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Liberal Pakistanis Reclaim 'Shrinking Space' For Expression At Karachi Lit Fest

Attendees peruse the books available at last weekend's Karachi Literary Festival.
Diaa Hadid
Attendees peruse the books available at last weekend's Karachi Literary Festival.

Men and women were piling in to a panel at a recent book festival in Pakistani city Karachi, but a speaker was late. "In a country which is infamous for missing persons," the moderator, Javed Jabbar, announced, "we have a missing speaker."

"Khuda na khasta,"Jabbar added, "God forbid" in Urdu — "it is not due to the reason why people sometimes disappear from Pakistan."

Jabbar, a prominent writer, was referring to the disappeared — shorthand for thousands of Pakistanis taken over the years by plain-clothed men who activists say are linked to intelligence services, some never to return. Their numbers include suspected militants, insurgents and increasingly, activists say, peaceful critics of Pakistan's military.

Activists say it's a taboo issue in Pakistan and they can be punished for talking about it.

But this was the Karachi Literature Festival, an annual event , held at a seaside hotel over the weekend. Writers and participants frenetically dissected Pakistan's pressing problems. What they couldn't say outright, they tucked into humor, winks and nods.

"We have a way of dealing with this kind of shrinking or diminishing space," said Bina Shah, a writer who hosted a panel on the #MeToo movement against the sexual harassment of women. She referred to the military dictator Zia ul-Haq, who ruled for a decade before he died in a plane crash in 1988. "We learnt different ways of saying things. We learnt to speak around obstacles. We learnt to use code."

The festival has been running for the past nine years, and the issues it raises in any given year offer a snapshot of Pakistani life. What's more, the way those issues are discussed signal the ebb and flow of freedoms in a country that's flipped between civilian rule and military dictatorship since its birth in 1947.

Funded in part by corporate sponsors, the Karachi Literature Festival is considered the biggest, most dynamic of its kind in Pakistan. It's where writers hope to be showcased and speak on panels. The event is free and open to the public, giving it a rare buzz shared among the city's residents, from elites to provincial students.

The mood among many liberal Pakistanis has turned quietly grim over the past year, after four middle-class bloggers who criticized the military vanished for several weeks in December 2016 and January 2017. Most recently, Reza Kahn, a man who advocated peace between India and Pakistan, was seized on Dec. 2. Khan's brother said the abduction came after he engaged in a heated political discussion at a public event.

That was not the fate of the speaker in the panel that Jabbar was moderating. Minutes after he made his tongue-in-cheek announcement, the speaker entered.

"Welcome, welcome, you were marked absent!" Jabbar said. "Thank God, the agencies have returned you," he joked.

The panel's speakers spoke carefully but critically about Pakistan's security problems, including what they claim is the government's support of militant groups. Pakistan's government denies the claim. Audience members pressed speakers on corruption in the government and the military.

The atmosphere was set at the festival's opening ceremony. Writer Asif Farrukhi urged attendees to meditate on Pakistan's problems, even while celebrating books, poetry and music. "We must not forget the looming darkness which dances all around these rings of light," he said. "Look at the increased fragility of our society and the sense of crisis it generates. We are increasingly a society that nurtures monstrous figures of intolerance."

That sense of urgency repeated across panels over 2 1/2 days, with discussions like "Universities or Nurseries of Terrorism?" A book launch for The Faltering State: Pakistan's Internal Security Landscape, and another for The Impact of Afghan-Soviet War on Pakistan.

Pakistanis longed for these conversations, said Mehboub, 37, a philosophy teacher and devout Muslim, who only gave his first name. "These are things that people are desperate to hear, desperate to discuss, desperate to have a dialogue."

It's a balancing act, said Ameena Saiyid, founding director of the festival. Part of the event's mission is to debate. "It's very important to have a discussion — to let off steam and also to arrive at some kind of decision," she said.

But, she added, some issues could not be discussed openly. There are "thousands of people who are going to attend this festival. We have to think of their security and their safety, and I feel there are some topics that would place them at risk."

For those topics, there were other ways. "Through drama or plays," she said, "there are many issues that can be covered that you could not possibly cover, you know, in an outright lecture or outright debate."

On Saturday, the literary festival staged a play, Chup ("Silence"), directed by Sunil Shankar, which refers to the disappeared, through the eyes of a family who receive mysterious calls.

For some at the festival this did not go far enough. The speakers were considered "safe," said Waqqas, 20, a student who requested his full name not be used, because he was critical of the government. They would not push the discussions into dangerous and necessary places, he said. "Politics is part of literature," he said.

Other attendees craved a literary oasis, free of politics.

Reza Khan, 30, and his fiancée, Nishat, were browsing through pop-up book stalls. Khan carried his fiancée's purchase: Gabriel García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera.

Political issues "are the things that we usually see on talk shows, and for me I'm really fed up from discussing these problems," he said. Instead, he wanted to "focus on the physical reading of books."

For the most part, audience members were happy to infuse their literature with defiance.

One of the most popular segments featured the singer Arieb Azhar. Between songs, he repeated the verses of a beloved South Asian Sufi mystic, Bulleh Shah:

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

Azhar broke into a song, chanting, "When I say the prayer of love, I forget temple and mosque."

The audience cheered, and clapped along.

With additional reporting by Abdul Sattar, NPR's Islamabad bureau assistant.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.