Over three days, everyone who is anyone flocked to the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) 2017. Crisp starched saris, Kolhapuri chappals, white hair and white chooridars, pure leather-bound notebooks, endless rounds of tea serving as the fuel for animated conversations about existentialism, philosophy, politics, the arts, and the role literature plays for all of these. The 8th KLF saw an increased footfall and as ever became the most happening event in the city by the sea.
“The KLF has busted many myths that existed about Karachi and its people. This festival has now successfully added ‘literary tradition’ to the list of things Karachi is known for. The literary tradition that is the legacy of our elders has been rekindled in our youth and we at the Oxford University Press (OUP) Pakistan are extremely proud to be the flag bearers of literary festivals in Pakistan,” says Saadia Mirza, Rights Manager at OUP.
The KLF was launched in March 2010, and is directed by Ameena Saiyid, founded by Ameena Saiyid and Asif Farrukhi, and produced by OUP. It is open to all and the entry is free. It features debates, discussions, talks, English poetry readings and Urdu mushaira, a book fair, book launches, readings, signings, satire, theatre, film screenings, music, and dance.
KLF has grown — from an attendance of roughly 5,000 in 2010 to 175,000 in 2016. In 2010 it had 34 sessions with 58 speakers/performers. This year, the 8th KLF featured close to 200 speakers and performers in around 76 sessions.
This year, a recurrent theme that surfaced in many talks was Pakistan’s economic challenges, and how they are affecting society and culture as a whole.
The important issue of gender was brought up in many a panel. Feminist activists and writers like Fahmida Riaz, Sheema Kirmani, Zehra Nigah and Sania Saeed were seen prominently participating. One unique book that was launched was Interpreting Islam, Modernity and Women’s Rights in Pakistan by Dr Anita Weiss, Professor at the University of Oregon. It was her second time at the KLF.
“The first time was in 2012. I’ve seen a few important changes. First, there is a lot more emphasis on books now. Previously there were a lot of talks, but not necessarily connected to explicit things people had written. Second, the audience now seems even more diverse than in 2012, with people coming from all walks of life,” says Dr Weiss.
However, the diversity she sees as positive is seen by some as a recession in the exclusivity of the KLF. The elite ownership and intellectual regality seems to be diluting. Some see this as a positive; others don’t. Many visitors were overheard commenting that the standard of the KLF is going down, referring to the fact that it is becoming more awaami which is resulting in a deconstruction of some of the carefully constructed social silos.
However, people like journalist and documentary filmmaker Faisal Sayani feel the opposite to be true. “The selection process seems flawed and nepotism-based, and KLF has become commercialised. But the festival is not, in essence, designed in a way that would deprive or bar masses from it. I find it to be pretty inclusive,” says Sayani.
He praised how many sessions dealt with important aspects of history, and praised in particular the session of screening of the documentary of slain activist Parween Rehman. But not everyone, according to him, visits the KLF for the love of the written word. “I believe hoards of people are just there socialise and take selfies with intellectual celebs.”
In a city like Karachi, a diverse crowd is but natural. “Karachi is a melting pot of so many ethnic and linguistic traditions that it is not easy to define the culture and tradition of this city — the Karachi experience is an intense experience. And that intensity is reflected in the sessions of the KLF. Any visitors will vouch for the palpable energy in the atmosphere of the KLF as writers, readers, politicians, actors, musicians, students, poets, academics and journalists all come together to celebrate the literary achievements and discuss the issues faced by Pakistan today,” says Mirza.
One of the most important sessions was about the city, titled “‘Karachi: Is Pakistan’s Boom Town still Booming?”, with a panel of people who know Karachi, especially the unparalleled Arif Hasan who knows the city better than anyone else.
“In 2015, 902 cars were registered daily in Karachi; during the last six months 800 motorbikes were registered daily. This city cannot accommodate it,” says Hasan. He raised brave questions about where the money being invested into Karachi’s real estate is coming from. Answering a question, he said that the main issue with Karachi is the tension that exists because it is the capital of a Sindhi-speaking province being dominated by a non-Sindhi speaking minority of the province.
The panel included stalwarts of Karachi, namely Aquila Ismail who is writer, activist and sister of Parween Rehman, Najmuddin Shaikh who is a distinguished diplomat, and Haris Gazdar who is a renowned researcher. Ismail compared Karachi to the mythical city of El Dorado, and said the gold of this city is in the hearts of its residents.
The crowd-pullers in the open air garden were more than just literary. One such popular celebrity session was the former celluloid queen Shabnam in conversation with Bushra Ansari. Shabnam brought back memories of a Pakistan before the fall of Dacca, and spoke about the best of times and the worst of times. Stand-up comedian Shafaat Ali provided the comic relief at the same venue, while the legendary Zia Mohyeddin’s reading session titled “Memories and Reflections” gave the KLF what completed it.
While many visitors observed that the number of sessions in Urdu and especially vernacular languages has decreased, Dr Weiss says that the writers were very diverse. But she adds that “There should be an effort to have greater regional distribution of authors, such as some coming from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or from Balochistan. There are important works coming out of those provinces, and effort should be made to include them.”
When asked why KLF and such festivals are important, Dr Weiss summed it up. “This is a celebration of the life of the mind.”
True to the KLF tradition, five literary prizes were awarded this year too at the festival.
These were awarded to the following winners:
Nasir Abbas Nayyar for Urdu Adab Ki Tashkeel-e-Jadeed
· 2017 Winner of the Karachi Literature Festival Pepsi Prize
Yasmin Khan for The Raj at War
· Winner of the 2017 The Italy Reads Pakistan Award
Omar S. Hamid for The Spinner’s Tale
· 2017 Getz Pharma Fiction Prize Winner
Omar Shahid Hamid for The Spinner’s Tale
· 2017 Karachi Literature Festival German Peace Prize Winners
Anam Zakaria for The Footprints of Partition (1st prize)
Farahnaz Ispahani for Purifying the Land of the Pure (2nd prize)
Ali Nobil Ahmad for Masculinity, Sexuality, and Illegal Migration (3rd prize)