Liberal Pakistanis reclaim ‘shrinking space’ for expression at Karachi Lit Fest


Attendees peruse the books available at last weekend’s Karachi Literary Festival. PHOTO/Diaa Hadid/NPR

Men and women were piling in to a panel at a recent book festival in Pakistani city Karachi, but a speaker was late. “In a country which is infamous for missing persons,” the moderator, Javed Jabbar, announced, “we have a missing speaker.”

“Khuda na khasta,” Jabbar added, “God forbid” in Urdu — “it is not due to the reason why people sometimes disappear from Pakistan.”

Jabbar, a prominent writer, was referring to the disappeared — shorthand for thousands of Pakistanis taken over the years by plain-clothed men who activists say are linked to intelligence services, some never to return. Their numbers include suspected militants, insurgents and increasingly, activists say, peaceful critics of Pakistan’s military.

Activists say it’s a taboo issue in Pakistan and they can be punished for talking about it.

But this was the Karachi Literature Festival, an annual event produced by Oxford University Press, held at a seaside hotel over the weekend. Writers and participants frenetically dissected Pakistan’s pressing problems. What they couldn’t say outright, they tucked into humor, winks and nods.

“We have a way of dealing with this kind of shrinking or diminishing space,” said Bina Shah, a writer who hosted a panel on the #MeToo movement against the sexual harassment of women. She referred to the military dictator Zia ul-Haq, who ruled for a decade before he died in a plane crash in 1988. “We learnt different ways of saying things. We learnt to speak around obstacles. We learnt to use code.”

The festival has been running for the past nine years, and the issues it raises in any given year offer a snapshot of Pakistani life. What’s more, the way those issues are discussed signal the ebb and flow of freedoms in a country that’s flipped between civilian rule and military dictatorship since its birth in 1947.

Funded in part by corporate sponsors, the Karachi Literature Festival is considered the biggest, most dynamic of its kind in Pakistan. It’s where writers hope to be showcased and speak on panels. The event is free and open to the public, giving it a rare buzz shared among the city’s residents, from elites to provincial students.

The mood among many liberal Pakistanis has turned quietly grim over the past year, after four middle-class bloggers who criticized the military vanished for several weeks in December 2016 and January 2017. Most recently, Reza Kahn, a man who advocated peace between India and Pakistan, was seized on Dec. 2. Khan’s brother said the abduction came after he engaged in a heated political discussion at a public event.

That was not the fate of the speaker in the panel that Jabbar was moderating. Minutes after he made his tongue-in-cheek announcement, the speaker entered.

“Welcome, welcome, you were marked absent!” Jabbar said. “Thank God, the agencies have returned you,” he joked.

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