Gathering Around Books in Karachi: The Sixth Annual Karachi Literature Festival

The 2015 Karachi Literature Festival runs the 6th, 7th and 8th of February.

A dedicated group of Pakistanis have set out to prove that security concerns should not trump a love of literature. Next week they will host the sixth annual Karachi Literature Festival (KLF). The festival is reclaiming space for books in a city where, despite a small but vibrant arts scene, cultural dialogues are often overshadowed by gang warfare, military bureaucracy and extremism.

According to a Human Rights Commission of Pakistan report, roughly 3,251 people died as a result of violence within Karachi in 2013. There has been a rise in fatalities in recent years, with 1,981 people killed in 2010, 2,382 killed in 2011 and 3,105 killed in 2012. Attracting foreigners and Pakistanis from elsewhere in the country is challenging, both due to the ever-present threat of violence and also because a large gathering of the arts could be seen as an easy target for extremists.

The three-day festival butts up against the reductionist view of Karachi as a violent, sprawling commercial hub, devoid of the architectural beauty and culture of Lahore and the bureaucratic order and Margalla Hills of Islamabad. The KLF combats this image, and, to some extent, the realities of Karachi from which it stems. Its perseverance and growth is evidence that, perhaps now more then ever, this festival is needed.

An energetic enthusiasm permeated the weekend when I attended the festival last year, as a sea of school children sat on the grass completely captivated by Mohammed Hanif’s mostly Urdu address, or as a crowd under a white tent listened attentively to Kamila Shamsie read from her latest work. It could have been a literary engagement in London, the city where Shamsie lives, but instead this gathering was in her first home. She had her publishers ready her new novel, A God in Every Stone, specifically so that it could launch at the 2014 KLF. During her reading she took a moment to use the weather as an apt example of shifting perspectives, one that downplays traditional notions of literary universalism: “If it rains in Karachi you think relief, and if it rains in Scotland you think ‘no, not again’,” she said. “Even rain is not universal.”

“It is a chaotic violent place,” said Shamsie of her hometown, “and a literary festival is not going to change that, but it draws attention to that other side; there has always been a lot culturally going on in Karachi.” Still, it’s a challenge to capture the attention of a city whose population, as of April 2013, is estimated to be nearly 24 million. It has been an ongoing enterprise of fiscal and organizational realities melding with visions of the possible.

Started by Oxford University Press and the British Council, the Karachi Literature Festival began in 2010. It was co-founded by Oxford University Press Pakistan’s Managing Director, Ameena Saiyid, and doctor and writer Asif Farrukhi. In its inaugural year around 5,000 people attended a festival with 34 sessions and 35 participants. In 2014, over three days 70,000 people attended thirty book launches and over 70 sessions, with panelists and authors from ten countries.

“I’ve been coming here for five years, so I’ve seen it from its inception phase,” said author Bina Shah. “To see it today it is really like seeing a child grow up into a young adult.”

This growth is remarkable, particularly since the very existence of such an event in Pakistan is notable given the complexities of the demographic. The country has a population of roughly 193 million and a 55 per cent literacy rate. The majority of the population struggles to pay for basic necessities, so books, and the ability to read them, are a luxury.

In many of the panels the speakers switched frequently between English and Urdu, and there were sessions specifically addressing translation. At a panel focusing on human rights with both Pakistani and international participants, prominent lawyer Asma Jahangir slipped into Urdu and then apologized, saying her lapse of language was because she must speak Urdu when speaking from the heart.

“What really inspires you is the ability of all these people to come together and find some hope in the cause of a secular, more liberal kind of society in Pakistan,” said journalist and writer Ghazi Salahuddin. He sees the KLF also as an escape from, and reaction against, extremist elements within Pakistani society. Nevertheless, he characterizes the festival as elitist and is disillusioned about the broader role such an event can play within society. For him, several tens of thousands of people attending is not overly noteworthy given the sheer size of Karachi.

“The most important thing for Pakistan is to be able to liberate its women, and that’s not happening,” he said. “So these aberrations, like the Karachi Literature Festival, are a tranquilizer for us. They mean well, but these attempts will not change the overall situation.”

The KLF could be seen as exclusive, but its architects rebuff the charge. “It is an equalizer,” said Ameena Saiyid, citing the fact that the festival is free: “It is open, anyone can come in.” She was both excited and relieved by the increase in attendance this past year, and she was pleased that, though there were rigorous debates, they were without rancor. “It wasn’t from one class or one community,” said Saiyid, “it was all ages and all areas of Karachi.”

In April 2013, an offshoot, the Islamabad Literature Festival, was held in the capital and it will run for the third time later this year. There has also been a growth in literary activities within Pakistan generally, with a separate Lahore Literary Festival launched in February 2013. The first among these events, the KLF exemplifies an ambitious artistic side of Karachi, familiar to those who call it home, but incongruous with the image of the city for many non-residents. Today, as younger Pakistani writers challenge how their country is conceptualized, the Karachi Literature Festival is demonstrating another facet of the city.

Shah sees her city as a natural setting for a literature festival. “It makes absolutely perfect sense and it wouldn’t work anywhere else the same way,” she said. “Lahore will have its own culture, Islamabad will have its own culture, but Karachi is Karachi.”