In olden times people used to burn the books they did not like, now they physically threaten and even attack the individual they are offended by, said the writer.
In olden times people used to burn the books they did not like, now they physically threaten and even attack the individual they are offended by, said the writer.

The absence of poet and author Fahmida Riaz was potently felt at the opening of the 11th International Urdu Conference at the Arts Council Karachi on Thursday as tributes poured in to mark her service to Urdu literature.

Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah hailed Riaz as a beacon of hope and a democratic stalwart who fought against the forces of dictatorship all her life. Her passing, he said, is surely a loss as she was not just an exceptional writer and poet, but also stood for human rights, and in particular fought for women’s rights all her life.

The International Urdu Conference first took place in 2008 and since then writers, poets, scholars and book lovers have thronged to attend it and hear noted speakers from Pakistan and other countries share their love for Urdu and Urdu literature.

The CM also lauded how the conference has become a welcome relief in a city plagued with violence and unrest. “The Sindh government is trying to create bonds of love and peace between people speaking different languages in the city of Karachi in particular. We want to bring back the colours and lights of this great city.”

Karachi Arts Council president Ahmed Shah said that the conference can be considered as the largest Urdu conference the world over. For a long time the biggest identifying feature of any person who speaks in Urdu has always been his knowledge and stated that the conference is being attended by such people. It is the government’s responsibility to take advice and knowledge from learned individuals for the running of the country as politics will and does suffer greatly due to their absence.

“Society is remembered by the writers, poets, scholars and artists it produces; people to date remember Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Marquez, Shah Latif and Sachal and will always [do] so.”

Writer Nasir Abbas Nayyar called the Urdu conference an integral part of the public sphere where people from all walks of life come together. This allows us to see how artists, writers and scholars view society and culture and offer us new insight, he said.

Shrinking space

He also criticised how the space for progressive thought is shrinking in Pakistan and now the loudest voices are those of the intolerant. In olden times people used to burn the books they did not like, now they physically threaten and even attack the individual they are offended by.

Indian scholar Prof Shamim Hanfi spoke about the interplay between the past and the present with regards to the Urdu language.

Any language, he explained, is priceless for the human experience; without it human beings will be handicapped and not be able to express their dreams and aspirations, their sorrows and joys. And it is through language that man can narrate a beautiful story that can impact the lives of millions.

The crowd on the first day of the conference for the session on Jaun Elia kept swelling and eventually organisers were unsure how to manage the crowd and accommodate them. Once the auditorium was full, seating was arranged outside in front of a screen that displayed the sessions. However, even that space was insufficient and eventually many were left standing.

Anwar Maqsood’s session was another popular and well-attended segment. In his typically caustic style he used humour to highlight the various disparities in society about what people say and what they do. From politics to poets, many personalities were spoken about in a hypothetical sequence of dialogue and conversation. Jaun Elia, Ghalib and Iqbal, as well as current and former politicians all made an appearance and were dissected in a humorous style.

The 11th International Urdu Conference will continue till Sunday and is set to review literature, culture, music, poetry, painting, dance, drama, education, journalism and film.


Originally published in Dawn, November 23rd, 2018

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