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CULTURE TALKISSUE 17

LLF-NYC: Where Culture Trumps Politics

By Sabyn Javeri

Debut novelist Sabyn Javeri participates in the third iteration of the LLF-NYC held in collaboration with Asia Society that saw Pakistan being represented on American soil for its art, literature and music.

Photo Credits: Ellen Wallop c/o Asia Society

Attiq Uddin Ahmed, Nayyar Ali Dada and Tanvir Hasan

A safe place for dangerous ideas” is a tagline that seems to have stuck to the Lahore Literary Festival whether at home ground or around the world. This time around it was New York. At the third edition of the LLF-NYC in collaboration with the Asia Society, the person saying these words was none other than our very own Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations, Dr. Maleeha Lodhi.

Maleeha Lodhi

Elegantly articulate, Dr. Lodhi opened the festival with a nod to the arts, acknowledging it as the best emissary of peace and harmony. And although the fiery discussions that followed were hardly congruous, in the cacophony of voices was the message of a harmonious discord, a healthy appetite for debate and discourse, vision and leadership and of course, art and craftsmanship. 

The fact that Man Booker Prize winner Kiran Desai chose to speak at the LLF despite the fact that she has not made a public appearance in years, shows its power to bring together the most interesting combinations of people, artists and thinkers.

At the panel “Never a Dull Moment for Fiction in South Asia,” Desai, Maha Khan Philips, HM Naqvi and I talked about the way writers respond to the conflict of their times. Be it the wounds of partition or the recent war on terror, writers have always made sense of their surroundings through storytelling. These stories leave a lasting impression on the readers because they humanize violence and the trauma, creating an empathy which perhaps non-fiction never can.

Razi Ahmed, Maha Khan Phillips, Man Booker Prize-winner Kiran Desai,
H. M. Naqvi, Rachel Cooper, (Director, Asia Society) and Sabyn Javeri
Waqas Khan

We also talked about the changing role of the writer and how it is becoming heavily politicized as well as heavily policed. Lastly, we spoke about the impact of technology and whether writers should adapt to the changing tastes to which Khan Philip had strong views.

When asked if literature needed to evolve with technology, Khan Philips answered, “Even more important that we don’t fall down that track”.

While she spoke about the preservation of the artist’s craft in a traditional sense, Desai talked about how some writers were adapting technology and alluding to social media within their writings, making it more timely and inclusive as well as reflective of the times we live in. It was a very stimulating discussion, which went far beyond its title, exploring not only the role of the writer but the quest of the writer in these turbulent times.

Besides writing, art got its due share of attention on the LLF platform. From Mughal miniatures and art histories to discussions on the contemporary art scene, no ground was left uncovered. Shahzia Sikander was a treat to hear, even more so as she spoke so humbly about her impressive and stunning art work. In the session titled, “Lahore as Palimpsest: Exploring the Mughal Aesthetics and Progression to Progressive Artists,” that included Sikander as well as Mehreen Chida-Razvi, Zehra Jumabhoy and Vishakha Desai, there were invigorating dialogues not just on the history of Mughal art but on the journey of the South Asian art scene internationally and its place in the world today.

And then of course, how can Lahore not be the star of its own show! In the session “Extraordinary Architecture, Everyday Lahore,” the Mughal city’s impressive architectural history was presented in beautiful visuals on a panel moderated by Attiq Uddin Ahmed, one which included the renowned architect Nayyar Ali Dada in discussion with the accredited conservation architect Tanvir Hasan. The mix of the old and new, of heritage with the futuristic, made this one of the most interesting panels of the day for me.

Zahid Hussain, Kathy Gannon, Moeed Yousaf and Barnett Rubin
Ayesha Jalal

History, literature and art were inevitably followed by politics. An invigorating discussion titled “Pakistan at 70” saw Raza Rumi in conversation with historian Ayesha Jalal following Jalal’s fiery and thought provoking key note address on liberalism. Jalal referred to Syed Ahmed Khan’s vision of progress. He has been criticized by some for not promoting gender parity and not having done enough to encourage women’s education on the same level as that of men. Albeit, Jalal argued that his vision was not unusual to the times (as that was the order of the day). Yet she called him a visionary and a pioneer of progressive liberalism which in itself made it a paradoxically thought-provoking talk.

Apart from these highlights, there was much more that followed during the day, from discussions on Afghanistan to debates on the survival of Urdu as a language. Prof. Tahira Naqvi surprised us all when she said that most students coming to her at NYU to learn the Urdu language were second-generation children of Bangladeshi immigrants! And isn’t that ironic, I thought to myself, given that Urdu was one of the main factors leading to the discontent between East and West Pakistan.

After a day packed with food for thought, a befitting end to the programme was a delightful qawwali performance by the Saami brothers – a quintessential taste of Lahore’s soul in New York. The auditorium at the Asia Society reverberated with the melodious and soulful sounds of the qawwals and for a second, I felt transported back home.

There was a sense of solidarity, a sense of collective harmony and perhaps a deep satisfaction to see Pakistan being represented for its art, culture and music on the soils of America and not for the ‘Trumpeting’ stereotype fears that seem to accompany the very name of the country.

It was definitely heartening to see this effort by Razi Ahmed, Founder and CEO of the LLF, and by Asia Society to showcase the best of Pakistan by bringing together artists and thinkers from all over South Asia under one roof. It certainly renews one’s faith in the idea of words without borders. More power to them for many more such collaborations. May the force be with you!

Fared Ayaz and Abu Muhammad Qawwal Photo Credit: Elena Olivo c/o Asia Society

Sabyn Javeri
Dr Sabyn Javeri is a Professor of Literature and Creative Writing and the author of the novel Nobody Killed Her (Harper Collins, 2017).

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