It took Dr Altaf Qadir, a professor of history at the University of Peshawar, ten years to organise the first Peshawar Literature Festival. Dr Qadir has held research positions at universities in Germany and the United States and is the author of two books, one on Syed Ahmad Barelvi and the other on Haji Sahib of Turangzai. In a recent interview with The News on Sunday he spoke candidly about his idea of the PLF and his plans for its future. Excerpts:
The News on Sunday (TNS): How did you come up with the idea of launching a literature festival in Peshawar?
Dr Altaf Qadir (AQ): Ever since 2011, when regular literature festivals began in some parts of the country, I wanted to start one in Peshawar. However, at that time, the environment was not conducive to such activities. In 2014, I tried to persuade the Oxford University Press to help us organise a literary festival like Karachi. I failed. However, I didn’t lose hope. After returning from my fellowship in Germany, I met with Asif Riaz, the country director of the Dosti Welfare Organisation, who agreed to my plan. We organised the first edition of PLF in 2022. It was a three-day affair. This year, we extended it to five days. There were more than 60 sessions.
The provincial government’s department of tourism has been generous with help. They allowed us to schedule sessions at their halls, provided us with buses to transport our guests and allowed us to put up billboards to promote our cause.
TNS: Tell us more about the Dosti Welfare Organisation? Who are they and what do they do?
AQ: Dosti is a nonprofit organisation. It is dedicated primarily to the well-being of children through provision of education, safe drinking water and mother and child healthcare. The foundation is funded largely by its founder, a physician based in the United States.
Dosti has brought street children to activities like drawing and painting. Had the festival been held in a more upscale location, these children would not have been allowed entry. We are grateful for the effort they made for the festival.
TNS: Are there some specific reasons why the university was chosen as a venue?
AQ: Yes. We want to keep this event as public as possible. We don’t want to take it to some expensive hotel because not all our people will be comfortable there. A university is a place for everyone, and everyone feels at ease there. There are no security checks like those at hotels and there is no entry fee. We want even the children and the illiterate to join in. Everyone who worked for the PLF, a total of around 300 people, worked for free. There was no compensation. An event at a luxury hotel would be different.
TNS: Is the festival an attempt to present a soft image of Pashtuns?
AQ: We are not trying to project an airbrushed image of the Pashtuns; we are presenting ourselves the way we are, without any makeup. We want the world to accept us the way we are, just as we accept them, without any labels.
TNS: How would you compare the participants’ response this year and the last year?
We are not trying to project an airbrushed image of the Pashtuns; we are presenting ourselves the way we are, without any makeup.
AQ: Apparently, the PLF inspired many people. A few days ago, another festival was held at Serena Hotel. Some people have criticised it for its corporate sponsors but I believe they are doing good work. They have the resources needed to invite the celebrities. We, for our part, will invite the less well-known people.
TNS: There was a session at the PLF on the negative representation of Pashtuns. However, the politician who has been most vocal on the subject was not invited. Why?
AQ: We respect all our political leaders. They have their narratives, their platforms and their followers. We wanted to invite those who lack such following and platforms. We don’t want to celebrate the celebrities alone. We want to bring some of the less-known voices to the fore. We wanted scholars, poets and writers, not politicians or activists. We allowed students to host our sessions.
TNS: And yet, Afrasiab Khattak, a politician, was on a panel.
AQ: We don’t choose panellists based on their political affiliations; we choose them for their expertise. Sometimes they happen to be affiliated with a political or religious group. We don’t exclude them because of that, either.
TNS: Recently, a security guard shot and killed a professor of Islamia College. Earlier, there was a terrorist attack at the Police Lines. Were you not advised by the authorities to postpone or cancel the event due to security concerns?
AQ: No, the university administration has been very cooperative. They have banned unnecessary gatherings, but this festival was not seen as unnecessary.
TNS: No major publishers or booksellers set up a bookstall at the PLF. Why is that?
AQ: We had issued an open call to publishers and booksellers. They could have used the occasion to sell their books and there was no charge.
TNS: Do you plan to expand the festival and take it to other areas of the province?
AQ: Last year, the entire festival was held at a single department. This year, we had sessions at the Institute of Management Sciences, Benazir Bhutto Women’s University, and The Archives Library. We plan to have some PLF sessions in other parts of KP, possibly Swat and Bannu, next year. That will allow more people to benefit from those. Last year we were unable to record the proceeding. This year, we tried to record around 40 percent of the sessions. We plan to upload them online to make them available to the virtual audience around the world.
The author is pursuing a PhD in international relations. He can be reached at: nadeemkhankpk13gmail.com. He tweets nadeemkwrites