A yearning for spice

Claire Chambers relishes the exciting flavour of Pakistan at the Karachi Literature Festival

March 6, 2014

On my Pakistan International Airlines flight to Karachi, there’s no safety announcement, only a prayer. Parts of Pakistan are in the same travel insurance bracket as Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, so I need that prayer.

Ahead of my journey, I had been entertained by a drop-down menu of myriad food options on the PIA website, one of which was presumably aimed at my ethnic group – “bland meal”. This reminded me of the Goodness Gracious Me television sketch about “going for an English”, but I instead opted for the more appetising-sounding “Hindu vegetarian meal”.

In the event, the air hostess wants to give everyone chicken, but after much insistence that I don’t eat meat, I am grudgingly given my spinach and dhal followed by sweet tea and halva; the best aircraft food I’ve ever had. No hard feelings, PIA, even if the ubiqui-chicken does make a mockery of your website’s elaborate drop-down list.

On my journey from the airport to the Beach Luxury Hotel (whose tagline should be “there isn’t a beach and it’s not very luxurious”), I am dazzled by the usual visual stimulation and fascinated by the hoardings: “Only one Shariah-compliant credit card in Pakistan. It’s good to have a bank in line with my beliefs”, “Corruption is killing us. Bribery. Embzzlement [sic]. Help us fight it”, “Sooper Elaichi Cookies”.

There are graffiti everywhere – mostly in Urdu and in strictly demarcated areas – for the country’s political parties. The traffic jam and ugly flyovers seem almost organic as the eye takes in the people sprouting from the concrete: a woman running, her chador flapping; young men on mopeds; a tea stall.

I am at the Beach Luxury for the fifth Karachi Literature Festival, a wonderful, life- and art-affirming celebration of books, this year being held against the backdrop of the decision by the ruling Nawaz Sharif government to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban.

However, for Oxford University Press, the festival organiser, a more pressing concern is the crusade against book piracy, which involves an unfortunate man dressing up as a red book imprinted with the words, “Stop book piracy”, complete with a pirate hat and eyepatch. But books are expensive, people are poor, and in any case universities are embroiled in the same open access debate as they are in Euro-America. I can’t see this campaign succeeding any time soon.

The winner of the festival’s German Peace Prize is Akbar Ahmed’s The Thistle and the Drone and the runner-up is Babar Ayaz’s equally aptly titled What’s Wrong with Pakistan? Accepting the prize on Ahmed’s behalf, Syed Shafqat Ali Shah cites a resonant hadith: “The ink of a pen of a scholar is more sacred than the blood of a martyr.”

In the novel Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam, who spoke at 2013’s Karachi Literature Festival, a Pakistani woman who has moved to the UK thinks: “Compared with England, Pakistan is a poor and humble country but she aches for it, because to be thirsty is to crave a glass of simple water and no amount of rich buttermilk will do.”

Not so for British-born me. Instead, Pakistan is like a spicy Hindu vegetarian meal delighting my taste buds after the “blandness” of British food, or like the warm embrace of creamy, syrupy Indian tea compared with my usual unsweetened brew. I, too, ache for it.

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