The fourth edition of the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) is bound to be remembered for two reasons: first, that government interference damaged an event that is eagerly awaited by those who are into literature and culture as a whole; and second, how LLF's organisers fought back to successfully salvage the event.
Proof, if proof be needed, were the long queues of young and old, men and women, waiting patiently to enter the Avari Hotel in Lahore on Saturday the 20th February and Sunday the 21st.
The authorities (call it the Punjab Government, if you like) decided to withdraw permission (granted sometime in January) to hold the literary festival at its traditional venue – the spacious and sprawling Alhamra Complex – because of the so-called security problems. When the organisers shifted the venue to the Avari Hotel, they had to accept that the first day of the three-day event be cancelled because of the so-called security problem, implying in the process that the terrorists only work on Friday.
LLF's organisers were ordered that all speakers from outside the country be told not to step into Pakistan and the reason given was that the visitors’ ‘security could not be guaranteed’. It was left to the organisers to inform foreign delegates that it was not safe for them to come to Lahore.
Coming as it does from a government which has been trying to woo prospective foreign investors, this stand is inexplicable. Thankfully, the authorities did not insist on sending back guests who had already arrived from abroad.
The organisers had the unenviable job of redrawing the programme to drop some sessions when they had to change the festival from a three-day event to a two-day affair.
Quite a few speakers were left out. For instance, writer-artist Naz Ikramullah, whose book Gangajamni, Silver and Gold: A Forgotten Culture was to be discussed on Saturday but the session had to be dropped. She had flown from Karachi a couple of days earlier. But she did attend other sessions ungrudgingly. Two other Karachites, Sheeema Kermani and Sania Saeed were informed the night before that their eagerly-awaited session on drama with Madeeha Gauhar, moderated by Shahid Nadeem, had to be cancelled.
Collateral financial damage had to be suffered by the publishers and the book trade people, who had set up stalls. They lost one day’s business.
The common feeling pervading all over was that the withdrawing of permission and later reducing LLF to two days was done in response some of LLF's supporters opposing the government's controversial orange line project. One may like to recall that the intra-city railway line is being built by evicting many families. What is just as regrettable is the fact that the project may adversely affect as many as 11 heritage sites falling within the 250-foot radius of the railway tracks.
The management of the Avari Hotel ought to be applauded for offering their premises to the organisers of LLF at such short notice. Still, space was largely inadequate. A case in point: the shamiana where Hameed Haroon interviewed Sharmila Tagore was, if one may use a convenient cliché, packed like a can of sardines. But full marks to the guests, they were highly disciplined and, what is no less, very responsive.
Many other sessions had similar scenes but the audiences were just as disciplined.
One hopes the next year, and the many years to follow, the organisers will get back their traditional venue, which is in keeping with the soul and character of the LLF.
Finally, one wonders why do organisers of cultural programmes have to seek permission from the government functionaries?