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Asia

Pakistan's literature festivals - elitist and irrelevant?

In a country that makes headlines about Islamist violence, literature festivals are refreshing and much needed. Yet they remain largely an "elitist" affair and have failed to elevate the standard of Pakistani literature.

Literature festivals have become an annual affair in Pakistan for the past seven years. They are held in three to four big cities in February and March and run for several days. Writers and intellectuals from Pakistan, other South Asian countries and the West attend these gatherings and discuss a host of topics ranging from current trends in Pakistani and international literature to social issues such as gender discrimination and urban planning.

In a country where cultural activities have taken a back seat due to a rise of religious intolerance and political and sectarian violence, the "LitFests" are like a breath of fresh air. There is a cultural suffocation in the Muslim-majority country, and any liberal activity should be welcomed wholeheartedly.

Although the organizers don't claim they aspire to counter growing intolerance in Pakistan, it should be expected that such activities do translate into some sort of social action that brings forward a counter-narrative and challenges the forces of retrogression and obscurantism. Yet, many experts argue that Pakistani literature festivals, which generate large funds through corporate and non-profit organizations, have remained an "elitist" affair with writers and intellectuals participating in them remain somewhat detached from the major challenges the South Asian country faces today.

Against this backdrop, the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) kicks off on Friday, February 10, and will run for three days in a luxury hotel in the southern metropolis.

"A group of people has control over these literature festivals. They have a myopic worldview and their approach is not inclusive at all. These gatherings neglect budding poets and writers that exist outside a powerful literary circle," Ashfaq Saleem Mirza, a veteran writer, activist and author of several books on philosophy, told DW.

Mirza is not very hopeful that these literary events can help reduce political and religious tensions in the country.

"First of all, a number of social determinants are missing from the debate. Secondly, people from only a certain class participate in these festivals. These people are well-educated and mostly liberal, but the classes that these events should cater to are missing from the scene," Mirza underlined.

Farooq Sulehria, a London-based researcher and progressive activist, shares the same view: "'LitFests have a commercial logic. In essence they are vital cogs in the publishing arm of the cultural apparatus, whereby the donor-funded and commercial character of these literary spectacles engenders a top-down structure answerable only to commercial interests. Also, they are held as a one-time activity that does not translate into any grassroots movement," Sulehria wrote in his column.

Karachi Literatur Festival für Urdu (Raffat Saeed)

Thousands of people attend annual literary festivals in Pakistan

A counter-narrative

But many city-based educated Pakistanis who are aware of their country's image abroad insist that there is more to Pakistan than just poverty, suicide bombings and misogyny. The city-based artists, singers, writers and activists are worried about the current situation of their country but they have not lost hope. The best way to take Pakistan out of the mess it is in, they say, is to provide a counter-narrative - to give the people an alternative. That, in their view, can be done by promoting culture and arts. And what could be a better way than celebrating the literary wealth the country possesses?

Pakistanis are extremely passionate about poetry. Urdu poets are probably not as popular as musicians and film stars in the country, but they enjoy a good deal of fan following across the country.

There are more than two dozen art galleries in Karachi, which are frequented by people from all walks of life. Painting exhibitions of young and senior artists take place regularly in the city.

Indian writer Tasneef Haidar, who also manages a literary website called "Adabi Duniya" (The Literary World), is of the view that literary festivals in India and Pakistan have more positives than negatives.

Pakistan Paramilitär verschließt Hauptsitz der MQM in Karachi (DW/U. Fatima)

Some experts say that Pakistani writers are detached from the major challenges the South Asian country faces today

"They draw the common people toward literature and books. They also promote poets and artists as role models for the people," Haidar told DW.

Haidar, however, agrees that many panelists in these festivals are selected due to their personal connections with the organizers.

"The local languages and their literatures are largely ignored in these festivals. But I think it is the job of the government to promote them," Haidar said, adding that English serves as a language of communication in these events as it has a bigger reach. That does not make the events elitist, he underlines.

Literary standard

But are these literature festivals at least elevating the standard of Pakistani literature written in the Urdu and English languages?

"The creative standards have nothing to do with these festivals; they function independently in any society. These LitFests are so focused on literature that they somewhat downplay the significance of philosophy, history and social sciences in the cultural uplift," scholar Mirza said.

Pakistan Karachi Literatur Festival 2013 (DW)

A host of topics ranging from current trends in Pakistani literature to social issues are discussed in these festivals

Haidar disagrees with this analysis and says that the standard of literature in the Indo-Pakistani sub-continent has risen in the past few years. He, however, doesn't attribute it to literature festivals.

But some experts believe that the literary standards in a society do not exist in a political vacuum. Pakistan's "The News International" newspaper summed it up pretty well in its editorial: "It is important to look at literary festivals in the context of the broader process of alienation between politics and literature… In a sense, the culture of literary festivals in disconnected from what is happening to humanity today. This is perhaps why, while literary festivals become ever more popular, there has been no literary revival in Pakistan. This dichotomy needs to be overcome. It is this that would make such events truly meaningful to the majority of the people."