Pakistan is regarded as the posterchild of global terrorism woes in the post-9/11 world. The name itself conjures up images of bomb blasts, riots, and frenzied mobs. Mohsin Hamid, prolific Man Booker shortlisted writer, succinctly describes Pakistan’s place in the world as follows: “Pakistan plays a recurring role as villain in the horror sub-industry within the news business.”
Pakistan’s depiction in the media is not completely misleading; however, the general viewpoint is definitely partisan and catastrophized. While the terror attacks and political turmoil are ground realities, they are certainly not what defines the country. Pakistan is a vibrant cultural hybrid of different ethnicities, religions, and traditions, with a variegated past. Pakistanis are vivacious, zesty people with an obsession for cricket and penchant for celebrating festivals with great aplomb. As more than half of the population comprises of youth, they form the crux of the cultural tapestry of Pakistan. Recently, there has been an influx of government-assisted and youth-driven initiatives to propel the country forward towards meeting its citizens’ educational and cultural needs. I’ll be spotlighting a few of these endeavors.
T2F – The Second Floor
Image via T2F Official Facebook page
The Second Floor has become the precursor of institutions reinvigorating the cultural landscape of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and economic hub. It is a community space for discourse and active dialogue featuring a discount bookshop and a cafe. The Second Floor, commonly known as T2F, has carved a niche for itself by regularly hosting poetry readings and meetups with writers. It also frequently organizes talks, debates, and film screenings. It has given a platform to up-and-coming artists by putting on theatre performances, open mic nights, jam sessions, and standup comedy performances to showcase the otherwise undiscovered talent. It regularly holds off-beat public events such as Art Bazaar, writer meetups, and pop-up shops to extend its reach to an even wider audience, and instill a passion for arts and culture in the general public.
Chai, Kaafee aur Siasat (pictured at the top of this article), is a popular community forum in the vibrant city of Lahore. The name literally means ‘Tea, Coffee and Politics,’ but don’t worry, you won’t find squabbling middle-aged men here. The environment is one which encourages interactive talks on significant, serious, and also comical contemporary issues. It caters to everyone but is most focused towards attracting young people, which is apparent in the eclectic, spunky setting. It features a bookshop and an in-house reading selection for those who want to loll around for a bit.
British Council Libraries
Image via Rabeea Arif/British Council
British Council has been a major force in galvanizing Pakistan’s literary advancement. The British academic system is prevalent in Pakistan, with a massive majority of the middle and upper class opting to do O/A Levels (entry qualification exams for universities in the United Kingdom and worldwide). These tests, which are affiliated with the Cambridge system, are organized two times a year by the British Council worldwide. British Council have headquarters in the major cities of Pakistan and offer various educational services, career consulting, teacher training courses, and vocational training facilities.
British Council Libraries used to be a staple for readers in the country but were closed down following the 9/11 attacks. This year, British Council has re-opened its libraries in Lahore and Karachi, much to the delight of the general public. The revamped, state-of-the-art libraries feature cafes and open spaces for musical events and reading sessions. They also have meeting rooms named after local and international literary giants including the prolific poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, artist Sadequain, and writers Roald Dahl and the Brontë sisters.
The library in Karachi houses a snazzy digital table, providing access to numerous academic e-journals, magazines, and e-books. Librarians are available to guide readers, but digi-counters allow patrons to order and return books themselves. In short, it’s a readers’ haven and a welcome addition to the literary landscape of the country.
Saeed Book Bank
Image via Danial Shah
Saeed Book Bank is a sprawling bookstore in Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan, and is a labor of love of Saeed Jan Qureshi, who died last year. Its 42,000 square feet of floor space spreads over three stories, displays 200,000 titles, and stocks more than four million books in its five warehouses. Saeed Book Bank is one of the biggest bookstores in the world and the largest in South Asia.
Qureshi’s legacy is carried forward by his son who shares his father’s passion for books. You can get almost any new English or Urdu book under the sun here—anything from Chomsky, to Dawkins, to the latest Stephen King. Besides the bevy of local readers that throng the store, Saeed Book Bank is also a regular haunt of the diplomats and aid workers who form a major part of the capital city’s population.
If you had any doubts about the prevailing Pottermania in Pakistan, see the above photo of the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child launch party back in August, which took place in a shopping mall in Karachi. Legions of fans flocked to the launch party where they dressed up like their favorite Potter characters, took photos at the special themed photo booths and bought copies of the books.
Now Potterheads, like me, can rejoice that we also have our very own snazzy Hogwarts Cafe which opened some time back in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. It’s the brainchild of Ouj e Zahoor and Emad ur Rahman, who, like hundreds of other millennials of Pakistan, grew up on the Harry Potter books. This cafe offers the usual paraphernalia – wizard hats, wands, and even Felix Felicis and Butterbeer. The walls are covered with excerpts from the books, and there is a Nimbus 2000 on display. With floating candles, Timeturners and dishes from Cho Chang’s kitchen, it’s a dream come true for Potter fans wishing to indulge their inner wizards.