Celebrating another Pakistan

For the TFT Features Desk, a report on an evening in London in honour of the Lahore Literary Festival

Celebrating another Pakistan
The Cinnamon Club in London is where Britain’s political elite and journalists go for lots of spicy gossip and bit of dinner. Rarely, it is for a spicy dinner and a bit of gossip. For this evening, the gossip was not completely out but the spiced and fragrant food was definitely in.

The Club is housed in the Old Westminster Library where thousands of historic literary gems, including books on Chaucer, Dickens and deep red hardback volumes on Labour Party political theory from 1901 to 1946 sit slightly dusty but, nevertheless, well thumbed.

The Cinnamon Club shares two things that are perhaps unique to Lahore. The first is the fragrant aroma of the very best South Asian and Pakistani food. The second is an abundance of literature, that very creative expression that connects youth with ideas and leads to pluralistic discussion that is at the heart of Pakistani arts also.

From left to right - Shoaib Bajwa, Sir Mark Lyall Grant and Lady Sheila Lyall Grant

It was here that on the evening of the 29th of October 2017 Mr. Shoaib Bajwa hosted an exclusive reception in honour of the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF), inviting some of the most influential, intellectually scintillating and well-heeled Londoners and Pakistanis. Absent the spicy gossip, he organised an evening celebrating the Pakistani arts, something that the guests joyfully consumed in spades.

Mr. Bajwa is charming, beguiling and persuasive, and a great admirer of Lahore. I know him for almost seven years now. His aim, he tells me privately, is to use every opportunity to wax lyrical about everything good about his country of origin.

Guests included figures such as Sir Mark Grant (former Advisor to Theresa May in 10 Downing Street and perhaps still one of the most respectable and prominent figures in powerful British diplomatic circles), Salima Hashmi, Tina Sani, Baroness Berridge, Sir Ed Davey, Kamila Shamsie, Lyse Doucet and many others. The evening was filled with witty remarks, intellectually stimulating conversation and an ardent exposition of wholesome Pakistani arts.

Shoaib Bajwa and Tina Sani

I also had the pleasure of meeting and speaking to the very elegant Dr. Afzal Ashraf. He is a leading security expert and provides his expert opinions very regularly on BBC and other media channels.

To the amusement of the audience, the compere began the formal proceedings by regaling the audience with a story about a determined, independent-minded and rather disobedient Satellite Navigation System’s Punjabi-language commands.

He then read out a deeply personal and warm message from the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan who apologised an hour or so before the event saying that he had to be absent because of a longstanding commitment with BBC which he was unable to reschedule.
Tina Sani then staged an impromptu performance of a poem that was popular during General Zia's regime

The compere proceeded to introduce Mr. Razi Ahmed, the founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Lahore Literary Festival. Razi spoke zealously about the arts and about his desire to develop and nurture the Festival into what he hoped would be an even more splendid example of the Pakistani arts. I spoke briefly to Razi at the event. He is a young man with a lot of positive energy for LLF and Lahore generally.

Next, Sir Edward Davey spoke about the importance of literary arts festivals: commending the LLF, its organisers and the tremendous progress they made in such a short period of time.

Salima Hashmi was next. She is the daughter of the late Faiz Ahmad Faiz, a revolutionary poet whose verse I personally enjoy greatly. Her father was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize and was nominated four times for the Nobel Prize for literature. She is an accomplished painter, human rights activist and historian. She spoke about her dear mother, the London-born Alys Faiz and her noteworthy contributions to poetry, journalism and human rights. Salima spoke passionately about a modern, inclusive, egalitarian and progressive Pakistan that blossoms ideas and makes it the paradise of thought that lovers of Pakistan desire it to be.

Razi Ahmed, founder of LLF (second from right) with some guests

Tina Sani then staged an impromptu performance – on the request of Mr. Shoaib Bajwa – of a poem which enraptured the audience. The poem became very popular during the dictatorial era of General Zia-ul-Haq, when he imposed an extreme and misinterpreted perception of Islam upon Pakistan in early 1980’s. The acapella performance was truly compelling; the audience was enchanted by the sweet and agile rasp of her vocals and the depth of the pure poetic messages she elucidated.

As the formal session drew to a close, Mr. Bajwa addressed his guests, thanking them for their attendance and participation – and for contributing to an enjoyable and thoughtful evening. He thanked in particular, Sir Mark Grant, Salima Hashmi, Tina Sani, Sir Edard Davey and Sheila Lyall from FCO.

Events like these are important. Tabloid-esque narratives about Pakistan are common and misrepresentative of the complex reality of Pakistan.

Pakistan also has a considerable visual- and performing-arts culture dating back several centuries, and Lahore has been a big part of that. Lahore’s history is of an imperial capital and as a centre of learning and literary forums. If there is one thing the event highlighted, it is that Lahore and Pakistan’s arts can be a magnet for world-class conversation and a beautiful window into a creative, inclusive and thriving Pakistan. Long may that dream continue…