Youthful City brings 6th Islamabad Literature Festival

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A panel discussion during Islamabad Literature Festival.
By: Atle Hetalan

ISLAMABAD: The 6th Islamabad Literature Festival (ILF) opened its doors to a large audience in Margala Hotel on Friday 27 September 2019. Islamabad is a young city, and it therefore vibrates with the energies of youth. Its naturally beautiful location makes it an ideal place for literary, cultural, and creative inspiration to flourish. Last year there was no festival, but otherwise the popular event is held every year in the capital since 2013. The long-time head of Oxford University Press, Ameena Saiyid OBA, used to be in charge of the event. When she in 1988 came to Oxford University Press (OUP), she was the first women to head a multinational company in Pakistan. She retired from OUP last year and Arshad Saeed Hussain has taken charge as Managing Director. He welcomed the many guests to the three-day festival at the pleasant venue of Margala Hotel in Islamabad. The festival offers more than three score separate events with about 150 speakers, some ten of them from foreign countries. Two to three events run parallel and they including speeches and conversations with authors, book launches, short seminars about current affairs, films, musical interludes, cultural dance performances, exhibitions and handicraft stall.

“And all is for free”, underlined an enthusiastic students in a red T-shirt with OUP’s logo and that of the Festival. Dozens of teenage students from Islamabad and Rawalpindi have been hired to help out at the Festival, making sure that all participants, old and young, find the right rooms for the different events – or a place for a cup of tea and conversation with friends.

“Yes, it can be hectic and crowded, as festivals are when much shall be covered in a short time. But I love such events”, said Nasreen Iqbal, Director of Grammar School Rawalpindi.

The French Ambassador, Marc Barety, spoke at the opening, underlining the importance of literature in society and drawing attention to Pakistanis studying French literature and philosophy. He gave special tribute to the late Dr. Laeeq Babree (1934-2003), who was Professor of French Literature in Pakistan. His widow Mrs. Khalida Babree, who attended the ILF event, was moved that the ambassador mentioned her late husband.

Opening remarks were made by the Deputy Director of British Council Mark Crossey, who said that his organization had been in Pakistan 1947, and that British Council Library, which was closed for some years, had now reopened in the capital.

Among speakers were Ikram Sehgal, Pathfinder Group and K-Electric, Iftikhar Arif and Muneeza Shamsie, members of the ILF Advisory Board. Haseena Moin and Navid Shezad presented keynote speeches to great appreciation of the audience. Then followed a cultural dance performance, and after that musical interlude.

“It was very appropriate to that the first substantive event was about Kashmir, ‘The Valley Seized’. The session, which was moderated by Moeed Pirzada with three panelists, Hina Rabbani Khar, Athar Abbas and Arif Kamal, gave new insights to the said situation of the Kashmir people and indeed the Indian annexed land”, said a university teacher at the Festival. He stood with a group of young students and he suggest they would be the ones who would solve the Kashmir issue.

Second Day:

The 6th Islamabad Literature Festival (ILF) gave major attention to education on the second day of the festival – along with more than twenty five other literary and other substantive topics, including lighter cultural events. “The topic of this year’s ILF is ‘The Focus is Tomorrow: Reflecting on the Past’. Therefore, education must be given a special place, including schooling and other formal education, as well as non-formal education”, said a teacher from an Islamabad college.

In the session called ‘Education in the New Millennium: Promises and Perils’, moderated by Shakil Siddiqui, the three panel members, Faisal Bari, Rasul Bakhsh Rais, and Faisal Mushtaq, expressed worry about the some 23 million school age children who are not going to school at all and a third of those who get enrolled don’t complete the primary school cycle.

In the other substantive session entitled ‘Digital Transformation in Education’, moderated by Rashid Masood Alam, the panelists expressed optimism about the use of use of new technology, but without regarding technology as a panacea. But Umar Saif, Kasim Kasuri and Syed Ali Naseer seemed to agree that there are many possibilities that education policy makers, teacher educators and teachers must embrace.

A teacher in the audience wanted to know what exactly the new technologies would be better at than the teacher in the classroom. She said that she had noticed that all panelists emphasized the importance of teaching the students to think, to be critical, innovative and imaginative, not just to do well at exams. But she said that the new technologies, Internet, E-learning and so on, would not be of much help in that connection.

There was not time for much focus on the role of teachers in future, although it was mentioned that maybe they will have a lesser role in society. Other speakers underlined that much of what education is can only be done by schools. “It will always be important to discuss issues with others in person, teachers and fellow students, and that can only be done in schools, not behind a computer screen or while reading a book”, said a participant.

Professor Rasul Bakhsh Rais underlined the importance of government schools in providing education, and also university education. However, he also stressed that individuals, organizations and companies also have a responsibility to contribute to education, including to providing financing of university studies of gifted students who cannot otherwise undertake their studies. He said that we all have a responsibility. He said that not even in USA is education a business, as many wrongly think. He mentioned that in other countries, such as Canada and UK, which he knows well, only a tiny percentage attend private schools and universities.

Faisal Mushtaq, the CEO of Roots Schools, agreed with the importance of the government education, and he thought they had failed in their task in many ways. He said that he was saddened that many today criticize the private schools without knowing that they had stepped in to help in the provision of education in the country. He and other speakers said that there is potential for better cooperation between the government and the private schools providers.

It was appreciated by the participants that the Imran Khan government intends to increase the country’s expenditure on education, from today’s 2 percent of GDP to 4 percent, and over time, a much higher percentage.   

“The education sessions were excellent, and the all male did well”, said a participant after the event. “However, they forgot to discuss several important areas, including gender equality, vocational and skills training, ‘second chance education, climate change and other key areas related to the future. Even literacy was just mentioned in passing – before the ‘school bell rang after the second session”, said the retired teacher. “And why were there no young panelists?” he asked.  

Third Day

Language, Gender, Economics and More discussed at Islamabad Literature Festival

The third and last day of the 6th Islamabad Literature Festival (ILF) was certainly a diverse an quite chaotic day, well, and so was the day before, too. That is the nature of literature festivals anyway, especially so if there is as much focus on social, economic and political issues as on poetry, prose, translation publishing and more that are more withing the topics one expects at a literature festival.

          “I find it a bit strange that there is so much focus on non-literature issues”, said an economist who lives in Islamabad but had not attended ILF before. But she must have liked it since she came every day. On the last day, she sat in at the session named ‘Pakistan: The Economy of an Elitist State’ with top movers and shakers in the field: Ishrat Hussain, Asad Umar, Waqar Masood Khan and Melina Good. “They have all played major roles in creating and maintaining, not really changing the elitist state”, said a member of the audience.

“It was more a talk amongst and for themselves, and a show-off to the audience, who often enjoyed the fun stories of the speakers. But I missed a young voice on the panel, and some who could have alternative views”, he said. Maybe that was why my economist friend left in the middle of the event? Or maybe she went to listen in at one or two of the parallel events; a book launch of Omar Shahid Hamid’s book about cricket; and a session about how  to document traditional music; or finding out why author Julien Colameau had decided to write in Urdu rather than his native French language.

          Another session later in the day was also about language. It was a discussion about multilingualism in creative expression. Well, it was about writing in English rather than Urdu or another indigenous language. Julien Colameau was on the panel and he stressed that one should write in the language one feels is best, and also depending on topics and context. Answering a question from a young woman in the audience, attending a creative writing degree course, who wanted advice for how to go about writing, he said that must always write about something one has passion for. He said she should write for herself, and think less about the reader.

          Muneeza Shamsie, a literary critic and writer, and the mother of two literary daughters (including the more famous Kamila, who lives in England), said that many find English to be an upper-class language if used by Pakistani writers. She seemed to agree that to some extent that might be true, but added that today there are now many ordinary, overseas Pakistanis and writers of Pakistani heritage, living in the UK or other countries, who write in English because that is there language. Also, English is a world language and it ties people together worldwide. We sat next to Muneezas husband, Syed Saleem Shamsie, a retired private sector manager (with an easy smile and a twinkle in his eye) who told us that he had also grown up with English as his first language. He wife said it was the same for her, and also her father, and that she had spent much of her childhood and youth in the UK. Her mother’s memoire was written in Urdu, but first published in English.

In another session, there were four writers who had all written in English; two living in Karachi, one in Lahore, and one in USA. The session was moderated by poet and designer Ilona Yusuf, a naturalized Pakistan of European decent. Interestingly, Taha Kehar had written a book, ‘Typically Tanya’, where a woman is the main character. He had chosen to write in first person, “I”, not in third person, “she”. That naturally creates interest among readers, critics, feminists and others. He read a piece from the book. “W thought he had succeeded very well in getting under the skin, or rather into the mind of the woman. The couple of pages were fun listen to, and they sounded quite authentic for a woman”, said two women in the audience. Taha Kehar, who is a journalist, said he had tested the stories on women colleagues and other female friends, and he had taken advice from them.

A member of the audience said: “When reading the book, we should focus on the story rather than the gender of the writer. Besides, we should recall that it is only a hundred and fifty years or so since women in the West and elsewhere often published under male pennames, or they used initials to hide their gender. Even today, that happens.” He mentioned J.K Rawling as an example.  

Anna Suvorova, a Russian anthropologist, attended a panel where her book was launched. It is entitled ‘Widows and Daughters: Gender, Kinship and Power in South Asia”, where she writes about women prime ministers and a few other prominent women in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. She gave a fascinating talk about her book and the women, mentioning that she had met most of them. She said that fact gives a writer as special privilege when writing. Some of the panelists noted that the women leaders that she had written about did not consider themselves to be feminists. “At the same time, they have all been models for many other women, also feminists”, said Anna Suvorova. 

The crowded largest hall at the Margala Hotel was packed to its rims at the end of the Literature festival when a hand full of speakers discussed and joked about ‘Satire in the Time of Tabdeeli’. They were Fasi Zaka, Ali Aftab Saeed, and George Fulton. The moderator Nadeem Farooq Paracha apologized for the panel be all-male. In line with modern ways, they would see if they could change that in future. He also said that there was one woman who should have attended, but that the time and place could not make it possible.

The 6th Islamabad Literature Festival, 27-29 September 2019, was closed by speeches by the festival organizers. The Oxford University Press Managing Director Rashad Saeed Husain, the overall chief of ILF, offered thanks to participants, sponsors, writers, volunteer students in red T-shirts, and all who had made the three-day festival a great success.

The event was crowned by keynote speeches by Ishrat Husain and Anwar Maqsood, and a Ghazala Night by Ustad Hamid Ali Khan.