Dr. Yaqoob Bangash, the force behind  Afkar-e-Taza,

The ThinkFest, explains what makes the festival a one-of-its kind event: a creative, safe, interactive and inclusive platform where Pakistanis can come together to discuss, contemplate and deliberate, a platform that goes beyond any language barrier to create a truly broad spectrum of people, ideas and languages.

Afkar-e-Taza, The ThinkFest is a new concept in the evolving literary festival milieu in South Asia. It complements, rather than competes with, other literary festivals by focusing on academics and their work, and leaving literature, art and music to others who do it well. The ThinkFest aims to fill the gnawing gap between academia and the public which has led to a stifling of intellectual activity and rigour in Pakistan. It centres discourse on robust academic research, rather than armchair discussions and off the cuff remarks, and provides depth to the topics which concern our life. This initiative is a collective effort of universities and other thinkers, without being ‘owned’ by someone, so that it can become truly a collaborative and inclusive platform.

The 2018 edition of Afkar-e-Taza, from January 13-14, 2018, was attended by thousands of people showing that Lahore, and indeed Pakistan, still has the appetite for hearing and engaging with world-class academics in an open and vigorous discussion. Scholars from nearly a dozen countries, thirty-five universities and institutions, and over two dozen Pakistani universities came together to participate in this two-day festival, which featured as keynotes Mrs. Tawakkol Karman, who received the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her role in the Arab Spring in Yemen, and the Rt. Hon. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the former Chairman of the Conservative Party in the UK, who resigned in protest from her ministerial position in the cabinet against the UK Government’s stance in the Arab-Israeli conflict in 2014. Anchored in the compelling and inspiring stories of these two strong women, the ThinkFest featured scholars like Professor Benjamin Hopkins from George Washington University USA, who is an expert on Afghanistan, Dr. Layliuddin from the British Library who has done seminal work on the firebrand Pakistani politician from the 1960s, Maulana Bhashani, Professor Tariq Modood from Bristol who is an expert on multiculturalism, Dr. Azeem Ibrahim who has done pioneering work on the Rohingyas of Burma, and Dr. Francois Burgat who is the director of the French Centre for Middle Eastern Studies. All these foreign scholars were paired with leading academics and thinkers from Pakistan, for an in-depth and captivating discussion.

In addition to the discussions, the ThinkFest also introduced two new ideas to the literary festival world. The ThinkFest, quite deliberately, did not create a “Speakers Lounge” where speakers get away from the public gaze, nor did it create a separate tier of “special guests” who had exclusive access to these lounges. At the risk of being called “awami”, the ThinkFest convinced the speakers to sit outside, mingle with the crowds, and even eat (free of course!), from the various food stalls at the venue. In the end, not only did the public, but the speakers themselves, appreciated this mingling and free access, as it took the discussions and deliberations beyond the halls and into the personal.

The ThinkFest also created a “Speakers’ Corner” modelled after the famed spot in London’s Hyde Park. This area provided attendees a space for impromptu talks and discussions. It gave people a safe and interactive space to come and exchange thoughts, bounce ideas, and simply an avenue to talk to each other. Several interesting talks took place in this space during the two days with some attracting large audiences.

Furthermore, the ThinkFest showcased the truly international character of Pakistan. Rather than being mired in the debate on how many panels are in English, Urdu or Punjabi, the Fest encouraged speakers to talk in any language they felt comfortable in—there was no bar of language anywhere. Hence, a launch of an English book on the partition of the Punjab could occur mainly in Punjabi, a panel on student politics was bilingual English and Urdu, and even the panel on policing and counter terrorism featured all three languages. The ThinkFest therefore went beyond the language battles and created a truly broad spectrum of people, ideas and languages.   

The big existential battle in Pakistan is of the “narrative.” The ThinkFest wants to create a narrative with is based on our freedoms – freedom of thought, speech and conscience, as without them no society can thrive. In an environment where the youth in Pakistan are being attracted towards extremism (itself a topic of discussion at the Fest), this event provides them with a creative, safe and interactive avenue where they can come to discuss, contemplate and deliberate.

The success of Afkar-e-Taza, The ThinkFest 2018 has shown that ideas and thinking matter and that people do want to engage, learn and develop. So please join us in this new and exciting journey as we move forward. Come, Think, Question!