embassy and other institutions, this year's literature festival landed on the peaceful outskirts of Karachi, in the wealthy "Defense" district in the Carlton Hotel, overlooking the water and protected by heavily armed security forces.

This may have lent the festival an air of exclusivity, but it was open to all, and free to attend. The only requirements for attendance were an awareness that the event was taking place at all, and a good enough command of English to follow the programme of events – Urdu was rarely spoken.

The festival featured a glittering array of authors including some of the great international voices of Pakistani-English literature, among them Hanif Kureishi, Mohsen Hamid, Mohammed Hanif and Kamila Shamsie. But there were also many younger, lesser-known names to discover, for example the young writers Maniza Naqvi or Bina Shah.

International and Anglophone

Best-selling author Shobhaa De travelled to the festival from India: Her plea for greater acceptance of the emancipatory potential of her "chick lit" found particular resonance with younger female readers

​​Not that the festival was lacking in international flavour. Best-selling author Shobhaa De travelled to Karachi from India to vehemently defend the emancipatory significance of the fiction genre "chick lit". Of course, her comments found favour with the predominantly young female audience, while one of the few older men in the crowd pointed out that English-language readers are already emancipated and that there have been and still are women writing in Urdu who have contributed much more to the process of female emancipation and in doing so, demonstrated far more courage.

The English novelist William Dalrymple also flew in from India. He has been living in Delhi for a while now, and his travel accounts and highly readable historic books on the Islamic-Indian past are also popular with readers in Pakistan.

The few European participants on the other hand appeared to be something of an oddity, even though they were presenting books on the subject of the Islamic world and which were therefore highly pertinent to the festival – for example Navid Kermani and Jürgen Frembgen from Germany, and Robin Yassin-Kassab from Britain. What was missing, however, was "normal" literature in other languages, the stories and poems from another world – another world from the Pakistani-Islamic viewpoint, that is.

Forum for debates

Travel writer, historian, art critic and foreign correspondent: William Dalrymple enchants Pakistani readers with his historic books on the Islamic-Indian past

​​But in any case, perhaps the most important element of the festival was not the literature per se, but the discussion forums, which were often highly political, for example on the war of secession between Pakistan and Bangladesh, or the debate over the threatened status of Pakistan's religious and ethnic minority. Judging by the high level of audience interest in these events, it is clear that opportunities to hold public debates on such issues are still few and far between in this country.

This made it all the more regrettable that the festival only lasted two days and that participants were so numerous it was difficult to find the time and opportunity to gather informally on the sidelines of the many podium discussions (with four such events being held in parallel).

Both audience and writers simply needed more time to get to know each other. Let us hope that organisers, who have again achieved great things in 2012, will heed this small piece of constructive criticism and extend the duration of next year's festival!

Stefan Weidner

© Qantara.de 2012

Editors: Arian Fariborz, Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de