Lahore has been designated as the ‘City of Literature’ by UNESCO in 2019. This brings us into an international Creative Cities Network, next to cities like Dublin, Barcelona, Melbourne and Seattle. It is an exciting moment for Pakistan in its entirety, not just Lahore. Its nation-wide news dissemination reflected this excitement - there was talk about how the current Tehreek-e-Insaaf government’s efforts to internationalize the country through tourism brought Lahore under the spotlight; how the consistent performance of Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) has shown the world we have what it takes; and how this label will bring funding opportunities to our local literary industry for future creativities.

Let us dissect the context a bit further - which has not only made the international community, but Pakistan itself realize - on how Lahore truly is a City of Literature. According to the UNESCO programme, there is a certain criteria that legitimizes titling a city. It includes: quality, quantity, and diversity of publishing in the city; how important literature, drama and poetry is; consistency in hosting literary events and festivals; presence of libraries and bookstores that promote both domestic and foreign culture; capacity of translating works in foreign languages; and how the media engages in promoting and strengthening the market for literature.

One can see these characteristics in Lahore across different layers. It is not just one author, one bookstore, one publishing house that has aided in the development of the city’s literary personality. There are many, interwoven and growing. Their presence and engagement is not only due to the LLF, - contrary to what the news coverage hinted towards when UNESCO titled Lahore - but to a culture of thought and creativity the various layers have helped build. This culture is key. And it is as significant as the culture itself to understand what its layers are: who are these authors, which books are published, which bookstores are there, where are the literary talks happening?

When it comes to authors, it is not easy to restrict an individual to just one city. If s/he is from Lahore, their work trickles down to other cities. Authors end up becoming more of a national ‘thing’ than a city-centric one. A few days ago, Mohsin Hamid and Kamlia Shamsie were added to the list of ‘100 Novels that Shaped Our World’ for their brilliant novels - Hamid’s ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ (2012) and Shamsie’s ‘Homefire’ (2017). In the list, their names are next to the likes of Mary Shelly and Charles Dickens. As established writers, these individuals are at the heart of our cultural modernity. They not only represent our creative flesh internationally, but create space for more local voices to come forth. Some of these up-and-coming voices are: Sidra F. Sheikh who bravely published a sci-fi novel called ‘The Light Blue Jumper’ (2012); Taha Kehar, a feminist at heart, published ‘Typically Tanya’ (2019); and Awais Khan who published a gutted drama, ‘In The Company of Strangers’ (2019).

With more novels, short stories, and poetry comes more publishing houses. It is true that while other South Asian countries may have their own branches of international publishing houses, such as Random House India (where some Pakistani authors publish), Pakistan lags behind. However, our authors do still publish globally. What seems to be naturalizing domestically, though, is hunting and publishing of local authors who are merely starting their careers and lack accessibility to the larger market. ‘Aleph Review’ is a young English literary anthology in Lahore that has taken matters in its own hands. Led by Editor-in-Chief Mehvash Amin, it engages in an open-to-the-public submission system and creates an annual, cleverly designed, and carefully curated book of eclectic pieces. Although not a publishing house, Aleph Review has played an influential role is reviving local publishing, while practicing a traditional form of literature one enjoys reading next to a warm cup of chai.

There is also ‘Daastan’, a modern form of self-publishing that focuses both on online and print. They help you self-publish, find you freelance gigs, give you access to literary awards and fellowships, digitize archival content, design book covers, and much more. Their ultimate aim is to produce revenue for self-established writers by distribution and promotional strategies.

With all this publishing deepening the roots of Lahori literature, there is growing trend in talking about these books and authors. More often than not the talks happen in cafes and bookstores. Earlier in September, a cafe in Lahore called ‘Mocca Coffee’ hosted what it calls ‘moccatalks’.

It featured first-time authors who discussed their publishing experiences - Awais Khan, Sidra F. Sheikh, and Sara Naveed. They also organize poetry recitations, writing workshops, and much more. Mocca Coffee is on the thrust of re-defining what a cafe means in Pakistan. It comprehends successfully how a cafe’s ambiance can truly be utilized as a collective space for its caffeine-thirsty customers, as well as society at large.

Similarly, The Last Word Bookstore has gained immense popularity in the last few years for its functional role in spreading and cultivating literature. Again, it hosts a multitude of events, doing justice to the role of a book shop. It recently organized a series of lectures called ‘Café Kafka’, examining Franz Kafka’s works and its larger thematic socio-political implications. It hosts a weekly ‘Kid’s Story Time where stories are read out to little children, normalizing the concept of literature at a young age, which otherwise may be overshadowed by the deeply entrenched Pakistani habitat of TV-watching for children. The bookstore has also taken up a prominent role in opening dialogue on climate change, with the increasing levels of smog in Lahore. In October alone, it hosted three talks on environmental issues, including ‘Urban Life & Climate Changed’ led by climate expert, Mehjabeen Abidi Habib.

We see cafes and bookstores stepping beyond their passive roles and transforming into community spaces for dialogue. This is inherently a positive development for Lahori inhabitants. But there lacks a mere question of ‘What about our mother tongue Urdu?’ Although cafes and book shops are fiercely promoting English language and literature, - as seen, all authors mentioned earlier published English novels - there is a simultaneous decline in Urdu literature. A few Urdu authors inevitably publish a few Urdu books, providing limited Urdu content to discuss in cafes and book shops. Nonetheless, these shops could attempt to reverse the order. They can host talks on Urdu literature, led by Urdu professors and writers who are truly able to assess the lack of.

Thus, a transformed shop that once only sold coffee or books now engages in social cultivation. If a bookstore only sells books, it does fulfill its basic function. However, to possess the advantage of managing a one-story building full of words and ideas means to harvest a social hub where those words, authors, ideas, and behaviour can be freely discussed.

These authors, publishers, cafes and bookstores are the many interwoven strands of Lahore’s literary culture. Together, they have developed an understanding in Pakistan that there is in fact a lot happening when it comes to the exchange of literary thought and creativity. Hence, Lahore receiving the title of ‘City of Literature’ by UNESCO is not a surprise by any means. It is a necessary outcome of the infinite efforts of several authors, readers, and the mediators you find in a book shop selling you a book or two.

Nahal Sheikh

The writer is a journalist based in Amsterdam and a distributor for Aleph Review in Europe. nahalsheikh.com