Sabeen Mahmud: the woman who seeded ideas

The frequency with which you get to know how phenomenal a person was by reading their eulogy is increasing. First it was the marketing director of a popular English daily, Masood Hamid, for whom there were only words of admiration: the people he mentored and the professionalism he brought to an industry where that is scarce. Now, it is The Second Floor’s (T2F)’s director, Sabeen Mahmud, who was also shot dead by unknown terrorists.

As outrage poured in on Twitter, a last remaining forum we can safely express anguish on with less likelihood of being shot ourselves, many talked of the need to keep her last tweet alive, as if supporting the ancient belief that your last thoughts are what you take with you to the afterlife. In it she supported the cause of exposing the oppression in Balochistan. To find out how unpopular this cause is, one needs only to pay genuflection to the woman on Twitter and then brace yourself for the vitriol. The accusations of being anti-state roll in like a parade.

Let the brutality and unfairness end at her death. Let us not only confine Sabeen to any single cause she fought because it is reductive. Sabeen defined herself: post-modern flower child, unabashed Mac snob, Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen devotee, Tetris addict, West Wing and House MD fanatic and, finally, someone who “will die for Hugh Laurie”. They did not let her die for Hugh Laurie. Her most momentous contribution, however, was T2F. As an art advocate Sabeen brought that one thing so severely essential to our country: a conjugal bed of ideas.

Think of any great idea, concept or turnaround and a coffee place or art studio of some sort will make its way to the origin. Credits have poured in for Sabeen for T2F being the place where they first learned about the craft of writing literature, painting, singing or orating. From a business angle, it was a space where innovation thrived and entrepreneurial success stories were discussed, crushing away the vacuum of hoarding knowledge and attitudes that inspire change. It was a place young people allowed ideas to breathe, seeding non-conformity and that elixir of life: vitality.

The biggest myth of our century is that ideas are born out of some mystical eureka moment. They are not. Rather, they form like a network of nerves with varying connection points and influences. Steven Johnson, popular science author and media theorist, says the beginning of the Renaissance started with coffee houses and art centres, places where people were free of judgement and allowed their “show hunches” to proliferate into concrete and testable concepts and theories.

One of the biggest needs of intellectually throttled Karachi was such a place: a place to hear how others survive. How they survive real violence and that of the mind, how they still make things come together despite the cynicism and the envy, the traditionalism and the anachronism, how they suggest people work in the tiny basements of their minds to gnaw at an idea till it is ready to be cast into the light of the harsh world. Sabeen, said to be the softest and gentlest of souls, is not going to be there to catalyse the continuation of the space but if we have to truly honour her, we must start the construction of these places in every nook and corner of our country — bookshops, cafes, art studios, ultimately converting our homes into centres of free thinking and beauty — and allow tiny networks of possibilities to thrive.

If the aim was to spread terror, the unidentified terrorists have won. There is no winning against fanaticism, especially if it is sponsored by those in power now. Violence, by its very nature, is the extinguishing of light. However, if Sabeen has taught us one thing, it is that art lives on. That music, poetry and resistance literature all validate us; we do not validate it. When asked what superpower she would like to have, Sabeen said, “I would like to wave my magic wand and de-weaponise Karachi.” Falling to a bullet, Sabeen has left us grieving and pained but hopefully not without the anger we need to bring these senseless killings to an end.

The government’s knee-jerk reaction of inquiry, report and arrests of unrelated criminals will no longer do. Far too many people have lived outside the law in Pakistan and nobody deserves to be silenced, certainly not someone who could have brought about a mini-renaissance in this marred, truth-resistant nation. Regretful and remorseful that I did not know Sabeen Mahmud, I scrolled her Twitter timeline searching for that one thing that connected me to her somehow — a quote, a line or a thought — I followed her, knowing it is too late anyway, then there, next to her bio, it read: “follows you”.

I was reminded of Sylvia Plath when she wrote: “I am, I am, I am”.

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