Literature in the Fortress

March 26, 2013 | 1 book mentioned 1 6 min read

570_Lahore Lit FestivalLeft to right: Ali Dayan Hasan, Basharat Peer, Selma Dabbagh, Mohammed Hanif, Lyse Doucet, with Arundhati Roy on screen.

From the beginning, there was a hint of the surreal to the recent Lahore Literary Festival, but it was difficult to put my finger on the root of that unsettling emotion, especially given the overall aura of triumph. A response to similar events elsewhere in the region – the most famous in Jaipur; the most rivalry-inducing, for the last four years, in Karachi – the festival seemed its own victory party, a massive and successful gambit in Lahore’s bid to reclaim its title as the “cultural capital” of Pakistan. The excitement had Lahore full of visitors, Mall Road festooned with banners, the Alhamra Arts Council packed with people, and in the middle of all that buzz it seemed almost churlish to have the suspicion that something odd was at work.

The urge to make every(positive)thing in Pakistan somehow momentous and meaningful is dangerous – every movie cannot offer a revitalization or renaissance of cinema, every political party cannot, at this point, be logically seen as a rebirth of hope – but there was some predictable truth to the truism that the festival played, in Lahore, a very different role than it would have in a country or a city where such events are more common and less fraught. In part of course this had to do with the unimaginable odds that Pakistan has been facing, not just the most dramatic and terrible (including for example two recent, devastating attacks on the Hazara community, in Quetta; including for example the murder of a prominent doctor and his twelve-year-old son, in broad daylight as they drove to the boy’s school — located on the same Mall Road where we were gathered — simply because they were Shia), but also the more subtle and insidious, which have been at work far longer than any terrorist.

In part also the intensity of the enthusiasm had to do with the possibilities of literature in Pakistan, and with the great role that writers here can play. A month after “Jaipur” and a week after “Karachi,” the writers arrived “for Lahore,” and got the kind of reception that would greet the hypothetical combination of Tony Judt and Jay-Z: writers here combine the virtues and the functions of public intellectuals with those of celebrities. The ambiance at the Alhamra was like that which I imagine would surround a traveling circus, or one of those massive, star-studded concerts that travels the globe, with everyone eager to hear everything, see everything, learn everything.

My uneasiness wasn’t because of the common criticisms of the festival, which are both obvious and, in the end, not completely relevant. Despite no admission cost and what one assumes were the best of intentions, the festival was largely if not entirely an elite event, focused mostly on those who read, write, and think in English (and those who read, write, and think about literature in English, which is a smaller subset anywhere in the world), those who were willing and eager to laugh at jokes about General Zia-ul-Haq’s possible prostate exams or the relative marginality of drunks, airheads, and homosexuals. The festival may have been an echo chamber in which an unconsciously but nonetheless carefully defined “we” could talk amongst ourselves for a moment – and so what?

coverBut it was only a weekend, and with so much packed into only three days, there was no way to be able to see everything: constant double-booking organized the chaos. All three of the Alhamra’s massive halls were almost constantly in use, and choosing whether to listen to Shehan Karunatilaka talk about Chinaman or a conversation between Daniyal Mueenuddin, Ebba Koch, Jeet Thayil, and H.M. Naqvi about “a sense of place” was like having to choose your favorite Beatle. In nearly every panel I attended, the houses were so full that people were sitting in aisles and standing on steps, or lurking just outside the doors, hoping to slip in if someone left to take a phone call. The audiences included gaggles of spiky-haired teenagers, flirtatious college students, grandparents, and babies who had no choice but to perch on parental knees, uncomprehending of anything but, perhaps, the import of the moment. Which everyone understood: more important than the generational cross-section was the excitement, the passion running through the discussions, the constant questions and answers that made panels run beyond their time limits. The city was, briefly, a salon, and everyone wanted to be invited.

The festival’s most charming event was a conversation between two Urdu writers, the poet Zehra Nigah and Intizar Hussain, recently nominated for the Man Booker International Prize for his fiction. It was toward the end of the festival’s first busy day, and the massive, sloping hall was only half-full; most of the audience crowded into the front section, but as a preemptive measure, given the claustrophobia the day had induced, I climbed to the top. From that vantage point the room was like a cave, and far below me there were these two tiny figures; the only word that seemed appropriate for the two of them was “dignified.” Their ostensible topic was the translation of poetry, but after a few pro forma questions elicited only the obvious (poetry is harder to translate than prose; some translations are good, others are bad; translation is important), the moderator was wise enough to let them simply talk and reminisce about their work and about their lives, about a moment when a very different and almost-vanished literary culture was taken almost for granted.

That was in some ways a hint, an explanation for the hysterical tinge to the laughter, the edge to the applause. The surreal feeling had in fact begun to crystallize earlier, at a panel on the “literature of resistance,” when organizers attempted to play a video message from Arundhati Roy. The screen flickered and the sardine-packed audience went quiet, even the panelists on stage turning to look as those wise wide eyes and that half-smile appeared behind them. After a few seconds of a penetrating stare, her lips began to move, but there were no words. Eventually, as if to fill in the silence, we began making those noises that accompany technological glitches, muttering that eventually bubbled into laughter as the wordless message ran once and then looped back to the beginning. In the interest of time, the moderator, Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch, started the discussion under the still-running video, as though from Delhi Roy were looking down and keeping watch on us.

After the conversation was over, technicians pulled off some backstage magic and got sound and video to sync up. Once again, that penetrating stare, now with someone behind the camera counting off “three, two, one,” and then there was a boy’s voice asking Arundhati Roy, “Is there any message you would like to give the festival-protest?” The awkward hyphenate made me think of how Roy described such double-barreled terms, when she found herself frequently described as a “writer-activist”: “Like a sofa-bed.”

Her message sounded a cautionary note about the risk of “protest” becoming a “cool, middle-class acquisition – like an iPod,” the importance, for someone protesting, of clarifying both what you are protesting against and what you are protesting for – which is one of those ideas that is, particularly in circumstances in which there is plenty of both, obvious to the point of being forgotten. Her recommendation was to foreground the idea of “justice”; one of the panelists, Mohammed Hanif, made the equally obvious point that a festival, in the end, is really not a protest at all (except, perhaps, in the sense of the best revenge being living well).

The idea stuck with me, though. The incredible urgency, the amazing passion, the unequivocal triumph of the festival – that happened because it was in fact a certain kind of protest. Victory, even if only in a battle rather than a war, comes from the risk of defeat, from having an opponent, and after that question was asked both seemed present, palpable, reasonable explanations for that feeling that had been hovering over my shoulder. So if we are going to clarify what it is we were perhaps protesting against, or at least one of the things – perhaps it was that this is a world under siege, that these are soldiers for whom victory can, in the end, only be pyrrhic.

It turns out then that the setting was appropriate. On Lahore’s wide, tree-shaded Mall Road, which maintains some of its colonial-era grandeur despite the indignities of traffic and underpasses, the Alhamra buildings, completed in 1992, were designed by the architect Nayyar Ali Dada. He won several prizes for his work, and the complex is wonderful, those massive brick-clad halls studded in what seems almost a garden, full of winding paths and spontaneous courtyards. The automatic and in fact intentional association is to the Mughal buildings of old Lahore, the castles, the tombs, and, in particular, the fortresses: With their gates and high walls, with the imposing immensity of brick and stone, those fortresses were meant to be the places of last refuge. It was hard to shake the feeling that the same could be said of the Alhamra.

Thus it is worth remembering the building’s namesake, that other old fortress in Spain. The Alhambra was the citadel of the final territory lost to the Catholic monarchs; its defeat was the sign of the end. It was of the Alhambra that the last of the kings, marching south to exile, turned to catch one final glimpse.

Image credit: Ali Agha

's writing has appeared in Seminar and the New Orleans Review, and on 3 Quarks Daily. He is currently based in Lahore, Pakistan.

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