For the first time in history, Karachi Literature Festival was held outside Pakistan. Media reports that the event attracted thousands and presented Pakistan’s literary talent and diversity before an international audience note the positive aspects of the event, but these positives are only a mask over an uncomfortable reality. This reality was expressed by Ameena Saiyid OBE, co-founder of KLF and Managing Director of Oxford University Press Pakistan:
“It is not possible to bring the world to Pakistan to savour our literature and cultural creativity but it is possible to take it to the world.”
It is not possible to bring the world to Pakistan. Why? Partly it is because of the desperate security situation, which was observed by visitors during the 2015 KLF.
“It’s not an obvious location for a thriving literary festival, a fact emphasised when I’m met off my flight by a gun-toting guard in an armoured car. It’s barely six months since the Taliban briefly seized control of the airport, and my hosts are understandably wary about my safety en route to the festival. The guard radios in our location all the way along the car-clogged airport road. My initial view of Karachi is through green-tinted, bulletproof glass.”
There is more to the problem, though, which is that we are living in a time when it is not just bullets and bombs, but ideas are also considered national security threats. Hamna Zubair noted something missing from this year’s KLF:
Much of what emerged as being politically and culturally relevant to Pakistan in 2016 was absent from this year’s panel discussions. I was surprised that no session was organised to examine the increasing importance of online activism — its role in creating counter-narratives, its idiom and letter.
A few months later, it is no surprise. Bloggers have gone missing, only to reappear and flee the country fearing for their lives. Accused of blasphemy, there are now stories of torture and abuse of bloggers by state agencies. Now it is not only a few bloggers, but hundreds of social media users that are being investigated and facing arrest on charges of hurting the Army’s feelings.
What kind of literary festival can exist in a country where critical thinking and new ideas are answered with arrests and torture? The sad reality is we cannot bring the world to Pakistan for a free and open exchange of ideas because a free and open exchange of ideas is not possible in this country. Holding literary festivals abroad only showcases just how desperate the situation is at home.