Celebrating the written word

First published @ dawn.com

DUBAI: I have always wondered whether writers who write proficiently could also speak that well. My curiosity was quelled when I got a chance to listen to Greg Mortensen give a talk at the Emirates Literature Festival earlier this month.

The co-author of the New York Times bestseller, Three Cups of Tea, Mortensen walked out to a thunderous ovation from a packed audience in traditional Pakistani garb, a shalwar kurta. Mortenson, who started building schools in the northern areas of Pakistan after a failed attempt at reaching the summit of K2, talked about how important it is to educate girls to bring about change in society. “You can drop bombs, build roads or put up electricity wires, but unless the girls are educated, a society won’t change,” he insisted.  Currently, the Central Asia Institute, Mortenson’s brainchild, has built and operates 178 schools in the rural and generally unstable areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Around 68,000 children are enrolled in the numerous schools and close to 54,000 are girls. In his talk Mortenson pointed out that the real fear of terrorists is not a bullet, but the pen, because education can empower people and give them courage.

Mortenson’s second book, Stones into Schools has been described by the New York Times as well as the Washington Post as a timely narrative, though not quite as compelling or as well-written as Three Cups of Tea. Coincidentally, I realised that his talk, although informative (and interspersed with self-deprecating humour), wasn’t quite as riveting as Three Cups, but then the book had been a hard act to follow, especially with David Oliver Relin’s expert wordplay.

Another attraction at the Literature Festival was a cooking demonstration by well-known Indian actress and food writer, Madhur Jaffrey. Even at 77 years of age, Jaffrey, a prolific writer, continues to come up with new recipes (as her latest effort‘Curry Easy’ showcases) and had the audience salivating at her ‘Bhuni jhinga’ and ‘Salmon in a Bengali mustard sauce’. An interesting tip that Jaffrey gave during her demonstration was that for an excellent tomato puree, one can simply grate a tomato with a grater.

After weaving through a throng of people waiting for book-signings by Madhur Jaffrey and Greg Mortenson, I found myself looking at the collection of books for sale at discounted prices at the Intercontinental Hotel (the venue for the festival). I picked up The Messenger – The Meanings of the Life of Muhammed by Tariq Ramadan, a professor at Oxford University, who is a renowned Islamic scholar and writer, and is originally from Switzerland. The first few pages of the book are beautifully written, with a depth and spirituality impossible to ignore. And when Tariq Ramadan spoke at the festival the following day, his talk was every bit as eloquent as his written word. An incredibly open-minded and often controversial Islamic scholar, Ramadan said that after reading his most recent book The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism, a French journalist asked him, ‘Are you still a Muslim?’ to which Ramadan quipped, ‘Your question speaks far more about yourself and how open-minded you are than it does about me.’ He also outlined the importance of intellectual humility and said that one must always be willing to learn from others and not have a tunnel-vision in one’s beliefs.

I also got a chance to listen to Isobel Coleman, senior fellow for US foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Coleman recently wrote ParadiseBeneath Her Feet – a book that talks about how women are transforming the Middle East. She revealed that over the last few decades, there has been a remarkable change in the role of women in the Arab society. In Saudi Arabia for instance, at one time, girls were not allowed to attend school. In 1962, in an agreement with the United States, the then king allowed females to get formal educated at school. Now, nearly half a century later, in the Kingdom, 63 per cent of all college graduates are women. Another remarkable fact she revealed was that a study by the Harvard Business Review found that women make up an increasingly high number of the most talented professionals, and that the ambition index of the women from UAE was much higher than that of the average female American professional. Coleman’s session was full of statistics and somewhat eye-opening, but the paltry attendance was a little disappointing.

When I scanned the list for a Pakistani author, I found that apart from Sadruddin Hashwani, chairman of the Hashoo Group, who spoke about his upcoming autobiography, Pakistan had no representation at the LitFest. One hopes that will change next year as the country is a burgeoning ground for extremely talented writers who have already made their mark at various international festivals.

The Festival hosted talks from many noteworthy writers such as Karen Armstrong, Lynn Truss, Michael Palin as well as many regional Arab writers, including Khalid Al Khamissi, Maha Gargash and Sara Al-Alewi. Workshops for children, and aspiring writers were also held. For a lot of booklovers (myself included), it felt like being a child in a candy store – you wanted buy all the books and attend all the talks too. But I don’t think attending more than three completely absorbing sessions in a day (the festival was over three days) is a very good idea, because by the end of a long day, I was exhausted (mentally and physically) as well as famished, and was indignantly wondering why the audience wasn’t offered Madhur Jaffrey’s (presumably scrumptious) stir-fried shrimps.