The Islamabad Literature Festival, hashtagged on Twitter as #IsbLF, is the latest in a series of literary events taking the country by storm. I had the opportunity, this Labor Day, of driving over to Margalla Hotel, and attending a series of enlightening talks. Having recently attended the Lahore Literature Festival (#LLF), I had high expectations. ILF boasted the likes of Kamila Shamsie, Shehryar Fazli, Zia Mohyeddin, Osman Khalid Butt and names that have become familiar to those at LLF: H. M. Naqvi, Mohammed Hanif, etc. Some particularly delightful bits included the fabulous stand up comedian Beo Zafar, and one-woman-show Nimra Bucha, who performed Mohammed Hanif’s thought-provoking play, A Dictator’s Wife.
“Making fun of dictators is not such a big deal – it’s just, you know, fun.” – Mohammed Hanif
My day started off with Kamila Shamsie, an author I have heard so much about. She published her first book when she was 14 (all the aspiring writers in the room gasped with a mixed sense of jealousy and elation when this was announced) and is now working on her sixth book, which is set in Peshawar. She spoke to us about her experiences as a writer, and how she felt a sense of duty to do right by her characters. Reading a passage from her work in progress, she spoke of the extensive research that was involved when writing about a city and place that you don’t know, ex: Peshawar in the 1930s, and how oftentimes, when writing about the past, versions of the present before you can become distracting. Something that particularly resonated with me, as an aspiring novelist, was her concern for young writers feeling influenced by the political and economic conditions of the country today. “I worry that it makes them feel pressurized or restrained,” she said, and to quote Ilona Yusuf, a commentator at another session, “writers need to tell the truth, and self-censorship will kill the novel”.
The next session I attended was titled “Afghanistan & Pakistan: Conflict and Extremism” with a distinguished panel: Riaz Khokhar, Zahid Hussain, Mohammad Amir Rana, and Ashraf Jehangir Qazi. With this bureacratic-academic panel on stage, the political debate was lively and kept everyone in the audience hooked. From interpretations of the Afghan struggle, to Pakistan’s interests in the neighboring country, not a topic was left unexplored.
It was the author of Our Lady of Alice Bhatti and A Case of Exploding Mangoes that I went to see next. Mohammed Hanif had delivered some lively speeches at the Lahore Literary Festival, and I was not about to miss out on his ribald humor here in Islamabad. With commentator Navid Shahzad, whom Hanif reffered to as his childhood crush, Hanif first explored the character of Alice Bhatti – “I wanted to write a superwoman sort of character.” – and then moved on to the more serious issue of missing people in Balochistan. Speaking of his new pamphlet, a series of six case studies detailing the tragedies taking place in Balochistan today, Hanif called out to the audience to realize the reality of the situation. Balochistan is not a past history that has yet to be told, but a current story that we can still change – that was his message.
“To ban YouTube is the most stupid thing any government in the world can do.” Ahmed Rashid
The lunch break was a series of exclamations at the outrageous prices – Rs. 270 for a small sandwich with some sort of orange paste in it, and nothing else. Rs. 60 for a water bottle that is normally available for Rs. 20. And Rs. 300 for a biryani that has the smallest possible chicken piece in it. A fellow IsbLF attendee said, “That’s a baby chicken leg. It makes me feel a paedophile just to look at it.”
By far the best session of the day was Selected Readings in English by Zia Mohyeddin, in which the renowned dramatist read out from his own work, A Carrot is a Carrot. With an austere British accent dancing daintily around the humor in the passages he read, Mohyeddin kept the audience on its feet for the entire 60 minutes he was reading, with Punjabi and Urdu interludes sparking laughter. As a first-time listener, I was immediately fascinated, and ran to the book stalls after the session searching for a copy of the text.
“Sometimes there is the notion that there is not a big enough market for English language literature in Pakistan. But I don’t believe that.” – Muneeza Sahmsie
The How to Write a Novel session was the last of the day. Authors H. M. Naqvi and Irshad Abdul Kadir shared their own writing styles and work ethics with the audience and then went on to talk about the methodology behind how they chose or came to know their characters. I’m itching to pick up a copy of Home Boy after hearing H. M. Naqvi say, “I don’t wish I could write like Dan Brown, but I wish I could sell like him.”
The day ended with Nimra Bucha’s performance of A Dictator’s Wife. The audience stood shoulder to shoulder outside the hall in desperate anticipation for over an hour as the set was prepared. No one was spared the pushing and discomfort associated with being much too close to much too many people at any particular moment in time. The doors opened suddenly, and the press of the crowd threatened to trample an old man at the front. After the audience had settled, Ms. Bucha started the show, when a pesky gentleman in the back repeatedly interrupted with frivolous comments. She was forced to break character a number of times to appease him, and when this did not stop his antics, she even threatened to walk out of the play. That was what it took to get him to take a seat quietly and let the audience enjoy the performance.
The play itself was a sharp insight into the behind-the-scenes life of a dictator in a developing country. It showcased the wife, often forgotten in the background, losing the man she married to power and the media and obsession with nuclear codes, her resentment eventually building up to irreparable heights. It highlighted a new perspective, and really got me thinking about the man beneath the uniform – what’s really behind the public figure? Sure they love and are loved, have passions and worries and clothes besides that brown and green army dress? It was enlightening, to say the least.
All in all, though a notch or two below the Lahore Literature Festival, IsbLF was a resounding success.