The Lahore Literary Festival opens on Friday. Or perhaps it doesn’t. There has been over the past twenty four hours considerable confusion as to whether the authorities will allow it to go ahead, or for how long. Local papers have been reporting that the Lahore District Coordination Officer had apparently revoked permission for the Festival to be staged. Other reports suggest that it will be a two-day not a three day event. The Festival organizers have tweeted that it may indeed be a shortened event.
Last year, too, the authorities tried to shut down the festival for ‘security reasons’. The organizers were able tor resist then, and hopefully they will be able to do so this year, too.
It is not surprising that the Pakistani authorities should get nervous of an event like the Lahore Literary Festival. In a place like Pakistan, beset by poverty, sectarianism and terror, a literary festival might seem a luxury, a bauble for the rich and cosmopolitan. It is anything but. It is precisely in a country like Pakistan that such an event becomes so important.
Last year I spoke at the launch of Libraries Without Borders, a charity that aims to increase global access to books and libraries. I began with a story about a grand piano discovered still intact in a theatre destroyed by an Israeli missile during the previous year’s war. It had been restored string by string, hammer by hammer, by Claire Bertrand, a young French music technician who had travelled to Gaza specially to bring the piano back to life, in a project financed by Daniel Barenboim. And it formed the centrepiece of a concert, in which 15-year old Sara Aqel, the star pupil in Gaza’s only music school, performed Beethoven’s 19th sonata.
Why in a land, I asked, so devastated by war, in which tens of thousands are homeless, in which hospitals can barely function, in which food is often scarce, and which for many feels like a vast prison, should so much fuss be made of one piano? Because, I suggested,
to be human is more than simply to survive, or to seek food and shelter. It is also to imagine, to hope, to dream, to transcend, to transform. Music in a place like Gaza, in the words of Lukas Pairon, from Music Fund, the charity that helped restore the grand piano, ‘is a form of rebellion against being narrowly defined as living beings who only want the basic things – food, protection, security – who are only in survival mode.’ Or as Sara Aqel put it, ‘Music might not build you a house or give you your loved-ones back. But it gives you joy.’
Words, I observed, even more than music, enable us to transcend our immediacy, allow us to be human in a fuller sense. But more than that,
words, stories, books allow us to enter other people’s worlds, other people’s imaginations, understand their hopes, desires, aspirations. The gift of the writer to the reader, as the novelist Aminata Forna has evocatively observed, is to take him or her on a journey, to reveal to them something that they had not seen before. And the gift of the reader is to accept that invitation, to be open to the discoveries that we may stumble upon on that journey.
And that is why some people are frightened of words, of books, of speech. They wish to constrain what we can read or we can say, because they wish to check the flow of ideas, the corrosion of borders, the possibilities of change, the challenges to power.
That is why an event like the Lahore Literary Festival is so important. In a world constrained by borders, not just physical or national borders, but also social and cultural borders, borders of the mind and of the imagination, the creation of a space in which people are able to transcend those borders, and able to engage with other people and other views, to be able to discuss, to debate, to argue.
Such engagement is as important, perhaps more important, to those burdened by poverty, constrained by conflict, trapped by injustice, as they are to those who live in freer, wealthier, more democratic societies. It is a necessity, an essential tool of social change, of our ability to challenge tyranny and injustice.
Unfortunately, whether or not it goes ahead, I will not be speaking at the Festival. I was due to take part in a couple of discussions, on migration and populism in Europe, and on the importance of free speech. Unfortunately, the Pakistan Interior Ministry intervened. It did not deny me a visa, but it did not grant me one either. It simply sat on its hands until it was too late. So my apologies if you were expecting me to speak in Lahore. Perhaps next year. But my very best wishes for what has grown into the most vibrant and necessary literary festivals in the world.