Most Pakistanis don’t think the country has actual problems, but “image” problems. The country’s fine and dandy. It’s just the bloody pictures of mass graves, bomb blasts, and weekly strikes that make it difficult for cricket teams, musicians and artists to visit this place. The Karachi Literature Festival, held this past weekend for the sixth time this year, partly tries to fix that image problem. (A New York Review of Books blog on the Lahore Literature Festival was titled “A Different Pakistan”. One of the panels at the KLF was called “Can ‘creative’ Pakistan undo ‘unstable’ Pakistan?”)

Thousands annually descend on the halls and grounds of the Beach Luxury Hotel, right on the water in an older part of the city, to hear Pakistan’s eminent literary and artistic voices talk about this and that. Inescapably, “this” is always Pakistan’s current predicaments, and “that” is always the steps that led us to this.

While better known personalities have attended the KLF in the past, William Dalrymple, Shobhaa De, Karen Armstrong to name a few, the participant profile list generally tends to be constant. Regulars are Kamila Shamsie, Mohammad Hanif, HM Naqvi, Bina Shah, Bilal Tanweer, all authors; Arif Hasan, a Karachi-based architect; Asma Jahangir, the former president of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan; Pervez Hoodbhoy, a scientist and commentator; a few representatives of European and American missions that pump a lot of money into the festival every year; retired bureaucrats; a handful of foreign academics; and a healthy contingent of Indian artists, writers and film makers.

Not-quite celebs

This time round, politicians Aitzaz Ahsan, Syeda Abida Hussain and Sherry Rehman also attended. While many are well-known public figures, “celebrity” is perhaps a strong word to use. (Model and actress Aamina Sheikh was escorted from stage to her car by a human chain of 16-year-old interns in colored pants and rolled-up sleeves.)

Many of those who attend, as participants or panelists, are increasingly rare to find outside Beach Luxury: liberals. Most of them are above 50, and engage in a tedious nostalgia for an age when embassy walls in Pakistan weren’t as high and laced with razor wire, alcohol ran freely, and tourists used to take camel rides on Karachi’s beaches. On a panel called “TV [Pakistan’s Doordarshan] and today’s drama” veteran screenwriters collectively lamented the commercialism of today, and the scramble for ratings, in contrast to “back in the day” when the screenwriters’ intentions were pure and noble. These liberals wear muffler hats and suspenders and saris. They call people “chaps” and have accents as expired as the era they talk about.

Within the hotel’s comfortable halls called Jasmine and Aquarius, they lament the plight of religious minorities, the blasphemy law, the persecution of the Baloch, Ahmedis, Shias, women. They complain about Arab princes shooting endangered Pakistani birds, and extremist mullahs like Abdul Aziz and Hafiz Saeed getting patronage from the state. But the centerpiece of their collective lamentation is always Zia-ul Haq, the late dictator widely credited for “Islamizing” Pakistan. “And then came Zia”, “If Zia hadn’t done that”, “we’re still reeling from that Zia period” – the collective catharsis is palpable.

There's Zia, again

These conversations sneak in most panels, regardless of the subject. When Osman Samiuddin was discussing his new book on the history of Pakistan cricket, Inzamam's Islamisation project in the cricket team was discussed. A new biography of the late Benazir Bhutto inevitably alluded to her difficulties with the military; veteran journalist Najam Sethi recounted his days incarcerated with Baloch leaders in the ’70s. It is also entirely understandable; a media as heavily monitored as Pakistan’s doesn’t allow for the aforementioned subjects or opinions to be aired, and both the mosque and military’s role in shaping Pakistan’s trajectory is central to understanding this country.

But it does get repetitive. Perhaps most demonstrative of that was the session with Mohammad Hanif, who has perhaps been the loudest (and funniest) of voices digging into the state. His interviewer read out the same speech that was read out at last year’s KLF, which itself was read out by Mohammad Hanif himself the year before, and republished. That heavy sense of déjà vu hung over the event throughout.

Apart from the “soft image” cliché, another frame the festival gets boxed in is one of “defiance” of the Taliban. It says a lot about the way the country is viewed that when normal people do normal things in public, like voicing opinions and publishing books, it almost inevitably is thought be done as an act of defiance. It didn’t feel like much was being defied at KLF. In fact, another cliché came to mind: trees falling in an empty forest.