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A New Front in the War on Terror

Posted on Feb 16, 2013
Zaheer Chauhan

The Dalai Lama at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

By Cherilyn Parsons

JAIPUR, INDIA—So into a bar walk a Palestinian-British novelist, a famous Jewish humorist and an Indian cricket star. On nearby barstools are an Academy Award-winning Pakistani filmmaker and a gay writer on psychology. Add a Bollywood celebrity, an Argentine dissident, the Dalai Lama and—what the hell—a few Bhutanese literary pioneers. Ready to break a brawl is a crusading Indian investigative journalist who has written one of the sexiest novels of all time. Of course there’s a guy from Google, helping to underwrite the scene.

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This is way too complicated for a bar joke and unfortunately, at least in the opinion of some of the writers, the scene wasn’t a bar. The Jaipur Literature Festival held from Jan. 24-28, 2013 at Diggi Palace, was alcoholically as dry as a bone. But it was extraordinarily rich in ideas, not to mention in chai, peddled by wallahs pouring milky sweet caffeine into clay cups, 20 rupees, madam.

There is a new front on the war against terrorism: the international literary festival. The Jaipur festival presented 260 authors, many from nations that are enemies more than drinking buddies—or are, as speaker Reza Aslan said about the United States toward Pakistan, in “incredibly schizophrenic” relationships. The authors spoke to 130,000 attendees, about half local Rajasthanis (Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan state), a quarter from greater India, and the rest from the wider world, as estimated by co-director and author William Dalrymple. There was no brawl, other than one perceived insult over caste that was quickly forgiven. For five sunny days, people came together for a remarkable single purpose, to share ideas, listen and delve into the written word across national, religious and cultural borders.

International literary festivals are mushrooming around the globe. In imitation of Jaipur, which is now in its sixth year, 30 fairs have started throughout India alone. Other festivals have launched in Rangoon (last week saw the first Irrawaddy Literary Festival), Lahore (in late February 2013) and Dhaka. These new gatherings add to the well-established festivals in Edinburgh, Hay-on-Wye (Wales), Vancouver, Guadalajara, Jerusalem, Brisbane and various U.S. cities such as Washington, D.C., Miami and Los Angeles, just to name a few locales.

Perhaps the most unusual of the upstarts is the Palestine Festival of Literature, or PalFest, which mounted its fifth annual festival in 2012. Because checkpoints make it so difficult for residents to travel, the writers go out to the readers, each day speaking at a different site, not only taking their work to Palestinians but hearing locals’ stories in return. The brainchild of Egyptian-born novelist Ahdaf Soueif, PalFest is inherently political but says it pushes “the power of culture” over “the culture of power,” quoting Edward Said.

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The Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) is overt about promoting international understanding. It fights against “the terrorism of the mind,” said the event producer, Sanjoy Roy, a friendly middle-aged guy sporting True Religion jeans and long gray-white locks. Novelist and co-director Namita Gokhale likes to describe the festival as a Mahakumbh of the mind, referring to the Kumbh Mela, the annual gathering of tens of millions of Hindus in one city to bathe in a sacred river. Gokhale said she aims to foster “understanding ourselves through literature, through words, through ideas, at a time when people are getting, at one level, more and more entrenched in their own set of prejudices.”

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