Why is it so difficult to write in a detached manner about Sabeen Mahmud and ‘her’ T2F (The Second Floor)? Yes it was ‘her’ T2F. She envisioned it, and brought it to life, enriching the lives of all those who were associated with it as casual visitors, as its management, or those to whom she provided space to air ideas or test out their potential.
Tragic and ironic then, that a space that enriched lives and ideas in this way resulted in ending her life, for not everyone agreed with what she was using this space for. She was swimming upstream, but loved doing that, loved making waves, challenging norms, and proving her point.
By now, all those who didn’t know Sabeen would have come to know about what a remarkable person she was. How she strove to bring dialogue, and hope and intellectual discourse in a city rife with violence and suspicion, and devoid of spaces for debate and creative pursuits.
Many a dream was realised at this space; of struggling musicians, unknown artists, entrepreneurs and authors. A space that introduced the disconnected youth to the rich cultural heritage of folk and contemporary art, music, qawwali, theatre, dance, poetry reading, children’s story telling, street art, political issues, memorial meetings, scientific discussions and critical thinking.
Not only was Sabeen full of ideas, she was also always open to them coming from any quarter, if she felt it would contribute to the intellectual richness of the people she reached out to. There was an ever widening circle of people who started considering ‘her T2F’ to be their own space, and made it their halfway home.
Also read: An open letter to Sabeen Mahmud
I do not know if it had anything to do with basking in reflected glory, but I became one of the persons who loved to ‘show off’ T2F as a must see place to any visitor to Karachi. I felt it had to be firmly placed on Karachi’s tourist map. While proximity to home definitely had something to do with it, but this would be my ‘go to’ place for any meetings.
If those meetings coincided with any event taking place, that would be icing on the cake, because that would be one more thing to proudly showcase about T2F.
And of course, that show of pride could not be complete without talking about the spunkiest person who was responsible for being the spirit behind it. It would be a rare visit when one wouldn’t bump into Sabeen there, and since she would always come over to say hello if she spotted me, I would just as proudly introduce her as well.
Going there was about much more than the convenience of an uninterrupted internet connection that allowed work to take place, or the yummy fare at the café upstairs, or the cart with goodies that made for a last minute but perfect gift. It was about shared ownership of a space that was the fruition of a concept, that filled a need and that sort of showcased the spunk of Karachi, a city Sabeen loved and projected through so many facets of her personality.
I have attended events there, moderated a couple, been a panelist in some, and have been in the audience so many more. Each time I have returned enriched with some new thought, or an idea, or a stereotype in my mind that was broken due to the pluralistic discourse held there.
I have had friends simply give up their rare family heirloom of musical instruments to Sabeen at T2F just because they felt here was someone who would appreciate them and put them to good use. I have had out of city friends attend just an event and get up in the middle, dig into their pocket and put in something in the Mac donation box.
And then there was a time when I was in a very serious meeting about an event with a visitor, whom, as usual, I had called to T2F, and towards the middle of the discussion the event started where a young Pakistani scientist launched into an explanation of dark matter and the God Particle, which she was researching at Hadron Collidor. The gentlemen just ignored my suggestion to move upstairs to the café, called his daughter in another city, and put his phone on speaker so she could listen to it! At the end of it, he insisted on meeting Sabeen and offering support to T2F!
And then, on that day after that awful night when Sabeen’s open door, open minds, open discourse policy led to her being silenced, the steps that led to T2F were heavy, and hearts laden with grief. The people milling around in the streets and in the hall inside waiting to pay respects to her the last time were more in number than had ever been there at any of her events.
Yet, they were there because T2F was not just hers’. Sabeen and T2F were theirs, and amid the shock, the grief and sadness, there was a clear resolve that they were not going to give it up. Sabeen had given it to them, and they would take care of it for her. Like me, everyone of them could say it is “my T2F”. Sabeen would not have accepted, or expected any less!