April issue 2015
The ‘Wired’ Activist
On the evening of April 24, Sabeen Mahmud, an activist, social worker and Director of The Second Floor (T2F) a cafe and community centre, was shot and killed by unknown gunmen on a motorcycle as she was leaving the cafe where a discussion titled, ‘Unsilencing Balochistan’ had been held. Speakers at the event had discussed the plight of missing people from Balochistan, where the army is fighting a separatist insurgency. The following is a profile of Sabeen published in Newsline‘s December 2010 issue.
Do you ever feel the need to have a deliciously stimulating conversation over a steaming cup of cappuccino? Are you desirous of meeting someone outside your circle of childhood friends — someone different, intelligent, inspiring?
Abroad, there are pubs, bars, cafes and forums where you can fulfill all your social and intellectual pursuits, but in Pakistan such public spaces are lamentably missing. Sabeen Mahmud, a Mac-loving-techie decided to fill this void, and that is how T2F, (formerly The Second Floor), part of her Peace Niche organisation, was born.
It embodies her oxymoronic “practical idealism” perfectly. “It’s only in a certain niche that you can operate and be productive,” says Sabeen, and T2F provides a meeting place for this niche group. “The very snotty types don’t come,” says Sabeen, “but there will never be a membership — to me the word membership spells ‘club’ and ‘club’ spells exclusivity.” Book readings, cultural activities, public discourse, advocacy, poetry readings, film screenings, art and photography exhibitions are all held at T2F, but more importantly it is a place where anyone can walk in, be inspired by a person or event and walk out, life changed forever. “The Internet is lots of nodes connecting, and together they make this phenomenal thing,” explains Sabeen. “You are powerless, but what little you can do is influence the thinking of one person and then they can change the thinking of another.”
Located in Phase two, down the road from Defence Library in Karachi, T2F is a two-storey space inside a red brick building, donated to the organisation by a devoted fan. Upstairs is a wooden-floor cafÃ©, minimalistic but bright with a modern interior. “I have champagne tastes with a beer budget,” laughs Sabeen, admitting she is broke, but determined that people who visit T2F enjoy a good environment. Sabeen runs the cafÃ© and gets additional revenue from tabla, guitar and other classes held at T2F. This year, T2F got one corporate sponsor whose CSR policy directs it to support progressive causes but, says Sabeen, “I work nights to pay my bills and it is a struggle.” However, she has faith in supporters of T2F. “If you had asked me for this interview two months back I would have declined, because I didn’t know if T2F would survive,” says the young entrepreneur who has inspiring stories of how supporters of T2F came forward to help her keep her dream alive.
So, who is Sabeen Mahmud? She is an only daughter, but she always behaved like a tomboy and still loves cricket; she studied at Karachi Grammar School but always visited “the other side of the bridge”; she believes in world peace but is equally cognisant of the realities; she hates money and formal schooling but believes that the privileged few are the ones who will bring change, as they don’t have to worry about where their next meal will come from. In simple words, Sabeen lives in the system, but rebels against it every day to bring about a change from within. She explains this through a conversation she had with her mother, an educationist: Sabeen convinced her mother not to deprive the Grammar School students of her experience of reformist schooling, which is being applied in government schools. “Why should anyone be excluded, especially the privileged ones. They also have a right to learn and benefit,” says Sabeen, whose goal is intellectual poverty alleviation — to “shake us out of a dangerous state of lethargy.”
Sabeen credits her spirit and drive to her mother: “Everything I am, I owe to my mother. She is incredible.” Mahenaz Mahmud, Sabeen’s mother, was born to rich, socially-connected parents in Dhaka, but Sabeen recalls that she can’t find a single photograph of her mother’s from her younger days where she is smiling. “She was born resenting wealth — but more than feeling resentful towards her parents, there was this stark image in my mother’s mind of how the world should be, which was totally different from the world she was part of,” she says.
Sabeen’s childhood is also littered with fond memories of her father. “He was not your typical chauvinist Pakistani dad,” recalls Sabeen. Rather, he was a hands-on person and helped around the house. He had a passion for cars, and she, a young tomboy at age seven, was obsessive about her bicycle and would always be looking to buy a mud guard, or a basket, or a bell for it. “Then, my father got his own car and he would forever be taking it to the mechanics on Tariq Road to get it washed or fixed. I would accompany him, and hang out with all those people.” Her parents were not your quintessential Grammar School types, and Sabeen has an interesting story to tell about how she ended up there. “They were trying to put me in school, and one day they were passing by Grammar School’s junior section on their motorbike when they saw a long queue. Not familiar with the place, they asked what it was and upon learning that it was a school, they went inside to apply. I got admission just like that,” grins the activist.
Apart from battling the prevalent mind-numbing consumerism and apathy through T2F’s intellectually stimulating discourses, Sabeen is also planning to adopt a child. “I want Maya — she’s already decided to name her that — to be a thinking, sensitive, intelligent human being. She is entitled to have her own desires but this aspect is non-negotiable. I don’t want to rob her of her childhood, but I don’t want her to fit into any of your school rules. She will grow up in this environment where there will be a lot of questioning. It’s a big challenge,” says Sabeen.
Sabeen herself was brought up in an environment where things were not handed out to her on a silver platter, and she and her parents had to struggle hard. “I remember my mother going to the doctor for a check-up every week. But one week, she called up the doctor and said, “I am fine and I will not be coming in for my weekly check-up.” She saved 50 rupees that week and with it she bought a cot for me. Clearly there wasn’t much money, but when there was, books would be bought.”
Apart from T2F, Sabeen’s determination and drive are reflected in the other projects that she has co-founded and participates in, even today. A founding member of the Citizens Archive of Pakistan, along with renowned documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, Sabeen is also the president of The Indus Entrepreneurs. “TIE’s mission is to foster entrepreneurship and mentor people and create networks for young entrepreneurs.”
T2F has provided the people of Karachi a place to express their opinions and fears, a space to grow and learn and, most importantly, a venue to meet like-minded individuals — it has exciting events planned every week. Sabeen’s recent, most memorable event was a talk by Shajia Haroon on philosopher Peter Singer’s views in light of the devastating floods, followed by a discussion that lasted well after closing time. Given the response to it, T2F will now host philosophical discussions on various topics. “The level of debate was so high that we have now decided to do one-on-one philosophy sessions,” says Sabeen. The first session will be on what makes for a good argument, followed by one on “morality” and so on. As our minds continue to grow through T2F, T2F also grows through its committed sponsors, known as the ‘Engaged Circle.’ But their efforts aside, Sabeen feels that believers in the T2F cause should own the initiative and help keep it alive, as it struggles through the harsh realities of inadequate funds, electricity breakdowns and shortage of space.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s December 2010 issue.
Maheen Bashir Adamjee is an APNS award-winning journalist. She was an editorial assistant at Newsline from 2010-2011.