If judged by a harmony between strong ideas and incisive riffing on a theme, the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) is not only Lahore’s best festival in recent memory, it is also one of the best big festivals in the past four years. The festival’s focus on the condition of precarity resonated with an intensifying mood of provincial doubt caused by security threats that came at the end of 2016, causing a change of venue from the ubiquitous Alhamra on the Mall to the adjacently located Avari Hotel, last year. Encased in glass and brick, Nayyar Ali Dada’s paean to Lahore, surrounded by a manicured urban garden, Alhamra reverberates with Pakistani modernism’s particular ideal of the coexistence of nature and progress.
LLF 2017 was aimed to explore how ideas emerge, converge and reform over time, echoing throughout history as they reveal points of similarity (parallel), contact (collisions) and encounter (trespass). Planned to be held at Alhamra, this edition would have been trans-historical, bringing the past into dialogue with the present with debates variously collapsing, hovering, evolving, accumulating or splintering across time, playing with the possibilities of perception in relation to fiction, holographic principle and contemporary theory.
The sheer scale, visceral texture, and (please add to that) burgeoning security threats to Lahore are often overwhelming for public events that are crowd-pullers. However, the organisers (as far as I gather) did not want to curate a festival that seeped into the landscape as earlier iterations had; rather, they wished to fashion an event that explored and expanded the potential of the literary festival model itself.
Consequently, the fifth edition of LLF was a show almost entirely detached from its locality. This approach enabled the curators to relinquish any obligation to a token engagement with the city and its communities. The festival squeezed from a three-day schedule to a single-day affair was housed in Faletti’s Hotel, spanning two large halls and a huge marquee. Many significant speakers and panellists, including the keynote speech by Peter Frankopan, the senior research fellow at Worcester College, Oxford, and Sinan Antoon, playwright and poet from Baghdad, were sidelined, as were various other panel discussions.
Once compressed into the overarching thematics, and absorbed into thinly-attended cavernous hall spaces, talks and discussions became largely indistinguishable from one another: ‘Wives, Daughters, and Courtesans of the Raj’ literalised the concept that we are still besotted with White imperialists; ‘Who Belongs Where?’ followed a route traversed in much early post-immigrant discourse; ‘Far Right, Far Out: Writing, Nationalism, and the Brave New World’ was strangely disengaged from the alternative ways of fiction writing we practice today; And ‘Pakistan at 70’, while moving, relied on an already familiar narratives of change and flux amidst a crowd of front-row youth up in arms over the debate.
Although the event was hailed by the local press as a ‘feat of strength’, the message that the LLF 2017 rhetoric delivered and its content itself diverged to the extreme. The whole was not united and the fracture caused by the compression was acute. This fissure was due to the conceptual rationale, yet the local representations, however disparate, operated far more critically as signifiers of the current modalities than their international counterparts.
The escalation of fear in contemporary global society is a consequence of media broadcasts that fill our daily lives and punctuate the multiplicity of communication and exchange networks. Max Rodendeck, Nermeen Sheikh and Ahmed Rashid decentred these broadcasts in their moving discussion on ‘Today in Fake News’. Whereas festival themes are not meant to be too rigorous, lest they appear inaccessible to a broad audience — this is, after all, entertainment-meets-cultural-diplomacy tinged with the diffused hope for educational experience — some of the sessions aimed at emotions and the positive side of anger. At worst they began to sound like literary therapy. At best, it reminded us that some of today’s strongest works hit you first in the gut.
While on the one hand, LLF 2017 opened up on Mohsin Hamid’s book launch of Exit West — a session filled with intellectual grit and humour — or, for that matter, the conversation between Hamid and Teju Cole, the Nigerian-American author of Open City, it mingled the simplistic and sophomoric with the tugged and hauled in ‘This is Where The Serpent Lives’ — Kamila Shamsie (at her naïve best) in conversation with Daniyal Mueenuddin.
Regardless of the festival’s glitches and curatorial flaws, it featured sessions that provided their own complex ruminations on history and labour, myth and the everyday: evocative and light-on-the-mind session ‘From Morocco to Darjeeling: Food, Tea and Wanderlust’ featured Jeff Koehler, traveller and cookbook author in dialogue with Momina Aijazuddin offering an elaborate aesthetic confluence of food and travel.
It goes almost without saying that the organisers/curators of LLF 2017 are rigorous, disciplined and intellectual curators who work consistently in those contexts. The Festival as it had been conceived initially would have delved into specific issues quite intensively, and would have moved the festival’s core concerns beyond the vague thematic catch-alls that characterise many other international literature festivals. Even if it had rendered some sessions as mutely stylistic, the multiple session model spread across three days would have been ultimately rewarding for the audience, drawing nuanced and unexpected connections between the spoken word and the written.
Unfortunately, LLF 2017, as it turned out, was an exhibition of contradictions, binaries and seemingly incompatible methodologies. The abstraction and aestheticisation of complex political ideas was problematic, while the programme’s design was often distracting and suffocating, leaving the audience with the feeling that it had digested something that was undoubtedly worthy but rather absent of flavour.
LLF 2017 certainly attracted the attention of local visitors (read the elite), for whom the intertwined questions pertaining to ‘movers and shakers’ of the society, ever-changing urban lifestyles, and the plausibility of resistance must have seemed particularly pressing. Unfolding during a spring that will probably best be remembered for the suicide bombings at Sehwan Sharif and the blasts in Lahore, which revealed the tenuous nature of the city’s political equilibrium as it aspires to a greater role in the regional cultural landscape, these festivals are perhaps most valuable for reminding us that there are still places in South Asia where an open conversation can take place through a dialogue.
Indeed, LLF 2017 made clear one certainty about life: World-making and word-making are as much about individuals as it is the systems of control that bring them together.