"People have come up to me and said they learn more here than they do at college"

December 25, 2011

Tech geek to activist-tech geek, Sabeen Mahmud’s journey to T2F is driven by her desire to give happiness to others -- through art, music and free discussions

Even as a teenager, Sabeen Mahmud did not tread the beaten path. Particularly as a teenager who had studied at the Karachi Grammar School. Her first job -- at the age of 15 -- was at Solutions Unlimited, an Apple dealership where she learned not only about the software but also happily soldered and tinkered her way around the hardware. "I’m a tech geek," she says without hesitation. In her free time, just for fun, she’d accompany her father when he took his car to the mechanic, or she’d rope in the neighbourhood chowkidars for a game of cricket.

Today this self-confessed "post-modern flower child and unabashed Mac snob" is the director of T2f, which she describes as "a community space for art and culture and the promotion of ideas of rationality, science and evolution." T2f is a project of PeaceNiche, a non-profit NGO founded by Sabeen in 2007. Its website defines its raison d’etre as social change through intellectual poverty alleviation.

The journey from tech geek to activist-tech geek was a circuitous one. During her four years at Lahore’s Kinnaird College, Sabeen reluctantly studied English literature and philosophy, all the while trying to drop out. "Being at a girl’s college was a culture shock at first, and I wasn’t interested in studying," she says wryly. "Now I’m firmly against formal education." She’d save up money and hop on the train for impromptu visits home. Her salvation was her beloved Mac, which she’d taken with her to Lahore, and she found herself a job designing layouts for an Asian women’s group’s quarterly newsletter. Once a week, she’d take the laptop, grab a rickshaw and head to the printers, and see the results of her work materialise before her eyes. The school of life was far more exciting than anything that college had to offer.

However, it was the regimentation of academic life that Sabeen chafed against. "I was intensely curious about art, music and science," she says. Over the years, Zaheer Kidwai, her employer at Solutions Unlimited had become her friend (over their mutual love of Pink Floyd) and mentor. "Zac believed that in order to provide tech solutions to your clients you first have to immerse yourself in the arts. He encouraged his employees to accompany him to mushairas and lectures on critical appreciation. We were also exposed to philosophical debates at his home which was frequented by well-known figures from the arts," says Sabeen.

After she returned from college, she began to once again work with Zac, but a moral dilemma began to nag at her. "It bothered me that while in the evening I’d be protesting some MNC’s policies, during the day I’d be sorting out their computer systems," says Sabeen. She looked around for something else in which to pour her energies and it dawned on her that there was nowhere one could find art, culture and intellectual debate under one roof. That realisation, plus some seed money borrowed from a couple of well-wishers set the ball rolling. The Second Floor -- it was located on the second floor of a building -- thus came into existence, to be renamed T2f two years later when it moved to its new premises, compris­ing the ground and first floor.

T2f is very much an extension of Sabeen’s personality. Individualistic, multi-dimensional, and infused with a healthy irreverence for absolutism of any kind (except perhaps in technology. She says, "We’re Apple evangelists, and can’t get enough of Steve’s shiny toys").

A sample of the smorgasbord of events during a typical week at T2f would read something like this: a study circle for classical Urdu poetry, an art class, an open mic night, a musical tribute to The Beatles, a film celebrating Charles Darwin, and a discussion about Anarchism. The place is a mecca for emerging artistes who are given the space free of charge for rehearsals.

"After four years of running this place, what I love most about it is that it gives a little bit of happiness to people," say Sabeen. "I’m also a huge believer in the power of one, changing the world one man or one woman at a time."

Sabeen’s ability to think outside the box came in handy while sustaining T2f through the early years of financial drought. "We learnt to do more with less," she says. "I handle all the writing and design, and both these locations have been built without the help of an architect. I’ve taken out loans on loans. You have to have a gambler’s nerves."

She credits her street smartness to her mother. "Although she spent a lot of time with me when I was young, she let go of me at the right time." She got her first bicycle at the age of 7, and by next year was riding by herself to a bike repair shop in the neighbouring locality. "Also, we had just one car which my father would take to the office so for after-school sports practice I had to make my own way by hitching rides with friends," she recalls.

The fact that they "weren’t the average KGS family" instilled the habit of living within a limited income. She would save her weekly pocket money of five rupees to buy accessories for her bicycle. "I’ve bought Macs on five-year loans since 1990. Everything I wanted I had to save for, but my mother gave me the confidence not to feel bad about it," she says.

George Soros’ Open Society Foundation is now funding T2f, the first time the project has been the recipient of such funding, and the first time that Sabeen has been able to pay herself a salary. Eight board members oversee the running of the project whose accounts are professionally audited. "We’ve also paid generator tax that Orix, which leased us the generator, had never even heard of," says Sabeen.

Revenue for T2f is also generated through proceeds from performances (usually split down the middle with the artistes), donations, the on-site café, and the sale of limited edition T2f T-shirts etc.

While she believes that Karachi could do with more such spaces and has herself been offered a place in a considerably more middle-class area to open another T2f, she believes that PeaceNiche is not financially secure enough to handle two places. "In any case, I don’t need to go there to validate our existence as an NGO or to attract people from varied socio-economic backgrounds," she says firmly. "There are darzis and sabziwalas in this street too, but they need to cross this threshold and we need to draw them in. That’s why I’d like to put up an art exhibition on the walls outside."

She finds it gratifying to see the ownership that people take of T2f. "I’ve had people come up to me and say we learn more here than we do at college. That kind of statement is my sustenance," says the social entrepreneur who has little patience with formal pedagogy.

As a T2f T-shirt succinctly says, "T2f: Coffee - books - conversation, Bring your brain."

Just don’t run down the ipad.

"People have come up to me and said they learn more here than they do at college"