Two years after Sabeen Mahmud's death, we look at how the institution she created survived its darkest hour
It's an ordinary Tuesday evening in April at T2F: by 6pm a large screen has been erected in the corner of the gallery for a documentary presentation. Rows of chairs surround the screen awaiting guests who begin to trickle in a half hour later.
Upstairs in the cafe, about a dozen people at wooden tables converse over cups of tea. The atmosphere here is cheerful, relaxed. Behind a closed door, though, more strenuous preparations are underway: T2F's team is gearing up for the Creative Karachi Festival (held this past weekend). The Creative Karachi Festival, first organised in 2014 by T2F founder Sabeen Mahmud, is a celebration of everything T2F stands for: the spirit of community, a safe space for the arts, a meeting point for creatives and people who care.
But this year's Creative Karachi Festival is different. It is made distinct by Sabeen's absence, for she was killed on April 24 2015 after hosting the talk Unsilencing Balochistan: Take Two at T2F. Her death rocked Karachi to its core and T2F, the institution she'd lovingly nurtured and helmed with great precision, was thrown into chaos.
Given all this, it's a remarkable feat that T2F is, in the present day, as much of a cultural hub as it was before.
Sitting in an office off the cafe, current T2F Director Marvi Mazhar recalls what she terms "a dark period for T2F."
"Thinking about T2F immediately after Sabeen's death was very difficult, and reactions were varied. A lot of people felt anger towards the city. Some people thought T2F should be closed. Some people thought it should be community-owned. Others wondered if anyone could ever take Sabeen's place."
In the days following Sabeen's death, all events at T2F were cancelled pending further notice though the cafe did open for business. Marvi confesses that the one thing that kept T2F's team going -- and the 'Dil Phaink' team she was also part of at the time as a consultant -- was the upcoming PeaceNiche exhibition in London that was going to be held on May 15 2015. Sabeen and the team had been prepping for this exhibition for several months.
"Sabeen's mother Mahenaz Mahmud said, 'the show in London must be put together no matter what.' So we landed in London and it was an overwhelming experience. We cried when we put the exhibition together. That was the moment we realised that we, the team, were scared to go back to Karachi," says Marvi.
"After Sabeen, my family asked me to quit T2F, telling me that at least my life would be safe," says longtime employee Chand. "And yes, many times I did think I would give it up. Each night before bed I would tell myself: I will not go to T2F tomorrow. And yet my steps would take me to T2F every day.”
Chand Singhara, one of T2F's earliest employees, agrees. He was also part of the team travelling to London immediately after Sabeen's death. "I wasn’t supposed to go to London," he reveals. "But she asked me to get my passport made. The entire office helped me fill out the UK visa application form and Sabeen conducted a mock interview and passed me. She also went with me when I was called in for my visa interview. When do directors do so much for their employees? And then, when my visa arrived, Sabeen told me that she’d take me many places."
"When the time came to go to London," he continues, "we cried when we headed to the airport, we cried when we landed, we cried when we worked. But we tried our level best to do everything the way she would have wanted. And then after we returned... my family asked me to quit T2F, telling me that at least my life would be safe. And yes, many times I did think I would give it up. Each night before bed I would tell myself: I will not go to T2F tomorrow. And yet my steps would take me to T2F every day.”
It is precisely this attitude that made T2F's first few events post-Sabeen possible.
"We hosted a film screening: Double Hai – Story of the London Bus by Danial Riaz on June 12," says Marvi. "That was the first event, and at that point T2F was still floundering. I then decided to volunteer as a caretaker -- as a chowkidaar basically! I didn't have a title, I would show up here and hang around for two hours. I felt very strongly that if T2F had closed its doors it would've been like another death in the city."
Sara Nisar agrees. Sara began working with T2F in 2011 as an intern and quickly became a key member of T2F's team when Sabeen appointed her Communications Manager. “Getting T2F back on its feet was the hardest thing we could've done," she says. "Things only started looking up after Ramzan, honestly. Before that, there was this constant back and forth: should we continue with T2F or shut it down? T2F felt incomplete without Sabeen’s stamp of approval, and we had to contend with people saying 'things just aren't the same.' In reply I would say ’ghalat nahi hai bus alag hai’'. I told them the worst was over and if we survived that, we could go through this.”
T2F hosted its first event post-Sabeen in June. That's when current Director Marvi Mazhar decided to volunteer as a caretaker. "I didn't have a title, I would show up here and hang around for two hours. I felt very strongly that if T2F had closed its doors it would've been like another death in the city," she says.
From May to August T2F was "virtually deserted," admits Chand. "During that time we were afraid of losing our jobs. We also had to contend with the fear that someone might just walk in and kill us. And then, day after day, nobody would show up at T2F and that loneliness was even more agonising [than the fear]."
It was during this time that key decisions about T2F's management needed to be made, and it was decided that Marvi would step in to take the helm.
"With Sabeen's mother's consent and approval it was decided that I would try to move things forward, and from August to November I worked to build up T2F's calendar. I had to understand the systems, I had to understand Sabeen's templates, I went through her notes... and you know what? Sabeen truly made T2F for Karachi. The directions Sabeen left, the systems she put in place, they were so clear that anyone could have stepped in and figured them out." says Marvi.
Even as Marvi took the helm challenges remained.
"So many people from the original team have left," says Marvi. "Either because of security threats, or because it's emotionally very difficult to be here. But we had to find a way to go on."
Sara, for example, no longer works directly at T2F, having taken time off to focus on her degree -- she's now studying graphic design at the University of Karachi.
"I think Marvi is doing a fantastic job at T2F," says Sara. "For me, deciding to leave T2F was the hardest thing ever, but I had to leave it because of my thesis and also, I just needed to take a breather. At that time, around December, nothing mattered to me.”
Chand remains at T2F. "People ask me why I stayed on," he says. "I reply, 'How can I run from my own self?’ This place is very important, it cannot be built again. We will adapt. Sabeen had made us flexible from the beginning."
It's important that the organisation move ahead, says Marvi. "You can't stagnate. No one is Sabeen and no one can -- or should -- live in her shadow. But we will always remain true to her ethos."
Bin Yameen, who has been with T2F since 2007 and now runs its cafe, has not left either. "I began as a server but now I'm a pro at handling customers and managing groceries. Sabeen madam taught me so much, like how to deal with people who weren’t the best (she emphasised that I mustn’t be rude to them). I also learned how to use email and Skype so if we had issues we could reach out to her. This place feels like home," he adds. "No one can replace Sabeen but we needed to fill the void."
For Marvi, adapting meant finding a way to carry on Sabeen's legacy while developing an identity of her own as Director. "I went back to T2F's original mission: to promote art, culture and advocacy," she says. "So I started working very hard on the culture side. Now we're getting deeper into issues, like we just hosted the Aks Festival which focused on the transgender community."
"Whoever might step in as Director of T2F," Marvi continues, "will have a certain vision. And that's very important for the organisation: to move ahead. you can't stagnate. No one is Sabeen and no one can -- or should -- live in her shadow. But we will always remain true to her ethos."
November 2015 onward Marvi's effort paid off and T2F's calendar filled up. Still, running a space like T2F, which endeavours to host as many free events as possible, requires a certain wizardry -- and relies heavily on the generosity of its patrons. At present T2F is funded by donations and the Open Society Foundations (OSF).
"75 percent of all events held here are hosted free of charge," says Marvi. "And we're committed to maintaining that ratio. But it isn't easy. A single event costs us Rs4000 or more. Sabeen's idea was that every person attending an event at T2F should donate Rs100 as a minimum donation. Some people do, but many don't."
"Sabeen didn't know how to ask for money, you know. But I'm different. So now, after every event, I ask people to please donate to us," Marvi laughs. "People don't realise we have eight air conditioners running at all times. Video projection, audio -- we provide everything for free, and we've not said no to anyone who wants to work with us. Today, with the Creative Karachi Festival coming up, we're almost running on empty."
At present, a single event at T2F costs Rs4000 or more. Seventy-five percent of all events are free of charge. Unless the city takes ownership of this space via donations, sustaining T2F's contributions will become very hard.
"T2F is Sabeen's gift to Karachi," says Marvi. "Why should we always file for foreign donations? To the people who say 'T2F's doors should never close,' I reply: 'well then, you should give us Rs1000 or Rs3000 from your salary every month."
Sabeen's business model involved 'fun-raising' events like The Creative Karachi Festival, the idea being that people should enjoy themselves even as they contribute to the arts. And so this year's Creative Karachi Festival is expected to draw in donations. Still, a need remains.
"I tell people: give back," says Marvi. "We're planning to start a formal fundraising campaign after T2F where we identify our budget and ask people to either adopt certain responsibilities or give monthly."
"T2F has taken so much," adds Marvi. "It has seen every kind of event... including a funeral. It must -- it will -- go on."
For information on how to support T2F, click here.