February in Pakistan is Literary Festival Month, with the Karachi Literature Festival held at the beginning and the Lahore Literary Festival at the end. 125,000 people attended the festival in Karachi — I launched my novel A Season For Martyrs there — and 75,000 attended in Lahore. A friendly rivalry has developed between both festivals, with assertions that LLF (better speakers) is better than KLF (more inclusive) and vice versa. With KLF in its sixth year and LLF in its third, we’ve become used to this little competition as part of the extended competition between Karachi and Lahore, the two major cities of Pakistan (Islamabad doesn’t count. It’s known as the city of the newly-wed and the nearly-dead).
But we’ve also become used to the way the two festivals get written about in the international newspapers. The local newspapers cover the festivals in regular fashion, reporting on the literary or other intellectual merits of the sessions, who said what, who showed up, and yes, even who wore what. The international newspapers inevitably write breathless articles about how the literary festivals are acts of defiance against the Taliban, or religious extremists. In fact, it’s become something of a cliche for foreign reporters to say that anything that we do is “in defiance of the Taliban,” like holding a fashion show, a flower show, a horse and cattle show (okay, maybe not that one).
This year, unfortunately two days before the LLF there was a Taliban attack that killed several policemen and injured others; the LLF was in danger of being canceled but still went ahead, so perhaps headlines like “Book Lovers Defy The Bombers” were somewhat merited. (This one was written by BBC’s Lyse Doucet, who is a friend of and frequent visitor to Pakistan and understands this country much better than other parachute journalists – her article was lovely and nuanced). Then there was “Crowds at Lahore Lit Fest Ignore Bomb Risks and Raise Hopes for Pakistan’s Future” which I also found insightful, and contained information about some of the cancellations and the negotiating that went on behind the scenes to keep the festival open. The UAE’s The National featured a piece called “Third Edition of Lahore Literary Festival Goes Off With a Bang“, a choice of words that would have been very unfortunate if literally true.
What is characteristic about each piece is that it talks about the dangers of the Taliban, jihadists, and other extremists, but then describes how the attendees at the festival are relaxed and laid-back, have a sense of humor, and turn out in the thousands to come and hear the speakers, who have also defied great odds to come to Pakistan and appear at the festival. This has been the structure of most pieces about our literary festivals since the first KLF in 2010. “Books Not Bombs at Pakistan Literature Festival” is one of my favorites from 2011 (not least because it features me telling the audience at my launch for Slum Child that I have indeed ridden in a rickshaw, which became one of the most popular memes of Twitter for the month that followed the festival).
When writing about Pakistan, sensationalism is key. This is why perhaps the British writer Alex Preston decided to write about his experience at this year’s Karachi Literature Festival with the headline “At the Karachi Literature Festival, Books Really Are A Matter of Life and Death.” He goes on to describe the security arrangements for the festival – guards and guns everywhere, police boats patrolling the creek, and how his decision to escape the festival premises for a dinner at the nearby Yacht Club caused “something of a hoo-ha.” This article earned Preston the derision of many Pakistanis on Twitter, who implied that Preston was “something of a sissy.”
I can’t blame an Englishman for feeling intimidated at the sight of body scanners and guards with submachine guns at a literature festival, and perhaps we Pakistanis have become used to seeing heightened security everywhere, to the point that we have become jaded about things that should really instill us with fear (they do, but they’re also just kind of annoying). And I can’t blame copy editors at London desks writing headlines that will attract clicks and reads on the Web sites of international newspapers. But the same types of pieces, year after year, the drip-drip-drip of assertion that everything we do in Pakistan is designed to defy the Taliban (oh look, I’m wearing lipstick, I’m defying the Taliban) is not just annoying but also inaccurate.
We don’t get up in the morning, scratch our heads, curse at our alarm clocks, and get out of bed to defy the Taliban. We don’t get ready for school or work or dropping the kids to school to defy the Taliban. We don’t go to lunch, coffee, weddings, funerals, the movies, poetry sessions, art exhibitions to defy the Taliban. We don’t fall in love or get married or have children or bury our elders to defy the Taliban. We were going through the motions of normal life long before the Taliban ever appeared on the scene, and we’ll be going through them long after they’re gone. We may be a nation at war with the Taliban and with ourselves, but we still live. Our normal lives may be more haphazard than those of people who live in stable, peaceful countries, but we exist for ourselves, not “in defiance” to religious extremists.
The one thing that nobody noted was the absence of any mention of Malala Yousufzai’s book I Am Malala at any of the literature festivals. Now here’s a girl who actually did defy the Taliban, and wrote a book to tell about it. Not a peep about that in Karachi or Lahore, even though the book went on to be a bestseller everywhere, was banned from private schools in her home province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the book’s co-author, Christina Lamb, isn’t exactly welcome in Pakistan. This was a book worth discussing for exactly the reasons that the Western world finds our literature festivals so noteworthy, and yet it was as if the book simply didn’t exist. If anything, this was a perfect example of how Pakistanis defy — or deny — reality. But nobody really wants to write anything about that.