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A festival celebrating languages, literatures

A festival celebrating languages, literatures

ISLAMABAD: Another year sees another literature festival in what Ameena Saiyid says was once seen as a synthetic city with no roots.

The Islamabad Literature Festival (ILF), held annually at Margalla Hotel, has acquired a distinct character over the past three years.

Oxford University Press (OUP) gathered avid readers, writers, academics and literary figures from across Pakistan and the world for the first evening of the Festival on Friday.

Managing Director, OUP, Ameena Saiyid said at the inaugural session, “The first Karachi Literature Festival was inspired by a similar event in Jaipur. Since then Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad have hosted multiple literature festivals, but there is a need to own the festivals and replicate them in every village.”

Using interesting jargon, she added: “The festivals are open-source, there is no copyright!”

Co-founder of the festival Asif Farrukhi reiterated the need for such gatherings which create the space for discourse and foster a love for books.

The French ambassador, Martine Dorance, commended the organisers on the depth and breadth of sessions they had put together for the ILF 2015.

She went on to share that two French authors would be participating in later sessions and the Embassy of France was delighted to have supported the ILF.

The Italian ambassador, Adriano Chiodi Cianfarani, said: “This is my third literature festival in Pakistan this year as the Embassy of Italy has supported the Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad festivals. Literature and culture have always played an important role in connecting people and allowing better understanding.”

Thomas Leary, Minister Counsellor for Public Affairs, US embassy, spoke briefly about the cultural exchange between Pakistan and the US through the promotion of literature, education and art.

The keynote speech by Ataul Haq Qasmi thoroughly engaged the audience as he wove anecdotes seamlessly with humour. Beginning in English, he explained that his speech had two parts, one in English and the other in Urdu and that the English segment was over. He went on to say, “Language has become a status symbol. Those who can afford to speak English, do so, and of those who are left, those who can speak Urdu, speak that language and only those who can afford neither of those speak our own ethnic languages. I speak to my staff in Punjabi and they respond in Urdu – Urdu that makes me cringe. I threaten to dock their pay but they still speak to me in Urdu.”

He added, “I am an optimist and I have always been hopeful about Pakistan’s future but if we truly want to see Pakistan become a beautiful country we will have to keep holding such events which bring people together to celebrate stories, reading and discussion.”

The second keynote speech by Anatol Lieven, the author of ‘Pakistan: A Hard Country’ was equally engaging and hopeful as the author shared his perspective on how Pakistan was not a failed state.

Beginning with an assertion that “such festivals do not exist in failed states and therefore these festivals are evidence that Pakistan is not a failed State,” Lieven went on to comment on the interesting fact that it was Pakistan that was asked to send in troops to Yemen to stabilise the region.

He added: “The diminishing of US interests in the region will be fortuitous as, barring no other disasters, it will give Pakistani people the space to manage their own affairs.” The next session entitled ‘He, She, or …’ was a conversation with Laxmi Narayan Tripathi moderated by Shayma Saiyid.

Laxmi is a transgender activist and author of the powerful book, ‘Me Laxmi, Me Hijra’.

Laxmi had the audience riveted with her amusing and flamboyant stories which conveyed her inherent pride in herself and determination to end the oppression of and discrimination against the Hijra community.

She said: “I have travelled everywhere in the world, except the Middle East where my life would be in danger and Sub Saharan Africa, but coming to Pakistan is a dream come true.”

Unlike most Hijras, Laxmi had the good fortune to be born to a Brahman family, to parents who did not reject her.

She said: “In India, if you are a Brahman and if you have money then you are privileged and I did not feel the stigma but my sexuality was decided for me by a doctor when I was born. He ticked a box labeled male.”

Speaking of her identity as a Hijra she said: “The word Hijra really means searching for the self and that is what my journey has been a search for my true self. In 311 years of oppression and freedom, the Hijra community has only now been recognised as having a legal existence. I am 36 years old but I only got my legal identity and rights a year ago.”

Published in Dawn, April 25th, 2015

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