At the Karachi Literature Festival

Selma Dabbagh

Like weddings and funerals, literature festivals often include a scandal. As the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) was about to get underway last month, the Feminist Collective, a leftist group in Pakistan, criticised the invitation of one of the writers sponsored by Germany’s Goethe-Institut. Her politics, they said in an open letter, drawing on her social media posts and statements, were anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic. Speakers privately warned the Goethe-Institut about the growing controversy. ‘It would actually have been physically unsafe for her to be present at the panels,’ one Pakistani writer told me afterwards. The English chair and some other co-panellists were also not happy to share a stage with the German writer, leading to the withdrawal of her invitation by the KLF.

I had been invited to give one of the festival’s keynote speeches, but wasn’t aware of any of this as I sat on the stage about to give my talk. I had a view of the back of the German consul general while he listed – at great length – the disinvited writer’s accomplishments. He wasn’t the only diplomat on stage: there were also the American and French consuls and an official from the British High Commission. I went ahead with my speech that implicated Western governments in crimes against the Palestinian people. How does one speak, as a Palestinian writer, at a time of genocide? To stand in front of an audience at such a time, I said, felt like standing in a pool of blood in kidskin shoes.

The previous day the Israeli army had targeted the Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis and ordered the three thousand residents sheltering there to leave. ‘Evacuate, you animals,’ were the words used, according to videos on social media. The head of plastic surgery, as reported by al-Jazeera, described a trap:

[The Israeli army] sent a hostage with cuffed hands into the hospital asking him to tell us that we should evacuate. And when people started really evacuating, they opened fire, and they shot at the people, and they killed the hostage as well.

I didn’t feel entitled to vent my anger, when people under attack in Gaza were giving the most measured and polite of interviews, despite their fear, fatigue and hunger. References in my speech to the case brought by South Africa at the International Court of Justice, and a salute to those ‘exceptional exceptions’ in Israel who are speaking up against the genocide, both raised a cheer from the audience.

Afterwards, at the festival dinner, I was sitting with a friend who lives in Karachi. Neither of us were comfortable with the German writer being unable to speak, but we also appreciated the discomfort of others at being associated with her in that climate. Those who support the cultural boycott of Israel, as I do, are restricted from being on a platform funded by the Israeli government, but this does not prohibit whom I speak to, or with. My friend and I were surprised to see the disinvited writer turn up at dinner to challenge the woman who had declined to be her chair. She did not speak at the KLF nor, out of solidarity with her, did the other writer sponsored by the Goethe-Institut. My friend got the giggles at the difference between who the Germans had invited and the British Council inviting me. ‘I don’t think they’ll do it again,’ I said.

A young woman hugged me and said she wanted to cry every time she ran into me (normally in the bathroom, for some reason) and her friend wrote me a six-page letter, with extracts of Urdu poetry, explaining the depth of her feeling for the people of Palestine. A chorus of children sang for Palestine in the closing ceremony, and solidarity among the peoples of the Global South was asserted – not triumphantly, I would say, but asserted nonetheless.

The support for Palestinians among ordinary people in Pakistan is genuine, palpable and widespread. Audience members asked what they could do with the outrage they feel when they watch images of slaughter and starvation. They described their sense of isolation and distress when watching these clips on social media on their phones. M.A. Jinnah Road (formerly Bandar Road), lined with crumbling colonial-era architecture and packed with lawyers’ offices, was festooned with Palestinian flags, especially near the mosques, strung up between the banners of the parties that had run in the recent elections. In Pakistan, two things get stolen, a man joked at the Sind Club: lighters and elections.

For anyone studying how post-colonial regimes re-enact colonial legacies, the Sind Club is the place to be, but even there, among the elite, which is where travelling writers normally end up when visiting for a festival, there was disgust at Israel’s actions and support for the Palestinians. ‘What the hell is going on?’ I was asked. ‘What is this horror the Americans and Israelis are trying to get us to accept? They’ve gone too far. It is going to end badly for them. We need international law and to boycott. It has to stop.’

When I asked some journalists and academics about the possibility of Pakistan supporting the South African case at the ICJ through a legal submission, the response was one of regret. It was mainly a question of numbers. The Saudis, whom the Pakistani government defers to in matters relating to the Middle East, have $3 billion deposited in the State Bank of Pakistan. These foreign currency reserves enable Pakistan to obtain loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and neither the Saudis nor the Americans are likely to encourage support for the South African case.

Still, along with other non-Arab Muslim states such as Bangladesh and Indonesia, Pakistan refuses to normalise relations with Israel until there is an independent Palestinian state. And it is among the overwhelming majority of nations that voted for an immediate ceasefire and supports Palestinian rights at the UN General Assembly.