A Celebration of the Pen Over the Sword

Where in the world would you find Karen Armstrong in a room with 2,000 opinionated Muslims... all enjoying a lively discussion about tolerance, compassion, and religion? At the Karachi Literature Festival. Yes, Karachi. As in Karachi, Pakistan... the city where this week's headlines include "Tribal elder's house blown up," "Schoolteachers block road in protest," and "Relatives thrash doctors after 10 year-old girl dies." Is there any space for intellectual discussion in this city?

The answer is a resounding "Yes!" Over 5,000 readers, writers, and book-lovers thronged to the Carlton Hotel on the coast of the Arabian Sea to mingle with Pakistan's leading authors. Noted religious historian and interfaith spokesperson Karen Armstrong lent her voice to the general message of the festival -- that intolerance thrives amidst ignorance. "We really know so little about one another. Diversity within oneself and among others should be appreciated, and we should be open to change," she said. And what better way to learn than through a book? Works of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, in both English and Urdu, were displayed on tables at the outdoor pavilion, while concurrent sessions with authors and journalists took place in the conference rooms throughout the hotel.

Judging by the response of the packed halls and enthusiastic Q&A sessions, Pakistanis are keen to engage with literature of all types. Comments flew across the room and conversations spilled out into the hallways as participants eagerly offered their opinions on topical subjects such as the current state of affairs, continuing drone attacks, and the misconceptions outsiders hold about Pakistan.

Organized by the British Council, Oxford University Press, and the US Consulate in Karachi, the literature festival attracted not only the Karachi intelligentsia, but also foreign writers and journalists who stopped by after the Jaipur Literary Festival. Enthusiastic Pakistanis repeated the tongue-in-cheek comments by the foreign contingent who were rumored to have said how friendly and warm the Pakistanis were in comparison to their Indian counterparts!

The progressive-poetry rock group Laal (which means 'Red' -- a reference to socialism and their support of social causes) closed the two-day event with a rock concert. Their songs combined the poetry of Pakistan's favorite poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz with a pop-rock East/West sound... the perfect conclusion to a festival which celebrated a new crop of writers while acknowledging the debt to those luminaries who preceded them. Perhaps the best writers will emerge under conditions where tyranny and corruption threaten the freedoms of all.

Ham jo tareeq raahon mein mar gaye
Qatal gaahon say choom kar hamaray alam
Aur niklain gay ishq kay kaaflaat.

We who were killed in the dark pathways
We will raise our flags from the fields of murder,
Many more caravans of freedom (lovers) shall emerge.
By Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984), translation by Laal