Unpacking LLF 2018: Three Accounts
Noor ur Rehman, Aiman Chaudhary and Urooj Rishi attended the LLF 2018 and came back with vastly different accounts of what happened. We decided that the personal and the political could not be separated and so here is a journal-style compilation of their take on the two-day event.
The upside of oversharing
As I walked on the gravel road from my flat in the morning towards LLF 2018, I could feel the lovely weather which neither fell in winter proper nor assimilated itself in spring but fell somewhere in between. It was for the first time that I was visiting Lahore Literary Festival although I had been a student of Literature in Lahore for the last four years. The gentle breeze made me shudder with pleasure as I anticipated the talks and seminars of the day.
The first seminar ‘Art and Human Condition’, which I attended, was presented by Esther Freud from the UK, Janne Teller from Denmark, Çiler İlhan from Turkey and Sabyn Javeri from Pakistan. The panelists talked about the role of the arts – especially literature – in human life, and its impact on our understanding of reality. Janner Teller argued that the purpose of literature is to bridge the human gap and bring us closer to our biological self and aesthetics residing in there. I found her explanation quite amazing as it reminded me of Nietzsche’s understanding of tragic poetry and Dionysian depths within the human psyche.
Although I was unaware of this at the time, the man sitting next to me was the famous poet and writer Ben Okri.
Even after the discussion had started, more and more people entered the hall, until there were no more seats and they started sitting on the stairs going up to the first floor. A good number of people, who were enthusiastic about the discussion stood in the empty space by the main door. (A fire hazard, I assume.) Although I was unaware of this at the time, the man sitting next to me was the famous poet and writer Ben Okri. As the the discussion dragged on regarding the role of politics in literature, and got stuck there, he slowly left the hall along with his mineral water bottle.
It started drizzling in the early afternoon and I loved it more with all the poetry of my heart. The grassy ground with the huge trees standing above it and the terracotta coloured walls of the different halls imparted their own glamour to the gentle rain. As the day rolled on, the number of attendees at the event increased. However, I found most of the people surrounding the refreshments stalls and coffee machines, which clarified one thing: aesthetics has its roots in the human stomach. Who can appreciate Ghalib on an empty stomach?
On the second day of the festival, the weather was milder as the sun had come out although a soft breeze made the leaves rustle. The number of people attending the talks had increased; probably because it was Sunday. I waited impatiently for the talk about Lahore and Karachi in the Alhamra art gallery. While I sat there close to the door, an elderly lady came with her adolescent son through the door. The son, out of naivety and inexperience, suggested they sit in the front row. Mother disagreed and said, “We should sit close to the door. It is easier to leave when the talk bores you.” I stifled a laugh. Unfortunately, the joke was on me. We all had to leave the hall because the talk had been cancelled without notice.
At LLF 2018 I enjoyed the talk about ‘Ghani Khan: Iconoclast’. The talk was mediated by Shandana Khan and the delegates included Imtiaz Ahmed Sahibzada and Sabah Husain. Sahibzada has translated 141 poems of Ghani Khan from Pashto to English. The speakers talked about the writings, life, and anecdotes of Ghani Khan. Sabah Husain showed some of the portraits painted by Ghani Khan and narrated her venture of convincing the stubborn Khan to display his works in the 90’s. They concluded the session with a popular musical rendition of Ghani Khan’s poem ‘Reidi Gul’ done by Yasir and Jawad.
Since the morning, on the second day of LLF 2018, bad things were happening to me. I had lost one of my shoes. The breakfast was bitter and disappointing. I am conservative in my food preferences and only have a cappuccino when it comes to coffee; otherwise, brown tea. I tried black coffee for God knows what whimsical reason and I kept spitting in solitude for a good while behind the halls afterwards. The first talk I planned to visit did not happen; I do not blame the authorities as my bad fate for the day was messing everything up. I sat outside on the stairs in front of the art gallery and wondered why everybody that passed by asked me questions about talks and halls as if I had conspired in the organization of the event. Later, in the afternoon, some friends convinced me to smoke a cigarette. I have never touched one in my entire life. Over the next few hours, smoke kept coming out with my breathing and I feared that something inside me had caught fire. Consequently, I left early and drank a whole jug of water after reaching my flat.
A matter of conscience
I felt extremely uncomfortable attending LLF 2018- a real pity given that it was my first one ever and I was rather hyped about it. All the elements that prompted the #boycottLLF movement – the bad behavior of men in positions of power, and the lack of sensitivity towards issues of consent and sexual violence – resonate with me on a personal level.
Fasih Ahmed is not the first entitled, ignorant man to have come out of our society. There was the professor at LUMS who was convicted and forcibly removed from his position for sexually assaulting a student. There was the alumni college interviewer who decided to sexually harass me when I was 17 years old. All of these men are Pakistani, attended Ivy League institutions and belong to incredibly affluent families. We are often told that the educated, liberal male is our ally and the common classist assumption in our country goes that violence – through words and actions – is inflicted by the uneducated masses. What could have possibly driven them to take such actions?
Their privilege, and our silence and passive complicity, in my opinion. I can think of countless men I have grown up with that feel so entitled to power, attention and space, that to remind them of their own mediocrity is like challenging the very core of their being. When called out, they respond viciously, and they have the power to not only attack you personally, but professionally and socially too. The Fasih tweets/LLF debacle gave us a chance to take a long hard look at the people in our lives that benefit from and support the disparity in our society. These people look like you and me. I will not for a second deny my privilege as an upper-class/educated/Sunni/cis-het woman. Most of the people reading this fall into most of those categories as well.
So how could I attend an event run by people who excuse, dismiss and justify such behavior? Because I hoped to derive some perverse pleasure from seeing sparse attendance and writing in excruciating detail about the mismanagement.
The worn down carpet in the halls inside Alhamra and the weeds growing in the baithak were enough to point to the hypocrisy of the manicured schedules and photo-ops that constituted LLF.
I carried my little brown notebook with me everywhere and jotted down every detail. The truth, however, is that this journal entry does not rely on any of those. I guess I don’t feel the need to write a take-down anymore. The worn down carpet in the halls inside Alhamra and the weeds growing in the baithak were enough to point to the hypocrisy of the manicured schedules and photo-ops that constituted LLF 2018.
There was a particular moment, though, that I found simultaneously heartbreaking and heartening. Many parents arrived on Sunday afternoon with their young kids in tow for the weekly “Ainak Wala Jinn” Show (The Bespectacled Djinn – an Urdu language, Pakistani children’s classic), only to realize that one of the few free children-friendly public activities had been disrupted for the convenience and enjoyment of the bourgeois. Me included. Alhamra is relevant to us only when mega-budget events happen.
For these middle-class families, it is a constant space for low-cost creative engagement and leisure. I thought about how on most days people like me don’t have to sit on uncomfortable chairs. At least on these one-off events, we too wade through through the filth that so many others, through our passive complicity, are subject to every single day. Maybe for me and the LLF 2018 crowd it only sticks to the underside of hand-crafted Italian shoes, but its still there and it makes its way to our homes and offices.
And I like to believe that it is an important instance in which the reified class divides are pushed against; when we can no longer look away and displace responsibility. After all, what good would a literature festival be if it does not provoke contemplation and introspection, and subsequently some action too?
The Spirit of the LLF
Everything was an inconvenience. I had to carry a shawl and umbrella, a backpack and notebook at 9:50 AM on a Saturday. I entered Alhamra for the LLF 2018 in a bit of a flurry, shouting at my friends to keep their bags open for the multiple security checks. Fashionably late, as always, I had but five minutes to reach Hall One, grab a seat, save two more, and witness the premiering talk of the day and the festival: MC Activist featuring Riz Ahmed and Mohsin Hamid.
But this negativity was misplaced. The weather was gorgeous; perfectly balanced. It moderated from rain to sun, cool to warm. It was still fairly early, but the excitement and anticipation were palpable. And sure enough, when I headed out after back-to-back sessions with Reza Aslan, Ben Okri, Mark Leonard, Mohsin Hamid and Riz Ahmed, the scene had altered.
The garden between Halls Two, Three and the Art Gallery had been turned into a baithak (outdoor seating area) with takhts (benches) in yellow, purple and white placed in a circle. On them sat groups of people. Some had babies in strollers. Others stood by as their grandparents regained their strength. Food stalls had been set up by this time as well, and rounds of channa chaat and coffee had initiated.
In my experience of events such as the LLF 2018, after some time has passed you tend to forget the finer points of the talks you attended. Not everything though. I’m not likely to forget Reza Aslan calling Trump a piece of shit anytime soon. What stays with you, however, are the interactions.
There’s just something in the air when you’re surrounded by individuals who simply want to learn and share. Everyone is polite, and impoliteness is unanimously challenged and condemned.
There’s just something in the air when you’re surrounded by individuals who simply want to learn and share. Everyone is polite, and impoliteness is unanimously challenged and condemned. When a hesitant sixteen-year-old struggled to formulate a question related to the lack of condemnation for George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s devastating foreign policy, the whole audience waited patiently for him to finish. When a man went off on a tirade during Kishwar Naheed’s session on Mazhamti Shayari (oppositional poetry), he was booed inaudible by the audience.
People walked up to absolute strangers to pass compliments about the clothes they were wearing or the questions they asked in sessions. My socially awkward friend got caught up in this positivity as well, when she casually passed by Ben Okri saying “You were absolutely brilliant!” as if it was her approval he had been waiting for. But it wasn’t considered cocky at all, for Okri turned with a smile and said “Yeah? I’ll see you later!”
There were times I was surrounded by more people than I could give my individual attention to. There were occasions when I was completely alone, in talks and otherwise. But not for a second did I feel lonely. An atmosphere such as this cannot be preset or designed. It is contributed to by every individual within it. The spirit of the LLF 2018 is a reminder that there are and will always be inclusive spaces within this city.