Pakistan’s largest city has a well-earned reputation for terrorism and violence, but until the day it claimed her own life, Sabeen Mahmud was determined to show that there’s much more to Karachi. During a visit last month, she told me she was determined not to let fear paralyze the vibrant life that came naturally in a once thriving cosmopolitan city now wrecked by sectarian and ethnic tension.
Her coffee shop and performance space, T2F (The Second Floor), was designed to bring people together — for music, dance, art exhibitions and dialog, sometimes over divisive issues. Friday night featured a panel discussion titled “Unsilencing Balochistan,” about Pakistan’s restive western province. Mahmud, 40, was fatally gunned down as she left the event in a shooting that also left her mother critically injured.
Her mother, Mahnaz Fazil, was a teacher who encouraged Sabeen to pursue her dreams, which she did by defying many stereotyped expectations for young women in Pakistan. She played cricket competitively, protested on the streets for various human rights causes, entered the tech world as a 17-year-old and then left it all to start T2F, a thriving island of civilized discourse and culture.
That will stop now, but if Mahmud’s influence remains, not for long, say friends. “They silenced you but your voice will be heard for ever [sic],” wrote Tofiq Pasha Mooraj, a prominent Karachi media personality who took me to visit T2F.
Like so many others, he is shell-shocked as he eulogized Mahmud in a Facebook post: “You spoke up for what you believed. For the freedom of speech. For the freedom from oppression.”