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Life of slain Pakistan activist celebrated in Chicago
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by Gretchen Rachel Hammond

This article shared 2764 times since Fri May 1, 2015
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T2F ( The Second Floor ) cafe in Karachi Pakistan was a personal labor of love for its founder and activist Sabeen Mahmud. Many who entered the building described it as an oasis. Nothing was suppressed or silenced there. For eight years it was a place where the limitless freedom inherent with artistic expression lined its brightly lit walls and resonated with music, the spoken word and each possibility for change art can generate.

"In order to feel idealistic and productive in an environment like this, you have to create some sort of buffer," Mahmud once said of the cafe. "In order to protect yourself from the doom and the gloom and that relentless onslaught of bad news because it can get anyone down."

On April 24, Mahmud wound up an evening's discussion at T2F which centered upon the people of Pakistan's Balochistan province who for over a decade have been taken by government forces determined to quell a movement demanding autonomy. The result, according to the Human Rights Watch, has been "dozens of enforced disappearances [of militants and activists] in which the authorities take people into custody and then deny all responsibility or knowledge of their fate or whereabouts."

Mahmud drove away from the cafe with her mother Mahenaz. At around 9:30 pm they were stopped at an intersection when reports state that gunmen drew up to the car and opened fire. Mahmud was shot five times and was pronounced dead at the scene. Her mother was seriously wounded.

The productive idealism and infectious joy found in creativity that Mahmud was determined to engender in the country she loved touched so many other lives that the shots which killed her echoed across the world. A Facebook Page was started and by May 1 I Am Sabeen had garnered almost 10,000 likes.

On April 28—three days after her funeral and some 8,000 miles away from T2F—at least forty people gathered at Daley Plaza. In a microcosm of the people who were drawn to the cafe each day there were no divides between nationalities, age or profession. They each took up a candle protected from the evening's chilly wind by a paper cup and stood in a wide circle sharing memories of the woman an editorial in Pakistan's English-language newspaper Dawn defined as "one who never backed down."

The event's organizer was actor and writer Fawzia Mirza. She told Windy City Times that she first met Mahmud during a trip to Karachi in December of last year. While there, she performed at T2F.

"While my relationship with [Mahmud] was seemingly not very long, we spent a lot of time together, I learned a lot from her and she was a huge part of changing my life," Mirza said. "The way she spoke just connected with me. She had so much love for western music, art, theatre and ideas and she wanted to blend and bring a lot of that culture to Pakistan to help it evolve and celebrate artists."

In describing T2F, Mirza said that Mahmud created a world that was as singular from the rest of Karachi as it was inclusive. "You walk in and there's this pristine room just lined with bookshelves but then you go upstairs and you know it's a true cafe intended for people to just be. It's warm and inviting and you can feel the energy of thought, ideas and possibility. You can smell coffee but you can also smell revolution."

Filmmaker Iram Parveen Bilal also walked into that world. "For my first feature we were looking for a space that would showcase the modern Pakistan," she said. "I connected with Sabeen and when the film was released she did a special screening. In August I started Pakistan's first screen-writing lab and our launch was at T2F. Sabeen was a huge supporter of it. She always figured out a way to work with you and help you. It was never 'no'."

Mahmud's welcome of any art form seeded the beginnings of a cultural renaissance in Pakistan. According to Mirza T2F served as the venue for Karachi's first open mic. "It just hadn't been done. She facilitated so much art that hadn't been done in Pakistan before. The night I performed an excerpt of my play 'Me, My Mom and Sharmila' there were personalities across the board. Here I am doing this queer play and screening some of my very queer videos. There were about eighty people who showed up ranging from 85-year-old aunties and uncles to young twenty something girls and people who could have identified as queer. There was just an amazing diversity in the room."

"I felt very safe in her space and met a lot of intellectuals," Parveen Bilal recalled. "Some of my best friends in Karachi I met through [T2F]. I'd not grown up anywhere in Pakistan where if I just walked into a building there was live music playing. It almost seemed like a virtual reality that was not the streets of Karachi. It was what [Mahmud] wanted to do. She felt in that city you needed a place for people to escape and it was a very interesting escape because you could have your left foot out on the street and your right in the cafe and you felt the difference."

"We all want to experience another country's art, culture and food but Sabeen wanted to bring them to Karachi and share them with other people just out of her love and passion," Mirza said. "She was so passionate about minority groups and making sure they weren't demonized or victimized.

Mirza added that those who found acceptance in T2F included Shia Muslims, the LGBTQ community and people who had been told by their families to give up on ideas of a career as an artist.

"Whatever those minority groups were she wanted to fight for them and give them a platform," Mirza said. "In Pakistan, people will talk about LGBTQ issues in very covert ways but she carried books on her shelves so if someone wanted to read about them they had a place where it was considered OK and normal."

After Mirza performed the excerpt of her play at T2F, it was premiered in March at a theatre festival in Karachi—an achievement she attributes to Mahmud.

In fact Mahmud's effect upon everyone with whom she came into contact was so powerful that even those who had met her briefly at an Oscar party she attended during a visit to Chicago earlier this year joined the circle at Daley Plaza.

They spoke of the woman who spent long days ensuring the survival of T2F despite a lack of resources, who adored Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, who was larger than life from a very young age, who provided opportunities for anyone who wanted simply to express themselves and to accomplish the kind of work that few in Pakistan were even prepared to even try.

"Sabeen looked after the voice of everybody she came across," attendee Nadir Khan said. "Her bravery might have been her downfall but it's certainly not going to be the end of her."

As if to add an exclamation point to that statement as the memorial came to a close, the bells of Chicago Temple rang a melody that those who knew her best agreed "Sabeen would have enjoyed."

Despite fears that T2F would close without its creator and guiding force on May 1 Mahmud's mother announced that the cafe was to open for business within two days.

The video playlist below contains multiple videos. Choose Playlist in the top left hand corner to watch videos out of order, if preferred.

This article shared 2764 times since Fri May 1, 2015
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