Lahore: ‘City of Literature’

Nahal Sheikh
Nov 25, 2019 · 6 min read

Lahore has been designated as the ‘City of Literature’ by UNESCO in 2019. This makes it part of an international Creative Cities Network, next to cities like Dublin, Barcelona, Melbourne and Seattle. It is undoubtedly 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 Pakistan has what it takes; and how this label will bring funding opportunities in the 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 — how Lahore is truly 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.

UNESCO Creative Cities Network ©


One can see these characteristics in Lahore across different layers of society. 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 (again) only due to the LLF, — as much of 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.

Lahore Literay Festival 2019 ©


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.

Authors Kamila Shamise & Mohsin Hamid ©

As established writers, these individuals are at the heart of Lahore’s cultural modernity. They not only represent the 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 (2017); Taha Kehar, a feminist at heart, published Typically Tanya (2019); and Awais Khan who published a gutted drama, In The Company of Strangers (2019).

Taha Kehar’s novel ‘Typically Tanya’ (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, Pakistani authors can and still do get published internationally. 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. It practices a traditional form of literature one enjoys reading next to a warm cup of tea.

Aleph Review, Vol. 3 ©

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 promotion.


With all this publishing deepening the roots of Lahori literature, there is a growing trend of talking about these books and authors. More often than not these happen in cafes and bookstores. Earlier in September this year, 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.

Mocca Talks @ Mocca Coffee, Lahore ©

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 Cafe 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 about climate change, with increasing levels of smog in Lahore. In October alone, it hosted three talks on environmental issues, including ‘Urban Life & Climate Changed’ led by a Pakistani climate expert, Mehjabeen Abidi Habib.

The Last Word Bookstore, Lahore ©


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 the mother tongue Urdu?’ Although the cafes and book shops are fiercely promoting the English language and its literature, — and 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 and host talks on Urdu literature, led by Urdu professors and writers who are truly able to assess the lack of.

Best of Urdu Literature: Authors Ghalib, Patras & Manto ©

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 books, authors, ideas, and behaviours can be freely discussed.

These authors, publishers, cafes and bookstores are the many interwoven strands of Lahore’s literary culture. Together, they have developed a mutual understanding within 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.

Edited from original publication in The Nation PK, 22.11.2019

Nahal Sheikh

Written by

Columnist @The Nation PK / Independent Journalist /

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