The Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) is usually imagined amid the red brick walls of Al Hamra, Lahore’s beloved arts council. It has served as a physical space for writers, artists, and historians since 2008, when it was first curated by Razi Ahmad. Every year, it congregates hundreds to meet their literary idols but the year 2021, however, forced the festival to transition to a virtual space instead of a physical one, as the pandemic rages on worldwide. In this context, it is not easy to compare the current LLF to previous sessions, reminiscing of a time with greater mobility and personalised interactions.
But the absence of a physical stage has opened up greater avenues, unimaginable with the limitations of the previous model. A virtual LLF has meant a significant alleviation of costs and security concerns, leading to the festival extending to four days rather than its usual 2-3 day structure. 2021’s Lahore Literary Festival commenced on February 18 and went on till February 21, marking a total of four days brimming with literature, art, and history.
While the need to lament the current world order is almost an obligation now, it was previously impossible to imagine the accumulation of literary giants from across the globe to a single space. But 2021’s digitalisation amassed CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, Life of Pi’s Yann Martel, Pulitzer winner Jhumpa Lahiri, and Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal among a plethora of others, all under the umbrella of Lahore’s literary festival.
This year, CNN host and writer for the Washington Post Fareed Zakaria and former Ambassador to the US Maleeha Lodhi discussed the post-pandemic world and the need for international alignment in what they termed as a “hybrid-reality.” Kim Ghattas, Dutch-Lebanese journalist for the BBC, discussed her book ‘Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Rivalry that Unraveled Middle East’ in which she unraveled the significance of the ‘niqaab’ in Middle East’s politics, in relation to Iran and the Gulf.
Renowned writers Elif Shafak and Yann Martel, authors of Forty Rules of Love and Life of Pi, respectively, divulged their procsess of writing and the impetus for their best selling books. Journalists Kathy Gannon and Zahid Hussain centered their conversation on a post 9/11 world and Pakistan’s ever evolving relations with the United States. In a discussion regarding Hussain’s book ‘No-Win War; The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow’, the writers discussed the political entanglement between America, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“After 9/11, Pakistan was critical for the US because of Al Qaeda and Taliban, but it was like a short marriage as there was no convergence of interests as in the 1980s,” Hussain said.
A predominant indicator of LLF’s success this year, especially with its new virtual model, was in its ability to curate massive cross-border dialogue with India, despite growing tensions.
Prominent Pakistani historian FS Aijazuddin and Delhi-based Sunita Kohli discussed the late Ved Mehta, an award-winning Indian writer. Pakistani art historian Salima Hashmi led a session titled “Decoding the Artistic Process: The Making of Miniatures in the Mughal Courts” with Jawaharlal Nehru University’s professor Kavita Singh. Other conversations featured Amitav Ghosh, Farrukh Dhondy, Sugata Bose and Vali Nasr, among several others.
Cornered into the digital realm by unprecedented conditions, the LLF managed to see the silver lining in a way perhaps best summarised by Razi Ahmed.
“This year, as the COVID-19 pandemic persists, we have been able to bypass the barriers that bar us from free exchange of people and ideas here in South Asia, especially as right-wing forces gain more currency,” he said, in conversation with Indian media website Firstpost.
“We are delighted to be hosting eminent fellow South Asians from India and the diaspora. All these interactions will set the tone for widening our circles to talk to each other for fashioning a more tolerant and diverse neighbourhood.”