Editors Note: This article was first published in the Arts and Letters Segment of The Dhaka Tribune (Title sponsors of the Dhaka Literature Festival). Republished with permission of the newspaper and editor for The Luxembourg Review audience.
If you wish to read more on the Dhaka Literature Festival coverage, please visit their page by clicking here: Arts and Letters.
In an invigorating conversation, Adonis shared his thoughts about poetry and the Middle East on the opening day of the Dhaka Lit Fest 2017
Adonis is considered the greatest living poet in the Arabic world. Kaiser Haq, the biggest Bangladeshi poet writing in English, engaged Adonis in an invigorating conversation about his poetry and thoughts about literature and the Middle East on the opening day of the Dhaka Lit Fest 2017 (November 16).Haq spoke in both English and French while Adonis replied in French. Kazi Ashraf Uddin, associate professor of English at Jahangirnagar University, joined the two poets and translated Adonis’s responses into English. The following is an excerpt from a transcription of that conversation.
Note: Due to some technical glitches, the first two questions and Adonis’s responses to them could not be retrieved. In consultation with Kaiser Haq, we have decided to provide readers with a summary of the missed responses. The first question was about his name which originally was Ali Ahmad Said Esber. In response, Adonis explained why he adopted the name of a Greek divine figure. According to the mythological story, Adonis, the handsome young hunter, is killed by a boar. Shelley had turned this myth into a mythopoeic representation of the Romantic poet Keats “butchered” by critics. Ali Ahmad too saw himself as Adonis and the newspaper editors as boars that tried to destroy him. The second question was about his first collection of poetry that catapulted him as a prominent voice in Arabic literature. In response, he shared that after doing his mandatory military service in 1955-56 in the Syrian Army, he was imprisoned because of his political affiliation with an opposition party. On his release he and his recently wedded wife, Khalida Said, a literary critic, crossed over into Lebanon and settled in Beirut, where they devoted themselves full-time to literary activities. The first of Adonis’s 20 plus poetry collections appeared in 1957; soon he became the leading innovator in Arabic poetry, exploiting the resources of prose poetry to extend the thematic and emotional reach of poetry. – Editor of Dhaka Tribune- Arts and Letters.
Kaiser Haq, left, asking a question while Adonis, middle, looks on Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune
Kaiser Haq: Elaborate your ideas on the Arab world.
Adonis: Religion has a strong influence on politics, so that’s why it’s been corrupted. Politics is corrupted these days. The best thing would be the separation between religion and the state. I propose a rereading of the Quranic text from a more secular perspective. At the same time, I believe that the reading should not be against religion but that religion should be an individual practice and it should not intervene in any other religious practices. The society should be based on three things: Human rights, liberation and liberty of women. The society or the individual attitude should not be based on religious confessions; rather, it should be based on secularism and at the same time civic sense.
My poetry is a kind of rupture from the past tradition and it announces a kind of modernity in the Arabic world. It launches a new tradition. Before that many things were not allowed to be expressed. There was a kind of constraint on alternative thoughts. So, what I did was I created in my poetry a character, who worked as a kind of mouthpiece for the articulation of my thoughts. So, through literature I expressed my ideas. It was a kind of roundabout way that I invented myself. Through my intellectual, political and literary voice, I wanted to change the society.
Kaiser Haq: You are a critic of your own society and religion. And at the same time historical events impacted you. You also responded powerfully to the debacle of 1967, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. So, how did you create poetry out of this extreme experience of a war?
Adonis: The Quran is not against creativity like poetry. However, in my society poetry and writing were creative output that was eyed with suspicion. So, I opened up a new journal and the purpose was to open up those creative faculties of different Arab people. And this journal gave us a chance to write poetry, to express our thoughts creatively. One of our main problems was reading. There was a project to reread all those texts from a different perspective and when one rereads a text out of a mediocre perspective, the text itself becomes mediocre. An importance was put on the culture of rereading our tradition and the literary texts emanating from it, and the meta-narrative as well. We should look at the poetic tradition from a new angle and we should reread the whole of our cultural tradition. What we found through our rereading was that the literature we liked was marginal due to its opposition to power. Literature connected to power was less important, less poetic and less creative. Marginal literature is more interesting and more vibrant. We had begun a movement and this movement gave us a new concept of the world: The first one was the conception of God and the second one was the conception of our cultural identity. We found out in the process that identity is not something we inherit from our generations; rather, identity is something that we create. So, there is some sort of existentialist connection here. My own self is not competing with itself, so I need other selves to communicate; I need other selves to enrich myself because my own self is the whole constituted of different other selves.
Kaiser Haq: It is by now clear that you are interested in mysticism. You also say that Sufism and surrealism are similar in many aspects, and you have written a book on this. So, how do you think Sufism and surrealism are similar?
Adonis: There is a debate about the relationship between poetry, national tradition and internationalism or globalisation. We have said that we want to be open to all other cultures and all other traditions. And what we also found that the very mysticism we find in surrealism existed 1000 or 1500 years back. The west is not the inventor of surrealism; rather, this kind of mystic tradition is something that goes beyond our nationality that has existed in the Arabic culture for centuries. The mystics used to believe that there was a reality beyond reality, and reality does not have to be something that is visual or visible. It can be something invisible. And that’s the connection between mysticism and surrealism.
Kaiser Haq: Surrealism has had a connection with leftist politics. You also have had a long association with left politics. In fact, now you claim that you are a leftist. I would like to know how you define leftist politics today and how things have changed.
Adonis: I believe humanity constitutes the essence of leftism. And this essence lies in change. Human beings are not a static entity. There should always be prospects for a change in the future. The future is basically constructed by human beings.
Kaiser Haq: You said that the perfume of poetry should be able to combat the dark forces. What do you mean by that?
Adonis: My poetry has its own force. For example, if we consider the door is rectangular, it’s a very simplistic and linear expression. But if we say that the door is like a woman who is opening her arms, then it gets some different meanings and different nuances. There is an interesting chemistry between the world, the word and the self. And there is also a kind of triangular connection between the world, the word and the self. It is important to me to create a world of images. The Arabic language is very corporeal. It has got some sensorial charm. So, it is always important to me to create a world of images through language, which I call “the world of images.” If we consider the whole world to be a flower, then we can consider poetry to be the perfume of that flower.
Kaiser Haq: Do you think people are more interested in a flower than its perfume?
Adonis: I think the American society and the American politics could be that flower we are always looking for. This is the flower of money, this is the flower of politics and this is the flower of power. The American politics distorts the smell of this flower.
Kaiser Haq: The recent events in the Middle East have provoked sharp comments from you. Would you share your thoughts on that?
Adonis: The Arab Spring opened up a new horizon for the Arab people. But at the same time, it was a kind of American creation the way they had created Osama Bin Laden. The Arab Spring has destroyed some of the Arab countries, such as Libya, Iraq and Lebanon.
Kaiser Haq: In literary festivals, one topic that keeps coming up is the increasing difficulty of circulating literature and the declining readership and the declining reading habit in the younger generations.
Adonis: I am not really worried about the new generations because they read more than readers of the previous generations. Different media that have emerged are helpful for facilitating the act of reading and also, the documentation process.
Adonis has graciously given permission to The Luxembourg Review
to publish his poem in the next issue of the review.
Ben Okri was born in 1959 in Minna, Nigeria. He is considered to be one of the best novelist of the postmodernist era. His list of accolades is vindicated with the sheer volume of honours conferred upoun him, with governmental recognition, gaining an OBE in 2001 and Fellowship into the Royal Society of Literature (1997) and he is also the recipient of some esteemed literary prizes, most notably the Man Booker Prize in 1991 (making him the youngest ever winner) for The Famished Road. He has produced 10 novels and 9 books of poetry, The Age of Magic (2014) and Wild(2012) being the last in the two categories respectively.
I had the chance of catching a truly mesmerising discussion with Jerry Pinto at the Dhaka Literature Festival in 2017. His assertion on the spiritual nature of writing was a true and encapsulating insight into his own literary philosophy and his revelation that each writer dies after producing a significant novel and is then reborn anew was a concept I had to further explore. At the author lounge of the DLF I managed to sit down with Ben in order to delve further into his literary psyche and influences. Did he consider himself primarily a poet or novelist? From where did he derive his inspiration from?What ignited his love of literature? What significant event in the modern landscape compelled him to write?Ben was keen and gracious enough to provide The Luxembourg Review with these answers and more.
Syed Shehzar M Doja
Founder and Editor-in-Chief
Shehzar: Hi Ben.. first of all a big thank you for doing this interview with The Luxembourg Review. In lieu with the talk you had given today, how many lifetimes ahead do you feel you have?
Ben: I think I have as many lifetimes as I have significant books.You have to understand that a strong book takes life but it also gives life. Every strong book that you write you lose something of yourself into it but it gives you secret energy. So it is both creative and destructive.
Shehzar: And would you say that it is a cycle continuously emanating from within a writer?
Ben: It is a cycle continuously emanating from a writers psyche. But it also comes out of a health. It comes out of your spiritual health and the health of your imagination. Some writers don’t recover as well after significant books.
Shehzar: What would you attribute that to?
Ben: Insufficient spiritual nourishment.
Shehzar: You said you were a lot different growing up. As a writer, what were the axial thoughts? The pivot from where your thoughts gyrated from? What were the central elements that distinguished you?
Ben: An absolute sense that life is infinitely richer than we realise. The central thought for me is that life is constantly self generating. That life is concealed from us, that life is a mystery to us. Life is a revelation to us. Life is a house of many mansions. Life is a house of many universes.That’s where it comes from.It is this feeling I have about something immeasurable about life itself.
Shehzar: And that compels you?
Ben: It keeps me going upwards and inwards.
Shehzar: What would you say are the external factors that recently invoked your writing?
Ben: Many things. One of the things is the Grenfell disaster.
Shehzar: You had written a poem about that.
Ben: The Grenfell tower disaster moved me very very deeply in a way that I’ve not been moved for almost 15 years. It moved me very much because it made me aware that there is a gaping hole in the centre of capitalism and that hole is called humanity.
Shehzar: This reminds me a bit of that famous Yeats poem. The opening of The Second Coming ‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer’ and I feel that movement away from that spirituality is reflected a lot in your writing
Ben: We human beings are many things.we are flesh. We are shadow. We are moonstone. We are tree. We are spirit. We are forgiveness, we are love. We are many things. And where spirituality of one kind or another disappears from the human story we become smaller and we are able to condone all sorts of monstrosities happening to one another.People can still lose spirituality whilst being religious.All you have to do is look around the world right now.Most of the terrible things taking place are taking place among religious people.
Shehzar: As an excuse?
Ben: Not as an excuse but as a blindness. I think sometimes peoples religion gets in the way of their humanity. Or that humanity should come first. A religion without humanity is an insult to God.
Shehzar: You seem to have borrowed from what I understand a lot of the traditional stories. How deep is this embedded in you?
Ben: Stories are deeply embedded in me. I grew up with stories. My mother was a great storyteller. Told me stories all the time. My culture, where I grew up in Nigeria, all the different places are storytelling places, we told stories to one another as kids. Africa is a storytelling land so stories are part of how I breathe, of how I think. But the writing I do, I am interested in oblique stories, in indirect stories. In stories that have more angles that you suspect. I’m interested in secret stories, stories people carry in them and they don’t know they carry. Stories that sometime destroy and sometimes liberates them, sometimes ruins them and sometimes lifts them up. We are always carrying these unknown stories and I think its one of the most important things about novelists and poets, that they bring out these unknown stories in their people, in their times and age. They bring it out so people can see it, face it and begin to deal with it. Grenfell was one of those stories.
(The Grenfell Tower poem by Ben Okri on Channel 4 News)
Shehzar: You had written a poem about it as opposed to writing a novel or short story, in general you are regarded very well as a novelist and as a poet but which one do you feel closer to? Spiritually do you feel your stories are created as a novel or as poetry?
Ben: Everything I do comes out of poetry, I am primarily a poetic being. By poetry, I do not mean metre or syllables and beats. For me it is also angles of seeing, ways of being, the relationship between things, the tangents and spaces, suggestions, the pressure and space around things.
Shehzar: That reminds me of Khalil Gibran’s ‘Let their be spaces in your togetherness’. One of my favourite single lines.
Ben: Thats lovely. I know it very well. There should be spaces in our imagination to. We have gaps but not enough spaces. Big difference.
Shehzar: So what next for you? You had alluded to the success you had with The Famished Road, how it wasn’t there initially but after the Booker prize, things changed, but now when you write a new story, do you still go in with that original feeling of it being not so great. How do you feel about that?
Ben: I don’t particularly care what people think when I start to write. And I don’t particularly care what people think when I finish.I care really, mainly about the truth of what I am trying to say. I care truly about the truth of what I am trying to say and how deeply I can touch one person through this work. One person at a time.
What is the significance of a literary festival? Celebrated in abundance across many countries, it is becoming a more pronounced and regular feature of the Asian landscape only over the past decade. Whilst Jaipur holds the distinction of hosting the largest and most globally prominent one in the region, other areas in India are striving to replicate its overwhelming success. The importance of these literary arenas has subsequently spread to places like Karachi, Singapore, Bhutan and beyond. However, in Dhaka, this much needed momentum and gap was addressed with the birth of the Dhaka Literature Festival in 2012. In a press conference I attended for the 2017 edition, the directors expressed their desire for the festival to act as a starting point of important regional and global discussions. In spite of the haze of censorship in the subcontinent via political clout and overt intimidation blurring open dialogue, the DLF stands united as a focal point in addressing these concerns to expand dialogues and minds with exposure to some of literature’s great modern luminaries. This is evident with a prestigious line-up over the years with authors like Nobel Laureate Sir V.S Naipaul, Pulitzer Prize winning Vijay Seshadri, Man Booker Prize winner Deborah Smith, highly acclaimed poet Sudeep Sen and more. This uncompromising ambition carries onto this year with the inclusion of Adonis, the greatest living Arabic poet, Booker Prize winner Ben Okri , Oscar winning Tilda Swinton, Playwright /BAFTA winner Sir David Hare etc among a distinguished host of Bengali writers and poets.
This year will also see the festival announce the winners of the DSC prize for the first time. A truly prestigious award of 25000$ presented for the best South Asian book, comprising of names like Booker winner Aravind Adiga, Anuk Arudpragasam, Anjali Joseph, Karan Mahajan and Stephen Alter making the 5 person shortlist.
What I find wonderful about the festival is the fact that local established and aspiring authors now have the opportunity to engage with and learn from authors of various genres without any distinguishing formalities. This cross pollination of ideas will hopefully lead to increasing the prominence of Bangladeshi writers worldwide. Access to world class literature is imperative towards this dream and the inclusion of literary agents like Kelly Falconer and Grantamagazine may help expedite this vision. This is not a literary festival that panders only to the elite of suburban Bangladeshi society with exorbitant fees;in fact, the festival and all panels remain free of any cost (allowing in the satiation of any budding intellectual curiosity). Another topic that was reiterated during the initiating press conference.
Last year I had the opportunity to be invited to the Dhaka Literature Festival to launch my book and spread word of the review. It holds a special place in my heart because growing up in Dhaka during my formative years I never would have envisioned seeing a Pulitzer prize winning author casually strolling along the lawns of Bangla Academy in conversation with a host of other critically renowned writers. I am certain this simple yet exuberant sense of joy was replicated in the hearts of many attendees, now able to claim such moments not as some vague mirage from an obscure festival review online but to savour the opportunity and relish it instead as a first-hand experience.
Serendipity is often a neglected muse. However, this year I am hoping to honour her as I find myself coincidentally in Dhaka during the tenure of the festival alongside Luxembourg Review Columnist Ikhtisad Ahmed and with our global team we plan to cover various aspects of the festival whilst eagerly engaging in the festivities and panels.
A link to the official Speaker List can be found here: DLF 2017 A link to the official Programme can be found here: DLF Programme
“We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time” (Little Gidding)
Stephanie Conn’s debut collection “The Woman on the Other Side” is a book of exploration. The poetry invites the readers into a world of fragments, between physical and internal landscapes. The collection is set in various locations and timelines, beginning from the opening passages inspired by the Dutch countryside and drawing a subsequent inspiration from its’ historic painters. However, Conn manages to superimpose her own vision and interpretation onto the paintings and leaves her written version lingering distinctly, like a melodious mid note hanging unobtrusive, in some corner of the readers mind…”He painted the lands lies below -/led us through small windows, into narrow interiors,/half-lit rooms draped with silk and shadow”( Vermeer’s Nether Land). The use of half-rhymes is used masterfully throughout the book to accentuate the significant pause for the readers to appreciate the same vivid details which was emanating from her spurts of inspiration. This reinterpretation is also given to other prominent painters in other locations, such as Chagal who resided primarily in the village of St Paul De Vence in the south of France; “Tell me of the green fields mapped in your mind/and the winding paths that always lead you back,/how your father held a scythe in his dark hands,/” (The Village)
In a 2016 interview with the Irish Times, Stephanie stated:
“Consumed by grief after my mother died, I felt terribly isolated and poetry offered comfort. The fact others had experienced this pain and survived also gave me hope” and the residue of this haunting grief and the resolve of hope can be seen and felt in the simplicity of lines like “it is June/but the curtains are pulled/and the candles lit/ … in an empty room/a fourteen year old girl/pores over her mothers diary” (Her Diaries).
Desolation and Resolution, a constant tug of war between the senses, ephemeral and empirical, act as a constant motif throughout the book. Attempts to balance between allowing the audience to gaze into her psyche and creating barriers play off each other in a manner that is truly remarkable. In Eclipse for example; “They said it would happen,/warned not to observe the sun/directly. I had been indoors” and “June.Again/ There have been too many/ birthdays and deathdays” (Abacus). The lines mimic the motion of a heaving breath but upon its release, we are left to somehow simmer in its bittersweet resolution.
Stephanie Conn was the inaugural winner of the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing, a prize awarded to her for the poem “Lavender Fields” .The line from the poem that could truly encapsulate the mesmerising quality of this book is summed up here; “All this grew from a small bag of aromatic seeds”
November 2015 brought with it tentative autumnal showers that kept winter firmly at bay in London, and news of the latest tragedy from home. On the last day of October, as children in London were donning generic and specific costumes to prompt a sugar high, publishers were being butchered by religious fundamentalists in Dhaka. A year of similar fatal attacks on freethinking, rationalist writers claimed another life. The incident was weighing heavy on my mind when I met Ahsan Akbar, a fellow Bangladeshi writer, with a third of the penultimate month of the year over.
Ahsan is a witty poet currently at work on a debut novel that is eagerly anticipated by his reputable writer friends – and he has many of them. He is also one of the directors of the Dhaka Literary Festival. He has befriended the distinguished men and women of letters in the course of fulfilling his responsibility of bringing them to the capital of Bangladesh for the annual celebration of literature for the past half a decade. We were attending a reading by one of them. Meike Ziervogel, like me, was due to travel to Dhaka in the following fortnight. She, like me, trusted the team behind the festival to have our best interests at heart, and remained committed to attending it. After a rendition of her precise, haunting prose, she reiterated this as she signed copies for waiting fans. She echoed the defiance of another guest, the esteemed Jon Snow: Now was the time to stand with Bangladesh, to show solidarity with those who were fighting for the soul of the country.
These were the two memories – one deplorable, the other inspirational – with which I boarded the plane on the eve of the festival. I had opted for the functionality of the Abu Dhabi airport over the ostentation of the one in Dubai as my stopover. I sent a few messages to friends and family over WhatsApp and Facebook before departing for Dhaka. Upon arrival, I checked for replies repeatedly, but none came. The government had blocked most social media and messaging applications as a security measure following the murders and as a prelude to the imminent hangings of convicted war criminals. The religious right had called a hartal – political strikes that had steered so far from Gandhi’s principles of peaceful protest that success was measured in casualties and the number of vehicles burned – in response to the sentences, on the first day of the festival. This was especially problematic for me since I had to travel the length of the city to get from my parents’ residence, where I was staying, to the Bangla Academy, the historic location of the festival.
I relied on my knowledge of safe modes of transport during hartals, and arranged an ambulance. This proved to be an unnecessary precaution, taken by an expatriate whose knowledge was showing some signs of rust. The famous resilience of Bangladeshis was in full display on the streets, flouting the inconsiderate, senseless moves of supposed politicians to go to work. The violence of hartals, the full force of which was felt in 2013 when they claimed more than a thousand lives, had also abated. I was greeted by a police roadblock when I reached the festival premises. The road on which sat Bangla Academy had been closed at the behest of the organisers. I walked past patrols of bored policemen sprinkled throughout the closed road, up to the entrance and, after being given a VIP pass, made my way to the Main Stage for the inaugural. The ambulance had collected me only after ferrying the hospital staff, which meant that, according to the schedule I was handed as I entered, I was late. The minister who was declaring the festival open, however, was running on Standard Bangladeshi Time. Therefore, despite my best efforts, I was early.
Once it started, the first three hours, encompassing a musical recitation that I had missed, the inaugural and an opening plenary, set the tone for the rest of it. K. Anis Ahmed, a well-known Bangladeshi writer and publisher, and another festival director, delivered a succinct and comprehensive address in English and Bengali, establishing firmly the multilingual nature of the event. He touched on the absentees, as did Ahsan in his address. There are two types of writers in Bangladesh. The first is diligent and dedicated, constantly developing and contributing significant pieces, often with no reward. A handful of them had paid with their lives during the year, as their predecessors had during the independence movement. Their numbers had already been dwindling, arguably even skipping a generation since the new nation emerged. The second wants the fame without the work, the superficiality over the substance, the label that has not been earned. The growing English-language scene has seen more of the latter, the frauds, crawl out of their holes and multiply, believing their English medium education and overseas university degrees have equipped them to string two sentences together and pass themselves off as writers. They succeed at conning their way to the limelight because Bangladesh has simultaneously revered writers as intellectuals – dating back to the language and independence movements, and those who were slaughtered by Pakistani agents, to silence them – and had low rates of literacy and education.
A pratfall of these charlatans did not leave their Gulshan and Baridhara palaces in support of the written word and the freedoms of thought, speech and expression. At a time when these fundamental freedoms that make us human are under threat in Bangladesh and the region, when luminaries from foreign shores did not hesitate to show solidarity with us, the reprehensible actions of those who dare call themselves writers and Bangladeshis were conspicuous, were criminal. A few of the foreign guests had similarly absented themselves, citing security concerns. They should be reminded of what it means to be a writer. “We need to celebrate literature, and it is especially important to celebrate it in these troubled times when it is under attack in so many parts of the world…[W]e all belong to the country of imagination, and when an iron curtain comes down on our imagination, then it is time to act, and to act as writers,” said Nayantara Sahgal in her effortlessly eloquent keynote speech at the inaugural. The festival had begun, its special significance and greater duty to the world and literature underlined.
The opening plenary, vague and imaginative in equal measure in its title, “The World is Round”, set its sails to the wind unleashed by the inaugural. No sooner had the first question been asked by the moderator than the discussion took on a revelatory political flavour that audience participation at the end encouraged rather than dampening. Jon Snow, Jude Kelly and Ramachandra Guha represented the fair, rational and brilliant truth-seeker, the reactionary whose single-minded worldview is expressed in every sentence uttered, and the artful centrist that lend sensible political discourse the perfect blend of information and entertainment. Appetite whet, I raced to the Lawn, another of the six locations used for concurrent sessions – there were at least three running at the same time for the rest of the festival – for a quick look at the launch of Himal Southasian’s special issue on Bangladesh, before interrupting it to take in a tete-a-tete about culture and performance art through the ages between two of Bangladesh’s most celebrated actors, Aly Zaker and the effervescent Asaduzzaman Noor. The former, especially significant as one of two international magazines that had dedicated entire issues to Bangladesh for the very first time, kept the political flame that had been lit alive, while the latter delivered on its promise of mirth. The organisers had performed a minor miracle by getting the schedule back on track by then. I took a break to avail myself of the Authors’ Lounge’s hearty lunch service.
A steady trickle of people was beginning to grow the sparse audience of the morning – a result of a working day and the trepidation of a hartal – by the time I made my way back to the sessions on offer. The first day saw the festival stretch its poetry muscles, showcase Bangladeshi writing, and delve into science, courtesy of Harold Varmus, an American Nobel Laureate who had defied his State Department’s overly cautious travel advisory. I met Naushad Ali Hussein in between sessions, a primary school classmate I had last seen almost two decades previous. Naushad, it seemed, had veered away from his mathematical inclinations at school towards the arts. He, along with the ever-exuberant Rajib Rahman Johney and Karina Zannat, was leading an energetic, enthusiastic and incredibly helpful team for Jatrik, the production company behind the festival. Headquartered inside what appeared to be a box office encased by glass converted into an office, the three were called on to solve problems of varying magnitudes – a jetlagged guest needed to go to the hotel, another needed a mobile phone charged, yet another needed to know where best to get jamdanai saris and how to get there, while another was nowhere to be found – during my poor attempt at catching up with Naushad. I was approached by a smiling volunteer, identifiable by the distinct purple “DLF 2015” t-shirt she had on and a similar badge to mine which gave her a different designation, who asked if someone had been assigned to me. When I answered in the negative, she promptly rectified the oversight. Progga Noshin is a bright, cheerful student from the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, one of the private universities that have grown in the country since the turn of the century, to try to make up for the egregious shortcomings of the state institutions. She made the remainder of the festival both enjoyable and considerably easier to navigate.
Dhaka may be unfashionable compared to some of the exotic hosts of literary festivals, but the emphasis on programming in 2015 made it a standout event. The main motivation behind the attending public was the quality of the programming and the topics of discussion, to learn from and be inspired by substance, not superficiality. An example was the session on science fiction on the second day. None of the panellists were household names in Bangladesh, but the interest in that particular kind of writing had resulted in all the seats being taken, people cramming inside and standing where they could, and two small queues outside the KK Tea Stage’s ajar doors. They caught the Cuban rock-star and writer, Yoss, explain how his mother cries when she reads his stories, and when she asks him how he can keep a dry eye, he replies, “My tears are on the page.” The hunger for science fiction had been met with a constructive dialogue between him, Marcel Theroux, Ranbir Singh Sidhu and the Bangladeshi writer Saad Z. Hossain, and the audience that plumbed the depths of the genre’s standing as more than pulp-fiction, as being relevant to understanding life through the ages, the human condition, even politics.
The second morning had already brought a pleasant surprise. Scholastica, one of leading Bangladeshi English-medium schools, had arranged a school trip to the festival on the Thursday. The hartal had forced them to cancel. The students were not to be deterred, however. They had forsaken their weekend sleep and convinced their teachers to reschedule the trip for Friday. Some had had to wake up at five in the morning to join the group that arrived at Bangla Academy before its doors had opened. Their hunger and determination gave the lie to the age of media sensationalism that constantly reminds us of the erosion of values and digitalisation killing literary and intellectual pursuits. Identifiable by their uniforms – white shirts and navy blue trousers for the boys, white shalwar-kameez with navy blue dopattas for the girls, the white in each case carrying the multi-coloured school logo – I spotted them listening intently to Sandip Roy, Mahesh Rao and myself discuss short stories with the Nepalese journalist Bikash Sangruala. Mahesh’s likening of short stories to flings and novels to long-term relationships was exemplified the former pair’s irrepressible wit and verve that entertained a largely young audience shaking off sleep. I later learnt that students of some of the other established schools had joined those from Scholastica, their civilian clothing allowing them to blend into the crowds thronging sessions on Palestine, Cuba, translation, feminism and the minor languages of Bangladesh.
Jon Snow, Kunal Basu and Zafar Sobhan were especially generous with their time when approached by the young minds in between sessions. The latter is the editor of Dhaka Tribune, a formidable English-language daily that was the festival’s title sponsor. En route to a session, I stopped by their stall to see what they were doing. Rumana Habib oversaw a warm, spirited and accessible team. Their planned activities included a poetry booth – a highbrow version of the carnival kissing-booth – and several workshops. This hands-on involvement with the festival was a refreshing change from the elitist approach adopted by Dhaka Tribune’s predecessor, The Daily Star. In an effort to live up to the high journalistic standards set by its British tabloid namesake, its coverage of this significant event in a country where freedoms and the space to exercise them were ever-shrinking was reminiscent of the government’s approach to said freedoms: denial, rejection and refusal. I was amused to see the supposedly most widely circulated English-language newspaper displaying the pettiness of a Hindi soap opera villain while its successor showed why it had been left at the altar for the other.
There had been an air of elitism and nepotism about the festival in its previous, imperialist form, which was absent in the reborn version. While the director past walked with a permanent spotlight hanging above, the directors present opted for bringing Bangladesh to the world over self-promotion. The Wasafiri special issue on Bangladesh, brought into focus in the warm early-winter afternoon of the second day, epitomised this. The only independent nation to emerge from Bengal, the crown jewel of British India and the region most coveted by the kings that preceded it, has failed to live up to the heady heights of its cultural heritage. Those within the country, spurred on by false senses of patriotism or nationalism and delusional pride, cling to that heritage with the zeal of a convert. They have not provided those without with a reason to have faith. Bangladesh remains absent in global conversations because the wealth of its Bengali literature has not been translated and its sparse English literature has not been communicated to the world. The Wasafiri issue is a step towards rectifying decades of negligence on part of the self-appointed gatekeepers and doyens of Bangladeshi culture. In that regard, it was a personification of the festival.
I carried this optimism into the final day. Conscious of its impending end, the festival paraded its greatest hits. Jon Snow charting his life and its intersection with key moments of contemporary history was a delectable breakfast, Nayantara Sahgal’s liberalism and activism a luscious lunch that came with a dessert course comprised of lively discussions about London and Kolkata. Tea came in the shape of cricket, the passionate nation’s favourite sport, and science with Harold Varmus. I satiated my palate, having already enjoyed my personal highlight the day before. I had spent an hour and some change in the company of Jon Snow. What was supposed to have been an interview became one of the most inspirational, enlightening and awe-inspiring experiences of my life. The wisdom he had imparted with deft articulation was admirable, but being in his presence had reminded me of what it really meant to be human, and that was invaluable. As twilight approached on the last day, a travelling troupe of performers whose bus had broken down, delaying their arrival at the festival by a quarter of a day, gave a mesmeric folk-drama rendition in the Lawn that was painfully beautiful. They had not eaten since breakfasting at dawn, and the rural-dwellers were in the cultural heartland of the classist urban capital, but their discomfort was absent as they entered a trance and exploded onto the stage.
I slipped away to the Main Stage, to hear the closing remarks of Professor Emeritus Anisuzzaman. His name, like those of many others celebrated at the festival, was on the various hit lists released by the fundamentalists, and he had received death threats in the days leading up to it. His speech was one of defiance and endurance, one of the need for Bangladesh to converse with the world through its literature, one of what it can mean to be a Bangladeshi. I stepped out into the Dhaka dusk, the spell cast by his powerful words reverberating within me defining the festival. I saw a rush to the exit as rumours about the hangings of the war criminals and the response of the fundamentalists in their aftermath abound. Dhaka Literary Festival had ended, but it was not over. A microcosm of the nation that was birthed by indubitable hope and, despite being pushed towards becoming a failed state, remained full of promise and indomitably hopeful, it was necessary. A country that would not have been born had it not been for words now sees people killed because of them. Although the millions who were Charlie Hebdo value brown lives less, there is a home-grown platform of thoughts and ideas that demands the world take notice of Bangladesh, and demands Bangladesh fight for its soul.
BY IKHTISAD AHMED
Ikhtisad Ahmed is a human rights lawyer turned humanist and absurdist writer from Bangladesh. His writing credits include the socio-political poetry collections “Cryptic Verses” and “Requiem”, and short story collection dealing with similar themes, “Yours, Etcetera”. Twitter: @ikhtisad