I grew up in Pakistan, and I have lived abroad – in Turkey, and then in the US, for the last 45 years. Throughout this time, I have continued to stay close to the goings-on in my native country.
Much of the news about Pakistan in recent years, particularly in Western media, has been negative. It appears every calamity and every act of violence in Pakistan gets prominently reported in the Western press. There is not much interest in reporting on routine matters that go on without a hitch, or events that just do not fit the narrative of a country in trouble.
Just a few weeks ago, however, I was in Pakistan to attend a hugely uplifting event, the Lahore literary Festival (LLF 2018). This festival brought together authors, poets, thinkers and journalists from many parts of the world. It was a fabulous literary gathering attended by tens of thousands over the course of two days. Among the celebrity attendees and presenters were Booker Prize winner Ben Okri, as well as authors Reza Aslan, Mohsin Hamid, and Ahmed Rashid. From the BBC there were Lyce Doucet and Razia Iqbal. From India, Shobha De and Amardeep Singh presented their work. There was also Emmy Winner Riz Ahmed and Mark Leonard, Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The format of the festival had six sessions running concurrently over two days, hence more than 60 individual sessions were conducted. They ranged from discussion panels, to book launches, to remembrances of heroes past (Asma Jahangir, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Parveen Shakir). There was even a session dedicated to William Shakespeare, presented by a former Shakespearean actor. There was also a good representation of writers and thinkers from Turkey – Kaya Genc and Ciler Ilhan. In this group of celebrities, first-time unknown authors such as myself and Emma Glass from the UK also got a chance to present our books – in my case When Tribesmen Came Calling: Building an Enduring American Business in Pakistan, published by Seattle-based Blue Ear Books.
It was interesting to note the topics that attracted the largest crowds: “Light at the end of Trumpian disruption?”, “Outside the American Prism”, and “Beyond Extremism”. The last of these was a talk by Reza Aslan, the well-known American writer of Iranian origin, of No god but God fame. His was a straight talk to Pakistanis, about the rising extremism in their country and its corrosive effects. A crowd of over 1000 sat and listened in stunned silence, and finally broke out in loud applause.
Interesting also was the number of panels discussing and debating the impact of Donald Trump on the world. It appeared our president and his words loom large halfway across the world, which is watching with trepidation. During my trip to Pakistan, the most frequently asked question of me was, “How could they elect …..?” Many expressed a loss of faith in democracy itself. The U.S. has often been seen at the positive, developed end of an evolutionary process for democracy. That perception lies badly shaken now.
Each visit to Pakistan for me is accompanied by a sense of anticipation and of concern. Would things have gotten worse, or better, since my last trip? The answer is always a mixed bag. On this trip the security situation appeared to have improved significantly, as evidenced by a vibrant social life, but also by worse traffic jams. On the other hand, infrastructure improvements in Lahore were really encouraging. But they say these came at a huge financial cost to the country. So it goes.
After all was said and done, this visit to Lahore renewed my faith in the future of Pakistan, in spite of the daily barrage of negative news and many developments that are indeed worrisome. If world media was going to report one good news story from Pakistan, they should have reported on LLF 2018. I now look forward to LLF 2019.
S. Qaisar Shareef concluded a career of nearly 30 years with Procter & Gamble Company in 2011. He is the author of When Tribesmen Came Calling: Building an Enduring American Business in Pakistan, published in August 2017 by Blue Ear Books. He lives outside Washington, D.C.