Sabeen Mahmud: Inclusive spaces and #tree4Sabeen

In Karachi last week, I wrote about Sabeen Mahmud and the Creative Karachi Festival held to commemorate her life and work. PRI published it with the title Remembering a Pakistani woman who died because she wanted everyone to have a space to speak freely along with my radio interview with Marco Werman of PRI’s The World. Below is the unabridged text including with more links and photos. Also see our friend Afia Salam’s tribute to Sabeen in The Wire, Why Sabeen Mahmud Will Always Matter.


A poster with Sabeen’s photo at CKF 2016 on a divider between a stall and walkway at the Alliance Francaise. Photo: Beena Sarwar

Beena Sarwar

Early on Sunday morning in Karachi, a small, eclectic crowd converged at The Second Floor, the iconic coffee shop-cultural hub founded by my young friend Sabeen Mahmud in 2007. 


Tofiq Pasha waters the baby amaltas (laburnum) planted for Sabeen as Mamoo looks on. Photo: Beena Sarwar

This time, we were not there to participate in an event at this cutting-edge curated space but to join Sabeen’s mother Mahenaz in planting a baby Amaltas –  a yellow-flowering native tree also known as laburnum– at the grassy divider by the traffic light where Sabeen was killed on this day last year.

“I have been dreaming of this moment for months,” Mahenaz told me serenely, smiling. “Every spring it will flower in memory of Sabeen.”

Mahenaz had been in the passenger seat next to her only child, driving home after an event at T2F on April 24, 2015. Their driver (shot dead later) was in the back seat – Sabeen often preferred to drive herself. As the vehicle stopped at a red light before turning on to grandly named Sun Set Boulevard, two young men on a motorcycle drew up by the car, “too close for comfort,” remembers Mahenaz.

The pillion rider raised a hand holding a 9 mm pistol and fired five shots directly at Sabeen’s head and chest. Within seconds, the motorcyclists had vanished. Sabeen died instantly. A bullet that passed through her arm hit her mother. Another ricocheted in the car and got lodged in Mahenaz’s back, where it remains as a permanent, physical reminder of the loss.

By the Amaltas being lowered into the ground is placed a grey flagstone inscribed with Sabeen’s name in elegant Urdu calligraphy as well as in English as well as the years she walked this earth, 1974-2015. One by one, led by Mahenaz, Sabeen’s friends put fistfuls of earth into the amaltas bed, just as many had done for her grave a year ago – a symbolic ritual at Muslim funerals. Dust to dust.

After watering the amaltas, we walked back to T2F. White sheets covered the floor, with colourful bolster pillows against the red brick walls of the cool interior. A long table against the back wall looked festive, laden with T2F’s signature mugs, a big flask of hot water for coffee and tea, and plates, and sandwiches and coffee cake brought by Sabeen’s friends.


One year on: Friends and family remember Sabeen at T2F. Photo: Beena Sarwar

Walking in, Mahenaz stopped to take in the scene, then smiled and thanked the old man who had set it up. “Mamoo” (uncle) is what she respectfully calls the white-bearded Mir Daad, who has worked for her for the past 30 years. He was also Mamoo to Sabeen, then all the T2F community. Few here accord employees and paid staff such respect.

Mamoo is among the thousands of internal migrants who flock to what is now one of the world’s largest cities with a population of over 23 million, seeking work. A city that never sleeps. A city that Sabeen passionately loved, with its sprawling concrete jungles, undulating shoreline along the Arabian Sea, flowering trees and indomitable spirit.

Mamoo hails from a village near the garrison town of Abbottabad, now infamous as Osama Bin Laden’s hideout, some 740 miles north of Karachi. Standing by the tree planting, he told me quietly that he had known Sabeen since she was 12 years old.

Instead of her home, T2F is where Sabeen’s funeral procession began last year – as Mahenaz said, it was also her home and the T2F community was her family.

Then too, Mamoo had spread white sheets on the floor, like people do at their homes here when friends and relatives come to pray for a departed soul.

At T2F on Sunday morning, at Mahenaz’s request, those gathered shared stories about Sabeen. But beyond the personal reminisces of Sabeen’s quirky humour, compassion, egalitarianism, activism, love for music, poetry, dance and technology and the love and respect she inspired, is Sabeen’s broader significance. Why does Sabeen matter? She was not only an icon of the progressive and democratic ideals towards which Pakistan aspires or should aspire to, but also provided a platform and a space for others sharing these aspirations.


Mahenaz at CKF 2016: Sabeen would hate for her or any of us to give up. Photo: Beena Sarwar

How does Mahenaz keep going? Because she knows that Sabeen would hate for her to give up?

“Yes,” she replied simply. “That is what keeps me going.”

Raised by such a mother, Sabeen’s inclusive vision, open-mindedness and respect for all life, made T2F not just a safe space for Karachi’s English-speaking, westernised ‘burger’ youth but also for its ‘bun kababs’ – those from more traditional backgrounds with less exposure to the West but who share those aspirations.

One of them is the young lawyer turned social and political activist Mohammad Jibran Nasir who has movingly testified to Sabeen’s enabling vision and proactive approach.

As Sabeen wrote in an essay titled ‘Creative Karachi’, having “an open mind and an open-door policy” had allowed the T2F community to “fulfill dreams beyond my wildest imagination” (Innovations Quarterly, MIT Press, 2013).

T2F became a launching pad for those with no other avenues of expression or who were restricted by lack of access to resources and social or political patronage – important in a highly class-conscious society where who you know matters as much as who your family is. For those mired in traditional mindsets, Sabeen’s egalitarian vision of a class-less society is anarchy.

“I’ve never known a space in Pakistan to be so inclusive of class, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, and cultural scope,” wrote the novelist Uzma Aslam Khan. “…Her death cannot mean the end of the dream she made real: an inclusive public space where it is possible to evolve – regardless of your background and beliefs, or who you know and don’t know.”

The mix of people was evident at the buzzing two-day Creative Karachi Festival (#CKH2016) held in her memory last weekend. People young and old from around the city thronged the sprawling grounds of the Alliance Francaise, braving a heat wave to show up.

At the end of the garden sat the truck artist Haider Ali, Ali Salman Anchan and their Phool Pati (Urdu for ‘flowers, leaves’, the original term for the English ‘truck art’) team displaying colorful work, including a roller bag for sale. Haider Ali always acknowledges Sabeen’s unflinching support for their work, that she included at the Dil Phaink exhibition she curated for the Alchemy Festival at London’s Southbank Centre in May 2015.

“People would ask her why she is bothering with us, when no one else knew us,” he told me some years ago. “But she didn’t care.”

Truck artists at work

Truck artist Haider Ali and his team – behind them the ‘Fasla na rakhein, pyar hone dein’ banner from the Dil Phenk series Sabeen curated. Photo: Beena Sarwar

At around 10 pm on Sunday, the time Sabeen was shot dead on that day last year, there was a moment of silence for her. Soon afterwards, Zoe Viccaji, one of Pakistan’s top fusion artists, rocked the concert venue. She was among the over 150 artists who contributed their time and skills to the festival.

The event at the French cultural center took me back to the 1980s when Alliance Française and the Goethe Institut were two safe spaces in Pakistan for political dissent and activism expressed through cultural activities — street theatre, seminars, discussions — during the military dictatorship of Gen. Zia ul Haq. Pakistan was then a frontline state in the US Cold War against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

The Mujahideen unleashed in those years morphed over time into various other militant groups, including al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

In Pakistan, religiously motivated militants are linked with criminal gangs around the country — gunrunners, kidnappers, land and drug mafias and murderers for hire. A young business school graduate who has confessed to killing Sabeen has also confessed to various other murders.


Artists Niilofur Farrukh and Shehrezade Alam with Marvi Mazhar in front of Desi Writers’ Lounge at CKF 2016. Photo: Beena Sarwar

Since 2007, T2F was a space for political activism and cultural expression, like Alliance Française and the Goethe Institut were in the Zia years. Sabeen’s friend Marvi Mazhar, a conservation architect who now runs T2F, says closing it down would have been like a second death in the city.

The risks remain, because, as activist and environmentalist Tofiq Pasha put it, “every now and then, they slap us down to tell us to stay within our boundaries.” The festival for Sabeen took place in the enclosed, secured premises of Alliance Française, not in a public park.

Sabeen matters because she gives people the courage to carry on despite the risks. As she famously said, “Fear is just a line in your head — you can choose which side you want to be on.”

There are no real spaces anywhere for those who challenge the status quo, added another activist friend, Amima Sayeed, pointing to the US. She recalled Noam Chomsky talking about how dissenting voices are forced to stay within their boundaries, and how Chomsky’s own voice is marginalized, “allowed to speak at alternative platforms, but never really given any mainstream space.”

What Sabeen reminds us to do is to determinedly keep claiming our spaces and to refuse to accept the status quo.

Check out and support the different projects, including T2F, that Sabeen started

Also, writer Bina Shah has launched an online campaign to get a street in Karachi named after Sabeen

UPDATE: June 2016: KMC names street after Perveen Rehman, Sabeen Mahmud

2 Responses

  1. just stumbled on this piece and found it quite touching, as all great struggles for justice are. best of luck.


  2. […] Sabeen Mahmud: Inclusive spaces and #tree4Sabeen by Beena Sarwar, Journeys to Democracy […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: