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In Pakistan, Attending A Literature Festival Is An Act Of Defiance


In Pakistan, it's not uncommon for critical journalists and activists to get death threats. So a literary festival isn't just book signings and poetry readings. NPR's Diaa Hadid went to the Karachi Literature Festival and found acts of defiance there.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Walk inside the festival, and you'll see a rare event. There's all sorts - coifed women in elegant saris, men from provincial towns, many transfixed by one woman. She's got a neck tattoo and piercings. Amid the fun, writers debate the country's problems - child sex abuse, militancy, corruption. This is Ameena Sayyid (ph), the festival organizer.

AMEENA SAIYID: I think some of the issues here are so compelling and so pressing that it is very important to have a discussion on them.

HADID: But some issues are so taboo that activists say officials warn journalists against talking about them. Like the disappeared, the thousands of Pakistanis taken by plain-clothed men over the years. At the literary festival, it's wrapped in humor. Javed Jabbar (ph) is a moderator on a panel about Pakistan's security problems, and a guest is late.

JAVED JABBAR: In a country which is infamous for missing persons, we have a missing speaker. And (foreign language spoken), it is not due to the reasons why people sometimes disappear from Pakistan.

HADID: The guest finally arrives.

JABBAR: Welcome, welcome. You were marked absent, but, thank God, the agencies have returned you. You were declared a missing person.

HADID: Bina Shah is a writer. She says people feel more courageous at a literary festival. Still, she says Pakistanis use winks and nods to get around restrictions.

BINA SHAH: We have a way of dealing with this kind of shrinking or diminishing space. We learn different ways of saying things. We learn to speak around obstacles. We learn to use code.

HADID: But some folks here, they're over politics.

What did you get?

REZA: "Love In The Time Of Cholera."

NISHAT: I got it, not him.

REZA: Yeah.

HADID: That's Reza and his fiancee, Nishat.

REZA: These are the things that we usually see on talk shows. And, for me, I'm really fed up from discussing these problems.

HADID: The most popular segment here is a performance for singer Arieb Azhar.

ARIEB AZHAR: (Singing in foreign language).

HADID: Azhar sings verses of a Sufi mystic - tear down the mosque and the temple, too. Break all that divides, but do not break the human heart, as it is there that God resides.

It's poetic defiance against religious conservatives who see this kind of talk as near blasphemy. And the audience, they clap along.


HADID: Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Karachi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.