Pakistan finds a literary arc in impossible times

karachi 300x225 Pakistan finds a literary arc in impossible times The news last weekend from Quetta was terrible, at least 84 members of the Shia Hazara community died and 169 were injured in a massive explosion aimed at a minority community caught up in sectarian violence by Sunni militants.

Asma Jahangir, Pakistan’s leading human rights lawyer tweeted: “Shia cleansing must be stopped. How can a truck full of explosives cross all check points? Total impunity for those claiming responsibility!”, while a larger picture emerged on twitter of an Al-Qaeda–Pakistan Taliban–Lashkar-e-Jhangvi alliance to which Pakistan’s security forces turn a blind eye.

Meanwhile Karachi and Lahore literary festivals are proving a lifeline for the ‘other Pakistan’. The literary and intellectual scene is helping to provide a narrative arc for the country. At one session at the Karachi literary festival last Saturday a minute’s silence was held for the Hazara community and the victims of the militants.

In the morning Mohammed Hanif launched his short book The Baloch who is not Missing & others who are. How would you feel, he asked the audience, if your son or daughter did not return from their lessons? “If your child is late and he and his teachers do not answer their phones for two hours, what state will you be in?”

On the platform with Hanif stood Farzana Majeed whose brother has been held in custody of the security services in Balochistan. She thinks there are more than 15,000 cases of missing people in Balochistan. Seven hundred bullet-ridden bodies, young men, have been recovered.

From western perspectives Pakistan is a country where violence and poetry often appear to sit bewilderingly together. But there is an increasingly positive energy about its intellectual and creative life. In an idyllic setting on the edge of one of Karachi’s mangrove creeks, its fourth and largest literary festival took place last weekend.

There was online activity from as far away as Los Angeles and a tweets containing a #KLF hash tag appearing every few minutes; whether you were there or not, there was a buzz coming off the three day event. It was packed and animated, with over-spilling sessions on international politics, satire, new writers and poetry.

A raft of Karachi novelists present at the festival, in addition to Kamila Shamsie and H M Naqvi, included 89-year-old Intizar Hussain whose Basti has just been shortlisted for the 2013 International Man Booker prize. The book has received a rapturous review by Pankaj Mishra: “This brilliant novel from one of South Asia’s greatest living writers, should finally end the scandal of his relative obscurity in the West”.

In a session entitled ‘The dynamics of Karachi’, one of Pakistan’s leading architects Arif Hasan and French researcher Laurent Gayer found ways to constructively pin-point the city. Kamila Shamsie’s twitter feed mapped this session: the ethnic divide is understandable; it is linked to land, but the religious divide is not understandable, it is being promoted.

The problem is the collapse of the governance structure whenever that happens you get turf wars. Muhajirs, those who came over the border at Partition, Sindhis, Baloch all say “this is our city” … this diversity may appear a weakness but it’s a strength. There’s a lot of nostalgia for the peace of an old Karachi but it was also, in writerly terms, the peace of the dead.

This coming weekend the focus moves to Lahore and to another narrative and another perspective on Pakistan. Lahore is a city that has inspired poets and writers and intellectual heavyweights over centuries, including the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz  and the non-fiction and short-story writer Sadaat Hassan Manto.

In recent years no city has done more to map the narrative arc of Pakistan to international audiences in English through its writers. At the first literary festival in over 20 years, Bapsi Sidhwa, Tariq Ali, Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, Ali Sethi, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Nadeem Aslam will be talking about literature and the view from the north.

Between them they are three generations who span the Partition of 1947, the advent of military rule in the 1950s, Islamisation in the1980s, a second struggle for democracy, the Afghan wars and the War on Terror post 9/11, but their work constantly connects with the older narratives of the region through language, culture and history.

Literature is about conveying the human stories and finding moments of stillness, and also humour, in the difficulties that beset this constantly restless part of the world. By Pakistan’s writers this is done with great clarity and skill and often mind-tickling intelligence. There are other Pakistans outside the headlines of bombs and complicated geo-politics. Hugely intelligent, often very funny, Pakistan’s writers and journalists have been long over-looked. But if you’re a western publisher looking for the most interesting writers and literary scene to emerge on the international circuit, you should be looking straight at Pakistan.

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