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Breaking down the barriers

  • Published at 07:42 pm November 15th, 2017
  • Last updated at 11:54 am November 16th, 2017
Breaking down the barriers
The birth of beautiful things is always a little painful, and so it was with Dhaka Lit Fest, two winters ago. Before the literary festival even had a chance to begin, DLF’s detractors started calling the event elitist, claiming it was an affront to our culture to hold a celebration of literature in English on the hallowed Bangla Academy grounds, just like they had with DLF’s predecessor, the Hay Festival. Some found the festival to be too exclusive, an ironic criticism considering that entry to the festival grounds and all the panels was -- and continues to be -- absolutely free. Dhaka is not the most tourist-friendly of cities, and with the political climate added to the list of concerns, it started to look doubtful whether any of the main attractions would even show up. When star attraction VS Naipaul -- along with 18 other authors -- dropped out of the festival, it started to look more and more likely that the whole thing would be a flop. The government shut down Facebook right before the festival, making it not only very hard to spread the word about the event, but also to communicate and coordinate all the various moving pieces (let’s face it -- everything is done on Facebook these days). There was a strike on day one, and the end of day three saw the execution of infamous war criminal Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujaheed, with fears that his followers might be getting ready to wreak havoc on anything they saw as a sign of secular culture. Things could have gone so wrong. But DLF 2015 was a great success -- not everything may have gone according to plan, but it showed that a world class literary festival could indeed be hosted in one of the most difficult and stressful cities in the world.

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DLF 2017 has a stellar line-up this year: Booker prize-winner Ben Okri, playwright and Oscar-nominated screenwriter David Hare, the great Syrian poet Adonis, British novelist David Szalay, prominent journalist Charles Glass, publishing maven David Davidar, and foremost Rohingya specialist Azeem Ibrahim are just a few of the speakers enriching the event. The most famous face though, will not be a literary one -- you can expect to bump into Academy Award-winning actress Tilda Swinton. So DLF is about literature, but it is not just about literature. It invites English-language writers, yes, but its list of panelists also includes Imdadul Haq Milon and Nirmalendu Goon.
DLF is not, and never was, about profit. In a cynical, business-driven world, it might be hard to believe, but there really is a lot of idealism behind the event
It really is about, and for, people from all kinds of disciplinary, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds. It is this mix that makes DLF what it is -- a unique, inclusive intellectual celebration for all. There are no barriers here -- anyone can register online free of charge (unlike many festivals around the world), and show up on the day and participate in one, or many, of the various panels. The ignorant, pre-emptive criticisms that the DLF organisers once had to endure are bogus -- DLF is not an English-medium thing or a Bangla-medium thing, it does not disrespect anyone’s culture, and it does not exclude anyone from the discussion. Such divisions are imaginary. DLF, this year more than ever, is about breaking down barriers -- there will be 200 speakers and performers from 24 countries, ranging from the stupendously famous to the totally obscure, with discussion topics ranging from the sublime to the mundane. Finally, DLF is not, and never was, about profit. In a cynical, business-driven world, it might be hard to believe, but there really is a lot of idealism behind the event -- a desire to create and protect a place for free, lively discussions about life, about art, and everything in between. The festival organisers K Anis Ahmed, Sadaf Saaz, and Ahsan Akbar have worked tirelessly to make this wonderful occasion possible, and they deserve our thanks. This newspaper-- the Dhaka Tribune -- is proud to be title sponsor for the event. We hope to see you there. Abak Hussain is Editor, Editorial and Op-Ed, Dhaka Tribune.