Sabeen was always a woman made of different stuff

Kamila Shamsie writes about her lifelong friend Sabeen Mahmud.

“Be careful,” I said to my childhood friend Sabeen Mahmud when I saw her in London in 2013, soon after she’d received a death threat – neither the first nor last. “Someone has to fight them,” she replied.

Sabeen was always a woman made of different stuff, thanks in large measure to the two great influences of her life: her mother, Mahnaz (shot twice during the attack), from whom she inherited her socialist tendencies, and her friend and mentor Zaheer Kidvai (Zak) who introduced her to the idea of counterculture, via everything from Abbie Hoffman to revolutionary Urdu poets. While most of us at our elite school in Karachi lived in a fairly apolitical bubble, Sabeen was developing class-consciousness and identifying political heroes. Post-university, when most of her schoolfriends were choosing not to return to an increasingly embattled city, she decided to take another approach.

In 2007, the community space T2F (originally called The Second Floor, after its location in an office building) was born. It quickly became the city’s leading venue for concerts, readings, science courses, coffee drinking, art exhibitions, Pakistan’s first Civic Hackathon, and, of course, political activism. Everything that went on at T2F represented some facet of Sabeen’s own, astonishingly wide-ranging interests. While she was far from being a national figure, with every year, she and T2F gained prominence and credibility for fighting to make civil society matter – whether the issue was minority rights, opposition to religious extremism or freedom of expression – she brought these issues into T2F, taking to the internet and the streets in protest and solidarity.

I can’t think of a single thing to make this any less horrible.

This was a woman equally at home soldering wires, discussing Urdu poetry, playing cricket, attending every progressive political demonstration in Karachi, singing the back catalogue of Pink Floyd, and being my self-proclaimed “geek-squad for life”. In 2013, she took on the religious fundamentalists by countering their “say no to Valentine’s Day” propaganda with posters saying “Pyaar hone dein” (Let there be love). Later that same year, she helped form a human chain around a church in solidarity with Pakistan’s Christian community after an attack on a church in Peshawar.

Those of us who loved and admired Sabeen now find ourselves asking: why?

I can’t think of a single answer.

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