November 21, 2018

Eat this, Sabeen Mahmud

A trail-blazing woman who created a space for dissent in Pakistan, Sabeen Mahmud, was gunned down last night after holding a panel discussion on one of Pakistan's most taboo subjects: the crisis in Balochistan. It was held at T2F (The Second Floor), which Sabeen had created as a community space. On April 24, she had invited the vice chairman of Voice of Missing Persons, Mama Qadeer, to be part of this discussion. She was doing this because his talk had been cancelled by a major university in Lahore days earlier after pressure was applied. “>detailed stories on this and the issue of the “>piece by BBC Urdu's Wusatullah Khan. Wusat, a journalist I greatly admire for his dry sense of humour, was one of the speakers at the talk/discussion. I am no expert in Urdu, so any mistakes are all mine. I have tried to carefully convey nuance in terms of agency and stress on certain words. Thanks to journalist Iftikhar Firdous for help with words and the couplet. My apologies to Wusatullah saheb in advance.

‘Le ab goli kha’
Eat this
Wusatullah Khan

For the last one week, Sabeen Mahmud had been doubting whether after ‘Unsilencing Balochistan (Take 1)’ was cancelled at LUMS would it even take place at Karachi’s T2f? But Sabeen was very happy that it all went down successfully—15 minutes before she died.

Actually, this gathering was supposed to run for just two hours. For the first hour, Voice of Missing Persons Vice Chairman Mama Qadeer, Farzana Baloch and Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur were supposed to speak and a question-answer session was to follow. In the next hour, Sabeen thought that the media should be put in the dock and in this session at least three journalists or writers should talk about what the media’s majboorian (restrictions/compulsions) were when it came to Balochistan. Two days before Take 2, the second journalist backed out a few hours before another seminar because of personal constraints. As a result, the third journalist, meaning I, was included for the first session.

The hall was packed. Two and a half hours in, the questions were showing no signs of ending. Sabeen was also happy that, well, if not LUMS, then T2f if nothing else. And so:

Sab peh jis bar ne garani ke
That which was squashed by others
Us ko yeh naathwan utha layee
Was lifted by this slight one*

Sabeen’s NGO, PeaceNiche (Gosha-e-Amn) opened up a space 11 years earlier bringing together a café, a cheap secondhand bookstore and a hall for events on a no-profit, no-loss basis. It was a space for the people who were fed up with the suffocation that had been come from the daily shrinking of the ability to speak without fear or danger in society.
Perhaps people who were hungry to express themselves were in search for such a chance as well. As a result, there was rarely a day in the last 11 years when there wasn’t some activity at T2f. If not seminars, then art exhibitions, theatre, film screenings, poetry readings, music, people who would come wanting to hear someone special give a talk on something close to their heart…
According to Sabeen there had to be at least someone to do all of this, meaning anything could be done at T2f. But this thinking that you could do anything also took her life.
When the permission to break the silence on LUMS was not given, it should have been understood that for the rest of Pakistan Balochistan was a no-go area not just physically but also intellectually and emotionally. This is a terrain filled with landmines where you can only venture at your own risk. Don’t say you didn’t know.
By the way, what do you think, that Sabeen was murdered because a hot-head in the audience couldn’t stand what was being said at the seminar and followed Sabeen’s car on a motorcycle and opened a spray of bullets?
Not at all.

Everyone has been content for two and a half hours. What guests, what a host, what diversity of the elderly and the young, sitting on chairs, on stools and on the floor, students craning on tiptoe to get a better look, corporate professionals, writers, journalists, people from showbiz, everyone was happy that at least someone had spoken, at least a discussion was taking place somewhere, at least there was something they could hear.

No guest said anything that was not already known to everyone or had not been published or broadcast somewhere already. Missing persons, the Quetta to Islamabad long march, the historic perspective of the Balochistan crisis, the federal mode of action, extremism in Balochistan, the media’s intentional or couldn’t-be-helped silence, the nature of the armed operation, attacks on residents by separatists, possible solutions to the crisis, the helplessness of the provincial government, outside interference etc etc… none of this was such that reams of it had not been televised or printed before. Sabeen could not have been murdered just for this reason.

Sabeen was murdered because while everyone else was slowly and surely coming around to toeing the Devil’s line, how was she moving beyond it? Here, eat this. And what’s the most that will happen on your death too?

Ten or twenty thousand condolence tweets, four to five thousand rest in peace-type Facebook messages, op-eds in three or four English newspapers, two or three talk shows. The odd FIR, the kind of which you tend to file against unidentified persons. In Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad a tradition has arisen for those who don’t stand shoulder to shoulder and march but hold up candles at vigils with flowers… that’s all/enough?

And some drawing-room champion who’s getting an ache in his belly? Next please…

* This is a mere attempt to convey some of the sense of this Mir Taqi Mir couplet. Nathwaan is more like weakling.
'Le ab goli kha' Here, now eat this bullet, can perhaps be translated literally or as in 'get a taste of this medicine' as well. My translation, Eat this, I hope suffices for its irreverence that I assume Wusat was aiming for.