Not Even Bombs Can Silence Lahore's Arts

Despite bomb blasts, organizers still held the final day of festivities.

LAHORE, Pakistan, Nov. 25, 2008 -- This was supposed to be a story about music.

It was supposed to be about foreign artists willing to perform in Pakistan, about the Pakistani brothers spending their own money to throw an international arts festival, about Pakistanis showing up in large crowds to defy the extremists who have helped push their country toward economic ruin.

But instead, this is a story about terrorism in Pakistan, and, perhaps, about the people trying to live full lives in spite of it.

It was about 10 p.m. Saturday when three small bombs exploded outside the Qaddafi Stadium Cultural Complex in Lahore, where the World Arts Festival was in its second to last day.

For the previous nine nights, some 300 foreign and 600 Pakistani artists had performed theater, puppet shows, comedy, dance and long music sets to mostly crowded halls and stadiums. Kids ran around, families ate outside under colorful lights, couples shopped at local vendors' booths. The increased security had worked, and for the 25th time, the Rafi Peer Theater group had presented a "softer side of Pakistan," one that celebrated the country's artistic talents in this city, the cultural capital of Pakistan.

But after the bombs went off, and after police found an additional four bombs that hadn't exploded, the festival and this normally peaceful city had once again become a victim.

"This was definitely a threat by the Islamists to the festival that it must be discontinued," Faizaan Peerzada, the festival's president, told ABC News.

He had, in an interview before the explosions, spoken eloquently about how the festival was a desperately needed antidote to the daily drumbeat of news about suicide attacks and military strikes.

The festival is "a statement in itself. It stands against whatever the Islamist forces are trying to achieve. It stands against fear," he said. "And it stands for those still living. This country is living, this nation is living."

But after the bombs, after the four injured had been rushed to the hospital, after the foreigners had been whisked away in a bus with blinds covering its windows, after all that Peerzada thought the festival had taken on even more significance.

'I'm Giving You a Warning'

Because on Sunday afternoon, the day after the explosions and the final day of the festival, a few hundred people came to listen to the music and to light some candles. Foreign artists released a statement thanking Lahore for its "love and warmth" and promising to return next year.

It was a show of solidarity against the scene of fear and confusion of the night before.

"You saw plenty of families coming with their children," Peerzada said. "This is the allegiance given by the civil society to stand beside us, that we took a bold stand not to cancel the final day. I think the bold stand in itself has brought the value of the festival much higher."

Police have arrested an Afghan man who had a crude map of the stadium, Peerzada said.

And one day after the festival ended, Peerzada himself received a threat by phone.

"I'm giving you a warning. We warned you three times," Peerzada said the man told him, referring to the three bombs. "He said, 'I am making this call to you because once your security is taken out of your life, you will be an easy target."

It is a sign that even in Lahore, nobody is immune. It is a sign that the balance between modernism and extremism in the country's most modern city is uneasy.

"Lahore is still very liberal, very broad-minded, very laid-back, very relaxed. So you know, anyone and everyone can get what they want, a slice of what they want here in Lahore," said Najam Sethi, the editor in chief of the Lahore-based Daily Times, one of the leading English language newspapers in the country. "But the balance is disquieting. Lahore is becoming more conservative."

Lahore is best known for its poets and artists, the Mughal sites from the former empire, its restaurants and nightlife.

But early in October, two incidents helped demonstrate that even the most peaceful city in Pakistan has become a target, and how scared some people are.

On Oct. 7 three small bombs destroyed small juice shops in a crowded, lower-middle-class neighborhood known as Garhi Shahu. The shops, neighbors said, would host young couples needing a little bit of privacy. In one of the shops, visited by ABC News last week, a large sign invites patrons to visit the "Family Rooms" in the back.

'Lahore Always Has Been the Last Place Where Anything Happens"

A small, unknown group claimed responsibility and warned it would attack more "centers of immorality."

Two days later, Shabbir Labha, the president of the Hall Road market traders association, received an unsigned letter and a phone call similar to the one received seven weeks later by Peerzada.

Hall Road, a popular, crowded and cheap shopping destination is well known for the cramped stalls that sell Indian and American DVDs, as well as pornography.

"What are you doing about the dirty DVDs?" the caller asked Labha. "Are you going to do something about it, or should we do it?"

A frightened Labha did not wait to see if the call was a prank. "We went from door to door to collect those DVDs and burnt around 70,000," he said in an interview last week. "I haven't received a call after that."

Some of the 70,000 people who walked through the art festival's gates knew about those incidents, but most said they were not worried about their safety. They were just there, they said, to have a good time.

"Lahore always has been the last place where anything happens," said Faisal Rehman, a Pakistani actor, as he signed autographs about a day before the explosions. He stood in front of the stadium in a walkway lined with massive lifesize puppets, giant papier-mache cartoon characters dancing with the help of extras stuffed inside 8-foot-tall suits. It could have been the front entrance to Knott's Berry Farm theme park.

One couple, who declined to give their names, said they'd attended the festival for three straight nights.

"There's always this [fear] in the back of your mind, absolutely, given the recent events in our country," the husband said. "But how long can you sit at home and do nothing? You have to live your life."

The wife, who had scoffed when a reporter asked her whether she felt safe, was even more sanguine. "There's so many colors and lights, I didn't really think about it. Now that you made me think, I should run away. No, they've got good security. If somebody can pass through that, then, well, my bad luck."

Inside the stadium, Ingrid Kindem, a Norwegian electronic pianist, played a synthesizer while her Pakistani guitarist, Shallum Xavier, riffed on an electric guitar.

The Bombs Went Off

It was Kindem's ninth visit to Pakistan. She'd been working with Xavier, who had pulled his shoulder-length hair back into a ponytai, for years,

"You know, like any other country, you need these people, these artists, to change the direction of the society, take it to a positive level," he said after the performance. "Arts and culture and music can actually do that, can actually bring that change."

It is a message that Peerzada had been hoping to deliver.

"This is to dilute the structure of this orthodox or this madrassah culture. Because there, they're putting the fear of God and training them," he said Friday, pulling his long gray hair back behind his ears. A madrassah is a religious school that teaches a strict version of Islam.

"Here, it's talking about love. It's talking about finding beautiful things, finding divine God, talking about how beautiful this world is," Peerzada said.

But then the bombs went off.

Peerzada and his brothers, all of whom produced the festival, are still struggling to pay for it. They had no corporate sponsor this year, and despite money from the Norwegian Embassy, "what my bank is showing -- the car is going to stop in the next five days. It has no gas," Peerzada said.

The government, he said, had declined to contribute except for a "joke" of a sum.

But still, said Peerzada, sounding a bit tired, it was worth the cost. And he believes the decision to hold the last day's event was the most important one he made.

"A small group that did their little thing with their little toys, and they succeeded in what they had to do," he said. "But we have been spending on art and culture from our pockets, and we are going to continue to do so."

So perhaps this was a story about music after all.

"A country without arts," Peerzada said, quoting one of the visiting artists, "is a country that has no meaning and no reason."

"One night of bravery and defiance is a good start," wrote Ayeda Naqvi, an activist in Pakistan, today in the Daily Times. She had visited the festival on Thursday night. "But if we are to save ourselves as a society, we will have to fight back, to show our commitment on more than just one night. Otherwise Nov. 22, 2008, will always be the day on which a lot more than just music died."