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From Jaipur to Karachi: Two literature festivals

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21 February 2012 11:12

Alicia Mollaun, a PhD candidate at the Crawford School at ANU, is based in Islamabad.

As opposed to the discussion of atheism at the Jaipur Literature Festival, which I described in my earlier post, discussion of religion is unthinkable at a literature festival in Pakistan. Speaking against religion in public (and indeed in private these days) is taboo and not something one can have an academic debate about without fear of persecution or even prosecution for blasphemy. 

Religion permeates everything in Pakistan, even aeroplanes. On the flight between Islamabad and Karachi, before the safety video is screened, a prayer is broadcast across the PA system and is played on TV screens. When announcing arrival information, the pilot cheerily proclaims 'Insha'Allah (God willing) we will land in ten minutes'. I'm sure Richard Dawkins, who appeared at the Jaipur Literature Festival, would disapprove.

In contrast to the Jaipur festival, which was all about literature and the author (Oprah aside), the Karachi Literature Festival was all about political panel discussions, perhaps reflecting Pakistan's innate love of discussing politics and foreign affairs. British writer and academic Anatol Lieven (pictured, centre) was the centrepiece of many a panel discussion on everything from Pakistan's economy to writing on Pakistan as a foreigner.

There were many discussions (punctuated by power outages or 'load shedding' as it is called here) to tickle the fancy of anyone interested in Pakistan: terrorism, honour killings, Kashmir, nuclear weapons, Partition. A lot of Pakistan's enduring problems were discussed, though disappointingly without a lot of new ideas. Corruption, energy shortages, poor economic growth – as one young, female questioner put it, 'what is the point of staying here when the situation is so hopeless?' This seemed to echo the sentiments of many of Pakistan's youth.

The degree of hope seems to define both countries: India seems full of it, while Pakistan needs to get some. The superficial differences between the two countries in 2012 are striking. In India, things seem to work. Delhi has an efficient underground metro system, CNG (compressed natural gas) is readily available for motorists, power outages are almost non-existent, all manner of topics can be readily discussed (except by Salman Rushdie) and tourism is thriving.

In contrast, in Pakistan, things don't work. There is no public transport to speak of in any major city, CNG is rationed heavily and is unavailable on certain days (prompting drivers to queue for hundreds of metres on days it is available), power outages are the rule, not the exception (some areas are without power up to 20 hours a day) and many topics, from women's rights to religion, are taboo. 

A driver picked me up from the airport on returning to Islamabad from India. He was curious about what it was like in India – most ordinary Pakistanis know little about their neighbour beyond the rhetoric in the media. When I told him there were no gas and power shortages in Delhi, he was incredulous. He told me his children would not be able to eat breakfast the next morning because of gas shortages and had to do their homework by candlelight. He seemed surprised that Indian children didn't suffer the same hardships.

Photo courtesy of the Karachi Literature Festival.

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