Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Jul-Aug 2013

The reluctant non-conformist

The Director of T2F, Sabeen Mahmud, in profile
(Photograph by Malika Abbas/White Star)
(Photograph by Malika Abbas/White Star)

“Why can’t there be a space… where I can go with my mother and play a game of Ludo and not feel out of place?”

T2F Director Sabeen Mahmud never wanted to walk the off-beaten path; she simply walked, or actually ran full speed in the direction she wanted to. Never mind that everyone else seemed to be going in the opposite direction. She barely noticed. She was too busy running.

How to make friends and influence people

In 2006, as Mahmud was leaving college, everyone she knew was going abroad and she found herself wondering…

“How do you make new friends in a city like Karachi? How do you just go up to someone and say, ‘hi, this is my story, what’s yours?’ When you go to a restaurant or a café, people go with their friends or family, they don’t start a conversation with people at another table… and I just felt we needed something like that… a place where people can come and not be judged.”

Thus, two magic words came to her – community space.

“An inclusive space where different kinds of people can be comfortable.”

A self-described “generalist” in school, Mahmud had an insatiable curiosity. Now, she wanted to share that curiosity.

“I thought if I’m interested in art and technology and graphic design and astronomy and one hundred other things… all at once, then why can’t there be a space where we can have activities around all these?”

But how do you go from having a ‘wouldn’t it be cool if’ pipe dream to actually following that dream? For that we have to go back to the future.

Swimming lessons

In 1989, Mahmud met her first love, and his name was Macintosh.

“I saw that [futuristic] computer and I was like, this is what I want to do… anything that involves this thing – this beautiful, beautiful piece of art.”

A couple years later, she would get her wish fixing Macs for an Apple dealership run by Zaheer Kidwai (aka ‘Zak’), the man who would become one of her greatest mentors.

“He said, ‘Kood jao swimming pool may, bus itna dekho ke swimming pool may pani hai, whether or not you can swim is not relevant because you can figure it out’.”

Zak taught her about responsibility and risk taking. She recalls how when she was 17, he left her to manage his business while he went on leave for three months, telling her that if she ruined his business, “Koi baat nahin, aik dusri company khol lengay”.

This ‘what’s the worst that could happen’ mentality is what led her in 2007, with hardly any money, to create the NGO PeaceNiche, and the flagship project of PeaceNiche was The Second Floor Café (now called T2F). So began three of the most exciting and difficult years of her life.

The room that houses the crazy ones

This is what the sign says on the door to T2F’s current business office and I’m sure this is what it felt like to run T2F during those first three years. She describes it as both “amazing” and “traumatic”.

On the one hand, here it was – her community space, her field of dreams. She had built it and they were coming. Their first event was an Open Mic, hosted by comic Saad Haroon, followed by a reading by poet Zeeshan Shahid, and it just went on from there. There were book readings and lectures on evolution and tabla players and indie rock concerts and art exhibitions and discussions on climate change.

“I remember in one of the Philosophy 101 sessions, someone got up and made a presentation on waste management at the end of the session [she laughs]… this is how weird things would just happen.”

On the other hand, there was the question of money. She had none. In a blog post, she describes how she, “maxed out seven credit cards, took loans to pay off loans, didn’t earn a penny from PeaceNiche… sleeping barely two to three hours a night for several years, fretting endlessly about meeting payroll and managing cash flow. Much of this was self-inflicted trauma.

“I just turned down a lot of money… I had this burning need to start. I did not want to wait to prove to some random third person that this is important, that it’s important to me.”

Yet in 2010, she managed to achieve both. One of her T2F regulars turned out to be a consultant for the Open Society Foundation (OSF) – an internationally renowned grant-making institution – who wanted to help. Call it serendipity, call it karma, either way, PeaceNiche now has an institutional grant from OSF. But those three years took their toll and there was just one thing that kept her going – and still does.

The rebel in the family

The emotion is present in Mahmud’s voice as she tells me about the biggest influence in her life – her mother.

“My grandparents were well off but my mother was fiercely independent and never wanted to take anything from them. She rejected the lifestyle she could have had.”

This rejection of the establishment, of the status quo, of conformity was never intentional for Mahmud. She was simply given the freedom and confidence to do what she wanted.

“My mother told me, ‘you can do what you want… but you have to make your own way’.”

And so she did. She played cricket obsessively (she became so good at one point, she was playing on two school teams simultaneously), she fell in love with computers and was learning to solder wires while her friends were at the beach and she started an NGO from scratch – and not because she wanted to be a non-conformist.

“I was what I was, and my mother just gave me the confidence to be what I was.”

She giggles as she talks about their relationship now.

“It’s almost unnatural… we spend so much time together, we’re like ‘this is too good to be true, let’s have a fight’.”

If you build it…

So there you have it. Sabeen Mahmud. A rebel’s daughter who gave up a life of Tetris, Mac doodling and professional cricket (after three knee injuries) to start a NGO that promotes the arts, culture, science, technology, activism and advocacy… and she did it all just to make some new friends, and maybe start some interesting conversations. Six years and nearly 600 events later, T2F has to its credit national and international press coverage, countless donations and the kind of cult following typically reserved for rock bands. Mahmud doesn’t see that though.

“I didn’t think this is a big deal, this is just a small little community space.”

But that word ‘community’ still hits home.

“When people say… we really feel at home here… that has been like balloons and ice-cream, I have been living on that for the past six years.”

So what is she most proud of? A group of young people in Lyari.

“They just started a youth café… [she beams] they want to model it on T2F.”

Rapid fire… (fascinating tidbits about Mahmud)

Would you rather be smart or funny?
Smart, no wait, funny, it’s very important to be able to make people laugh.

If you could travel anywhere, where would you go?

If you could time travel, would you go to the past or the future?
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak’s garage.

What would you have for your last meal?
Dim sum.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I’d like to wave my magic wand and de-weaponise Karachi.

What three words describe you best?
Mad, obsessive and passionate.

If you could choose between doing this and playing professional cricket, injury-free?
[She thinks about it] This.

What is the one thing missing from your life right now?

Is love and marriage around the corner for you?
Love, yes, I hope so, sometime soon, it better be. But if I ever announce that I’m getting married [she laughs], I hope that my friends will remind me about all my ranting and raving about marriage. No love is worth getting married.

Qasim Makkani is Director, Creative and Strategy, Spectrum Y&R.