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“Creative Karachi” by Sabeen Mahmud

Here are excerpts from a case narrative that Sabeen Mahmud wrote in 2013 for publication in Innovations journal.

Twenty-four years ago, I fell in love for the first time—with a Macintosh Plus computer. It had a tiny 9-inch screen, an 8-MHz processor, 1 MB of RAM, and no hard disk. It was the computer for “the rest of us,” and it profoundly altered the course of my life. As Steve Jobs said, you can only connect the dots looking backwards, and I now realize how significant the Mac was in shaping my anti-establishment, anti-war, pro-freedom worldview. The Mac became a portal into myriad subcultures, from beat poetry to the Yippies, fueled by the dark meanderings of Pink Floyd. My mother, Mahenaz, stoked my socialist tendencies, and my mentor Zak, who was in attendance at Woodstock, introduced me to Lenny Bruce, Abbie Hoffman, The Whole Earth Catalog, and a host of revolutionary Urdu poets. I slipped into a solitary stupor for a couple of years and taught myself programming and the essentials of graphic design, while living the counterculture dream in my head. Who needed people when one had MacPaint, MacDraw, MacWrite, Tetris, Pink Floyd, and Party Slims Chili Chips (Karachi’s equivalent of Jolt Cola)?

I spent my college years, the early 1990s, valiantly trying to drop out. Just about everything, however mundane, was more exciting than the stifling confines of a classroom. Around this time, I started developing a conscious, virulent distaste for traditional education. I wrote a lot of bad poetry and started getting involved in protest movements. Whenever I returned to Karachi from Lahore, I’d run straight to Solutions Unlimited, an Apple Computer dealership where I learned how to solder wires, install hard drives, and swap motherboards, for intellectual respite and rejuvenation. Zak would further corrupt my mind and make me believe that it was entirely possible to recreate the hippie movement of the 1960s in Karachi.

After college, I spent the next several years developing multimedia products and exploring the intersection between technology, art, literature, and music. The dotcom boom brought with it a deranged sense of empowerment that led me to believe that anarchism could work and that the Internet would enable us to topple corporations. Then many bubbles burst and reality set in. I built websites by day and picketed by night. But, by the mid-2000s, consumed by my awareness of the military-industrial complex, I was getting increasingly restless. Karachi was a cesspool of chaos, “clean-up operations,” and fragmentation. People were leaving in droves, our politicians continued to make promises they had no intention of fulfilling, and the country lurched from one military dictatorship to another. People had become apathetic and a sense of hopelessness engulfed the city. All my friends had gone to university abroad and had chosen not to return. I began to wonder why I was wasting “the best years of my life” helping behemoths like Unilever and Shell peddle toothpaste and motor oil. It was a depressing time and I experienced my first existential crisis. I accepted an offer to move to Delhi to oversee web strategy for a public interest journalism initiative.

While waiting for my visa to come through, I started fantasizing about creating a public space for free speech and creative expression. I had long conversations with myself: How could we become agents of social change if our theater practitioners had no rehearsal spaces, if our underground musicians had no venues to perform in, if our emerging artists had nowhere to hang their work? How could creative dissidents even learn of each other’s existence, let alone build and cultivate a community, without physical spaces where people could talk politics? In fact, years of military rule, terrible violence, and a range of other events had stripped people of their political will and the desire to be the change they wished to see. I had grown up hearing stories about Pakistan’s teahouses where poets and revolutionaries would gather, and I had seen countless photographs of inspirational leaders from the women’s movement being tear-gassed for demanding their rights. What would it take to create a space that espoused liberal, secular values through its programming and projects? I wondered if I could create a minuscule postmodern hippie outpost, a safe haven for artists, musicians, writers, poets, activists, and thinkers— essentially anyone who wanted to escape the relentless tyranny of the city for a little while. If I built it, would anyone come? …

She did build it, and they did come. The space Sabeen founded was called The Second Floor, or T2F. Here is how Sabeen concludes her piece:

T2F has, slowly and organically, become the hub of artistic and intellectual activity that I had envisaged six years ago. While it has been a very difficult journey, it has been rewarding beyond my wildest imagination. If I had made a business plan, T2F would have not gone beyond the idea stage. It is still financially unstable, but the model is workable and replicable. By creating this space, I have had the honor and privilege of meeting hundreds of talented individuals who have renewed my faith in humanity. Many of them have become dear friends, coconspirators, and advisors, and I look forward to continuing this shared journey of creativity, rabble-rousing, and resistance.

I met Sabeen when I visited The Second Floor in 2010. Here is a brief video clip I took during that visit:

[youtube width=”600″ height=”365″ video_id=”Y1GqWunqYpU”]

Of course, Sabeen is the person at the end of the video asking about the reception on my recently acquired iPhone 4. The photo at the top of this post is a picture I took during that visit of Sabeen’s mentor Zak @kidvai wearing a t-shirt she had designed.

The purpose of my visit to The Second Floor was research for a study of competition and markets in Pakistan. It was largely due to the experience visiting The Second Floor that my coauthors (Sara Shroff and Elmira Bayrasli) and I decided to title our report “Creating a Place for the Future.” For the same reason I closed the video I produced to frame the report at a coffeehouse (Politics & Prose in DC, to be specific … where I am sitting now as I compose this blog post. The relevant section starts at 9:40). To me it seemed that was what Sabeen was trying to do: create a place for the future. As time went on I became even more appreciative of the deep historical precedents supporting Sabeen’s theory of change.

Sabeeen and I subsequently stayed in contact. In 2013 I was delighted when she accepted our invitation to author a case narrative for a special issue of Innovations we were putting together on Accelerating Entrepreneurship.

As many of you will already know, Sabeen was killed in Karachi a week ago. The Economist published her obituary today. You can also learn more about Sabeen’s life, and the circumstances of her murder, in this article posted by the The New Yorker on Tuesday. Many friends of Sabeen’s have offered remembrances during the past week, including these by Kamila Shamsie and Asra Nomani.

Sabeen Mahmud was simply the most unassuming and the most courageous entrepreneur I have ever met. I do urge all to read her story in her words.