By Muna Habib
UN messenger of peace, activist and youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Laureate, Malala Yousafzai, made a surprise appearance at the Lahore Literary Festival in London. Ensconced in creative genius and cultural wisdom, the 2nd annual Lahore Literary festival (LLF) came to London celebrating Pakistan’s history, culture and visionary talent.
Speaking to a packed auditorium, Malala Yousafzai dazzled the audience with her wish to provide greater access to education to girls globally. “I realised my voice can help other girls, I think about all those 130 million girls around the world, who don’t have an education and I realise education is the only way for them to move forward,” she said.
In conversation with novelist Kamila Shamsie, Malala described her love for Pakistan, and how she continues to miss her country. She challenged her critics, saying, “People often say what have I done in Pakistan?” She explained that she “respected the opinions of the partners we work with in Pakistan”, and was unable, “to mention exactly who we are working with because of security issues”, she said. Malala’s appearance, comes as she embarks on her studies at Oxford of philosophy, politics and economics and continues her global work with the Malala Fund.
The LLF was also an opportunity for Malala to launch her new illustrated children’s book Malala’s Magic Pencil. British Library Chief Executive Baroness Tesa Blackstone, made opening remarks highlighting, “The shared history between Britain and Pakistan, reflected in the British Library’s South Asian collection – the richest outside the region,” she proudly said.
The British Library is home to a large collection of South Asian artefacts including Indian miniature paintings, East India office records and private papers. LLF Director Razi Ahmed welcomed the delegates to the event and spoke of the importance of the event, how the image of Pakistan has not always been favourable in the media and that its important cultural heritage has largely been ignored. His opinion was reiterated by Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN Maleeha Lodhi, “LLF has done Pakistan a great service, by showcasing Pakistan in a way that British people are unaware of,” she said. “The LLF exhibited a cultural renaissance where we see a proliferation of creative voices, arts and literature,” she explained passionately. She emphasised the importance of the event.
“Pakistan is usually seen by the west through a single lens, and that’s just terrorism.” She welcomed the LLF exposure to Pakistan’s liberalism. In years past, Pakistan’s literature has received international recognition through highly revered English language novelists. The day created a safe space for exploring ideas, books, opened different cultures and other perspectives.
The cheerful atmosphere chimed with themes of an intelligently programmed festival. Free to all attendees, the enthusiastic festivalgoers included writers, academics, diplomats, students, and bibliophiles. Session “Never forget,” discussed India – Pakistan’s 1947 Partition, the author, Kamila Shamsie, highlighted differing opinions of successive Pakistani generations as they learned how independence and liberation was achieved. “It is a story of unbelievable violence and suffering,” she said. She explained the history surrounding the 1971 East and West Pakistan partition after the minority inflicted suffering on the majority was traumatic. “The problem is we never speak about the horrors of our history, hence we can never address how the two nations came to be,” said British– Bangladeshi writer TahmimaAnam. She described the challenges in expressing honesty. “How do you tell a story that these nations were born on the back of horror?” author Shamsie, stressed. “These events are not in Pakistan’s history books. We never speak about it.
The world of fake news? We’ve been living it all along,” she said. Author Mirza Waheed, argued it was impossible to move on as the events still impact young people today. In a session of pre-Partition Lahore, Professor Tahir Kamran of Government College, Lahore and Professor Ian Talbot of the University of Southampton, explored Lahore’s fabric and cultural history during the Raj and its ability to reach out beyond the Punjab. Ian Talbot described how Lahore was a bustling, thriving city. “A great education centre and business commerce that attracted people for its cultural life, who then remained and contributed economically,” said professor Talbot.
“Lahore was the centre of education for the whole of north India, not just Pakistan.” ‘In The Maze,’ a colourful session of food as a leitmotif and culture, culinary legend, Madhur Jaffrey, explained the shared cultural history that spanned thousands of years between India and Pakistan. And despite their separation, they continue to share a love affair with the same recipes and dishes. “It is just the nomenclature that is different,” she said. Although, she stressed India was further developed with its vegetable palate, “There is a tendency for Pakistanis to eat more meat,” she said. The promotion of a strong female voice was a resounding theme at the festival.
Firstly, Malala’s address then later the session: Urdu Language’s Uncivil Women. Predominantly spoken in Urdu, the panel discussed eminent Pakistani writer Ismat Chughtai, known for her fierce feminist ideology. Script writer Zehra Nigah described what a tragedy it would be if teaching students about her work is removed from Pakistan’s curriculum as has been threatened. Speaking after the session novelist, Shamsie said, “People get scared of a woman with a voice, hence they try to shut it down.” Author Aamer Hussain highlighted the importance for Pakistan to demonstrate its rich, history, culture and genre to the Pakistani Diaspora. He said, “They are limited to a number of contemporary Pakistani writers,” consequentially “they are not fully aware of what goes on behind the scenes, the history or the culture,” he said. In surmising the day, he said. “The event demonstrated, the richness of Pakistani literature and how alive and vital it is.”
(The writer is a correspondent with Daily Times, based in London. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)