The seventh edition of the annual Lahore Literary Festival held over three days, Feb. 22-24, at Lahore’s iconic Alhamra Arts Center drew a crowd of over 57,000 festivalgoers.
Envisioned as a safe place for championing local and global creative expressions, this year’s LLF, much like its past editions, showcased in the large, expansive spaces of Alhamra, internationally-eminent writers and thinkers including among others, Ayesha Jalal, Fatima Bhutto, Pankaj Mishra, Mohsin Hamid, Leila Aboulela, Eugene Rogan, Afshin Shahi, Mirza Waheed, Ahmed Rashid, Roopa Farooki, Anissa Helou, Rick Stroud, Vali Mahlouji, Suzy Hansen, Becca Heller, Emily Hannam, and Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh.
Pakistan and South Asia’s enlightened and rational voices have been center-stage at the LLF annually to spotlight the shared postcolonial experience of statehood and identity. Prominent keynote speakers at the LLF since its inception have included Tariq Ali and Romila Thapar. This year the LLF started with a keynote address, in Urdu, on revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz by eminent poet Zehra Nigah. Columnist and rights activist I. A. Rehman called it a “scintillating tribute” to the late poet.
With over 75 sessions that included panel discussions, conversations and performances, the LLF provided a program this year, which was “thematically richer than its earlier editions,” noted Rehman. “It was so well organized and everyone was so warm. I’m so glad I finally made it,” enthused Fatima Bhutto.
Topics as diverse as Hamza Shinwari’s poetry and Sufism in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, decoding Iran through its arts and culture (to mark the 40th anniversary of the revolution in Iran), Kashmir scars, digital archives of Balochistan, Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry, Punjabi folk songs and ghazals, Pakistan’s theater movements, and Syria’s conflict through the work of author Rania Abouzeid’s acclaimed work No Turning Back were explored over the three-day program. “A wonderful and stimulating festival that is unlike any other,” observed Alexandra Pringle, editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury Publishing U.K.
Nearly 23 book-launches took place at the seventh LLF including those of Pakistani fiction writers, Zarrar Said, Soniah Kamal, Sarvat Hasin, Sabyn Javeri and the award-winning author of Home Boy, H.M. Naqvi whose latest work, The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack, has received critical praise. Journalist and author Isambard Wilkinson, who launched his travelogue of Pakistan at LLF, called it a “wonderful festival. It was all absolutely delightful and fascinating.”
The Guardian termed the fourth edition of the LLF, in 2016, as “an intelligently programmed festival,” which spanned a breadth of disciplines and one that to date has remained “free to all comers.”
“The openness for everybody and anybody to soak in the atmosphere that we create at the LLF is critical to enlarging the space for free-thinking for an informed-discourse on the everyday issues we face,” opined Razi Ahmed, founding director of the LLF. “LLF has steadily reached out to more and more audiences annually through its outreach programs,” he stressed, “including through an open and freely accessible LLF channel on YouTube which showcases seven years’ worth of LLF archives.”
In addition to its dedicated organization team, 120 volunteers from some of Lahore’s leading educational institutions supported this year’s LLF. Students from the National College of Arts, Forman Christian College and the Lahore Grammar School were all instrumental in ensuring the success of this year’s event. “It was a really special experience to be part of LLF in Lahore,” said journalist and author Maha Khan Philips. “I can’t even imagine how much work went into putting together such a fantastic festival but I had a tremendous time.”
In partnership with the U.S. Consulate, Lahore, the LLF invited this year Christopher Merrill, a renowned poet and director of the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa to conduct a creative writing workshop at the LLF with literature students from LUMS, Kinnaird College, Punjab University, Forman Christian College and the Lahore College for Women. A total of 34 students, including six from Sargodha, participated through pre-registration in this free workshop. “A marvelous festival, in an intoxicating city. I loved, loved, loved every event I attended and participated in,” said Merrill of the three days that comprised this year’s LLF.
Other highlights this year included a captivating session on the life and music of the Sitara-i-Imtiaz-decorated singer Suraiya Multanikar who appeared on stage along with her singer-daughter Rahat Multanikar. The mother-daughter duo enchanted the packed hall with singing, which was interspersed with a vibrant dialogue with Sughra Sadaf, director of Punjab Institute of Language, Art and Culture. Nusrat Jamil, director LLF, announced a lifetime achievement award for Suraiya Multanikar, hailing her as a “national treasure.”
This year’s LLF also featured three art installations. Sounds of Lahore and Multan, an audio/visual exhibition by the Office of Conservation & Community Outreach celebrated the vibrant urban landscape of Punjab province. Lahore-based artist Farida Batool’s images were also highlighted in an installation at the Alhamra’s gallery space. Curator Vali Mahlouji brought his Recreating the Citadel—a part of the Tate Modern Collection—to the Rohtas 2 gallery, highlighting the post-1979 social upheaval of the red-light district of Tehran and its subsequent sanitization even amidst proliferating prostitution.
The closing of the LLF was marked by a well-chosen repertoire featuring Sheema Kermani and her ensemble performing to “Aaj Rang Hai,” a Qawali by Amir Khusrow; Yaad by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, and a Dhammal, a centuries-old custom at Sufi shrines in Sindh.