Shrinking spaces By Huma Yusuf

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WHAT will be the fate of Pakistan’s literary, artistic and cultural festivals in the coronavirus era? This may seem a tangential question in light of other pressing concerns. But as space for free speech diminishes across Pakistan, the question takes on urgency.

The attitude in Pakistan is that the pandemic is over (though it is not), and it may seem pre-emptive to worry for the fate of Pakistan’s winter/spring cultural calendar, increasingly littered with literary festivals, book fairs, art and fashion shows, craft fairs and gallery openings. But the vulnerability of cultural offerings was demonstrated earlier this year: while thousands gathered for the tableeghi ijtema in defiance of government guidelines, a 250-year-old spiritual, cultural and music festival in Sheikhu Sharif was cancelled.

It is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which government guidance continues to curtail the scope and frequency of cultural festivals, even while permitting the resumption of religious and political gatherings and sports events. Covid-19 provides a convenient cover for an establishment seeking opportunities to censor debate and dissent (much like the current PTA crackdown on ‘pornographic’ online content, even as internet service providers complain that the main targets of such blocks are political).

The vulnerability of these literary and cultural events stems from the fact that they are few remaining spaces where thoughtful exchange is possible. The crackdown on and infiltration of media outlets, universities, think tanks, and publishers is well underway, if not complete. It has been effected through overt censorship, intimidation, cynical legislation, and religious posturing. Speak and you disappear. In this context, cultural festivals seem a likely next target, given their proliferation, popularity and ability to spur debate.

Literary festivals in recent years have been criticised for the growing focus on politics, rather than on love for literature or Pakistan’s diverse linguistic heritage. This reflects the concerns of those committed to free speech and academic and cultural discourse, for the starting point of a flourishing cultural landscape is a conducive environment, which Pakistan does not have. It is no coincidence that our best-loved novelists write of political assassinations, political parties, and police brutality.

Outside urban centres, the equivalents of these literary, art and fashion festivals are cultural gatherings, including music, dance, theatre and puppet festivals, kabbadi, and horse and cattle shows, which will face similar restrictions. This will engender the further erosion of our indigenous cultural heritage and marginalisation of folk entertainers and craftspeople.

Complacency is a likely reaction to the fate of such events given myriad pressing concerns. But once taken off the cultural calendar, they are typically gone for good. Think of the Kara Film Festival, cancelled on security grounds, never to resume, or of Basant in Lahore, banned on the grounds that kite-flying is hazardous. Such cancellations are particularly permanent when they serve the interests of the state.

The Lahore Literary Festival and Afkar-i-Taza ThinkFest are currently hosting panels online. Such digital initiatives will help keep a conversation alive, but limit it to a smaller circle of net-connected and like-minded elite. Webinars are also subject to greater surveillance and suffer from limited spontaneity and interactivity.

Beyond scant efforts to go digital, there is no broader discussion about how to preserve literary, artistic and cultural offerings through the pandemic. There was excitement about artist Sara Shakeel’s image of a health worker going viral, and enthusiasm for the Prints for Pandemic Relief fundraiser. But there has been little discussion about how to ensure that cultural offerings are resilient, that writers, artists and craftspeople have livelihoods through the pandemic, and that emerging artists have the digital skills necessary to collaborate and promote their work.

Globally, there is an earnest push for state support for arts, literature and cultural heritage. This is partially motivated by economic considerations: countries’ cultural offerings drive tourism revenue. In other cases, communities see arts and culture as an antidote to the death and dismay a pandemic brings: they promote resilience, foster dialogue and tolerance, and imagine different tomorrows.

But in Pakistan, the need is arguably more pressing. It is about preserving space to speak, preventing dissent from becoming the dirtiest word, and, most importantly, hanging on to an indigenous Pakistani identity and discourse, not one that is imposed top-down to serve the geopolitical interests and political paranoia of our powers that be. It behooves us all to mobilise locally to ensure these cultural platforms are not lost forever under the cover of coronavirus chaos.