RSS Feed

Category Archives: Of Books & Literature

“Books are humanity in print.” – Barbara W. Tuchman

Celebrating the life of the mind

The 8th Karachi Literary Festival saw an increased footfall and as ever became the most happening event in the city by the sea

  • Share
  • Over three days, everyone who is anyone flocked to the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) 2017. Crisp starched saris, Kolhapuri chappals, white hair and white chooridars, pure leather-bound notebooks, endless rounds of tea serving as the fuel for animated conversations about existentialism, philosophy, politics, the arts, and the role literature plays for all of these. The 8th KLF saw an increased footfall and as ever became the most happening event in the city by the sea.

“The KLF has busted many myths that existed about Karachi and its people. This festival has now successfully added ‘literary tradition’ to the list of things Karachi is known for. The literary tradition that is the legacy of our elders has been rekindled in our youth and we at the Oxford University Press (OUP) Pakistan are extremely proud to be the flag bearers of literary festivals in Pakistan,” says Saadia Mirza, Rights Manager at OUP.

The KLF was launched in March 2010, and is directed by Ameena Saiyid, founded by Ameena Saiyid and Asif Farrukhi, and produced by OUP. It is open to all and the entry is free. It features debates, discussions, talks, English poetry readings and Urdu mushaira, a book fair, book launches, readings, signings, satire, theatre, film screenings, music, and dance.

KLF has grown — from an attendance of roughly 5,000 in 2010 to 175,000 in 2016. In 2010 it had 34 sessions with 58 speakers/performers. This year, the 8th KLF featured close to 200 speakers and performers in around 76 sessions.

This year, a recurrent theme that surfaced in many talks was Pakistan’s economic challenges, and how they are affecting society and culture as a whole.

The important issue of gender was brought up in many a panel. Feminist activists and writers like Fahmida Riaz, Sheema Kirmani, Zehra Nigah and Sania Saeed were seen prominently participating. One unique book that was launched was Interpreting Islam, Modernity and Women’s Rights in Pakistan by Dr Anita Weiss, Professor at the University of Oregon. It was her second time at the KLF.

KLF has grown — from an attendance of roughly 5,000 in 2010 to 175,000 in 2016. In 2010 it had 34 sessions with 58 speakers/performers. This year, the 8th KLF featured close to 200 speakers and performers in around 76 sessions.

“The first time was in 2012. I’ve seen a few important changes. First, there is a lot more emphasis on books now. Previously there were a lot of talks, but not necessarily connected to explicit things people had written. Second, the audience now seems even more diverse than in 2012, with people coming from all walks of life,” says Dr Weiss.

However, the diversity she sees as positive is seen by some as a recession in the exclusivity of the KLF. The elite ownership and intellectual regality seems to be diluting. Some see this as a positive; others don’t. Many visitors were overheard commenting that the standard of the KLF is going down, referring to the fact that it is becoming more awaami which is resulting in a deconstruction of some of the carefully constructed social silos.

However, people like journalist and documentary filmmaker Faisal Sayani feel the opposite to be true. “The selection process seems flawed and nepotism-based, and KLF has become commercialised. But the festival is not, in essence, designed in a way that would deprive or bar masses from it. I find it to be pretty inclusive,” says Sayani.

KLF 5

He praised how many sessions dealt with important aspects of history, and praised in particular the session of screening of the documentary of slain activist Parween Rehman. But not everyone, according to him, visits the KLF for the love of the written word. “I believe hoards of people are just there socialise and take selfies with intellectual celebs.”

In a city like Karachi, a diverse crowd is but natural. “Karachi is a melting pot of so many ethnic and linguistic traditions that it is not easy to define the culture and tradition of this city — the Karachi experience is an intense experience. And that intensity is reflected in the sessions of the KLF. Any visitors will vouch for the palpable energy in the atmosphere of the KLF as writers, readers, politicians, actors, musicians, students, poets, academics and journalists all come together to celebrate the literary achievements and discuss the issues faced by Pakistan today,” says Mirza.

One of the most important sessions was about the city, titled “‘Karachi: Is Pakistan’s Boom Town still Booming?”, with a panel of people who know Karachi, especially the unparalleled Arif Hasan who knows the city better than anyone else.

KLF 1

“In 2015, 902 cars were registered daily in Karachi; during the last six months 800 motorbikes were registered daily. This city cannot accommodate it,” says Hasan. He raised brave questions about where the money being invested into Karachi’s real estate is coming from. Answering a question, he said that the main issue with Karachi is the tension that exists because it is the capital of a Sindhi-speaking province being dominated by a non-Sindhi speaking minority of the province.

The panel included stalwarts of Karachi, namely Aquila Ismail who is writer, activist and sister of Parween Rehman, Najmuddin Shaikh who is a distinguished diplomat, and Haris Gazdar who is a renowned researcher. Ismail compared Karachi to the mythical city of El Dorado, and said the gold of this city is in the hearts of its residents.

The crowd-pullers in the open air garden were more than just literary. One such popular celebrity session was the former celluloid queen Shabnam in conversation with Bushra Ansari. Shabnam brought back memories of a Pakistan before the fall of Dacca, and spoke about the best of times and the worst of times. Stand-up comedian Shafaat Ali provided the comic relief at the same venue, while the legendary Zia Mohyeddin’s reading session titled “Memories and Reflections” gave the KLF what completed it.

While many visitors observed that the number of sessions in Urdu and especially vernacular languages has decreased, Dr Weiss says that the writers were very diverse. But she adds that “There should be an effort to have greater regional distribution of authors, such as some coming from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or from Balochistan. There are important works coming out of those provinces, and effort should be made to include them.”

When asked why KLF and such festivals are important, Dr Weiss summed it up. “This is a celebration of the life of the mind.”

True to the KLF tradition, five literary prizes were awarded this year too at the festival.

These were awarded to the following winners:

· 2017 Winner of the Karachi Literature Festival Infaq Foundation Urdu Prize
Nasir Abbas Nayyar for Urdu Adab Ki Tashkeel-e-Jadeed· 2017 Winner of the Karachi Literature Festival Pepsi Prize
Yasmin Khan for The Raj at War· Winner of the 2017 The Italy Reads Pakistan Award
Omar S. Hamid for The Spinner’s Tale

· 2017 Getz Pharma Fiction Prize Winner
Omar Shahid Hamid for The Spinner’s Tale

· 2017 Karachi Literature Festival German Peace Prize Winners
Anam Zakaria for The Footprints of Partition (1st prize)
Farahnaz Ispahani for Purifying the Land of the Pure (2nd prize)
Ali Nobil Ahmad for Masculinity, Sexuality, and Illegal Migration (3rd prize)

http://tns.thenews.com.pk/celebrating-life-mind/#.WKl8tq1vrIU

Karachi Literature Festival: Will the real liberal please stand up?

Published: February 13, 2017

KLF serves as a hub for Pakistan’s beautiful minds that allow critical thinking and are truly progressive. PHOTO: KARACHI LITERATURE FESTIVAL.

http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/46117/karachi-literature-festival-will-the-real-liberal-please-stand-up/

The recently held Karachi Literature Festival 2017 was a hub alright. But a hub of what? What it stands for, ideally, is not just celebrating books and authors, but also to serve as a hub for Pakistan’s beautiful minds that allow critical thinking and are truly progressive. Literature and the arts, on such forums, are designed to allow an open inflow and outflow of thoughts and ideas, and an exchange of not just narrative but also counter narrative.

One counterfoil session of the KLF 2017 was introduced as a discussion on conflict-resolution through art and enterprise. One of Pakistan’s well known musicians dared to play a short video as a tribute to the late Pakistani pop icon-turned-evangelist Junaid Jamshed, and went on to talk about how he and Junaid, despite ideological differences, managed to remain lifelong friends, and worked in collaboration on projects pertaining to peace-building. The reaction of a renowned “liberal and progressive” scholar on the panel was perhaps not unexpected but certainly unwarranted. He ridiculed Junaid Jamshed’s long beard and dressing style, and then went on to comment on his alleged misogyny. The comments were not just out of context. They were a giveaway of something that we don’t talk about often enough, which is that when it comes to “liberalism”, Pakistanis seem to have lost the plot.

Most dictionaries define a “liberal” in words as these: Someone who is open to new behaviour or opinions and willing to discard traditional values; lacking moral restraint; tolerant to change; a moderate person or viewpoint that favours a society or social code less restrictive than the current one, and welcomes constructive change in approaches to solving economic, social, and other problems.

The irony of ironies is that the very things liberalism stands against – being judgmental, being inflexible and being rigid – are the very traps we see liberals falling into. Liberal thought is, in essence, the anti-thesis of extremism and fundamentalism. It is the willingness to burst bubbles, push boundaries, and think out of boxes. True liberalism is having the heart to listen open-mindedly to an opposing view point, even though you may disagree vehemently.

Pakistan, today, is in desperate need of truly liberal people who may have their own set of beliefs, yet are willing to hear the other side out, and engage in dialogue. The intelligentsia, as it consists of more evolved people, has on it the responsibility of building bridges. Instead, what we are seeing on both sides is deep intolerance. The religious are seen indulging in feel-good extremism, and write off those who don’t follow religion in exactly the way they interpret it. For that, they get the flack which is perhaps justified. But it is less painful because the right-wingers never really claim to be open-minded. It hits worse when those who claim to be progressive and liberal follow the same patterns. Ironically, many of them, if not all, end up being equally intolerant of dissenting viewpoints, if not more.

Puritanical thinking makes one feel holier-than-thou (and this holds true for both the left and the right, for both the religious and the secular), plugs our ears to voices of those we see as “the others”, and perpetuates a binary world view, leading to the “it is either my way or the high way” attitude.

For cases in point, one should skim through social media websites. The easiest and laziest thing to do is put blanket generalisations on groups of people – something we are becoming very good at. Common assumptions are that a bearded man or a hijabi woman cannot be a human rights activist, a peace-builder or one raising their voice against domestic violence. Equally common are counterpart assumptions that a woman donning a sleeveless shirt or a man who is in the music or showbiz industry lack in faith.

Sneering at the opposite camps might get one some additional readers and followers, or a few guffaws from a chisel-headed audience that wants to enjoy the comfort of collaborative mockery. But what many of our brightest minds end up looking like is eternal teenagers and wandering Peter Pans who imagine the world as a virtual university town where everyone must conform to thinking in a certain way.

This is not to undermine the contributions KLF and similar forums are making. It is just that by default, events that act as magnets to the urban elite seem less welcoming to those who differ socially or ideologically.

We are all living in our ideological silos, comfortable in our respective bubbles with our own sets of designated cheerleaders. No one wants to try understanding another point of view. We sing praises of a word called “empathy” when we have not even arrived at the station of “tolerance”. We spare neither the living, nor the dead. And through it all, we see ourselves as the problem-solvers when we, ourselves, are part of the problem of polarisation. How, then, can any of us claim to be liberal?

If Pakistan truly wants to get rid of extremism, there will have to be more open-minded listening, especially listening to those who are not on the same page as you, without jesting about or being dismissive of the other point of view.

Farahnaz Zahidi

Farahnaz Zahidi

Farahnaz is a writer and editor, and has worked as the Features Editor with The Express Tribune. Her focus is human-centric feature stories. She now writes as a freelancer, and works in the field of corporate communications. She loves literature and traveling. She tweets @FarahnazZahidi. Her work can be seen at chaaidaani.wordpress.com/

The art of storytelling

With dramatic readings, Zambeel is reviving the ancient tradition of ‘dastangoi’

The art of storytelling

Eons ago, people had all the time in the world to nurture the art of listening. Long before the printing press was invented, and later the worldwide web that transmuted into e-books and digital books, narratives were recited and literature was spoken. The Hamzanama, or the Dastan e Ameer Hamza, was one of the many such works of literature that told fantastic tales of the many ventures of Ameer Hamza. Ameer Hamza’s companion Amar Ayyaar (also called Umro Ayyaar) had a bag called a Zambeel that contained all that that is in the world but the Zambeel would never be filled. The magical Zambeel, hence, could produce objects that would be core subjects of many a dastan.

But that was then and this is now. Princess Scherezade could no longer have bartered her life for tales she told as part of her Alif Laila repertoire, for no one has a thousand and one seconds to spare, let alone A Thousand and One Nights. Yet, there is a present day version of the Zambeel that has been successful in its attempts at reviving the tradition of dastangoi, or storytelling as we may call it today. Enter the Zambeel Dramatic Readings, and see a modern day semblance of this ancient art. For even if for a brief period of time, this will take you into a world where Urdu literature is read out to you the way it should be.

Zambeel Dramatic Readings came into being in early 2011 when a group of three friends — Asma Mundrawala, Mahvash Faruqi and Saife Hasan — was requested by a friend to read out a story in a gathering. “We embellished it with music. The response was what made us initiate and realise Zambeel,” says Mundrawala, a visual artist and theatre practitioner who is one of the key people behind this initiative. Zambeel Dramatic Readings was founded with a view to present texts from Urdu literature in a dramatised form to a live audience, and has mainly targeted adult audiences, but has also ventured into readings for children during the last three years.

“We aim to present texts rendered in their dramatised form, to create a dynamic collusion between literature and performance. Referencing traditions of storytelling and the contemporary form of the radio play, our works traverse time and geographical boundaries to interpret and enliven narratives through sound and recitation,” says Mundrawala.

“In an age where the purists were fearful of the fading away of correct pronunciation and nuanced delivery of Urdu, the Zambeel team has bridged the gap between the older generation and younger one by introducing this genre to them.”

Mahvash Faruqi is an educator with a background in theatre, and Saife Hasan is a performing arts practitioner particularly known for his acting.

What begun with writings from Ismat Chughtai’s rich repertoire, the group has since inception presented many projects comprising stories in both English and Urdu by authors that include Quratulain Hyder, Saadat Hasan Manto, Masood Mufti, Afsan Chowdhury, Raihana Hasan, Ashraf Suboohi, Asif Farrukhi, Munshi Premchand, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Naiyer Masud. Of late, more contemporary writers’ works are also being included into the repertoire, like Asad Muhammad Khan, Ghulam Abbas and Zamiruddin Ahmed.

“Zambeel readings have reintroduced the cultural tradition of dastangoi. The selection and the delivery has the audience in raptures,” says journalist and literature aficionado Afia Salam. “In an age where the purists were fearful of the fading away of correct pronunciation and nuanced delivery of Urdu, the Zambeel team has bridged the gap between the older generation and younger one by introducing this genre to them.”

Mundrawala affirms that while initially the audience mainly comprised only of Urdu literature enthusiasts, over time the younger generation has also begun frequenting the readings. “We now have audiences who have read the stories and also those who have not read the stories. The younger lot may not understand Urdu with facility yet they come.”

Fahad Naveed, a visual artist and long form writer, is one of Zambeel’s young audience members. “I’ve been following Zambeel for a few years now and greatly admire their work. Their readings make Urdu literature approachable and exciting for varied audiences. I’m particularly drawn in by the group’s use of sound; often sitting on a table, they are able to transport the audience with just their dialogue delivery and a few sound effects and audio cues,” he says.

Also reviving the tradition initiated by grandmothers of the region to read out stories to children, Zambeel now also caters to a younger audience, enthralling both parents and children. One such fan of these readings is Saima Harris, an optometrist and mother of a seven-year-old.

“Our experience of Zambeel’s dramatic readings was Tipu aur Jaadu ki Bayl, an Urdu narration of my son’s favorite Jack and the Beanstalk. The audience was predominantly the English-speaking ‘Burger’ primary-schoolers of Karachi (who tend to shy away from the Urdu language), and their very keen parents,” she says, adding the dramatic and interactive Urdu narration, interspersed with toe-tapping melodies, brought a traditional English childhood classic to life. “It is a step aside from the all-important but solitary reading from a book or the mind-numbing watching on a screen. There is immeasurable potential here to both entertain and educate.”

Artist Rumana Husain, who is known for solo readings for children and production of quality Urdu literature for children, says it is rare nowadays to have literary readings in the country read in a dramatic fashion, and is all praise for the initiative.

Zambeel performers imbue texts with a poignant expressive quality and perform narratives that are supported by a soundscape, enriching the aural experience of the audience through sound and recitation, explains Mundrawala. “While we are three core members, we have had many actor friends work with us by lending their voice and acting talents to our projects. Their contributions have enriched our works and we are privileged to have had so many actors, as well as designers, artists, and musicians collaborate with us.”

The team has recently initiated an audio platform of readings once a month on the YouTube channel, Zambeelnaama.

Book review: Street Smart

Published: June 21, 2015
SHARES

EMAIL

http://tribune.com.pk/story/905210/book-review-street-smart/
Rumana Husain’s Street Smart is a photo essay appreciating Karachi’s days of yore.

Rumana Husain’s Street Smart is a photo essay appreciating Karachi’s days of yore.

KARACHI: Over 20 million people in Pakistan warrant 20 million plus stories. In Karachi, the world’s third most populous city, there is never a moment of stagnation. The city grows and evolves as we talk. There is the heritage of the past with nostalgic remains in the form of colonial buildings and tales of simpler, safer times and a futuristic side to the city where buildings are being torn down and electronics replace tender connections. For instance, the quintessential 5:00pm tea with family is being replaced with fast-paced techno music on radio stations as one gets caught in heavy traffic jams during the evening rush hour. Therefore, in her new book Street Smart, Rumana Husain does what a true lover of this city must. She builds a bridge between the Karachi of yesterday and today. And for this, the artist-cum-author uses the lives of 60 people on the streets of the city as her canvas.

In Husain’s signature style, which made her previous offeringKarachiwala a favourite coffee table book among Karachiites, Street Smart is a 160-page long photo essay. The language is simple but the subjects are not. Flipping through the pages of Street Smart is like listening to the untold story of what Karachi has been through. The city has been ravaged by violence, while also facing problems every megacity faces; yet, its beautiful diversity continues to thrive.

The book’s component, which has a touch of romanticism and nostalgia, is the profiles of people in professions that have begun to fade. The roadside ear cleaner, the roaming tinsmith (kalai wala), the handcart puller (haath gari walla), the ferris wheel operator, the typist and the knives sharpener. In the future, our children may not even know they existed. Documentation of the lives of people like Khadija Bai, a poppadum hawker, and Mariam Ahmed, a female potter, is thus invaluable. The book also includes some new professions like a guard and a food delivery man, including peculiar ones like a vendor selling fried liver. However, some new street ‘workers’ have deftly been left out on purpose, such as the mobile snatcher and the stalker.

The most ironic selection would have to be that of a water carrier, also known as bahishti (person of Paradise), who has a newly-found importance in this water-starved city. It is also interesting to note how the book features some very similar, yet different street professions. These include the oil grinder and the masseur, the scavenger and the junk dealer and the peanut hawker and the dried fruit seller. A critical look, however, reveals that some of these come across as repetitive and unnecessarily take up pages. Other professions could have been included instead, such as a gajra seller, children who wash windscreens at signals or even the entertaining and engaging transgender.

Author Rumana Husain

The book’s photography captures the correct sentiments and freezes the right moments. The cover, instead of using the fortune teller with the parrot, could have perhaps featured one of the better photographs in the book, for instance the photograph of a Sindhi cap seller. But the overall impact is nevertheless delightful and moving.

Farahnaz Zahidi works as a senior subeditor at The Express Tribune. She tweets @FarahnazZahidi

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 21st, 2015.

Love in the time of Marquez

By Farahnaz Zahidi
Published: April 18, 2014
http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/21945/love-in-the-time-of-marquez/

marquez

I woke up today and switched on my cell, a morning ritual. The first ping was a WhatsApp message from fellow journalist and dear friend Shai Venkatraman,

“Marquez is dead!”

It was followed by an emoticon denoting sadness. I sat up, partly due to disbelief. Illogical disbelief.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez was 87-years-old. He was sick and frail. Reports of Alzheimer’s pointed in the direction that the beautiful mind that had given us works that pulled us through our years of solitude had exhausted its reservoir of memories. He had done his job. He had given enough to this world. It was his time to go. Yet, a strange sense of loss hung in the air.

“He introduced me to the wonders of literature, of the world he wrote about. No one has written quite like him… (experiencing) a sense of loss.” wrote Shai to me.

And I knew what she was saying, exactly.

Marquez came into my life much too late. Like a lot of the best things that have happened to me, he happened to me when my teens were over and practicalities stared back at me. I always pacify myself that I got to read him when I was ready for him. But I envy people like Tooba Masood, a young brilliant colleague who shared today at work that the first time she read One Hundred Years of Solitude was when she was in grade six. She said,

“And I told myself this is how I want to write one day.”

“But nobody can write like him, right?” I retorted.

She agreed saying that the reason she wanted to visit Colombia was that she dreamt of meeting the man. She even had plans of storming into his house. Mournfully she said,

“Now I will have to visit his grave.”

Tooba and others like her must have had the liberty of revisiting just the right Marquez works when things happened as they grew along in life. I did not. Even now, I do not know his works as well as I should. I cannot talk about his work or quote him from memory, but I know enough to feel his books etched on me. I know some of the nuances will dawn on me after I have read his books more than twice, have dog-eared them, have marked the quotes I love best, have left my fingerprints on them. Not via Sparknotes or Goodreads quotes, but the real books.

And I must. How can I not read and re-read the man who managed to see magic in the mundane?

Living in a world where one is compounded by pragmatics; where even dreams are calculated; where the mundane threatens to take away remnants of creativity and desire, Marquez helps us fantasise but within the framework of the real and the physical. His world is the world I want to live in while I live in my actual world. He has given me and so many of us a doable way out.

Like the clouds of yellow butterflies heralding the arrival of a lover as Shai reminded me today.

Maybe the magical realism came easier to him due to his ethnicity. He himself had once said,

“It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.”

It may be that cultures that have disconnected with mythology will have a hard time understanding Marquez. To me and others from cultures like mine, I believe understanding his work comes naturally.

He wrote in Spanish. And Spanish does not come naturally to most of us. I recall a moment in Rome where I was attending a journalism course, and we met an amazing Brazilian colleague. During a tea break in freezing Rome, we gushed about how she speaks Spanish and how lucky she is,

“Fernanda, that is the language Marquez wrote in!”

So one inspiration for a distant dream of learning Spanish is that maybe one day I can read his original words.

Marquez is an inspiration of sorts. He was a journalist yet, he produced these fantastical works. When cynics try to tell me that day after day churning out uncreative journalistic reports and editing them will rob me of chances of ever writing fiction, I will remember Marquez and silently ignore those cynics.

He also inspires me in his relationship to Mercedes, his wife of 50 plus years. They give me hope. With a man of his mind, it must not have been an easy ride. But Marquez makes me believe that relationships of creative people can be magical yet real. They can be sustained.

And one day, just maybe, one day, if I go searching for ancestral roots both in Jalandhar, India and Khairpur, Sindh I will be carrying a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude in my hand while I dig into my family tree.

Timelines of friends, even unexpected ones, are filled with sad updates about Marquez. Some have used the word ‘mourning’ for what they are experiencing. But his life needs to be celebrated. And it will. As it always happens, sales of his books will go up. People who have never read him will talk about him. And that is a good thing. For whether you read him or not, you already know him, because he essentially wrote about love, the truest kind.

He wrote in his book Love in the Time of Cholera,

“The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.”

I am sure he died a satisfied man, sans regret.

I hope to do the same because as he wrote,

“There is always something left to love.”

KLF 2014: Identity & literature

By Farahnaz ZahidiPublished: February 8, 2014

http://tribune.com.pk/story/668919/klf-2014-identity-literature/

668919-thKarachiliteraturefestival-1391808671-464-640x480

In a country where maybe just three per cent of the population can truly read, reflect upon and understand literature written in English, is it worrisome that the best minds of the country are increasingly tilting towards writing in English.
KARACHI: Intelligent looking men engrossed in animated conversations with women clad in crisp pure cottons with motifs inspired by Pakistan’s traditional arts, wearing kolhapuri chappals and sporting white stylised hair, the venue is teeming with Pakistan’s intelligentsia. For once, even if for a short three days, the topics of discussion here are education, language, literature and the arts.
But the bigger issues Pakistan is plagued with, like security and sectarianism, have a way of sneaking into the books being sold and the conversations taking place. For Pakistanis, there is no escape from certain acetone realities.
Inside the room labeled “007” at the Beach Luxury Hotel, the answers to some tricky questions are being handled by the participants. And why not. This particular session at the 5th Karachi Literature Festival (KLF 2014) is titled “Identity and literature: New trends in Pakistani writing in English”.
Pakistani writers writing in English are making a mark globally. Books from the most beautiful minds of Pakistan, arguably, are from names like Muhammad Hanif, Kamila Shamsie and Mohsin Hamid. A concerned member of the audience says that these books talk about a girl slapping her grandmother, a woman having a full-fledged extra marital affair and detailed accounts of a rape. Are these books depicting the average Pakistani’s thought process? Are the characters of these books ones the average Pakistani can identify with? Are Pakistan’s cultural sensibilities being taken into account here or are we seeing the emergence of literature targeted at a specific readership?
Pakistanis realities are fast changing. This is reflected in the works of its writers. Participant Claire Chambers whose expertise is in Pakistani writing in English, talked briefly about how 1971 onwards, Pakistan saw a surge of literature inspired by the Fall of Dacca, and later by the Zia regime. Not long after came what Chambers explained as being literary works that were pre-cursors to 9/11. These are interesting times for writers, it was discussed, with genre-blending being done.
In a country where maybe just three per cent of the population can truly read, reflect upon and understand literature written in English, is it worrisome that the best minds of the country are increasingly tilting towards writing in English, asks a concerned member of the audience. The moderator, writer Bilal Tanweer, and speaker, writer Rukhsana Ahmed, tend to disagree, debating that some of the best literary work in Pakistan is probably being produced in Urdu and regional languages but the money is in works produced in English, and works in English end up bagging the spotlight.
In the words of Ahmed, writing in English has grown exponentially and these works are not disconnected from the identity and realities of Pakistanis, with young writers like Tanweer handling tough subjects like violence in a visceral manner. There is palpable optimism about works of these writers. But the optimism remains cautious.
Read more: KLF2014

A Book of Love, A Novel of Rumi – 40 Rules of Love

Love and empathy
Elif Shafak’s novel is full of lyrical beauty

By Farahnaz Zahidi Moazzam 


The Forty Rules of Love:
A Novel of Rumi
By Elif Shafak
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 350
Price: Rs. 895

It is difficult to say who is the main protagonist of The Forty Rules of Love by Turkish author Elif Shafak. It is equally difficult to decide which century should we choose the protagonist from —the 13th or the 21st. Such is the fluidity and exuberance with which Shafak has written this popular fictional.

Ella Rubenstein is forty, Jewish, unhappily married, and has forgotten who she is, revolving her life around her infidel husband and children. As part of the work she is doing for a literary agent, she comes across the manuscript of a novel called “Sweet Blasphemy” which mesmerises her in how it revolves around the relationship between 12th century Islamic theologian-scholar turned poet Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi and the mystic Sufi Shams of Tabriz who is Rumi’s spiritual master.

This is a turning point in Ella’s life, who is inspired by Shams’s life-altering forty rules of love that ultimately aim at helping people achieve communion with the Absolute, the Creator, through the path of love, and in so doing learning the answers to the deepest questions of life that would in turn help transform a person’s conduct and behaviour towards other creatures in a beautiful manner.

This was what Shams was teaching Rumi. This is what, indirectly, the writer of “Sweet Blaspehmy”, Aziz Zahara, teaches Ella, forever changing her life.

Aziz does to Ella what Shams did to Rumi – he becomes her mirror in which she sees her real self. He is the stone that flings itself into the stagnant waters of Ella’s uneventful, complacent, almost dead life, and causes a ripple effect that brings to the surface everything she truly is and is meant to be. Thus, she discovers love.

Shams of Tabriz was an Iranian Sufi mystic, a wandering dervish, responsible for initiating Rumi into Islamic mysticism. Rumi’s poetry has immortalised Shams, who is said to have been the reason Rumi evolved from a scholar used to the Aristotelian style of questioning and scholarship in faith, and became a love-poet, whom Shams brought to the path of a direct and ecstatic connection with God.

The word “Shams” literally means the Sun in Arabic. While the beauty of Rumi’s poetry continues to be celebrated world over, Rumi can be compared to the moon who actually reflected the resplendent light of the sun, by passing on the message he learnt from his spiritual master, Shams.

Shafak’s ingenious technique of usage of the literary device where each chapter is named after the character, whose inner soliloquies comprise that chapter, makes it very believable and relatable. An essential part of Rumi’s poetry, of Sufism, and in turn of Shafak’s book, is about empathy, in which you understand the other’s perspective. Through the different voices in the book talking in first person, in an almost “stream of consciousness” narrative technique because they are so intimately monologue-like, Shafak has achieved the objective of keeping empathy as one of the central threads that keep stringed together the many themes in the book.

The message of empathy and understanding different perspectives is spell-binding in the book. We look at the world not just through the eyes of Ella and Aziz, and Shams and Rumi, but also characters like Desert Rose the Harlot, Sultan Walad (the son of Rumi), Suleiman the Drunkard and even The Killer who is hired to kill Shams.

As a writer Shafak is capable of using much more intricate phraseology and vocabulary, but it seems as if she on purpose keeps the choice of words and the tone very simplistic and basic, as if she is afraid of diluting the basic strength of the profound message of the book through unsolicited use of jargon.

The fact that the novel catapults the reader from past into the present and vice versa, from the world of Shams of Tabriz in 13th century Konya to the world of Ella Rubenstein in 21st century New Jersey, is deeply symbolic. The fluidity with which this has been done gives the novel as surreal timeless quality, where even the characters from the 13th century seem relatable today. This is where Shafak is truly brilliant, for this is an underlying message that Rumi and Tabriz’s message of love is not and cannot be limited within encapsulations of time and space.

To understand this further, we have to take a look at Rumi’s position over the centuries. His funeral it is said, was a historic event in that it extended over forty days of grieving, where he was mourned by Muslims, Christians, Jews, Greeks, Arabs and Persians. Rumi, himself, it is said, married both a woman of Islam and a woman who was originally a Christian. In the present day context, Rumi is prided over by Muslims who see him both as a commentator of the Quran and a scholar (especially his life pre-Shams), as well as a proponent of the universality of the message of Sufism. But what is doubly interesting is how Rumi has managed to be celebrated even by the West, thereby bridging many of the gaps between the East and the West centuries after he died. He has influenced the writings and philosophy of the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Recent years have seen an upsurge in Rumi’s popularity in the West. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Rumi got ranking as America’s best-selling poet in 1997. Rumi-following and coffee table books boasting a dabbling with the message of Rumi are quite the fad. In a world where the mantra “I am spiritual, not religious” has gained momentum, Rumi is one person the past, present and probably the future, and both the East and the West, agree upon.

The Forty Rules of Love has been hugely successful. It sold more than 600 000 copies, becoming an all time best-seller in Turkey and in France awarded with the Prix ALEF – Mention Spéciale Littérature Etrangère. While there is no doubt in the lyrical beauty of Shafak’s work, part of the reason for the success of this book lies in the fact that in the world that we live in today, you cannot go wrong with Rumi and Sufism.

Published in The News on Sunday: http://jang.com.pk/thenews/mar2012-weekly/nos-18-03-2012/lit.htm#2