Coffee House

The importance of Pakistan’s literary festivals

6 March 2013

For a country often conceived of only in terms of its troubles with terrorism, extremists and bombs, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that, in Pakistan, all forms of cultural expression have long ceased. But, in the latest edition of Time, there’s an interesting piece by Omar Waraich about the cultural flipside of Pakistan that caught my eye.

As the world’s attention has been drawn to Pakistan’s problems with Islamist militancy in recent years, a flurry of exciting new voices have stepped forward to share with their readers a more intimate and rounded look at the country and its people — winning many plaudits along the way.


Waraich was attending literary festivals recently held in Karachi and Lahore celebrating Pakistani writers and literature about the country. These were neither sanitised nor closeted affairs. One participant, Yassin Musharbash, a German journalist with Die Zeit, read from his novel Radikal containing a scene in which Muslim immigrants are challenged about some of the Qu’ran’s more intemperate and troubling verses.

I met Musharbash in Berlin shortly before his trip where he was still debating the wisdom of reading from this section of his novel in Karachi. In the end he stuck with it and Karachi’s chattering classes engaged with his criticism on literary — rather than religious — merit. Given the violent targeting of Shia communities in Quetta and Karachi over the last two months, exposing scriptural orthodoxies to debate is long overdue for Pakistanis. Waraich also sensed a broader importance to these literary events, arguing:

‘It is perhaps also through fiction that the real world’s old enmities can be smoothed over. One of the most promising exchanges of recent years has been Indian and Pakistani writers crossing the border over which their armies have fought three wars to speak at literary festivals in both countries.’

Along with cross-border cultural exchanges, Pakistani writers are becoming increasingly emboldened. Columnists like Fasi Zaka and Nadeem Paracha regularly confront religious radicals, denouncing them in angry terms. There are few better antidotes to reactionary belief than the dialectic of cultural vibrancy, infused with scrutiny and irreverence. If that tradition can take root in Pakistan it will provide a most necessary corrective to the stranglehold militants have held on public life so far.

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  • salieri

    Indeed: only the other day I read that that doyen of the Karachi chattering class, Bin-Liner himself (retd hurt), entertained a great fondness for ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’ but, unhappily and despite Herculean efforts, could never find a truly satisfying Arabic translation of Proust. But he was all for cultural vibrancy, oh yes; who could not be? And we can be proud of having so much of it here in the UK.

    • salieri

      I also read that, with the nation’s 70th birthday approaching, a Pakistani publishing-house has commissioned a collection of essays entitled ‘What Pakistan has Given the World’. Plans are afoot to publish this festschrift in the UK, in the Slim Volume series, alongside such other titles as ‘Ted Heath, by His Friends'; ‘Putin’s War on Corruption'; ‘The Wit & Wisdom of Gordon Brown'; and ‘Swansea – Style Capital of Europe’.

  • telemachus

    It was a mistake for Rushdie to offend the benevolent and peaceful followers of Islam. The religion of peace should not be ridiculed unless those who do so are willing to face the reasonable consequences. There is no excuse for causing offence, and in the UK after 2015 our Great Leader will ensure that none may be offended.

    • Austin Barry

      “The religion of peace should not be ridiculed unless those who do so are willing to face the reasonable consequences.”

      Oh, like death? You are quite, quite mad teleman.

    • rollahardsix

      Ok, i asume this is a joke (if so it is an amusing parody), or someone is pretending to be telemachus in order to look more rediculous than normal… As no rational person could think this post is anything other than a joke, I will not bother to address the unending BOLLOCKS that constitutes the bulk of what has been written in the comment

    • tele_machus

      not me

    • chan chan

      If you keep saying we’re not really peaceful, we’ll kill you.

  • Austin Barry

    I’ll believe Pakistan has turned a corner when Salman Rushdie can read from The Satanic Verses in one of its festivals.

    It will never happen.

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