Feisal Naqvi

Viva LLF!

In Uncategorized on February 8, 2016 at 3:40 am

In a few weeks, Lahore will once again to play host to the Lahore Lit Fest. Last year, the LLF drew more than 75,000 visitors. For three days, from morning till night, people kept streaming in. They came to see historians like Romila Thapar, artists like Shahzia Sikander, novelists like Mohsin Hamid and Bilal Tanweer, and even architects like Nayyar Ali Dada.

But do literature festivals matter? Or are they just diversions for the elite, a sophisticated version of the bread and circuses routine used by all governments since the Romans to keep people happy?

The answer to the first question is an emphatic yes: literature festivals do matter. They matter because art matters. And art matters not just from a personal perspective but from a national perspective. What we need – as a nation – is more art, more literature, more music, more dramas, more joy. And we need all of those not just because art is good for the soul but because art is good for the economy.

In a letter dated 12 May 1780, John Adams wrote to his wife that it was his duty to study politics and war so that his sons would have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. And his sons would have the obligation to study mathematics and philosophy so that their sons could, in turn, study “painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”

The point that Adams was making is that the study and pursuit of art requires a certain settled society which only arises once not just the bare foundations of that society are in place but also its general features. An artistically productive state is thus likely to be a healthy state. Or, to put it another way, states that have degenerated into anarchy or a bare-bones struggle for existence are unlikely to produce any art, let alone great art.

The further point, as Mosharraf Zaidi noted a few days ago, is that terrorism consistently attacks the manifestations of the state. From polio vaccinations to schools to policemen, what the terrorist attacks is the ability of the state to generate order. When schools shut down, the terrorists win. When health workers can’t dispense polio drops, the terrorists win. And yes, when people are stopped from finding joy in art, the terrorists win.

Given the terror gripping parents of school-going children these days, it may appear a bit unseemly to insist upon the importance of art. My noble and learned friend Shakir Husain has long tracked the more ridiculous manifestations of what he terms “Fashionistas Against Terrorism” (or #FAT). And yes, the notorious BBC report featuring a flak-jacketed reporter breathlessly reporting from the grounds of the Islamabad Serena on the fashion show being held only 70 miles away from the frontline of the war on terror was a tad over the top.

But behind all the silliness, there is an actual point there. The ability to find joy in even the most adverse moments is integral to the resilience of a nation. If we stop laughing, stop dancing and stop making music then it really doesn’t matter whether or not the TTP physically destroys the state of Pakistan because it will have already enslaved its citizens.

One example of the relationship between art and war comes from the famed Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra. During the four year long siege of Sarajevo, seven members of the orchestra were killed and twelve were wounded. But the orchestra never stopped practising. More importantly, it never stopped giving concerts. As one scholar has since noted, the arts “played a vital role in the struggle of the citizens to survive the years of the siege. Through underground concerts, plays, and performances, the city was able to keep hope alive.”

The relationship between music and societal resilience may seem a bit distant from our current predicament but it shouldn’t be. As our embattled interior minister noted the other day, Pakistan is in danger of losing the war on terror psychologically even while it gets closer to winning it militarily.

Since I’m not sure that the benighted leaders of this country will ever get around to making the arts a part of the war on terror, let me try a different tack.

Joseph Nye, who pioneered the concept of ‘soft power’, defined it as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion.” And currently, Pakistan ranks very low on the soft power front. When the average foreigner thinks of Pakistan, he thinks of bombs and terror, not of Mughal monuments and qawwalis. When the average foreigner thinks of India, he doesn’t just think of the Taj Mahal, he thinks of ‘Incredible India!’

Remaking Pakistan’s image is not just important from an international relations perspective, it is important from an economic perspective. By any measure, tourism is one of the largest industries in the world. It is certainly the largest service sector industry. By one measure, it accounts for about 277 million jobs and about 9.8 percent of the global economy. And yet Pakistan currently ranks 125th on the Global Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index!

But soft power is not just an aspect of international relations: it’s most important aspect is domestic. Most Pakistanis do not want to stay in Pakistan. The reason why the movie ‘Zinda Bhaag’ resonated with so many viewers last year is because they shared the characters’ desire to escape from Pakistan by any means necessary.

Let’s ask ourselves a simple question: given a choice, why would any young person want to live in Pakistan? Our legal system is a farce, our education system is rubbish, our students are constantly being shot at, our society is misogynistic to the core and our economy is perpetually on the edge of collapse.

This country cannot simultaneously be at war with its own heritage and with the terrorists who seek to destroy us. It is time now to instead embrace that heritage, irrespective of whether we inherited it from Muslims or Hindus. Remaking Pakistani into a miniature version of Saudi Arabia can wait till we have first dealt with the people trying to kill us for being insufficiently Islamic. To give a historical example, Stalin abandoned communist orthodoxy after the Nazis attacked Russia and instead went back to exhorting the masses to save Mother Russia.

As I write these lines, Lahore is still in the grip of a miserable cold spell. But there is sunshine forecast for the coming week and I know that spring is around the corner. In the years gone by, the advent of spring would have been marked not just by blossoming mustard flowers but by the emergence of brightly coloured kites dancing sprightly in the breeze. Those kites are now gone, victims of judicial pressure driven in turn by hysterical media coverage featuring the usual moralising bores.

The banning of Basant is probably not the stupidest economic decision in the history of Pakistan but it isn’t that far behind either. Basant was our one true festival of the masses, a time of great joy and happiness, an occasion enjoyed by rich and poor alike. Yes, innocent people died every year because of illegal kite string. But the answer was to ensure the unavailability of illegal kite string, not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

As a nation conceived in ideological terms, Pakistan is very much unusual. At the same time, having survived now for almost seventy years, it is much more than a mere experiment. At the end of the day, what drives official mistrust of art festivals and kite flying is the suspicion that without constant policing of the ideological borders, the people of Pakistan will somehow revert back into Hindus.

But perhaps the time has finally come for our leaders to stop forcing Pakistanis into a particular mould. Perhaps the time has instead come to trust the people. Isn’t that what democracy is all about?

This column was printed in The News on 31 January 2016.

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