For the past 3 years, Pakistanis living in the nation and those outside alike have found a renewed sense of identity. This identity speaks to the soul of the country; that of the world of arts that no terrorist group, nor any fundamentalist subscription, can steal from the people.
In 2013, Forbes (Opinion) may have named it the "most dangerous country in the world", but Pakistanis seem to have taken an altogether separate route and formed an identity abandoning any notions of religious fundamentalism.
The question of identity is a difficult one for Pakistanis, perhaps which is why it has been a discomfiting topic. Is there a Pakistani dream we seek? A Pakistani lifestyle we aspire towards? When asked, are we, as Pakistanis, able to succinctly articulate what it means to be Pakistani? Do we know the meaning or has it historically been decided for us? Until and unless, we learn to review and articulate our identity as part of a nation, we will continue keeping our citizenship rights and necessary patriotism at the fringes.
Since the launch of the War on Terror in 2001, it is has been difficult for a Pakistani citizen to meet an outsider and form an identity off a clean slate. The assumptions of fundamentalism, religiosity, extreme poverty and lack of bandwidth to enable progress have always trumped the opportunity to respond with the local truth; but even the truth was never clearly known, given the internal social and political turmoil; one that the people have been explicitly familiar with. Pakistanis themselves have found it perplexing to manage expectations the world has of them, let alone have a tabula rasa to produce a strong one-liner to describe who they are.
Enter Lahore Literary Festival (LLF). Succumbing neither to the threats made by terrorist groups, nor mere religiosity, LLF has elegantly grasped onto matters close to the hearts of the people. The truth of the hearts and minds of the Pakistani citizenry, one that has developed a refreshing way for Pakistanis to be known outside its' borders. A cultural platform, upon which, the populace has had something constructive to offer in the face of countless headlines claiming terrorism to be at the center. "Since its launch in 2013, the LLF has significantly grown each year. That throngs of visitors poured in every hour is not only a testament to Lahore's literary inclination, but also a reflection of the need for more organized cultural activity in Pakistan," says Adnan Siddiqi, LLF Program Coordinator speaking to Huffington Post Blog.
With over 75,000 people in attendance, LLF was an opportunity for curious minds to come together in dialogue in a city known for it's literary and artistic contributions since the Mughal Era. Lahore is not void of emblematic historical charisma, in fact, it has been for centuries, at the very fundamental center of literary and artistic developments. CEO and Founding Director of LLF, Razi Ahmed, told Abu Dhabi's The National: "LLF aims to "harness the talent of the city and honor its rich legacy as a centre for the arts."
Renowned historian, Romila Thapar, gave the keynote address to a most rejuvenated of audiences, eager to agree and encourage Thapar's sentiments on historic significance. In her Newsweek Interview, she says: "In our countries we can be heavily abused if we question conservative opinion or propagandist versions of history that come from fundamentalist ideologies. It takes more than normal courage to assert intellectual freedom."
With panelists ranging from Eve Ensler, Lyse Doucet (BBC), Shaima Khalil (BBC), Roger Cohen (NYT), Basharat Peer (Former NYT) to comic journalist, Joe Sacco, State Department official, Barnett Rubin (Director of the Afghanistan Regional Project at the Center on International Cooperation of New York University), Kamila Shamsie (author), Zulfikar Ghose (Writer and Professor at UT Austin), Shekhar Gupta (Journalist), Nasiruddin Shah (Actor), Najam Sethi and John Elliot (to name a few of the leading voices), had most of the city's citizenry queueing in the wee hours of early morning to participate in rich discussions. The conversations did not simply end as the clock struck to end a session, but individuals gathered in groups, brimming with inspiration and keen to share. Coffee plans were confirmed and the heart of Pakistan's soul, the world of art and literature, was carried out of the venue, into coffee shops and homes of the participants. Shaking hands, excitedly, with friends and acquaintances attending the same events developed external platforms for discussion, and the new individuals you met became the faces that were greeted the next time.
In fact, Pakistan's most revered singer and actress, late Noor Jehan was remembered with mighty delight and reverence. Her daughters paid tribute, publicly, to their mother for the very first time in 15 years. Waking up often to their iconic mother singing, her mostly sold-out appearances and artistic contributions were aptly described by journalist Jugnu Mohsin during a session at LLF: "It's people like... Noor Jehan who will win the battle for the soul of this country".
In the past 14 years Pakistan has globally been known for terrorism, yet seldom for it's fight against terrorism. This specific "fight against terrorism" has included writers, journalists, artists, professors, designers, poets and students, battling against the propaganda-tide, to provide an identity for the people. The Lahore Literary Festival is precisely a symbol of this battle, paying ode to devoted individuals, giving people cause and platform to believe that they can begin a conversation sharing their literary achievements, rather than the common defensive approach against terrorism. It has started a new conversation, one that has the potential to develop an identity Pakistanis can be proud of.
LLF Program Coordinator, Rimmel Mohydin told me: "Each year locals open up their hearts and homes to foreign delegates and their ideas. From Mysore to Melbourne, delegates have praised the Lahori audience for being patient, engaged and broad-minded. LLF is truly the best way to introduce the world to Pakistan."