Guest Post – the inaugural Islamabad Literature Festival 2013

Written by Mariam Saleem Farooqi


The Islamabad Literature Festival sort of snuck up on the good people of the capital. After a brief announcement in a few newspapers, ILF withered away with no website or social media presence to speak of, leading to the suspicion it had been abandoned. And then, lo and behold, a week before the event the KLF website unveiled a little Islamabad tab showing a program of events, and so ILF came shuddering back to life.

One immediate bone of contention with the festival was the timing. Why the middle of the week and not a weekend? As expected, Day One of the ILF saw many half-empty halls and a general absence of the throng one expects at festivals of any sort because people could not get out of school/work on a busy Tuesday afternoon.

Walking inside the venue, I couldn’t help envying Lahore. They got their litfest in Al-Hamra, while we have to settle for a small hotel best known as the torture cell where CIE examinations and aptitude tests are suffered through. Nonetheless, the presence of books everywhere lifted the mood considerably. Festival spearhead Oxford University Press had a massive stall up and running, as did Liberty Books, Sang-e-Meel Publications and a number of other national and local publishers.

At 2:50 p.m. I slipped inside auditorium hall to find that the talk scheduled for 2:45 p.m. was actually already underway. Colour me surprised. Since when did we start doing things on time?! With that decidedly positive turn of events, I settled in to listen to Aasim Sajjad, Hamida Khuhro, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi and Humayun Gauhar battle it out on the sensitive issue of ‘Dynastic Politics in Pakistan’.

Colour me further surprised when the ramblings of audience members with an inability to understand the term ‘keep it brief’, were smoothly cut short and the session concluded on time, leaving plenty of time for a quick browse through the book stalls before heading to the next talk. ‘YouTube: Supporting the Electronic Media’ boasted a diverse panel – Taimur Rahman (academic, writer and musician), Raza Rumi (journalist and political analyst), Osman Khalid Butt (writer, director, blogger, actor and entertainer) and Ali Aftab Saeed (musician and journalist). They discussed the impact the YouTube ban has had on their respective fields, as well as the possible implications of the alleged order by the government for ‘selective unblocking’. Overzealous moderating was the only weak link in an otherwise interesting discussion.

There was much chatter about Shehzad Roy’s session but unfortunately he was a no-show. Other sessions generated a lot of interest too, with Aamer Hussein’s talk being the most popular. Topics such as child labour, English novels in the new millennium and Sufi classical poetry were addressed by a host of prominent panelists.

So Day One had been pleasant but not earth shattering. It definitely failed to make the kind of impact previously made by KLF and LLF, not even being able to trend on Twitter. Of course, that might have had something to do with the fact that those inclined to tweet about it could not seem to agree on whether #IsbLF or #ILF was the way to go. #ConfusionsAbound

Day Two began with low expectations and a mad rush to make it to the morning Kamila Shamsie session on time, because whoah, it had ALSO started on time. More points for ILF right there. Shamsie was in conversation with Shehryar Fazli. “A novel is an intimate thing,” said Shamsie when asked about how much current events influence an author’s choice of topics. “It has the pressures of time, so it doesn’t make sense to worry too much about expectations. Stick to a topic you are ok with being totally obsessed with for years, one you can let your imagination be consumed by,” she said. Afterwards, the lovely lady gamely allowed a hoard of undisciplined fans to mob her as she signed book after book.

A quick coin toss decided the next session would be the ‘Afghanistan & Pakistan: Conflict and Extremism’ panel discussion by Riaz Khokar, Zahid Hussain, Mohammad Amir Rana and Ashraf Jehangir Qazi. Learned and astute though these gentlemen undoubtedly are, something in the air right then was making it impossible to captivate much of their audience. Many in the back were sporting a dull, glazed look in their eyes – which made it all the more unpleasant when jerked out of their stupor as your friendly neighborhood earthquake came calling. Unperturbed, the panel powered through the brief power outage and odd panicked scream, and continued waxing eloquent on the fragile state of Pak-Afghan relations. The session on ‘Afsanay ki Nayee Awazain’ by Nilofar Iqbal, Asim Butt and Mubashir Zaidi happening simultaneously seemed to be more engaging as the audience could be heard laughing from even behind closed doors, and were reluctant to let it end.

Mohammad Hanif, journalist and author of ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ and ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti’, in conversation with the enigmatic Naveed Shahzad was the highlight of the morning. Hanif sat slumped in his chair and, in his relaxed, sardonic manner, let Naveed Shahzad question and poke fun at him. “A writer’s responsibility is to the page. Mocking a dictator is not a social responsibility, it’s fun. Journalists are the ones who actually have this responsibility,” he said. His reading of excerpts from his books was powerful and injected new depth into his writing. Hanif also talked about his recent collection of stories of missing people from Balochistan. “It’s the State that’s responsible. They know they can’t get away with that kind of stuff in other provinces. But when it comes to Balochistan, nobody cares for too long. So they can get away with it.” He said he hoped the publication might shame fellow journalists into taking some action.

The afternoon sessions on Day Two were all packed to capacity. Shehzad Roy was once again absent – caught up in projects in Dubai apparently – much to everyone’s disappointment. Nevertheless, the session on ‘Common System of Education’ proved quite interesting. Speaking on the panel was Baela Jamil, Hamida Khuhro, Nargis Sultana, and A.H. Nayyar, with Ameena Saiyid as the moderator. Each speaker spoke crisply about the complications of establishing a viable common system of education in Pakistan, and managed to keep the audience engaged despite being seated in an outdoor venue at midday in hot April weather.

Strolling from one session to the next was becoming increasingly cumbersome as the number of people kept increasing. Now would have been time for festival organizers to take heed and later disasters could have been avoided. More on that later. Any hopes of snagging a good seat for Zia Mohyeddin’s reading fizzled away as roughly one-third of Islamabad’s total population was already crammed into the medium sized hall. All ages, shapes and sizes of people possible were present. Sitting crammed into six inches of floor space, with an elbow in my side and a little kid poking into my back, all became worth it the minute Zia Mohyeddin climbed up on stage. Dressed in a gray suit that was just the right amount of baggy, and a maroon tie, the dapper gentleman quite literally had the audience at hello. He read aloud from a selection of stories in English. It did not matter what the words were, or what they were trying to say. All that mattered was the way they leapt to life under the influence of Zia Mohyeddin’s gentle yet powerful voice. For just the quarter of an hour that he spoke, the world was truly a better place. Ending to thunderous applause, he patiently allowed fans, well-wishers and reporters to swarm around him.

After all the sessions of the day were over, a brief closing ceremony was to be followed by a showing of ‘The Dictator’s Wife’, a monologue written by Mohammad Hanif and performed by Nimra Bucha. Fifteen minutes before the scheduled time, the hall outside the auditorium was already teeming with people. Considering the intense punctuality demonstrated for two days, there was no reason to expect any different from the last event of the festival. Famous last words. Seven fifteen came and went, with no sign of life from within the closed doors. Suddenly one set of doors was thrown open and the crowd surged forward, only to be met with hysterical crew members who shooed them back out, claiming ‘not time yet!’ Disgruntled and miffed, the crowd was not amused. As the sweaty, stifling wait stretched on, even I stopped judging the folks pounding on doors to be let in and began to wonder if I should just join in. Finally, after over an hour, the doors were thrown open and a mass of humanity burst forth.

After several frenzied minutes with people here, people there, people every where – during which the harassed organizers tried to convince audience members it would be a good idea to watch  on screens outside the auditorium – the play finally began, with Nimra Bucha snaking her way through a throng of people sitting near the stage to get to her place onstage. But wait, it gets better. Many in the audience seemed to think that a one-woman play meant they should help her out with answers and suggestions to her dialogue. Worse were the folks in the back who kept shouting about not being able to hear her even as she tried to deliver her lines. In the midst of this cacophony, an elderly gentleman decided to stroll up onstage and plop himself down on the bed that served as part of the set. To give credit to Bucha, she continued unperturbed despite this series of interruptions, even managing to coax the loud, boorish gentleman to pipe down eventually. Hanif’s writing and Bucha’s performance made quite the dynamic combination, and had it not been for the unfortunate events leading up to it, the play would have been quite a thrill to watch.

All in all, the first ever Islamabad Literature Festival was a better experience than I had expected it to be. With OUP’s Children’s Literature Festival also scheduled to be held in the city at the end of the month, it seems that Islamabad is finally going to get a chance to play in the big leagues. About time, too. The city needs more than just political showdowns and long marches to keep it occupied. Well done, ILF. Come back bigger and better next year!


(The views expressed in this blogpost are the writer’s own. Desi Writers Lounge does not take responsibility for any opinions or factual inaccuracies in this post.)