Aurora Magazine

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Photo by Malika Abbas/White Star.

The girl I knew – Sabeen Mahmud [1974-2015]

A closer look into Sabeen's work philosophy, her passion for everything Macintosh, and her journey of creating T2F.
Updated 24 Apr, 2017 10:12am

When she walked into a room, people noticed. When she related a story, those around her listened with rapt attention. When she reached out to involve you in a project or a mission, you had to respond. That was just the kind of person Sabeen Mahmud was. A bubbly, passionate young woman full of life and love – driven to make the world a more beautiful and bearable place for all those around her.

You could have a debate with her, disagree on her perspective, have issue with the language she used or the colours she preferred; maybe her choice of music was not what you liked; perhaps what amused her was not quite your cup of tea. But one thing is for sure, there was no way you could ignore Sabeen Mahmud no matter who you were or what your relationship was with this young woman.

I remember meeting Sabeen over two decades ago in Karachi at the Kidvai household. She and I shared a love of the Mac and of the Kidvais – and before we knew it, we became a part of what was an extended family. We celebrated birthdays and festivals together. We joined hands and offered unconditional support during serious illnesses or surgical procedures. We spent many an hour exchanging stories, watching movies or just partaking of a variety of food that we all enjoyed. Sabeen was a part of my life – one way or the other – since the early 90s, and speaking about her now in the past tense is unreal and heartbreaking.

A lot has been written about Sabeen since the unbelievable and devastating night of April 24, 2015 when she was suddenly and violently taken from all those who loved, adored and admired her, leaving a void that many are still struggling to fill and come to terms with.

"Most of what has been written so far has focused entirely on Sabeen the activist. However, she was much more than that. She was a multifaceted, extremely talented and passionate human being with a diverse range of interests. Whether it was music, books, art, design, coding or cricket, Sabeen threw herself completely into whatever interested her. "

When, as a young teenager during her college holidays, she joined Solutions Unlimited – a computer hardware company that believed in providing solutions as opposed to just supplying boxes – Zaheer Kidvai took the bold step of leaving her in-charge while he was away in Hong Kong for about a month. During that period she learnt more about hardware and soldering and computer systems than most people learn in a lifetime. She ran the business like a pro and collected payables that had been outstanding for many months. Amazing? Yes. But not for Sabeen Mahmud. That was who she was.

When I moved back to Karachi from Hong Kong in the early 90s in order to join Enabling Technologies as CEO, Sabeen came on board as one of the early employees of the company. If anyone thinks she was an intern or a junior employee, nothing could have been further from the truth. From day one she gained the respect of everyone who worked in the company. One cannot ask for respect – you have to earn it and that is exactly what she did. She worked harder and longer hours than anyone else.

You often hear complaints about the lack of commitment and focus that young people have. Not so with Sabeen. She took ownership of projects and the lead on most of them.

"Sabeen's project management abilities resulted in her being the person who created timelines and allocated tasks. No one objected. We all knew that she was the best person for the job."

Even in the early days of her career, she impressed us all with her organisational abilities. Folder names, file naming conventions, storing and classification of data were things she was very particular about. She used to say if files were not named and arranged in the right folders on all computers, it would lead to chaos when anyone needed to access them or to make changes to the content.

In her years at Enabling Technologies, Sabeen was one of the key people who worked day and night to develop the Faiz Ahmed Faiz multimedia CD, the 50 years of Art in Pakistan CD, the Jafferjees product catalogue CD, 50 years of IBM CD (built on a Mac), the history of ICI touchscreen based system – all pioneering works in the early days of interactive multimedia. She taught herself Macromedia Authorware and Macromedia Director and was always a perfectionist. ‘Jaggies’ drove her crazy. She couldn’t understand how people allowed such things to leave their desks without fixing the deficiencies.

She ensured that nothing was handed over to a client until it was tested and retested. This is what professionalism is all about. Pride in one’s work is what we often don’t see in someone her age. Even if the product was developed gratis, it had to reflect what the company stood for. Having someone like her as part of our core group was a true blessing.

When she started Beyond Information Technology Solutions (BITS) with Zak, Sabeen went on to create some of the best work in the industry whether it was in the area of Interactive Computer Based Training or corporate multimedia products for some of the leading brands in the country.

Then the concept of The Second Floor (T2F) was born. She dived straight into it with money borrowed from her grandmother’s health fund. A lot of people thought she was crazy – and crazy she was. That is the kind of madness this country needs more of.

"T2F became a place for artists, writers, musicians, comedians and activists and the centre for discourse on science, politics, literature and the arts. She put her heart and soul into creating it and it showed."

You went there to have a cup of coffee or a refreshing drink and stayed for a conversation with a complete stranger. That was exactly what Sabeen had hoped for and worked toward. And magically, that is what began to happen.

During an interview I conducted with Sabeen on my online show In the Line of Wire I asked her how she initially got the message out regarding T2F. She said that she did what any sensible marketer with no budget should do.

Once the logo, colours, fonts and style guide for the T2F brand were defined, she set up a one page website asking people to register if they wanted to be alerted when the project became a reality. She developed a one-pager regarding the project and sent it to family and friends asking them to send it to their friends. She abhorred spamming and wanted to avoid it at all costs. It was only those who registered through the website who eventually became part of a mailing list, an SMS list, a Facebook page, all of which grew exponentially as T2F became everyone’s favourite hangout. There was little use of paper other than the visiting card. Protecting the environment was something that was very important to her.

Sabeen was a fascinating person who had so much more to contribute to Pakistan and the world. Over the past few weeks I have thought about all the unfinished projects that she spoke of and wanted us to be a part of. Some friends have talked about starting those projects in her memory but I am not too sure that is a good idea. Without her drive, her passion and her creativity, they would be just ordinary and ordinary or mediocre were not words that identified with the young woman with the knockout smile and the endearing personality who won the hearts of so many around the world.

I don’t know why but I still expect Sabeen to walk in through Zak’s library door, walk into something or the other as she was prone to do, and then break into infectious laughter. Rest in peace Sabeen. Give Steve Jobs a high-five for me. Tell him Tim can’t quite cut it.

Jehan Ara is President, P@SHA, The Big Bird @TheNest i/o.