Books in times of war

By Zubeida Mustafa

A CHILDREN’S Literature Festival in Quetta sounds like a contradiction in terms. Quetta is in Balochistan and one doesn’t have to be reminded that the province is in the grip of a violent insurgency.

When I went there last week I could feel the tension in the air. Fear was palpable. So how could a festival — that too for children — be held in a place not considered very safe?

For me the festival amounted to making a political statement: children need peace. We knew that whatever the state of security, life has to go on. Yet one could not turn a blind eye to the tight security which in turn made one feel insecure. The event was not advertised and was reported in the media only after the show was over.

People of all backgrounds and classes — highly educated professionals and workers with no schooling — speak of the ‘problem’ but each sees it from his own point of view. That is why I could get no single answer to the question of who was behind the killings — many following enforced disappearances — and why. There is a blame game on with the army, the Baloch nationalists and the religious militants being held responsible. But the army and the government which have the power to do something are not bothered. No dialogue is on the cards.

Death haunts the hills and valleys, the towns and villages. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan titled its recent report on Balochistan Hopes, Fears and Alienation which captures the emotions being generated by the crisis. How is this affecting the children? No one has time to really address the issue. The impact of violence on the child’s education, health and family life has not been documented sufficiently. And no one speaks of what violence does to a child’s mind.

Against this backdrop the proposal to hold the Children’s Literature Festival in Quetta was a courageous move and an act of
humanism. It needs a woman to think of the children. On this occasion there were two women with a third prodding them on.
Ameena Saiyyid of the Oxford University Press and Baela Raza Jamil of Idara-i-Taleem-o-Agahi are the brains behind the idea of a children’s literature festival, the first of which was held in Lahore last November. Zobaida Jalal, a former education minister, now an MNA and the founder of the Female Education Trust, suggested Quetta as the venue and mobilised local support.

It was a calculated move to counter the negative repercussions of the Balochistan crisis on the child’s psyche. It has now been universally documented how war has a devastating effect on the young mind. Many of the children in Balochistan have never experienced what one can call a normal life. The festival was designed to expose them to a life — even momentarily — that is different from what they know. The idea was to introduce them to the world of books — even though it was amidst tight security.

In these circumstances, the presence of a contingent of nearly 50 people from Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, which included singers and musicians as well as artists and storytellers, brought cheer to the hearts of the young audience. For some time, they could forget the danger and indulge in dance and music, storytelling and painting. That was good therapy for the 5,000 or so children from 125 schools (over 40 of them being government institutions). Students from madressahs were also present and the gaiety at the Boy Scouts headquarters, the venue of the festival, was a good change for them from the austerity of their daily life. They are children after all.

The message that emerged loud and clear was that education that should equip a person with the tools for reading, writing and critical thinking is important for the personal development of a child. But to make education really meaningful it is important to also unlock the power of reading. In other words, introduce the book to the child and create the reading culture. That is what the festival was all about.

The fact is that the ability to read is just a tool. What really counts is what you make of it. As Quratulain Bakhteari — who has done phenomenal work for female education in the province through her Institute for Development Studies and Practices — so aptly observed, education can either empower or enslave you.

The education secretary of Balochistan, Munir Ahmed Badini, quite uncharacteristically a highly educated man and an author of renown, was the first to get the message of the festival. He announced that from next year the government would include an annual literature festival in its education programme. Moreover, he promised to have a library set up in every school.

Such moves should give a boost to education in the province, the insurgency notwithstanding. It will provide an avenue for self-expression to young souls in pain. After all, the boy who read out his story of the youth whose father had been shot in the head was trying to articulate his anguish. .

Now that the children’s literature festival seems to be there to stay, the organisers should plan some kind of a follow-up assessment. It would be interesting to know how that memorable day in Quetta impacted on the schoolchildren and whether we can hope for books to change their lives.

Source: Dawn

6 thoughts on “Books in times of war

  1. Speaking about the palpable fear, it was there even when planning
    meetings for the Children's Literature Festival  (CLF) were being held
    in that city during the month of Ramazan. However, it was quite
    obvious that the almost 40 participants of a critical meeting in which
    representatives of various relevant institutions of Balochistan were
    present, were keen to see the CLF through and extended their full
    support and cooperation for the sake of the children of their
    province. Your suggestion regarding a  follow-up assessment is a valid
    point and I am sure that the CLF has provided those children to see
    the world somewhat differently, but a single event cannot be expected
    to do wonders when there are other sordid issues enveloping their
    lives. The question is, when and how will that change?

  2. admirable; these sorts of things will profoundly impact the new pakistan that is sought to be constructed.
    abdri raina

  3. KUDOS!! appreciable, i salute all the ladies and team that made this possible. this is such a grand idea, well i am working on similar idea here in Multan, its my social responsibility group Mumkin kar and we are targeting junior government schools, with the project "seeding compassion; reviving storytelling" and its on same concept of inducing positivity, urge for compassion and motivation for getting education and reading habit, in this time of great tension and violence, yes it effects on child's mind a lot. doing it on quetta is so holy, and i love to be a part of this if you people consider us worthy if helping and volunteering. you can give us small tasks or may be we can even sponsor some books and do theater performance, we are so IN, please let us know hoe to join this.
    Peace !

    1. Dear Fatima

      We at CLF Pakistan will welcome you and assist you in any way we can do get in touch with us at:
      Join us please as part of the CLF team and we can help you do something powerful along with your teams . We have an office in Multan and they too can meet you along with our CLF team members. Yes we need young volunteers full of passion and energy to help Reading in Pakistan . .We are so indebted to Zubeida for her inspirations as always ..

  4. Yes you are right to comment, "Children’s Literature Festival in Quetta was a courageous move and an act of
    Courage and Humanism always wins though may take some time and great efforts.

  5. A brave attempt.There are areas in upper regions of Swat where such initiatives would be welcome.I commit myself,on behalf of NCHD Distt Swat to facilitate such a move.

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