Vaseem Khan

Bradford Literature Festival – a testament to two unique entrepreneurs


My first visit to the Bradford Literary Festival (located, for those of you not intimate with British geography, in the picturesque English region of Yorkshire) has stayed with me long after the dazzling colours, sights, and sounds of the event have receded. The festival, a ten-day extravaganza that brings in tens of thousands of people – of all feathers and from all walks of life – with a shared love of the arts, has become one of Britain’s largest such gatherings. The hundreds of events, including some 300 speakers, presenters, authors, artists, actors, poets, dancers, and singers, have something for everyone. I myself – in between participating in my own panel session – managed to attend a terrific range of talks, including traditional ‘author’ fireside chats, but also an illuminating academic disquisition on the ongoing Israel-Palestine situation looking at possible solutions.

The brainchildren (is that a word?) behind this unique carnival of the arts are Syima Aslam and Irna Qureshi (pictured with me below). The pair are described on the festival’s website as “self-confessed book worm Syima Aslam and filmophile Irna Qureshi”. Speaking with them at one of the regular evening gatherings – where Irma insisted that I try yet another of the fabulous deserts on offer at My Lahore, the restaurant reserved for presenters during the event – I was gently dazzled by the charm and grace of these two ladies. Having organised events myself I know full well the degree of effort, dedication, and bloodymindedness it takes to pull off even the simplest such occasion. To organise a tour de force such as the BLF takes a particular clarity of vision, and, I suspect, a willingness to sacrifice one’s desire for a peaceful life!

The event has plenty for purists – talks by some of the biggest names in literature and the arts – but at the same time isn’t shy of taking on ‘tough’ topics, of tackling thorny political matters, and wearing its avant-garde credentials on its sleeve. Multiculturalism is at once lauded and dissected. Feminism is given a seat at the table. Modern forms of the written and spoken word are not consigned to the margins, but placed right up front to encourage ‘a wider conversation’. Syima and Irma are saying to us all: here is what contemporary really means. Don’t be afraid to get your feet wet.

My personal highlights? Firstly, I was delighted to speak as part of a four-person panel on “The Secrets of Crime Writing’ with fellow authors AA Dhand, Abir Mukherjee, and Alex Caan. The audience was boisterous, and engaged, and hopefully left a little bit more inspired than when they came in. Secondly, meeting Booker-prize winning novelist Ben Okri (complete with signature black beret) over dinner. I adore literary fiction and Okri’s The Famished Road is an old favourite. I even managed to convince Ben to help me get into the Authors Eleven – a cricket team of ribald repute for the scribes amongst us. And, lastly, visiting the city of Bradford, a place that I had never previously been to. Experiencing this resurgent city, with its richly diverse community, and its commitment to pioneering its own brand of cultural unity, was one of the more memorable experiences in my recent literary calendar.

Long may the festival continue, and long may our two entrepreneurs continue to reign over it.