By Shehzad Ghias
April 25, 2015
“They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” – Banksy
Sabeen, the person, is no longer with us.
Sabeen, the idea, will live on.
Sabeen will never die twice.
Sabeen is dead, long live Sabeen.
Every society has people an entire generation looks up to; these pillars of society make it what it is. Sabeen was an institution. Her contributions to the country are monumental, and they will never be forgotten.
In a country that does not even have words for the concept of a public space, Sabeen created a place for people to come talk, debate, discuss, perform and love. Her enthusiasm and self-determination pushed us all in believing in our dreams; believing in a better future for tomorrow.
I started a fledgling youth-based theatre company with aspirations for social change in 2010. It may seem only half a decade ago but there was no bustling theatre scene in Karachi back then. Only the biggest corporations could afford to put up shows at the Arts Council, thus the only shows being performed were mega musicals. I tried competing with them for turf space, and I failed.
My dream was in tatters, and then I was introduced to Sabeen. I sent her an email as a complete stranger asking to use her space to put up socially relevant plays. She said yes. And for eight weeks, we put up theatre workshops and performances discussing gender discrimination, blasphemy laws, and terrorism amongst other things. Through theatre, we were able to have conversations around issues traditionally considered taboo in our country.
How much did I have to pay to do all that?
Today, as I sit here in Brooklyn completing my Masters in Theatre reading the outpour of love for Sabeen on my news feed, I realised how many ducklings were allowed to flourish in the space Sabeen created. Under her mentorship and support, an entire arts scene started flourishing in the city. The Acting Wheel, the Debating Circuit and countless other ideas would have been relegated to the shelf if it weren’t for Sabeen.
The entire stand-up and improv comedy community in Pakistan owes so much to Sabeen. She allowed us to perform shows when we could not afford to book any other space.
It is not just the arts; T2F has served as a cultural institution to impact all aspects of the lives of the people of Karachi. The Lyari Youth Cafe is just one example of how brightly Sabeen’s light shone across the city.
We believed we could do things because Sabeen told us we could. A friend of mine was able to go to university because Sabeen spoke to her parents. She wasn’t just a mentor; she was a friend, a confidant, a comrade in our battle against the ills of our society, leading from the front. We were comfortable because we knew we could walk in her shadow.
Hope – that is what Sabeen gave all of us. In a Facebook message shared on Facebook, Sabeen tells an individual inquiring about safety at the ‘Unsilencing Balochistan’ event that,
“Ab ye hai ke Bismillah kar ke qadam bharanay ka waqt hai.”
(Now is the time to say Bismillah and march forward.)
Upon hearing the news, I was devastated. All hope was gone. There was not going to be a better tomorrow. We had lost the lighthouse, and now we were destined to be lost souls at sea.
As I read back Sabeen’s words, I find my courage again. Even after leaving us, Sabeen has a way to inspire us. Sabeen would not have wanted us to give up now. We will never be able to fill her void but “ab ye hai ke Bismillah kar ke qadam bharanay ka waqt hai”.
We can either sit in silence, let them dictate and let the terrorists win. Or we can make a vow to ourselves to honour Sabeen’s memory like she would have wanted to.
Let us be under no illusions, we all know why Sabeen was targeted. Let us first have the courage to unequivocally state that Sabeen was not targeted after “attending a seminar” at T2F. She was targeted and shot dead for organising a talk on Balochistan. The same talk that LUMS was forced to cancel.
She was silenced for trying to un-silence Balochistan. While we sit in the National Assembly and debate the merits of a Cyber gag bill, we see the price of freedom of speech in our country; the blood of the ones we love. We pay for our freedom with our lives.
If this is a glimpse of what life is like for people in Balochistan, I admire the courage of every single Baloch that continues to live, breathe and speak in this lawless land. One loss has left me broken. I can only imagine how you find the courage every day to assemble yourself to have enough breath left to take the next step; just enough.
My mother called me after the incident and told me to be careful.
“Being courageous in Pakistan is foolish”, she said.
I agree, it is foolish, which is why we must do it. If it was easy to be courageous, we would all find our voices. It is hard, which is why we need the courage to un-silence the unspoken of, the unheard of, and the unseen.
Sabeen Mahmud, this is my promise to you, and the people who targeted you – I will not let your light shine any less bright. I will not cower in fear. I will not be silenced. They threatened you, they targeted you, they tried to silence you, but you showed courage. Now, I must do the same. If I ever feel myself losing hope or courage, I will remind myself #IAmSabeen, and for that I must carry on.
Thank you so much for everything. Your existence has meant so much more than you could have imagined. If you could only come back for a while to see the outpour of love, courage, and hope you left behind, you will know that everything you did meant so much to all of us. If only you could see everything, you will know that you did not die in vain.
Today, we mourn, but from tomorrow, we will hold the flag you left behind and keep marching on. We will continue to fight on. We will take on those who we are not allowed to criticise. We would amplify our voices after every gag order.
Waise bhi, ab darne ka waqt thori hai. Ab toh Bismillah kar ke qadam bharanay ka waqt hai.
(After all, this is not the time to be scared. This is the time to say Bismillah and march forward.)
And this is my Bismillah.
Shehzad Ghias, A graduate from the LUMS Law School and is running his own theatre production company, Cogito Productions.He works as a theatre teacher at various schools.