No Culture in Dubai? Come to Emirates Lit Fest. For Ben Okri.

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’ve been a bit starved for intellectual conversation in Dubai.

Since moving back here 7 months ago, I’ve been on the lookout for anything that can get me cerebrally turned on.  There are some great folks in the city, certainly, but most events in Dubai labelled as ‘cultural’ or ‘artistic’ attract the same type of footfall.  There are only so many vapid, self-involved people you can meet before you decide to give up and just stay in and watch re-runs of Friends.

All hope, however, is not lost. Lo and behold the Emirates Lit Fest!

Granted, I don’t think all the authors invited for it (and the list is rather long) are the cat’s pajamas but I’ll stop nitpicking long enough to rejoice that YES, THERE IS CULTURE IN DUBAI (…only when it is imported, but it’s a start).

Today was the 4th day of the festival.  The venue was crowded, lots of bookworms milling about, hoping to find a last-minute ticket to the Jeffrey Archer session, which was sold out soon after it went on sale. Thankfully, I didn’t even dream of wanting to attend that one.

What I was looking forward to was catching the talk and reading by Ben Okri, and oh, what a delight it was!  The man is a wonderful speaker: soft, thoughtful, and eloquent with words that seem to just glide into the ether and linger there for a while so you can savour them before digesting what they are trying to convey.

His bio is impressive: a Booker prize, novels, short-story/poetry collections, books of essays, even a comparison that denotes him the African counterpart of Marquez and Rushdie.  His demeanor, however, was absent of any grandeur and he spoke about some truly wonderful notions surrounding literature.  From five pages of notes that I was compulsively scribbling down, there are a plethora of things that really stuck with me.

Okri, Ben.jpg

On being called an ‘African’ writer, Okri shook his head and commented that a people and what they mean cannot be confined to simply one place. With literature, geography becomes transnational.  As a teenager, he would devour Plato while his father would often gesture around him with his hands and comment ‘We have our own Platos.’ (Isn’t that just the loveliest image/line?)

The African (and here I could easily insert Pakistani or South Asian, and it would make just as much sense) philosophy and way of seeing reality are in the air.  The spirit of a place and its people are not separate from the way in which we live our lives.  Thus, writers who write only of where they are from, or who are labelled as where they are from, pose a severe limitation to the scope of what is being written.  Where you are from is already implied in your writing as a default, there is no need to make a deliberate effort.

This particular idea really resonated with me.  It’s something we often debated in Bilal Tanweer’s workshops at LUMS, the concept of writing ‘ethnic lit’ and representing Pakistan. Making an effort gives you prose that is exoticizing and simply trying too hard, with long English descriptions of the simplest of things such as a paratha (“round, flat bread, fried to a rich golden brown”?) sounding like a justification or an over-explanation for what is normally just a part of your culture that you don’t think twice about. A paratha is a paratha.

Expanding on the burden of representing Africa in his writing, Okri used a great little analogy.  We do not find Shakespeare interesting because of his English-ness, we read him because of his humanity.  When you read a writer, think beyond their identity and their labels. To approach a piece of writing with a set prejudice in mind is to do it a great disservice.  “One of the most effective ways of overcoming prejudice is to write well.  Conflicts of the world would be so much easier to deal with if we just read each other.”

Okri also spoke at length about childhood.  He described that phase of time as an unusual way of seeing significance in insignificance, a teacher of openness. “If you want to know what a nation is like, look at how they treat their children.”  As we grow older, this is what we lose. It becomes difficult to see.

This reminded me a lot of what William Wordsworth puts forth in his poems (Tintern Abbey, and Ode to Intimations of Immortality).  He explores childhood as a time when our connection to nature is at its most pristine.  Equating Nature with the divine also implies that in childhood, our connection to that which is beyond us is unblemished.  Childhood is that idealized state in which a simple sight such as that of a rainbow can excite the mind in wondrous ways.  We lose that sense of awe and wonder as we grow older.  There was this beautiful moment in the Q&A after the talk when a young girl asked Okri, “What advice would you give to children about writing?”  He was flummoxed into silence fro a few minutes before thoughtfully responding, “Read.  Read as much and as often as you can. Write, of course, write but read because that comes first.” He paused to ponder before continuing on, “There are moments when Mom or Dad say something amazing. Remember them.” He settled back in his seat and the audience began to applaud.  He sat up again and interrupted the moderator to continue, with widened eyes and a feigned look of wonder, “You know that feeling when you see something or someone for the first time? Never lose that.”  Needless to say, the entire audience aww-ed and sighed in pleasure.

I also really liked what Okri had to say on ideas.  He likened an idea to a seed, it may be small but it contains the potential to be an oak tree. (A lot like Shariati’s idea of the 0 and the 1.) The logic of your idea pours out once you start writing and that is the best kind of writing, that which calls forth out of your soul.  A novel doesn’t just happen all at once.  “A novel visits you, in a glimpse.  Maybe it’s just a glimpse of a woman walking down the street, but what a woman and what a street!”

He described himself as an obsessive re-writer.  You cannot know, he said, if a sentence works unless you literally and with full consciousness go over every single word.  “The process is sickening.” It requires what Chekhov called the “coldness of the eye”, a sort of distancing yourself from your creation in order to critique it.  But this is far from easy.

Personally, I abhor going back to stuff I’ve written in order to edit or re-write.  What you write is like your baby, you;re protective of it, you’re halfway in love with it, and incredibly resistant to altering it in any way but it’s necessary.  Being secure as a writer is impossible. How can you be secure in a way of being that deals with the most intangible of things? As Okri put it, “Insecurity is a punishment from the gods for the effrontery you commit for wanting to create.”

How gorgeous is that line? Soak it in.

Needless to say, the session was exactly what my soul needed.  There are not a whole of other writers I’m particularly looking forward to meeting and hearing, but Ben Okri was definitely one of the highlights.  Here are a few bit from some of his poems:

We have broken the night.

The night yields in the rock.

Night leaps out from our hands.

The night has left the sky

As fire and power in our hands.

As a strong shape.

The world is ours at last.


We are as the gods dream.

Haven’t we broken the mountain

And shaped the world

In our own hands, to bend and crack

And change it into form and dream?


We have become more than we seem.


Not sure which poem this was from, but I loved this particular stanza.  Made me think of Karachi:

Our future.

Who can read it,

save the Gods.

But they are quiet now.

They are quiet



And this one:

I held you in the square

and felt the evening

re-order itself around

your smile.


I could keep gushing about Okri. So I’ll stop now and start reading the collection of his essays that I bought today, ‘A Time for New Dreams’. Indeed.


The Wedding Season Meat Market

I’ve always associated Karachi with weddings. Always. It’s probably because every time I’ve been in this city is for the sole reason of attending a specific wedding.

Apart from the past 3 years, I used to come often to Karachi, twice a year or more, sometimes to give orders for elaborate outfits to be worn at my brother’s or sister’s wedding, other times to come try those outfits on, and then of course to finally wear them on the big day. I used to love weddings, the ritual of dressing up and looking your ultimate best was one of my favorite, and each part of the process was dealt with painstakingly. From hair, makeup and mehndi-waalis to choosing songs for the playlist at weddings, and determining how the photography should be done, everything was important. All of that has changed.

A few years ago, I wanted to be in the spotlight, I wanted to be seen and admired and fawned over for my sense of style and my brilliant eye make-up. Now, I really cannot be bothered. I dress in what I already have, without being too picky, and I’ve abandoned my best friend, eye-liner, almost completely. Gone are the days of painfully applied smokey eyes and pouty lips; the look du jour that I am sporting is completely au natural. Very nude, very understated, with controlled smiles that never reach the eyes. Hidden is the look I am going for.

Matches are made at other people's weddings, not heaven.

Why the total one-eighty? A few years ago, at that excited stage of being 16-18 years old, I had a penchant for being seen and, ultimately, wanted. Now, at the ripe old age of 21, with graduation looming and repressed ambitions of studying more without being tied down, being seen and wanted are at the very bottom of my list. In fact, they don;t have a place on the list at all. I would prefer to look shabby and scholastic and be known as ‘that girl who wants to study more and work’ instead of looking like a million bucks and being known as ‘the girl who will make a great daughter-in-law let’s find her mother ASAP’. It’s a veritable buffet, and we’re all veal. Now, I’d much rather be a slice of unwanted salami. Perhaps it all sounds a little silly and people very well may counter my trite plan with a shake of their heads and mutter about how things happen when they’re meant to be. To them, I say indeed they do, but even fate can be tested and altered.

At all the weddings I’ve been to on this trip, I’ve been startled to see how trussed up all the girls are at these occasions. Long sweeping shiny clothes, perfectly blowdried hair and heavily caked on yet impeccable makeup, and of course fiercely red talons and high teetering heels. I look at them and I want to laugh, they’re like prizes on display, waiting for the highest bidder, and the most qualified son. They glide around the wedding halls and lawns, their dupattas swishing in bright colours, their eyes glinting like the decorative beads on their kameeses, hunting and preying and always, always watching. It’s all a little sad to me, but then I can’t say much, I was one of them before.

The Old, the New, and Karachi

So before I write anything else, I just want to know: how have I been getting over 50 hits a day this past week when I haven’t blogged anything new in over a week?? I am one of those obsessive bloggers who always checks site statistics before doing anything else and when I did that today, I was rather confounded. I do have the benefit of being able to view how readers come across my blog via Google but that only accounts for about 1/3 of the hits. Curious indeed. It seems my readership is growing ever so slowly. I is a proud blogger indeed 😀

So let’s see. I am in Karachi again; I haven’t been in this city in over 3 years and although quite a few things have changed, much has still remained the same. New buildings have sprouted up, there seems to be a designer boutique every few inches, and all these too-posh-for-my-oversized-trendy-sunglasses bistros and restaurants have emerged out of the ground, each boasting it’s own take on taste that’s unique. At the same time that faint trace of sea salt still hits my nostrils every time I go out, the wind picks up every time I get closer to the seaside no matter how scorching hot and sunny it may have been 10 feet away, and yes, I still hide my phone from view and tilt back in my seat every time a motorcyclist passes by my car window.

My visit here is of a different sort. Yes, I will be attending weddings (it’s summer, who DOESN’T attend weddings in Karachi at this time?!) but my main purpose is to get some work experience. I’m lucky enough to be getting that opportunity at a great company, and it’s really changed my view of who I’ve always thought I am. I knew there would be significant changes in me this year, but I didn’t for a second think they would happen in such a manner. A writer is how I’ve always identified myself, and I know that it never going to change. I am never going to put down my pen. But, now there’s this peculiar sense that perhaps I might actually be good at other things too which would also earn me a living. An occupation that thrills me in a different way than writing does, gives an other sort of fulfillment which makes me think that it might not be so bad to have a REAL job. Yes, I too can be corporate. But I always will be a writer.

I like it here. I thought I wouldn’t and that I would been like a visitor on vacation, which is kind of what I am. I’ve never lived here before, and only been here at stretches of time during the weddings of my brother and, later, my sister. But I don’t feel like an outsider. I remember that I used to love the chaat and juice from Flamingo, would salivate over the raja saab paan on Boat Basin, and wasn’t at all bad at bargaining over shoes of mysterious origins at Sunday bazaar. It feels right here, more upbeat than Dubai, more peaceful than Lahore. A good mix, I think. This city of constant evolution and change has that surrealistic feel of paused time for me. And I’ve never been more relieved to simply…stop…and be.