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Coffee House

The importance of Pakistan’s literary festivals

6 March 2013

3:59 PM

6 March 2013

3:59 PM

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.

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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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