I went the long haul for the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF)—or at least, that’s what it felt like, anyway—landing in Lahore at midnight before, through bus.
For the past few days, I had just been checking and rechecking the LLF’s official Twitter and Facebook pages for any new updates. “It’s never going to happen,” many had said. “They haven’t even uploaded their schedule.” And when the tragic DHA blast happened just one day before, I gave up hope. It looked like a no.
But then, this tweet:
@tammyhaq erroneous information. The Festival is going ahead!
— LLF (@lhrlitfest) February 23, 2017
And I thought, right, I’m getting on the bus straight from work. Best decision ever. The festival, sadly shortened to one day, was beautiful nonetheless. The panels were wonderful; the star power was shining; the book stalls were bustling; even the disorganized chaos around the food stall was endearing.
It was, overall, a testament of strength. Here we all were, a day after a horrific explosion, milling about around our favorite authors and their books. Every person and every conversation coming from the same literary hivemind, with the same urge for stimulation, inspiration, and lively creativity.
I was feet away from Michael Palin, in a selfie with Teju Cole, in the same seating row as Kamila Shamsie. I listened to the earnest, well-spoken, and thought-provoking words of Mohsin Hamid, as he talked about his struggles with his novels, his writing process, and his suggestions to budding writers. I drank in every word that Teju Cole spoke about Lahore reminding him of his own childhood city, Lagos, and how his writing caters to people who have their foot in two or more worlds—something he probably accurately described everyone in the audience of having. I watched Daniyal Mueenuddin describe Pakistan as his dark love, something that has imbibed him and won’t let him go. I laughed at Michael Palin’s quips, jokes, and chuckles; watched him take us back into his childhood, into all his influences as a young boy from the obscure city of Sheffield that have made him who he is. Kamila Shamsie, acting as the moderator for most panels, did a wonderful job of guiding the conversation to its most interesting elements, effortlessly keeping everyone in the audience engaged.
It was, overall, a testament of strength. Here we all were, a day after a horrific explosion, milling about around our favorite authors and their books. Every person and every conversation coming from the same literary hivemind, with the same urge for stimulation, inspiration, and lively creativity. I made more conversations with random people on that one day than I have all year, and each one was more welcoming, open, and unquestioningly friendlier than the last. It was a testament to the adage—forgive the cringeworthy cliché, but it must be mentioned—that the pen is, after all, mightier than the sword (or bomb).
The day ended with a wonderfully crowded tent, where all had cozied in to see Michael Palin’s last panel before he was escorted off. He took us through a photo slide of his journeys through the Himalayas from the early 2000s, singing praises to Peshawar, Chitral, Kalash, and then on to India, Nepal, and Bhutan.
“Pakistan has a wonderful, lively, vital energy to it,” Palin said, before he was abruptly cut off. A note had been handed to him: “Sir, Time Is Over. Please Finish. Thanks. Lahore Police.” We all laughed, but they were serious. Before I could trail after him for an autograph, he was being whisked away by security, and I had no chance.
I left the festival after that, feeling absolutely rejuvenated. I am a book lover who often feels left without an outlet, and without an outlet, one’s passion tends to deteriorate. But being around ardent bookworms and bibliophiles, established writers, speakers whose intellect burst out from between their words, I felt infected—with the best kind of virus. I only wish this was more accessible to everyone in the country, and not just the elites. Everyone deserves to feel this sort of belonging.
Ifra Asad is a poetry editor at Papercuts magazine.