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A flowering in Sukkur

What sight or experience would cheer you up in this overall environment of gloom and apprehension? What can engage you for long enough to inspire a measure of hope in your general outlook about the future?

Given the global and the domestic state of affairs, such an upbeat distraction would be hard to come by. Israel’s war in Gaza has continuously been unbearable. With a great sense of urgency, we are watching history being made.

Yes, we had a few fairy tales in the magical realm of cricket. The World Cup has kept us mentally and emotionally occupied. But New Zealand’s easy win against Sri Lanka on Thursday has literally pushed us out of the game. We feel heartbroken.

So, what is there to, in a sense, write home about? Well, I have made this somewhat rhetorical beginning to share some aspects of what I experienced two weeks ago. And it happened in the unlikely environs of Sukkur, the historic city of northern Sindh. It was the two-day Pakistan Literature Festival, organized by the Pakistan Arts Council, Karachi.

Since the media has already covered the proceedings of the Sukkur festival and has portrayed its astounding success, I am not intending this to be reportage. What I am trying to say is that it was an exceptional experience. My wife Sadiqa and I had a great time on the sidelines, meeting so many distinguished writers and intellectuals of the region. There was this adrenaline rush that cannot be summed up.

However, apart from what we experienced at the personal level, there is something in particular that I want to highlight. Because the festival was held within the premises of the IBA University Sukkur, a venue that is truly the pride of the city, the focus was specifically on the youth. Their presence was overwhelming, not just in numbers but also in some other crucial ways. This was in consonance with the slogan of the festival: “youth is the only way forward”.

Now, you may be justified in posing the question as to what was so unusual about young people being there in large numbers on a campus? Let me try to explain. I will restrict my reference to the enormous congregations that attended the mushaira and the concert. The musical performance had created an excitement that the city of Sukkur would long talk about.

Actually, it was the presence of young women in full force that left me in a state of awe and wonder. They all seemed to be teenagers, gathered in an unmarked enclosure. I could see that they felt confident and safe in that vast, packed cricket ground. Could I imagine a similar participation of girls on the campus of the University of Karachi? Is this a manifestation of some kind of a social change that is taking place in some parts of this province, without the awareness of many of us?

In fact, the steady emancipation of women in Sindh was also the subject of some discussions. Girls are leaving the boys behind, it was argued by a number of panelists. What does this signify? Or is this just an aberration that does not reflect a national trend?

At this point, I need to point out that I have always been very disappointed with the levels of knowledge and understanding of the educated youth I encounter on our campuses. For that matter, what I am applauding about the girl students I saw in Sukkur is not their quality of intellect, which I have no way to judge. But it is their freedom and their courage that will ultimately strengthen this country and retrieve it from the dark ages in which it repeatedly tends to regress.

I am not invoking this thought about the dark ages being at the gate merely as a metaphor. This is a real threat – and our rulers are either not able to comprehend the situation or feel powerless to counter the forces of ignorance and bigotry. The recent surge in acts of terrorism and attacks on our security personnel show what our policies of the past have reaped. Yet, there is no evidence of a resolve to protect our youth and our society from the forces of darkness.

Sadly, the image I have retained from my participation in the Sukkur festival is starkly violated by an incident that was reported from Bannu. The details are well known but I shudder to even think about that act of infamy. One should be sorry for being a citizen of a country where something like this can happen in the presence of local officials.

The video is on social media. In the presence of clerics, an assistant professor of biology in the Government Post Graduate College, Bannu, apologizes for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. He reads a statement proclaiming that he considers all scientific views such as Darwin’s theory as false.

Apparently, the teacher’s humiliation was prompted by his support for the liberation of women. He had organized a seminar on women’s rights in Islam and the constitution. In his forced confession, he also had to declare that he believed in women’s inferiority to men.

It is easy to see who is stronger in Pakistan at this time: the clerics who chastised a biology teacher in Bannu or the girls who felt liberated for at least those evenings in Sukkur. But who stands in judgment and in power in this country to chart its path to progress?

I may be excused for being really confused about what I can celebrate and what makes me lose my hope for the future of my country. Still, the movement for cultural activism and for the emancipation of women that is represented by a literary festival is a welcome antidote to the radicalization of our youth at the behest of those who profess extremism and intolerance.

Ah, but what does education actually mean if it cannot promote dialogue and reason?

Ghazi Salahuddin, "A flowering in Sukkur," The News. 2023-11-12.
Keywords: Social sciences , Literature festival , Civil society , Culture , Terrorism , New Zealand , Sri Lanka , IBA