On one of the first weekends of the Pakistani spring, more than 45,000 people gathered in the city of Lahore for three days of lectures, performances and old-fashioned people watching. The second annual Lahore Literary Festival brought artists from all over the world to Pakistan's cultural capital to share their work — and to celebrate the power of expression.
In the shadow of the violence and political instability of recent years, cultural gatherings in Lahore have all but disappeared. It was once a royal capital and center for learning, known for its vibrant street parties, ancient buildings and literary forums.
Today, security has become the overriding concern. Terrorist attacks have targeted public spaces, media personalities and independent thinkers in particular. Journalist Ahmed Rashid, who has charted the rise of the Taliban for decades, has faced death threats. "They have directly threatened large numbers of journalists including myself," Rashid says. "They have attacked newspaper offices and TV stations in Karachi in particular. They have tried to stop art exhibitions and music and concerts and then all this talk about wanting a Shariah state. All of this is creating a lot of tension."
In this climate, Rashid says, fear has become the new normal: "It's discussed every day. When I meet my friends, I mean that's literally what we talk about."
For historian Ayesha Jalal, the violence has left deep, invisible wounds. "I think it's underestimated what Pakistan has gone through in terms of the internal threat, the narrowing of public discourse, the closing of the mind."
Making Art Despite The Crises
The Lahore Literary Festival was not a protest against terrorism. Instead, it was an effort to open the Pakistani mind — to make space for ideas. Festival organizer Razi Ahmed says he wanted to bring world-class conversations to his city and "make Pakistanis aware of what prevails beyond the borders."
After months of preparations, wrangling visas and ensuring security, Ahmed and his team invited artists from across Asia, Europe, and the Middle East to Lahore. From Indian novelist Vikram Seth to Oscar-nominated filmmaker Mira Nair, artists spoke in packed lecture halls. The lectures were free and open to the public. Most of the audiences were filled with young people.
For many of them, it was also an opportunity to meet their Pakistani role models — a new generation of artists with roots in Lahore who have achieved success on the international stage. From novelist Mohsin Hamid, the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, to MacArthur Prize-winning visual artist Shazia Sikander and the Sachal Jazz Ensemble — the festival was a showcase for a creative, inclusive and thriving side of Pakistan.
Historian Ayesha Jalal says the collective failure of the Pakistani government and society to provide stability has not prevented artists from excelling. Instead, she says that collective failure is fueling both ambition and imagination.
"If you look at Latin America, you'll see that art has flourished in the most coercive, authoritarian regimes," Jalal says. "And Pakistan is no different. I think collective failure is matched often by personal, individual success, spectacular success. Those are not unusual. ... And in Pakistan I think we've had a collective failure on many scores and there have been individuals who have done work of great brilliance, in the world of art, in the world of literature and music."
Many artists and authors in Pakistan are reacting to this collective failure, says writer Mohsin Hamid. The result is work that feels both original and urgent, brimming with ideas and reminders of a history and an identity beyond extremism. Hamid says both artists and the organizers of the literary festival draw inspiration from the multicultural history of Lahore, which was once home to a large Sikh and Hindu population, a regional capital in the British Empire and an open city.
The classical dancer Nahid Siddiqui presented a piece at the literary festival drawing on both Hindu and Muslim traditions and she says "my political statement ... if you want to call it that — is through dance ... it's easing into people by saying this is your own, this is our own, so please do not reject it."
Finding Validation In Numbers
But beyond those deeper themes, the packed grounds of the literary festival are also a reminder of how starved people feel for spaces to hang out. Beyond the fortified perimeter walls and armed gunmen, families and friends lounged on yellow and red cushions, drank chai and chased authors for autographs and selfies.
Artist and curator Salima Hashmi says there's a kind of validation in those numbers. "People shrugged off fear ..." she says. "They were enjoying themselves and they were listening and talking. There were young people there, that was the most wonderful thing about it. There were students who they had come to listen to people they had read, but apart from that, they wanted to see one another. They wanted to feel: Oh, there are a whole lot of us!"
And historian Ayesha Jalal says she sees hope for Pakistan in privately led initiatives like the Lahore Literary Festival. "There's a real thirst for this in this society and that is the great hope for Pakistan," Jalal says. "Despite all that has happened, despite the supposed Talibanization of the mind, the resistance strands have also been there and unlike in the past, there's a more concerted attempt now — not least because of the negative profiling of Pakistan globally — that Pakistanis want to be noticed on the scene. They want to make an impact. That's the spirit with which the Lahore Literary Festival was framed and put out for the world to see."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. For the past decade, Pakistan has faced war, political instability and the rise of religious extremism. But those crises have also had this unintended consequence, they fueled a new generation of Pakistani writers and artists. For many of them, art has become a way to reflect on the turmoil and to push back. NPR's Bilal Qureshi recently visited the country's cultural capital Lahore and he brings us this story.
BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Ayesha Jalal is a leading historian of Pakistan and she says the violence of recent years has left deep scars.
AYESHA JALAL: I think it's underestimated what Pakistan has gone through in terms of the internal threat, the narrowing of public discourse, the closing of the mind.
QURESHI: Terrorism, kidnappings and daily tension have become the new normal according to journalist Ahmed Rashid. He has charted the rise of the Taliban for decades and he says they've descended from the mountains into the urban centers of Pakistan infiltrating society, ideas and culture.
AHMED RASHID: It's discussed every day. When I meet my friends, I mean that's literally what we talk about.
QURESHI: And yet, amid a pervading sense of insecurity, the city of Lahore remains the art capital of Pakistan. It's a big, sprawling place with a jewel box of an old city at its center, known for its ancient mosques and palaces, its painters and poets. Novelist Mohsin Hamid says history feeds creativity here.
MOHSIN HAMID: For example, you know, amazing art university like the National College of Art, different languages together, a history of many different cultures and peoples from the Greeks to the Arabs to the British invading over millennia creating this kind of multi-layered society.
QURESHI: Culture is everywhere says Nusi Jamil(ph).
NUSI JAMIL: If you go to the old city at night, 2 o'clock, 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock in the morning, it's buzzing with life and these are people who are sitting down reciting poetry, listening to some little thing or the others. And despite everything, these things have continued in Lahore.
QURESHI: Jamil wanted to draw on that energy to celebrate the arts in her city, so she helped organize the Lahore Literary Festival. The gates to the festival were bathed in yellow and red fabrics, but it felt more like a Technicolor entrance to a high security compound than your neighborhood book talk. Metal detectors, armed guards, barbed wire greeted all visitors. Nothing was visible from outside. Ambulances were parked nearby. But inside the fortified border, the festival grounds were warm and inviting. Venues were decorated with balloons and banners in spring colors and artist Salima Hashmi says it was the perfect way to begin a new season.
SALIMA HASHMI: People shrugged off fear. And they were just there and they were enjoying themselves and they were listening and they were talking and they were laughing. But apart from that, they wanted to see one another. They wanted to feel, oh, there are a whole lot of us.
QURESHI: More than 45,000 people, in fact, attended the free event over three days. They came to hear talks in Urdu, Punjabi and English.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So without further ado, please join me in welcoming to the stage, Mr. Vikrim Fate(ph).
QURESHI: Artist Abdullah Kareshi(ph) says he was struck by how young the audiences were. Lounging on the grass between panels, stalking writers for autographs and selfies.
ABDULLAH KARESHI: It was beautiful to see young people doing that because they really don't get that opportunity enough. I mean, imagine in the absence of cultural activities like that what kind of negativity brews in their heads and what kind of ideas are being fostered because they're not seeing any hope. So culture provides that also.
QURESHI: But novelist Mohsin Hamid says just getting access to culture in Pakistan has become a real struggle.
HAMID: Pakistan does feel sometimes like it's behind the Iron Curtain. It's very difficult for Pakistanis to get visas to go abroad and it's very difficult to get people to come to Pakistan. You know, and the people who come tend to be, you know, security and intelligence types of folks. So getting writers and intellectuals from all over the world to come and engage in public in conversations that lots of people can listen to and ask questions at is refreshing, but also very unusual in Pakistan.
QURESHI: The Lahore Literary Festival was not an overt protest against the Taliban. Instead, it was a showcase for a parallel Pakistan, one that's inclusive, creative and thriving despite the failure of government and society to build a stable country. Historian Ayesha Jalal says that kind of collective failure fuels great art.
JALAL: If you look at Latin America, you'll see that art has flourished in the most coercive, authoritarian regimes. And Pakistan is no different. I think collective failure is matched often by personal, individual success, spectacular success. Those are not unusual. And in Pakistan I think we've had a collective failure on many scores, and yet there have been individuals who have done work of great brilliance in the world of art, in the world of literature, music.
QURESHI: Lahore's singers are stars across the region. Visual artists (foreign language spoken) have shown at the world's leading museums. Pakistani novelists are bestsellers from a country where almost anyone can recite their favorite poem to you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
QURESHI: The words of Faiz Ahmed Faiz became the rallying cry for another generation of Lahores. Faiz was a poet and an activist and he was imprisoned for his work. Salima Hashmi is his daughter and the former principal of the National College of Art.
HASHMI: The fine arts or writing or music, these were not things to just glamorize life. They were not the icing on the cake of life. These were things that gave voice to people who were voiceless. I believe in oppressive time culture is political work.
QURESHI: And Hashmi says now, with the Taliban at the gates, art is again political work.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
QURESHI: On the first night of the festival, I fought through a frenzied crowd for a seat to see dancer Nahid Siddiqui. She was once banned from performing in Pakistan. The idea of a woman presenting a kind of dance that drew from Hindu and Muslim traditions was deemed officially unacceptable. Siddiqui says this year felt different.
NAHID SIDDIQUI: It left me really, like, so peaceful and at rest because, you know, finally people are walking with us and they're saying everything they had to in their appreciation.
QURESHI: Peace is not a reality in Pakistan today, but perhaps it is those who imagine for a living, the country's artists, who can help a new generation imagine a new future.
JALAL: There's a real thirst for this in this society and that is the great hope for Pakistan.
QURESHI: Again, historian Ayesha Jalal.
JALAL: Despite all that has happened, despite the supposed Talibanization of the mind, the resistance strands have also been there and unlike in the past, there's a more concerted attempt now, not least because of the negative profiling of Pakistan globally, that Pakistanis want to be noticed on the scene. They want to make an impact.
QURESHI: And for Nusi Jamil who helped organize the Lahore Literary Festival, audiences made an impact by just showing up.
JAMIL: I think what the Literary Festival has done has actually suddenly woken people up that, OK, the threat is there, but what the hell? Life goes on. We will come.
QURESHI: Bilal Qureshi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.