The Karachi Literature Festival is normally held at the Beach Luxury Hotel on the bank of the Chinna Creek in the tender February weather. Daytime temperatures hover around 25°C; shawls and jackets are needed in the evenings. The outdoor sessions are the loveliest: speakers and audiences sit under traditional shamianas (tents) by the tranquil waters of the creek and the old coconut trees dotted along its shore. Writers get to know each other over meals on a floating restaurant across from mangrove islands where egrets wade, fish, and roost. For atmosphere alone, in the South Asian literary festival circuit, the Karachi Literature Festival is one of its best-kept secrets. 

The festival went fully digital in 2021 for its tenth edition while Pakistan battled a third wave of the Covid pandemic. This made it lose much of its charm but gain one advantage: writers who hesitated to come to Pakistan in person were able to participate virtually. As organisers rushed to become familiar with Streamyard and live broadcasting on Facebook, I was asked to interview the writer Yasmina Khadra in one of the sessions sponsored by the French Embassy in Pakistan. 

One never knows what will set off angry religious sentiment in Pakistan; since November 2020, extremists had been pressuring the Pakistani government to expel the French ambassador over the issue of the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed. But things had quietened down enough in March for the Embassy to participate virtually in the festival without too much fear of a backlash.

At first, I thought I would be speaking to the playwright Yasmina Reza, whose name had been floated in previous years, but she’d never made it to the Festival. My excitement turned to confusion when I realised that my interviewee was not Yasmina Reza but Yasmina Khadra. Another woman, I thought, but then a quick search on Google revealed that Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of a male writer: Mohammed Mousselhoul, born in Kendasa, Algeria, in 1955. As a high-ranking officer in the Algerian Army, Khadra had to adopt a pen name to avoid the censorship imposed upon writers by the military regime during the Algerian Civil War. 

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