After a hiatus of nearly a decade, I found myself in the United Arab Emirates, also popularly imagined as ‘Dubai’ in Pakistan. I was traveling with a group of Pakistani writers, poets and photographers to attend the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF). I had been visiting the various UAE airports in transits over the last many years but never knew how this country, prospering with petrol dollars and supported by hardworking South Asian labour, had turned into a kind of modern paradise of consumerism, success and gold. More importantly, the UAE is now a melting port of various nationalities and cultures – a bit of a contradiction, given the puritanical reputation of Saudi Arabia and the historical narrations of Arab supremacy over the non-Arabs.
It was both exciting and disconcerting: displays of capitalist victories, thousands of poor South Asian workers, yet the promise of services, multiculturalism and some measure of tolerance. Perhaps these changing dynamics of the Emirati society are linked to events such as SIBF – a huge, multitudinous, undertaking involving 140 international publishers, agents and related crew, and for the first time, writers from South Asia. Sharjah’s ruler, Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qassimi, is a unique Arab ruler for his interest in books and investments in publishing industry are rare traits in an Arab monarch. I trust that the Sheikh holds a doctorate and is an avid reader himself. I could not help wondering if he would have some positive influence on our ruling elites, whose relationship with books is far from enviable. The SIBF was held at the humungous Sharjah Expo Centre – a post-modern building, with an amorphous architectural identity, but lots of space accommodating over 600,000 visitors of nearly all the nationalities that live in the UAE. South Asia and Pakistan received a special focus, and a brilliant ensemble of Pakistani writers attended the 10-day long festival at different occasions.
These included Mohammed Hanif, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Irfan Husain, Nadeem Aslam and H. M. Naqvi, along with renowned names from the world of Urdu literature, such as Afzal Ahmed Syed, Fahmida Riaz, Amjad Islam Amjad, Anwar Masood and Sarwat Mohyuddin. Pakistan’s leading photographers such as Arif Mahmood and Tapu Javeri were there and even the chef Zakir found a niche in the melee. Similarly, a good number of South Asian writers, such as Arundhati Roy and Pankaj Mishra, Mirza Waheed, Shehan Karunatilaka, Tahmima Anam, Manjushree Thapa, Sethu, William Dalrymple, and Samrat Upadhyay, among others.
I had been tasked to speak on Pankaj Mishra’s new book From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, and speak to the author about his writings and the themes highlighted in the book. This invitation came just in time, as I was reading Mishra’s new book to review it. We spoke at the fair and in my first meeting with Pankaj Mishra, I was simply struck by his passion for internationalism and the quest to challenge the orthodoxies that haunt the western view of Pakistan, the Muslim and ‘Islam.’ Mishra’s new book is an unbridled pleasure for its accessibility, as well as the ability to weave together three odd characters from China, India and Central Asia in the truncated, yet powerful, anti-colonial intellectual resistance during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, Rabindranath Tagore and Liang Qichao had common intellectual pursuits and a burning desire to contextualize the position of an Asian intellectual within a white man’s world dominated by the imperial notions of righteousness and “the art of killing fast – and best,” as Iqbal stated in one of his poems.
I asked Mishra about his views on contemporary India and Pakistan and he was blunt in narrating his position on both the countries. Mishra faces the odd challenge of sounding ‘soft on Pakistan’ and ‘tough on Indian capitalism.’ This led me to joke with him about him being termed as a Pakistani agent. Mishra held that Pakistan had been unfairly portrayed in the western media and that aggregation and simplification of 180 million people as a monolith was both reductive and deceptive.
The next day I participated on a panel on translations where the soft-spoken Musharraf Ali Farooqui, eminent poet Afzal Ahmed Syed and two Arab authors participated. The session spoke of the difficulties of translating but concluded that translations were essential for cross-learning and informing literary outputs of various countries. A soft spoken Iraqi English Professor chaired this session. Fahmida Riaz recited her poems in a parallel session. Sadly we missed Arundhati Roy’s stellar performance which was another parallel session. Roy was fantastic as always and apparently the Indian diplomat was also present in her scathing attack on India’s Kashmir policy. I heard all of this from the several South Indians at the SIBF. The schedule could have been more thoughtful and all our protestations to change it were fruitless.
Fifi Haroon joined us from London and on the day two of our stay we had the pleasure of hearing her mellifluous renditions of old Hindi songs and Faiz’s ghazals. In fact all of this happened on a long drive from our dinner to the hotel.
Another event featured Salman Ahmad of the Junoon band, an author and now an active political activist who amused a good number of people from through impromptu renditions of Junoon’s popular numbers and rants on his book.
Pakistan’s leading publishers were also present but I did not see the Diaspora browsing through the books. On the contrary, the Indian stalls were busy and often one could not walk through the crowds. What was most heartening was to see hundreds of children, families actively participation in a number of fun activities. This was the stark reminder of how things are sliding at home. Public spaces are shrinking; and I have to think twice before taking my kids to crowded places. Such is the state of fear that is seeping into our consciousness.
Journeys are dramatic. I met a school friend after 20 years; and caught up with others whom I had not seen in ages. It was wonderful to meet a Farid Alvie and his amazing family. Farid and his sister Erum Mazhar Alvie were central to the arrangements of SIBF and they provided hospitality throughout the visit. There is a parallel universe of old Pakistani residents in UAE. They are engaged with Pakistan and in fact our best Ambassadors abroad.
Once again, I was lucky to spend a few days with Fahmida Riaz and to imbibe her poetry, activism and powerful, original thoughts. I had to return early so I missed out on the interesting sessions by Pakistani novelists Mohammad Hanif and HM Naqvi. But I met Nadeem Aslam, the reticent and gentle British Pakistani author whose books typify a new sensibility and a post-Rushdie voice which is less brittle and more confident of its identity. I only wish that this sojourn were not this short and transient but this is how it is.