Islamabad. November 2019. I am standing at the immigration desk of the Islamabad International Airport, trying to explain to the Pakistani immigration officer my reason for visiting the South Asian country. He also wanted to know why I had to go all the way from Lagos to London then Dubai before coming to his country. Satisfied with my explanations, the happy looking burly officer gingerly stamped my passport and waved me off with a cheery ‘Welcome to Pakistan’.
As I waited to collect my baggage, my mind went to my brief encounter with the Immigration Officer especially his concern about my itinerary. It was the same question I had been asked when I applied for a Pakistani visa in Abuja. It was also the same question when I wanted to board my Emirates flights in Lagos, London and Dubai. Even though I had decided on my itinerary in order to accommodate a private visit to the UK before going to Pakistan, I did not realise that I had inadvertently put myself under a suspicious radar by that decision.
‘’Pakistan is currently fighting a twin problem of drug trafficking and terrorism. That is why travelers with multiple stop-overs are usually put under extra scrutiny’’ one of my Pakistani hosts later explained to me.
Outside the airport, I had to button up my jacket as the chilly 10 -degree Celsius weather hit me like a cold brickbat. “November is still a good time to visit Pakistan. Our coldest month is January when the weather could go as low as 2.6-degrees Celsius’’ my guide who had come to pick me up at the airport said. As I was driven from the airport in the early hours of the morning, I admired the beautiful and sleepy city which was said to have been built as a planned city in the 1960s to replace Karachi as Pakistan’s capital city.
Pakistan, officially the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, came into being following the partition of British India into the countries of India and Pakistan on August 14 1947. After this partition, the north-eastern and north-western flanks of the country, made up of Muslim majorities, became Pakistan. The rest of the country, predominantly Hindu, but also with large religious minorities peppered throughout, became India. It is the world’s fifth-most populous country with a population exceeding 212.2 million. By area, it is the 33rd-largest country, spanning 881,913 square kilometers (340,509 square miles).
Even though it took place more than 70 years ago, the partitioning has left some deep- rooted resentments between India and Pakistan. Fortunately, there have been numerous attempts to improve the relationship. However, despite those efforts, relations between the countries have remained fraught, following repeated acts of cross-border terrorism. According to a 2017 BBC World Service poll, only 5% of Indians view Pakistan’s influence positively, with 85% expressing a negative view, while 11% of Pakistanis view India’s influence positively, with 62% expressing a negative view.
I had come to Pakistan to attend the annual International Writers Conference of the Writers Union of Africa, Asia and Latin America. In addition, I had also been invited by the Pakistan National Council of the Arts and Hunerkada to attend the 2019 Islamabad Arts and Book Festival also holding in the Pakistani capital about the same time. While I was to present a report in my capacity as the Deputy Secretary General of the Writers Union during the conference, I had also come to Islamabad with copies of my novels for presentation at the Book Fair.
About an hour after my arrival in Islamabad, I arrived my hotel, Embessidor Hotel located at Sector G- 5 of the city where I was heartily received by my hosts and other conference delegates who had arrived ahead of me. It was nice seeing my fellow writers again after our last conference which took place in Rabat, Morocco in January 2019. Some of the writers who had already arrived at the hotel included delegates from Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan, Vietnam, as well as Jordan. I also saw some new faces such as Bui Viet Thang from Vietnam, Said Salgawi from Oman as well as Toy Ting from Thailand.
On hand to receive all of us was our chief host, the ebullient Pakistani poet and book seller, Imdad Aakash who is also the Secretary General of the Pakistani Writers Union. As usual, our indefatigable Secretary, Randa Barakat as well as our amiable and energetic President, Cherif El Shoubashy had been on ground, days before the meeting to put things in order.
The agenda for the tricontinental meeting which would be the first one in an Asian country in more than three years consisted of; Plenary sessions, Poetry readings, A Round table discussion on the conference theme, Launching of the new edition of Lotus magazine as well as the 2019 Islamabad Book fair. Also included in our itinerary was a visit to Gandhara Archaeology sites and Museum in the nearby town of Taxila, Dinners, a Cultural event and the Closing ceremony.
As listed on our agenda, the whole of the first day of the Conference which took place at Aiwan E Sir Syed district of Islamabad was devoted mainly to plenary sessions which centered on the conference theme; The Role of Culture and Literature in Confronting Terrorism. A major highlight of the 3-day conference was the presentation of the new edition of LOTUS, the official journal of the Union. The LOTUS, a trilingual quarterly journal which was first issued in 1968 in English, Arabic and French, apart from being a forum for literary interchange between postcolonial Third World intellectuals, also has a prize attached to it. ‘The Lotus Prize’ as the prize is called, has been awarded in the past to such writers as Chinua Achebe, Mahmoud Darwish, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Alex La Guma, Ghassan Kanafani, Agostinho Neto, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Kateb Yacine, many of whom had been involved in the Union’s activities or whose work had previously appeared in the journal.
Unfortunately, the journal went into oblivion for some years due to lack of funding. It was not until the winter of 2016 that it was revived while another issue was published in the winter of 2017. The Vol 3 and 2018 Winter edition was distributed to delegates at the Morocco conference. Some delegates used the opportunity of the meeting to submit contributions for the next edition of the journal. I also had the honor of submitting a contribution from Prof. Wole Soyinka. The Nobel Laureate who had been requested to contribute to the journal had asked me to submit an excerpt from his latest publication INTERVENTIONS for inclusion in the next edition of the journal.
A dinner in honor of the delegates took place later in the evening in the house of one of the Pakistani writers, Wasif Arshad and his wife at E-11 sector of Islamabad. After the delicious dinner, a poetry reading session took place in the same venue before we all retired for the night.
On the second day of the conference, we all headed to the Gandhara Archaeology Site and Museum at Taxila for sightseeing. Taxila “City of Cut Stone” is a significant archaeological site about 32 km (20 mi) north-west of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. It is situated at an altitude of 512m above sea level. In 1980, Taxila was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2006 it was ranked as the top tourist destination in Pakistan by The Guardian newspaper, London. On hand to welcome us to the Museum was the curator, Abdul Nasir.
The archaeological museum at Taxila is a real treasure-house. The ivy-covered, Gothic-style museum is in a picturesque garden. Exploring Taxila is a multi-dimensional experience. I was attracted by the richness and variety of the famed Gandhara sculpture which are endless images of Buddha, in stone and stucco, and numerous panels depicting all the important stages of the great sage’s life. In addition, exquisitely sculpted friezes and statues of all sizes evoke the life and times of one of the worlds’ most impressive men of peace: Gautama Buddha. Each carved bit of sculpture, from the colossal to the miniature —- and there are literally thousands of them – is a collector’s item.
At Taxila, I came face to face with the great Buddha where he loomed over me, larger than life. With his serene eyes gazing at me, I was gripped by a feeling of awe. I also met other famous names, such as Alexander of Macedonia, Asoka the famous Buddhist king as well as the Emperor Kanishka. Their imprints were all over the cavernous Taxila museum which was filled to the brim with tourists on that cold November morning.
From the museum, we moved to the grave of one of Pakistani’s most revered poets, Gosh Malihabadi. Born as Shabbir Hasan Khan (5 December 1898 – 22 February 1982) Malihabadi who is popularly known as Shayar-e-Inqalab (poet of revolution) is regarded as one of the finest Urdu poets of the era of British India. Gosh always challenged the established order and stood for liberal values. He was loud, brave and never compromised on principles. He wrote over 100,000 beautiful couplets and more than 1,000 rubaiyat in his lifetime. His autobiography “Yaadon ki Barat” is considered one of the best so far in Urdu as it is written in frank and candid manner. Malihabadi was an Indian citizen until 1956, when he emigrated to Pakistan and became a Pakistani citizen. Some of his works were translated to English like The Unity of Mankind elegies by Josh Malihabadi by Syed Akbar Pasha Tirmizi who was a Pakistani citizen and a high court advocate.
Also visited was the Pakistani Academy of Letters (PAL), an autonomous organization with its main focus on Pakistani literature and related fields. It is the largest and the most prestigious learned society of its kind in Pakistan, with activities throughout the nation focusing mainly on Pakistani Literature and related fields. It was established by a group of renowned Pakistani writers, poets, essayists, playwrights, and translators under the leadership of the then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhuto on July 7, 1976. The Academy gives annual awards for the best original books written in all the major languages of Pakistan. In addition, the Academy also nominates Fellows, and more restrictively some Life Fellows, who earn the privilege of using the post-nominal letters FPAL. The Fellowship of the Academy is highly selective, indicating high distinction in the respective field, and is only awarded to those who are recognized to have contributed extraordinary work to enrich the creation and understanding of Pakistani literature.
I had always been a fan of Indian and by extension, Pakistani cuisine because of its”highly seasoned” and “spicy” nature. I was therefore looking forward to a hearty and enjoyable meal as we headed for Lunch at the Taxila restaurant around mid- afternoon. I was glad that I settled for the Chicken-Masala and Rice dish. Apart from the fact that the rice was fluffy and sizzling hot, the chicken was very succulent and well- seasoned with the spicy masala soup that practically melted on my tongue. The gustatory activity was so enjoyable that minutes after the other delegates had finished their meals, I was still working on the very delicious meal. It was only when I realized that I could be holding up the others that I reluctantly pushed away the plate.
Slightly drowsy from the delightful gastronomic exercise, I trudged along with the other delegates to the Sir Syed Memorial Building which housed the Islamabad Museum for the first ever Islamabad Art and Book Festival (IAF-19). According to the organizers, the 13- day festival was organized by a consortium of public and private educational institutions, art galleries and artist associations from across the country in collaboration with foreign embassies, with generous support from the corporate sector. The thematic focus of IAF-19 was ‘Dialogue between Tradition and Modernity’. Around 30,000 teachers and 300,000 pupils from the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi were said to have been indirectly involved in the event.
My group missed the event’s opening ceremony and so could not watch the performance of renowned Pakistani first Opera Singer Saira Peter among other celebrity appearances. Saira Peter is reputed to sing in various languages including Urdu, English, Persian, Latin and some regional languages of Pakistan. Despite the miss, I was still able to interact with other writers during the Poetry reading session which expectedly was in Arabic, English, French among others. I was also able to exhibit some of my books most of which I exchanged for other books at the Book Fair.
The usual tradition with the conferences of the Writers Union of Africa, Asia and Latin America was to make the closing ceremony a combination of a business meeting and stock taking exercise. In addition, the venue of the next meeting had to be confirmed. After intimating my fellow delegates of my desire to host the 2020 Conference in Nigeria, I also did a lot of lobbying among them during the three- day conference. Fortunately, my bid for the hosting was confirmed at the closing ceremony.
In our communique on the theme of the conference; Fighting Terrorism Through Arts And Literature, the Union observed that ‘Literature and Art have the ability to soothe the minds and to sow the seeds of love, tolerance and understanding between individuals and peoples. Therefore, writers and artists when given a congenial atmosphere to practice their trade as well as a modicum of support can be the ideal antidote against the specter of violence, extremism and terrorism that is currently ravaging many parts of the world’’
Our last formal dinner in Pakistan was courtesy of the Senator representing Islamabad Capital Territory on the platform of the Pakistan Muslim League at the Pakistani Senate, Senator Mushahid Husain Sayed. The amiable and suave 57- year old politician in our brief interaction informed me that he is a journalist by training as well as a published author. The Senator is the current Chairman, Senate Committee on Defence and Defence Production. And as we settled down to an exquisite 5 course dinner at the Islamabad Club where Senator Husain had hosted us, I could not but admire the posh and pleasant environment of the club which I was informed was exclusively patronized by the elite of Islamabad. The club which is comprised of the main club building, a golf course, swimming pool, tennis courts and an expansive parking lot is said to sit on over 346 acres in the vicinity of the Rawal Lake.
Even though I had enjoyed every bit of my stay in Islamabad, there was still something missing; I had not had a feel of the real Islamabad. Our crowded program had been so guided that our visits had been only to posh hotels and offices as well as high- brow residential areas. We did not have the opportunity to visit shops and markets, low income residential areas among other ‘natural’ Pakistani settings. Since it was already late in the day and in addition, I did not want to bother our hosts who had put in so much to make our trip a success, I decided to take my concern to Senator Husain. Fortunately, he agreed with me on the need to see part of the city. He quickly organized a vehicle to convey those of us who were interested in seeing the town to take us round.
Although Islamabad is said to give off the appearance of a ‘dull place, full of retired civil servants sipping tea in villas’ my small group of writers had a stunning late-night excursion of the picturesque, wide tree-linked streets and impressive city. Since it was already late, we could only see from afar the beautifully lit Faisal Mosque at the foothills of the Margalla hills. The mosque, which is said to be the fourth largest in the world, shone like a gem as the surrounding lights reflected magically on its vast marbled courtyard.
On our urging to go home with some souvenirs, our guide took us to the trendy Jinnah Super Market with its beautiful array of boutiques, book stores, jewelery shops, gift and handicraft stores. And so, for the next few minutes, we were lost in the midst of the cavernous interior of the semi- circular edifice as we bargained for leather handicrafts, saris and Pakistani shoes. Although Punjabi and Urdu are the main languages in Pakistan, many of the shop owners already used to international visitors spoke and understood English. We were still haggling in the Super Market when the rich and multilayered cadences of the Muezzins call for prayers rang out from the nearby minarets, bouncing off the surrounding Margalla hills to echo far into the sleepy streets of the enchanting and magical city.