I first spoke to Sabeen in December 2007, after a friend put us in touch. The friend told me about T2F, a café and public space in Karachi created by Sabeen to nurture and promote cultural dialogue. The friend suggested it as a place to launch my upcoming book, The Geometry of God, but because I have tremendous anxiety about book launches, I hesitated. The friend insisted, and then Sabeen called me, and her laughter was warm and contagious.
I was and have always remained amazed that Sabeen cared enough to talk me into it, and to organize the event with such gusto. At the time, I was one of very few English-language writers living in Lahore. I was growing accustomed to being talked down by some Urdu language writers for writing in English, while, on the other hand, being a nobody among the English-speaking “name” families. I’d been living in Lahore long enough to become inured to its closed, cliquish circles. And to being asked, over and over again, “What’s your father’s name?” (a question I never heard put to male writers), followed by blank looks morphing into boredom.
So when Sabeen called, I thought – wow. She didn’t ask who I was related to or whether I knew so-and-so. She didn’t try to fit me into some artificial scheme of being and belonging. She just laughed and said it would be fun and of course I gave in, and even, somehow, survived the reading.
I later got to know that Sabeen lived with her mother (an educationist) and grandmother. She had no airs. She did not frequent fancy drawing rooms. She was a tech geek turned activist with diverse influences. She was an unabashed Steve Jobs worshipper, listened to 1980s pop, loved Banksy (frequently posting the image of a man chucking flowers instead of missiles on her facebook page), and was funniest in Urdu.
In the summer of 2011, I visited T2F to catch up with Sabeen and to play with her dazzling cat, Tetris (named after the Mac puzzle game). It was three weeks after a group of armed men had robbed the café, but she was calm. The robbery took place during a show called “Art Loot Maar” (meaning, ironically, art theft). She changed the subject, seeming to prefer talking about me. I’d recently visited Portland, Oregon, so we talked about how cool it was, and then we met a group of young writers whom she’d asked to join us, because that is what she loved to do: bring people together, in the most relaxed and stimulating way.
Afterword, she sent me a message that I have with me still. “Am kicking myself for not taking a picture of you and Tetris.” I wrote back to say I was kicking myself even harder.
I still am. I took no picture of her or her cat, who died not long after.
T2F kept swelling in popularity. I’ve never known a space in Pakistan to be so inclusive of class, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, and cultural scope. Sabeen organized book launches in Urdu and English, western and eastern musical evenings, tabla classes, film screenings, and talks on current affairs, politics, science, philosophy, literature, and more. The café included a gallery, a discount bookshop (with books in Urdu and English), and a little stall selling mugs, posters, CDs, and more. Everyone was welcome. No boundaries. T2F defined spaciousness, because its maker, Sabeen, was the definition of spaciousness. Her spirit was, to borrow an idiom from Colum McCann, “as wide as love.”
The words are taken from McCann’s short story, “Everything in this Country Must,” and its title comes from this moment “… I was shivering and wet and cold and scared, because Stevie and the draft horse were going to die, since everything in this country must.”
Pakistanis are familiar with the lament. We are shown, daily, that everything must die – everything good and meaningful, that is. What is brutal and deadening must never die.
Sabeen was shot dead on the night of Friday, April 24th after leaving an event she organized at T2F, titled “Unsilencing Balochistan – Take 2.” The speakers were a group of Baloch activists, among them Mama Qadeer, a leader of the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, and Farzana Majeed Baloch. Both have lost loved ones.
Mama Qadeer’s son Jalil went missing in 2009, and his tortured corpse was eventually found in 2011. In an interview with the journalist and author Mohammand Hanif, Mama Qadeer lists the injuries on his son’s body “without betraying emotion, as if remembering his son’s collection of books.” But even more wrenching is when Mama Qadeer decides to take his four-year-old grandson, who was born with a hole in his heart, to see his father’s mutilated corpse. His reason: “I didn’t want him to grow up with the regret that I didn’t let him see his father one last time. So I took him and showed him his father’s body and told him everything. One of Jalil’s eyes was badly damaged and my grandson asked me who had done that to daddy. I said Pakistani agencies. And then he asked me who were Pakistani agencies. And I told him that too.”
The other speaker on that ill-fated night of April 24th was Farzana Majeed, whose brother has been missing since 2009. Since then, she has set up protest camps, first all over Balochistan and then in Karachi, attended court hearings, and led protest rallies. She tells Hanif, “International media came. TV cameras came. But they didn’t really do much. Nothing changed.”
Why are they missing? Why doesn’t any one want to hear about it?
The answer rests in the decades-long battle for an independent Balochistan, the largest and poorest province of Pakistan. Its literacy rate is the lowest in the country. Its representation in the armed forces negligible; in industry and commerce even less. Yet, it has the greatest wealth of natural resources in the country. The federal government earns billions annually from its gas fields, while Balochistan receives a pittance. The construction of the Chinese-run Gwadar Port in south Balochistan and the displacement of Baloch from their land – which China uses as a naval base – has only added to the conflict. If the province sees itself not as a part of Pakistan but as its colony, it is with reason.
Before Farzana Majeed’s brother disappeared, he was a student of English at Balochistan University, the same university where Farazana did her Masters in biochemistry. He was in an organization committed to raising awareness of Baloch rights. A number of the organization’s leaders have gone missing. Mama Qadeer’s son was also involved in politics. He was the information secretary of the Baloch Republican Party and a campaigner for Missing Persons. Before his disapperance and subsequent death, his friends had warned him that he would be next. It didn’t stop him.
When on April 24th Sabeen Mahmud organized the event “Unsilencing Balochistan – Take 2,” she knew she was taking a risk. The event was meant to be held at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), but was called off. Sabeen opened a space for dialogue with Baloch activists when every one else backed away. She apparently received a bullet in a letter a few days earlier. But she stayed true to her belief that, “Fear is just a line in your head. You can choose what side of the line you want to be on.”
Her mother, who was also shot and was in critical condition, and is now recovering, reports that two gunmen followed them on a motorcyle after they left the event. Five bullets entered Sabeen, who died before reaching the hospital. She was thirty-nine years old. The gunmen have not been identified. Many people argue that the murder may not be linked to the last event she was ever to host, but the chronology is impossible to ignore.
Since Friday, there’s been a continuous outpouring of grief for Sabeen in the media. People remind themselves to keep her legacy alive, to never give in to fear and censorship. 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. Like Sabeen, each of us must choose which side of the line of fear to live on. But at what cost? Her death comes at the heels of so many deaths for Pakistan it is hard to know which ones to name first. Must we learn to list them as stoically as Mama Qadeer lists the torture wounds on his son’s corpse? Either that, or anger impossible to bear.
But among the things Sabeen had no patience for was self-pity. One of her instagram photos was of a protest banner held against the religious cleric Abdul Aziz. The banner read: “Do not pity the dead, pity the living, and those who live without love.”
Sabeen lived the way she wanted, true to her immense vision for justice and freedom. And she will always be loved.
Uzma Aslam Khan is the author of four novels, including, most recently, Thinner than Skin. She has contributed articles to First City, Dawn, and Counterpunch. Visit her at http://uzmaaslamkhan.blogspot.com/