On trips back to the UK my friends’ find me changed – Pakistan will do that to you I tell them. The truth is it has been a very long time since I felt British; I have grown more and more disconnected from the UK as I have immersed and invested more of myself into Pakistan.
It is Shakespearean irony then that Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) is where I would rediscover my British roots. How could I not after being exposed to some of the most wonderful writers and voices Britain has to offer? The quote above is the tagline to Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut The Land of Blood and Honey. I came across it after I came back from KLF on Sunday evening.
The British Council and Oxford University Press along with other partners have done something truly wonderful in Karachi, Pakistan. On a platform of literature and unity, for two days, KLF let us live and breathe in a world of words that have encapsulated the times we are living in. When Hanif Kureishi in the closing ceremony referred to Charles Dickens, it made me think back to the brigadier who had referred to Dickens earlier that evening and the potent opening from A Tale of Two Cities in a session which dealt with the psychological effects of terror.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” There we all were – lovers of words, reading and writing – in a nucleus of literature – the blood and honey of a land at the heart of war, insurgency and terror.
Of course we were not using KLF as a means of escaping the war on terror in any way. It was there, just like it always is, even while they joked about the West’s drones landing on the ‘right people’ in a political satire session. The fact that we can talk about this at all in any which way enables us to understand what role we have to play through our words, ideas and what we read. Ground realities in stride, there was more to the KLF than flowery words and anecdotes, there was depth and honour. The narrative and discourse being sparked created a sense of liberation through words and ideas; it was about exposing ourselves to ourselves, challenging the status quo – not escapism from what was around us and within.
One British fiction author at an earlier session I had attended pressed upon us the importance of being uncertain as a writer. That I am not so sure about – so I suppose in some way I am practicing the sentiment. Hearing Anatol Levin and Declan Walsh speak at a session called “Eyewitnesses and Observers: Writing about Pakistan through a Foreign Perspective” made me realise how easily I had taken for granted my certainty that I was more Pakistani than British now and in doing that what was being compromised. In suppressing my inherent Britishness, without realising I had been dumbing down my own voice which has to be the most destructive thing to anyone’s creativity. As destructive, say had I opted to ignore my Pakistani roots.
Levin highlighted the West has an easy way of simplifying the complex situation in Pakistan. Something that irks so many of us is the one sided coverage of this country in foreign media and he highlighted the challenge is in overcoming the editorial barrier. To which I thought about how I had put a barrier on my own words. Walsh, an Irish journalist for The New York Times highlighted how important it was to form perceptions on both sides, something I had been unconsciously refusing to do because of my growing love for Pakistan and growing distance from the UK. During the course of their session as they and three other journalists of different backgrounds spoke of how we could write about this country, the penny finally dropped. I realised how important it was to start cultivating a voice that could represent both sides of the coin.
Later on Sunday night while looking at an English penny in the palm of my hand, one kept for luck in my purse I thought about my words in spiritual terms. It is said that when God sent the Angel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad the first thing he was commanded to do was read. The Prophet Muhammad went onto leave us with something more important, “the ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr.” After being at KLF this weekend it would appear that words are all we have in the face of our demons.
That message, the one of the importance of words was potent and poignant throughout the two days and it left a mark on us like ink on paper bound into a book there for all time and a part of history. As Hanif Kureshi said so finely no writer can exist on-their-own, they exist as part of a culture that becomes alive through creativity and when that gets fed back into society it creates an example to the youth creating more writers. I took in everything he was saying, my heart excitedly pumping blood into the rest of my body. Like bees making honey in a hive, I was buzzing and the part of my voice which had lain dormant for so long had started to come alive again.
Contributing to a society with their words is perhaps the thing that matters most to a writer. I know it is true for myself. Every time we have a chance to say something – we have an opportunity to make people think, to move and inspire them. Each syllable we put out into the world has so much value – to me there is no greater thing than being a part of that. Now more than ever, the East and West need connection through voices of representation and voices of expression but that unity must first come from a connection within.
The KLF platform has explored the idea that war must not change who we are and our love of literature can shape who we are. It is from a bee’s blood that we draw honey and from our own blood we must draw words, not swords.