What Are We Thinking?

Nuzhat Saadia Siddiqi believes Lahore's Afkar-e-Taza #ThinkFest brought much that was worthwhile and refreshing to public discourse

What Are We Thinking?
Do we need yet another literary festival? That was the question many people had when the second edition of Afkar-e-Taza (or #ThinkFest, for the the hashtag generation) was being promoted across social media platforms by the Center for Governance and Policy at Information Technology University (ITU) at the start of this year. The general consensus initially was that, well, we have a few of those already, in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. And now even Faisalabad has joined in. All of these cover quite a lot of the literary landscape between them. Some thrive on bringing in authors that top bestseller lists in New York and London. Some have found a niche in putting the spotlight on local literature. Nearly all offer a talk-followed-by-audience-questions model. Some even allow their star guests to sign their books bought by eager local fans. So what exactly did another festival hoped to offer?

Quite a lot, as it turned out.

To start with, one of the #ThinkFest organizers, Dr. Yaqoob Bangash, who is currently affiliated with the Information Technology University (ITU), said quite clearly that his festival is not trying to reinvent the literary festival wheel. “Someone outside this hall asked me ‘Where are the singers?’” Dr. Bangash said during one of his speeches at the event, much to the glee of the audience. “I told the person, this is not that kind of a festival. Then they asked me if any actors or models would be doing any talks. When I replied in negative, they said, ‘Well, what kind of a festival is it then?’”

Yemeni activist and Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman with Baroness Sayeeda Warsi

What he was trying to say, quite clearly, was that #ThinkFest, is an academic literary festival where the focus is on discussions rooted in academia, logic, reason and critical thinking. The guests were professors, academics, authors and journalistswhose work is rooted in academic excellence and research both in Pakistan andother countries across the world. And so it was: not trying to usurp the glamour and pizzazz of traditional literary festival, #ThinkFest instead turned out to be an awami effort where students from more than thirty universities across Pakistan mingled with 30 international speakers and sixty local speakers. With a sizeable number of Lahore’s intelligentsia in the mix, #ThinkFest ended up being a curiously exhilarating weekend event that a lot of attendees are still talking about.

Organised by ITU and supported by the Higher Education Commission and the Government of Punjab, #ThinkFest featured more than 35 talks as well as an art exhibition, another exhibition focused on the 1947 Partition, screenings of documentaries and a few discussions in a smaller, more intimate setting. Day 1 started with Dr. Umar Saif (ITU) and Dr. Nizammuddin (HEC) giving opening remarks, swiftly followed by a moving speech from Yemeni Nobel Peace Laureate, journalist, human rights activist and politician Tawakkol Karman. Speaking about an urgent need to uphold human rights in the face of increasing inequality, racism and hatred, she likened all dictators to terrorists, which incited a spirited round of applause in the hall. Her fierce defense of the democratic way of governance, which was shared by Dr. Saif in his own speech, was quite riveting to hear, especially since Pakistan’s own democratic status seems to be barely trudging along.

Farahnaz Ispahani and
Yaqoob Bangash at the Thinkfest

“Then they asked me if any actors or models would be doing any talks. When I replied in the negative,
they said, ‘Well, what kind of a festival is it then?’” (Dr. Yaqoob Bangash)

Following the keynote speech attendees were presented with a barrage of sessions across the halls without break. The sessions included a talk about the future of the Middle East, the Partition of British India, entrepreneurship in the age of media, the US China rivalry (which interestingly featured a speaker from the French Foreign Ministry), a horrifying discussion about the state of water resources in Pakistan and particularly in Lahore, a dry academic lecture about equality, multiculturalism and secularism, a stirring talk about visual arts in the context of Islam, a talk about modern Afghanistan (which curiously featured no native Afghan speakers), a talk about shrines, a reminiscence about the heritage and culture of Lahore, and a fiery talk about student politics, in which students belonging to Jamiat-e-Talaba had a verbal duel with progressive students, much to the glee of other attendees who were probably seeing this kind of engagement for the first time at a festival of ideas.

While all of these sessions were intellectually satisfying (minus the technical glitches, sound issues and the curious case of some missing panelists!), two sessions truly stood out. “Where is the Media Heading?” for a bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred five way debate about the current haggard state of media in Pakistan, and “Standing Up to the Field Marshal: Fatima Jinnah of Pakistan, for a deeply poignant yet incisive look at how the frail woman in her seventies that we now remember as the Mother of the Nation refused to give in to Ayub Khan’s decisive and malignant politics and gave him a political fight of his life.

Sheela Reddy and Jugnu Mohsin in the panel on Mr. and Mrs. Jinnah

Fahd Husain (Express News/Tribune), Suhail Warraich (Jang Group), Owais Tohid (Capital TV) Arif Nizami (Pakistan Today) and Mubashir Zaidi (Dawn TV) were refreshingly candid about how the media is owned by seths now, who have ensured that, as opposed to the past, journalistic standards are poorer and a few journalists are rich. They admitted that in the race for ratings, journalists have become entertainers and instead of aspiring to higher standards of journalism, they aspire to have more viewers one way or the other. Self-flagellation is boring, but in this case it was both much needed and welcomed by the packed audience in the hall.

In the latter session, Reza Pirbhai (Georgetown University in Qatar) discussed his 2017 book Fatima Jinnah: Mother of the Nation with renowned critic and journalist Nadeem F. Paracha. The book is a meticulously researched political biography of Ms Jinnah. It is an effort to demystify a much maligned and obscured character in our national history, someone whose officially constructed persona has never veered too far away from being a dutiful sister by the side of her charismatic brother and later a benevolent, motherly figure who passed away in obscurity and loneliness. Her political career is pretty much a black hole that Professor Pirbhai has labored to fill with facts and research collected from archives, newspapers, magazines, personal correspondence and accounts of her life by her contemporaries and peers. It was fascinating to see how, before Benazir Bhutto, we came incredibly close to having Ms. Jinnah as our first elected woman leader because of her steadfast struggle against the dictatorship of Ayub Khan, and how a tragic mix of religious, gender based and personal attacks, both verbal and physical, and possible rigging of the elections, pulled the rug from underneath her aspirations to lead the country towards democracy. Part of the discussion was also how her memory was sanitized and deified after her death while her own embittered words against the failings of the political system and agents in the country were censored. The fact that Professors Pirbhai’s book is not yet available in Pakistan was an irony not lost on the audience or the author himself.

Jibran Nasir, Peter Jacob, Farahnaz Ispahani and Arafat Mazhar at the panel 'Whither the White in the Flag'

At a fiery talk about student politics, students belonging to Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba had a verbal duel with progressive students, much to the glee of other attendees who were probably seeing this kind of engagement for the first time

Day two of #ThinkFest started with a keynote speech by Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, British Politician, Chairman of the Conservative Party, and the first Muslim woman to serve in a British cabinet. Her delightful speech started with a recollection of her humble beginnings in the UK and how, despite being a member of a Muslim, South Asian minority, she rose through the ranks with her hard work and dedication to become the first Senior Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Officeand as the Minister of State for Faith and Communities. She neatly brought that narrative home to ask a loaded question: can Pakistanis imagine someone from a Christian or a Hindu minority achieving the same kind of success in their own country? Equality and the rights of minorities were the heart of Baroness Warsi’s short speech in which she further told the rapt audience to ask more from the politicians who will soon be running for office in the upcoming elections in the country.

“Ask tougher questions,” she implored, “ask if your politicians are saying what they believe and are doing what they say.”

In a following session, Dr. Azeem Ibrahim, author of The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide talked in depth about the state of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and the politics of racial and religious hatred that have added to the worst genocide in recent history. The talk also touched upon how refugees are regarded with suspicion even within Pakistan and the particular state of Pakistan’s own ignored Rohingya community. On the other end of the spectrum was a talk about the book From the Ashes of 1947: Reimagining Punjab written by DrPippaVirdee (DeMontFort University). Moderated beautifully by poet and radio host Afzal Saahir in Punjabi, the entire talk was an enlightening look at how Punjabis on both sides of the border had to reimagine their Punajbi heritage and miraas against the divisive politics of the elite. The loss of language through a mystifying ban on teaching children Punjabi in Punjab and the fact that thousands of Punjabis wasted away pining for the homes they had left behind on the other side of the border struck an emotional chord.

Robert Hoyland and Uzma Rashid speaking on the panel ‘Seeing Islam as others saw it’

The day progressed at breakneck speed with back-to-back sessions and people bemoaning the fact that there were too many interesting talks packed in the same time-slots. In the end, people packed into AlHamra’s Hall I to listen to Jugnu Mohsin in a witty and warm conversation with Sheela Reddy, Indian Journalist and author of wildly popular Mr&Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage that Shook India.  Since our social studies books present the Father of the Nation as a perfect Musalmaan Superhero who won us freedom with Automaton like precision, it was delightful to hear about the romance between the romantic Ruttie Petit and the practical but fallible Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

When Mohsin asked Reddy why she chose to write about Jinnah in the first place, the answer was simple. “I was fascinated by the ill-fated romance and the doomed marriage of the man who is valourised here (in Pakistan) and villainised there (in India).” Jugnu Mohsin asked how she had found Mr. Jinnah as a married man who came off to millions in Pakistan like a very “distant and taciturn figure”. To this, Reddy responded that he was very much besotted by his young wife and allowed her to change him in imperceptible ways, something that no one else had been able to do either before or after her. However, she added, they were essentially too different which led to their separation and eventually her tragic death. The talk ended with questions from the audience, one of which was a demand to know about the creator of Pakistan’s intimate life.

While scandalously hilarious, this was probably the only question out of many that went unanswered at the festival. One imagines while the organisers wanted to enrich the minds of attendees with an open and raw discussion throughout the event and accomplished the task spectacularly, they still wanted to leave some things up to the imagination of the awam.