An honest review of the Lahore Literary Festival

How did LLF 2017 fare with last-minute venue changes and security hazards?
Updated 06 Mar, 2017

This year's Lahore Literary Festival had to contend with last-minute venue changes and security hazards. How did it fare despite the disruption?

A brief review below.

1) A bomb blast in Lahore meant LLF had to be rescheduled, relocated and remixed within 48 hours so that it was safe for people to attend. This is admirable.

Kamila Shamsie and Daniyal Mueenuddin
Kamila Shamsie and Daniyal Mueenuddin

Rejiggering a three-day festival that takes the better part of a year to plan is no small feat. It would’ve been easier, logistically at least, to cancel the festival altogether. Yet this didn’t happen, and people who chose to ignore their security concerns in favour of hearing Teju Cole or Mohsin Hamid or Kamila Shamsie speak were rewarded for their effort.

Of course, by the time the bomb went off, team LLF was deeply invested in the festival (foreign panellists had already arrived! Talks had been scheduled!) and calling it off would’ve meant a hit to the fest’s credibility. So it wasn’t just security or a proximity to the arts that was at stake. But still, kudos to the team for pulling it off.

2) Featuring Michael Palin was random but it worked.

Michael Palin (of Monty Python fame) with a fan
Michael Palin (of Monty Python fame) with a fan

Looking at LLF’s schedule one might ask: how is Michael Palin (of Monty Python fame) relevant to Pakistan... or to contemporary conversations on anything, pretty much? I know I did.

But you know what? It didn’t really matter that he wasn’t the most timely or incisive speaker. His presence added a certain nostalgic value that operated entirely outside the realm of politics, meaning it was a welcome respite from the heaviness of the day. Palin’s talk was a throwback that didn’t try to be anything other than what it was: a satisfying indulgence. And maybe for this reason alone, it worked.

3) Mohsin Hamid shouldn’t have been paired with Teju Cole.

Teju Cole and Mohsin Hamid
Teju Cole and Mohsin Hamid

In possibly one of the fest’s most-awaited talks, Mohsin Hamid was paired with Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole.

And while it was a treat to hear them speak... they really shouldn’t have been speaking exclusively to each other. The session begged for a moderator’s gentle nudges and occasional outright redirection. Without this the two writers’ meandering conversation became insular. Being confident, erudite personalities they each spoke the other’s language well but often forgot to direct their exchange at the audience. I got the impression that I, along with other spectators, was an uninvited guest pressed up against Hamid’s living room window eavesdropping on an intimate chat he was having with Teju over drinks. It’s the kind of voyeurism that gets old quickly.

So it wasn’t surprising that the session really kicked off in the question and answer session. Faced with questions from a third party the writers began to express themselves more clearly. That’s when Teju began passionately holding forth on what it means to be a black man in today’s America and how he means to navigate Trumpism. I wish the question and answer session had lasted longer.

4) The session ‘Art in the Age of Fascism’ featuring Molly Crabapple with Salima Hashmi was excellent.

Salima Hashmi and Molly Crabapple
Salima Hashmi and Molly Crabapple

If we speak of relevance, well, you don’t get more relevant than this. It’s hard to host a lit fest today without questioning literature’s ability to get us through this present surge in populist nationalism. Paired with Salima Hashmi, American artist and illustrator Molly Crabapple spoke of how art can be used to stand against authoritarian regimes, and in this was a lesson for us all.

Her statement that “for art to mean anything under authoritarianism artists cannot ensconce themselves in wealthy enclaves. Art must go out into the streets...” might just be a good jumping–off point for discussions on the future of lit fests in Pakistan.

5) Ayesha Jalal made no apologies for being the smartest person onstage. This was great but also awkward.

Ayesha Jalal and William Dalrymple
Ayesha Jalal and William Dalrymple

Ayesha Jalal is a brilliant scholar, this is widely known. A note for the uninitiated: she also doesn’t mince words, suffer fools, or hesitate to correct people who diverge from her opinion. In the context of a lit fest this means pains must be taken to pair her with a co-host or moderator equipped to handle her searing intelligence and quick wit.

I couldn’t help but feel William Dalrymple wasn’t up to the task. A competent commentator in his own right, Dalrymple’s style – which depends on twinkling charm and good humour – couldn’t stand up to Jalal’s unapologetic focus on substance. Early on in their discussion Dalrymple misquoted a fact and was swiftly correctly by Jalal. He appeared thrown.

This wasn’t the only way Dalrymple was underutilised or misused. I felt he would’ve been more valuable on a panel discussing litfests in South Asia rather than one rehashing 70 years of Pakistan.

Still, listening to Ayesha Jalal is always invigorating. It’s a pleasure to watch a woman confidently own her success without worrying about offending the man she might inadvertently be discombobulating.

6) Mohsin Hamid’s talk with Dwight Garner was excellent.

Mohsin Hamid and Dwight Garner
Mohsin Hamid and Dwight Garner

A book critic at The New York Times, Dwight Garner proved a skilled moderator. He asked probing questions so affably that Hamid was put at ease and began to talk with refreshing candour. Hamid spoke at length about his process, his personal life, his fears and reservations... the whole talk was a series of fascinating insights and really brought to the fore the importance of competent moderation.

7) Local heroes were celebrated and that's important.

LLF did its part in honouring local heroes by organising a session on one of Pakistan's greatest humanitarians Abdul Sattar Edhi and awarding a lifetime achievement award to SIUT's Dr Adeeb Rizvi, who has dedicated his life to providing free public healthcare to millions in Karachi and beyond.

8) LLF’s truncated schedule featured some speakers twice. This felt unfair.

The revised LLF schedule could have accommodated more of the axed panellists
The revised LLF schedule could have accommodated more of the axed panellists

Team LLF had to axe a whole day’s worth of sessions to create a new truncated agenda. And yet, even though time and speaking spots was scarce several panellists appeared in more than one session.

This shouldn’t have been the case for anyone except the fest’s headliners. I can think of at least two sessions that could’ve been rejiggered to include axed panellists – or could’ve been done away with entirely to include book launches that never were.

9) Venue changes and security issues meant LLF was mostly just attended by the elite and their friends.

Who's to blame for this one? Had the event been held at the Alhamra as planned instead of at Faletti’s I’m sure Lahoris from a wide range of backgrounds and persuasions would’ve felt welcome.

But things being as they were, the audience at LLF comprised mostly of the elite. It was a sad reminder of how much more we need to do to make art and literature relevant to Pakistan.

Next year team LLF might want to have a solid Plan B and Plan C in place well in advance on the off chance security concerns make hosting the event at Alhamra untenable.