The Lahore Literary Festival has become one of the highlights of our time in Pakistan. It started back in 2013 when Pakistani book-lovers decided to jump on the literary festival bandwagon which has seen such festivals spring up in Asian places such as Jaipur, Karachi, Mandalay, Shanghai, and many others. The increasing prominence of Pakistani literature on the world stage, championed by such excellent writers as Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid and Mohammed Hanif, makes Pakistan an entirely reasonable place to hold such a festival. Moreover, Lahore, as a city with a serious literary heritage, is a logical place to hold it in Pakistan.
The inaugural festival in 2013 was one of the most encouraging events I’ve been to. The al-Hamra Arts Centre on Mall Road was crammed with people, almost all of them Pakistani, all of them enthusiastic, lining up in orderly queues to hear people such as Ahmed Rashid and William Dalrymple speak. We went back in 2014 when the festival was even bigger, even more popular. In 2015 we were unable to attend, but we made sure we were available for 2016.
And the festival almost didn’t happen.
A couple of days before the festival, rumours started to fly: the government had cancelled it due to security concerns; the government had requested a change of venue; the organisers were announcing a curtailed programme; permission for the event had been withdrawn. In the end most of these came true: the festival was reduced in length from 3 days to 2 and was moved from the al-Hamra Centre to the neighbouring Avari Hotel. The level of security provided at the Avari was ludicrous even by Pakistani standards: practically an entire company of soldiers, an armoured car, armed police on the roof, metal detectors everywhere. There were more Kalashnikovs in attendance than speakers.
Even so, it was an interesting and enjoyable event. We heard Mohammed Hanif tear into the security arrangements with his customary satirical laughter. I listened to 93-year-old Nancy Dupree tell the story of the destruction of the Kabul Museum and about efforts to preserve Afghanistan’s heritage. Hina Rabbani Khar and Ahmed Khan spoke about geopolitics in a session entitled “New Great Games”, which seemed to have little or nothing to do with books but was nevertheless interesting. Outside, in the public areas, people posed for selfies (how I hate that word!) and authors signed books. Attendance was free and no registration was required.
The LLF is fun, and this year was no exception. It just strikes me as sad that holding a literary festival in Pakistan is considered so risky that it necessitates the presence of half of the Pakistani army just to maintain order.
Still, we’re getting there. Step by step Pakistan’s international rehabilitation is underway, and if that process requires the presence of a battalion of Kalashnikov-toting soldiers then so be it. The end will, I hope, justify the means.