She was killed because of poetry

Follow Shabnaama via email

Salman Tarik Kureshi

Last Friday I was in Islamabad, where I had been reading out some of my poems at the Islamabad Literature Conference. That evening, the 150-plus authors and panellists attending the festival had been taken to dinner at a spectacularly located restaurant at Saidpur village, overlooking Islamabad. The group I had travelled to the restaurant with, mostly fellow Karachi-ites, but also including British author Anatol Lieven, found ourselves on the same coaster for the journey back to our hotel.

On the way, one of those present (I think it was short story writer Masood Ashar, but I’m not sure because I had dozed off briefly) happened to to be browsing through his smart phone, when he suddenly said, “Sabeen, the lady who runs T2F, has been shot.”

That woke me up. There was an exclamation of horror from poetess Zehra Nigah, who was also riding with us, as others began searching for specifics on their smart phones. As we were entering the gates of the hotel, my son called me from the US, saying he’d just seen the news and, thinking I was in Karachi and may actually have attended that evening’s session at T2F, asked if I knew any more details.

By the next morning, the news of Sabeen Mahmud’s death was in all the newspapers and across all the TV Channels. Suddenly, it seemed that this liveliest and most enthusiastic of human beings had been immensely larger than the little space of freedom she had created at her cafe. An elemental spirit of free speech and fundamental rights, she now seemed, in the massive magnification of media comment, a gigantic icon of political and economic freedom.

In the words of Dylan Thomas:

“…Her death was a still drop;
She would not have me sinking in the holy
Flood of her heart’s fame; she would lie dumb and deep

And need no druid… but this skyward statue…

Is carved from her in a room with a wet window

In a fiercely mourning house in a crooked year.”

And there you have it. Those who have extinguished this freest of spirits – born in the seventies, but embodying all the best that the sixties had stood for – must be exceedingly smug in their dreadful success.

Let us not waste our time trying to identify who killed Sabin Mahmud, as so many seem to be speculating over. Unless someone has hard information, this is best left to those whose job it is to identify murderous monsters and bring them to book, convict them and punish them. One can only hope that, this time at least, they might have better success than in the cases of Rashid Rahman, Salim Shahzad, Wali Babar, Shahbaz Bhatti, Salmaan Taseer, Benazir Bhutto, Akbar Bugti, Murtaza Bhutto, Hakim Saeed, Azim Tariq, Ghulam Haider Wyne, Shahnawaz Bhutto, Samad Achakzai, Hayat Sherpao, Shaheed Suhrawardy, Dr Khan Sahib, Liaquat Ali Khan, and so on, ad nauseum.

But that is probably a vain hope.

Anyhow, from the perspective of this article, the important thing is, not who did it, but why. What was the motive behind the murder of Sabin Mahmud?

It could be argued that perhaps T2F, the celebrated cafe she ran, was a place that was attended by enormous hordes of people, who were being brain-washed by the events that were held there – events which some might feel to be subversive of their particular ‘isms. But the fact is that T2F was not any grand hall or chamber where multitudes could gather to raise slogans against this, that, or the other. The area in which the periodic events were held could, on a good day, accommodate perhaps a hundred and twenty people and, more usually, around fifty or sixty. It was, after all, an intimate space, a space for inter-personal discourse, not for oratorical harangues. The typical Maulvi, in an ordinary Mohalla mosque, could commandeer far bigger congregations to listen to his five-times-a-day sermons than T2F could ever have managed.

Then, if the size of the T2F audiences was inconsequential, it must have been the kind of events that were held. The subjects that were discussed, the radical political doctrines which the attendees at T2F events were being brain-washed into accepting, must have attracted the ire of her killers. Well, at one of the earlier T2F events, Shireen Haroun and this writer were the protagonists as we read out decidedly non-political poems in the English language, to a taped music background. There were also a few further English poetry sessions.

Urdu poetry sessions were of course far more popular – Ghalib, Faraz, lots of Faiz, and many others. There were sessions featuring the great prose writers, notably Saadat Hassan Manto. There was also performance art: drama, classical and modern dance, dramatic readings, story-telling, stand-up comedy. And there was cinema, both documentaries and art films. Painting and photography exhibitions, featuring mostly younger, less established artists, were stock events. As were musical jam sessions, rock music, pop music, retro music, classical recitals, and – again and again – some of the most outstanding Qavalli performances anywhere.

And, yes, as we know, there were also political discussions. Discussions on the locus of power, and the uses to which power is put, took place from time to time. Gender politics were discussed, social discrimination, constitutional matters, issues of injustice, bigotry, and oppression. T2F was a free space and discussions here were completely free.

So, a space for art and culture and free discussion: that is the T2F cafe. And the moving force behind it was this remarkable lady, Sabin Mahmud. Why was she killed? What was the motive? Well, you have all the reasons above.

It was not merely for this or that political opinion, or for having opened a space for expression of a specific dissenting voice, that she was killed. She was killed because of poetry, because of Faiz and Ghalib. She was killed because of Manto and stand-up comedy and the art of the Qavalli. She was killed because all the things which enhance the quality of life, which in fact make life worth living, are anathema to those who preach a uni-dimensional conformism and require human beings to be mindless, genuflecting robots, marching to the command of self-designated superiors spouting spurious justificatory ideologies and narratives.

She was killed, finally, because freedom is an infection, and the places where this infection breeds need to be decontaminated to prevent its spread. Her murder is a warning to others.

Salman Tarik Kureshi, ” She was killed because of poetry,” in The Friday Times, May 1, 2015. Accessed on May 1, 2015, at:

The item above written by Salman Tarik Kureshi and published in The Friday Times on May 1, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on May 1, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

Recent items by Salman Tarik Kureshi:

Help us with Cataloguing

Leave your comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s