May Issue 2015
Candle in the Wind: Remembering Sabeen Mahmud
The cold-blooded murder of Karachi’s flower child Sabeen Mahmud left several people stunned, heartbroken and lost. She was, as Beena Sarwar says, “A torchbearer.” She was a bright light at the end of the tunnel for Pakistan’s literary, art and music scene, a social and political activist where activism was direly needed, and a benefactor for those with stories to tell but nowhere to tell them from.
Sabeen was brutally snatched from the amazing milieu she had created, and from all those whose lives she had shaped and changed, even perhaps, without knowing it — and certainly with no proclamations to the effect — when two unidentified gunmen shot her while she was on her way back home after hosting the event, ‘Unsilencing Balochistan (Take 2)’ at The Second Floor (T2F). The event was initially to be held at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), but was cancelled at the last minute with the institution citing government pressure as the reason.
Following her murder, there has been an outpouring of tributes for Sabeen, along with a huge amount of speculation via social media and in news articles about the ‘hand’ behind the murder: was it the country’s premier spy agency — the Inter-Sevices Intelligence — the Lal Masjid brigade or RAW? The flurry of ‘outraged’ statements issued by assorted political party bigwigs, by diplomats of foreign countries, and by media stars, bring us no closer to the truth.
Meanwhile, the huge vacuum left by her passing remains. Where will the Mama Qadeers of Pakistan, struggling artists, musicians, writers, comedians, and the city’s new age-intelligentsia now congregate? Where will under-confident teens seeking direction, go for a push in the right direction? And where will those who think and live out of the box now find a platform to express themselves?
A small modest enterprise to begin with, in the years since it was created in 2007, Sabeen’s brainchild, the T2F, turned into a space where you could go to simply have a cup of coffee, to indulge in scintillating conversation, to read (a la Barnes and Noble) a good book from its quirky collection, to watch a group of boys and girls play music, or to engage in debates about politics, art or life, to raise questions (naÃ¯ve, idealistic, provocative and otherwise) in discussion groups with friends and strangers, or — lucky for me — to attend a session featuring Iqbal Theba, who played Principal Figgins on the hit musical TV show Glee.
No surprises then that everyone who knew Sabeen well, those that had met her a few times, and even those who were acquainted with her vicariously, have a Sabeen story. Here, some of these individuals share their memories of the woman who dedicated her life to doing good, doing right.
Renowned columnist and literary figure Ghazi Salahuddin describes her as “the conscience of Karachi.” He recalls a conversation he had with her about a protest, asking her, “Why aren’t more people joining us?” To which Sabeen responded, “Hum to hain na?”
“We all want to make a difference,” Salahuddin says, “She was that rare person who did.”
Farrukh Shahab, a prominent artist, who frequented T2F, just didn’t know where to begin. “There are too many memories of her to choose from. She brought ronak (joie de vivre) to the art scene in Karachi; she was full of energy.” He continues, “She created a platform for so many activities. She always said ‘If this can happen anywhere, it can also happen here,’” he recalls Sabeen speaking of activities that would, and should, take place at T2F.
He spoke of how she encouraged children to get involved in assorted forms of art, drama and poetry, and remained proactively engaged with them as they found their feet in such disciplines. Shahab also speaks of how “books that couldn’t be found anywhere else could only be found there.”
Sabeen’s T2F-partner, a visibly shattered Zaheer Kidvai, in a simple yet heart-wrenching few words says, “What can I say? Sabeen was my adopted daughter. She joined me when she was just 15.”
Sabeen was also a patron of comedy, helping stand-up comedians and improv groups hone their skills. Shehzad Ghias, a prominent young stand-up comedian, recalls how he got his first start at T2F.
Ghias got in touch with Sabeen in 2011, just when he was about to give up on his passion for theatre. He e-mailed her asking if he could hold a de facto summer theatre camp. She responded befittingly: “Dear Shehzad, Your enthusiasm and passion for the performing arts are inspiring, and I am glad you got in touch.”
“And thus began my relationship with Sabeen,” says Ghias, who held his first stand-up show at T2F. He discloses, “T2F is the only place that has never restricted/censored any of my content.”
“There is no other space in Pakistan where you can engage in conversation with complete strangers. Sabeen provided us that space to foster ideas,” Ghias adds. “I wish I had told her that the last time we met when she came to New York. Little did I know that would be the last time I would ever see her.”
She also played a big part in identifying and nurturing musical talent in the city. Musician Talha Asim Wynne shares his experiences about performing at T2F, and of Sabeen’s enthusiasm and thirst for new talent.
“T2F was a place where we always had a slot. It didn’t matter what type of music we were playing, noise, psych or electronic, Sabeen always facilitated us and would even help us out with sound requirements — which, in all honesty, was too much to ask for from T2F. I’ve jammed there with my band, as an individual and with so many different musicians from the Pakistani music circuit.”
Sabeen encouraged healthy debate and paved the way for Hassaan Bin Shaheen’s idea of a debating union in Karachi. “I, a nobody, went to Sabeen and told her we should have a debating union for Karachi. She jumped on board with the idea in seconds, and did not take a single penny for the sessions we held,” Shaheen says. “She gave us a space where we could learn to think critically, debate articulately and speak the truth fearlessly… She would inspire you, but also question your convictions and efforts. She would lead from the front, yet she would listen to you. With her dies a voice that gave a platform, the only platform, to progressive individuals.”
One of the last people to have met Sabeen the night she was murdered was Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur — one of the members on the panel from the talk on Balochistan. He speaks of her courage and shares the pain he feels after her passing.
“Her courage in allowing a discussion on Balochistan, at a time when the state and its death squads are killing and terrorising the Baloch with impunity, give her a very special place in my heart,” he states. “Sabeen’s murder has hurt my soul.”
He recalls thanking her for organising the session, despite its cancellation at LUMS. “She said it was her duty to give voice to the voiceless.”
“It’s hard to think of Sabeen in the past tense,” says journalist and documentary filmmaker Beena Sarwar. “She was a torchbearer for so many causes. The best tribute we can pay her is to make sure T2F remains a vibrant space for art, culture and open dialogue, and to keep on speaking out for the causes she cared about.
“We were in so many initiatives together, some of which we started together. In some cases she withdrew from them because of the badtameezi (bad behaviour) by newcomers — she was fine with disagreement and dissent; badteemzi, no,” Sarwar recalls.
The loss of Sabeen, Sarwar says, is a huge, irreparable one for a progressive Pakistan.
Internationally-known political analyst and author of Military Inc, Ayesha Siddiqa echoes Sarwar’s sentiments. “I have heard people say, ‘Why kill her, she was not political.’ I say she was more consistently political than most.”
Siddiqa says the ‘Voice of the Missing Baloch’ was not the first time the Baloch issue was raised. And the first time too, it was Sabeen at the vanguard. She organised a discussion for Siddiqa when her book, Military Inc came out in 2007 and engendered a severe reaction from the military.
“She genuinely believed in creating a space where people could talk. Tell me, how else does one save this country?” asks Siddiqa.
In her tribute to Sabeen, actor Nimra Buchcha says, “Like all her friends and acquaintances, I felt she loved me most of all. That was her talent — to make people feel brighter, smarter, more deserving of love than they actually were.”
Sabeen may not have known it, but it was she who was truly deserving of love, adulation, respect. And now the world knows.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s May 2015 issue.
Raisa Vayani is an Editorial Assistant at Newsline