I've been maintaining this blog (for better or for worse) over the last eight years. Over these years, its natural evolution has led it into becoming something of a niche place for discussion of music in general and Qawwali in particular. Rather than trying to return my existing blog to its pre-Qawwali eclectic roots, I decided I’d start anew on Tumblr. So if you’re interested in music, Qawwali and subcontinental culture, keep reading/listening/watching/commenting here. For all of the above and everything else under the sun, head on over to my Tumblr page .

Sunday, April 26, 2015

...Of Sabeen Mahmud - A Personal Reminiscence

Bad news has a habit of locating me in the remotest of locations. I was in a tent in the middle of the Cholistan desert when, despite practically nonexistent mobile coverage, I received a text from a friend telling me that Sabeen Mahmud had been fatally shot. In a mix of panic and increasing despair, I texted back for a confirmation which, with the dogged inevitability that is the hallmark of horror, arrived soon enough. That was two nights ago. I spent the next twenty-four hours in a jittery, shell-shocked state. Last night when I returned to civilization I had managed to calm down a bit. But as if on cue, my phone started filling up with messages of condolence, tribute and sheer numb despair; and my composure crumbled again. After two sleepless nights, I've finally convinced myself that perhaps writing something might calm me down somewhat.

It was on Twitter four odd years ago that I was introduced to Sabeen by a mutual friend who thought we shared a common taste for Qawwali (or as Sabeen liked to spell it, Qavvali). I soon discovered that our common interests also included Bruce Springsteen and Hugh Laurie (whom Sabeen fell for after blissfully binge-ing on House MD). As an emotional adolescent who still lives by the credo espoused by High Fidelity's Rob Gordon, "what really matters is what you like, not what you are like", this formed an instant connection. Over the next years, I kept in touch, sometimes helping her translate some knotty Farsi, or comparing notes on which was The Boss' best bootleg (we both eventually agreed it was "Live At The Agora, '78"), or more frequently, asking her to send over the latest Qavvali CDs that Kidvai Sb regularly put out (the last release has a charming photo of Sabeen on its cover), and then having conversations about the recordings we'd both loved.

All through this time, I had been keeping up with the wonderful happenings at The Second Floor, the wonderful hub that, to me at least, was Karachi's beating cultural heart. It was the sort of place I'd gladly spend my entire life at if I'd had my druthers. There were film screenings, poetry recitals, seminars and talks, Qavvali performances (which I regularly pestered Sabeen to send me recordings of, and she always graciously complied). Sabeen had almost single-handedly established T2F and had weathered problems that would make a lesser mortal lose hope and give up. Especially harrowing was the armed burglary that had interrupted a session at T2F and had forced it to shut down. But Sabeen found a new, safer location, reopened T2F,christened it T2F 2.0 and went back to what she called her 'ridiculously high-minded' ambition of providing a safe, open and engaging hub of intellect and culture for Karachi.

Despite frequent difficulties, financial and otherwise, Sabeen and T2F powered on and became an integral part of Karachi's cultural landscape. She was also the one person who unreservedly deserved to put the word "activist" in her bio. An unabashed bleeding-heart liberal, she was a street-fighter and a rabble-rouser ; marching, rallying and protesting in Karachi, Islamabad, Peshawar or wherever she felt the need to voice her opinions, actively and joyously participating in political rallies irrespective of the political party involved. She voiced opinions that were either unpopular or at the very least  unmentionable because of fear of reprisals. But her self-confessed cavalier attitude towards fear led her to shout from the rooftops for everything she believed in.

At the end of last year, when I was planning my trip to Karachi, one of the things I was most looking forward to was finally meeting Sabeen and visiting T2F. We had planned to hold a number of Qavvali mehfils at T2F and had asked her for permission. Sabeen and the entire T2F staff were busy curating and organizing the "Creative Karachi" festival at that time and were neck deep in the administrative and logistical jumble that the festival entailed. Not only did she allow us to use her premises, she instructed her staff, who had been working nonstop for the last week or so, to make sure that we had everything we needed to make our recording sessions a success, even allowing us to tinker with T2F's decor to suit our needs. We had coordinated all of this on Facebook and I was aching for a face to face meeting, so the day I landed in Karachi, I hurried off with a few friends to the Creative Karachi festival, hoping to catch Sabeen.

I found her patiently answering a list of boring questions posed by a television reporter who clearly had better things to do and better places to go to. When she caught my eye, her wonderful half-smile and a resigned shrug of her shoulders told me how much she was enjoying the interview. After she'd finished, I introduced myself, received a wonderful hug and instructions to look her up later that evening when the chaos had settled a bit. Before returning from the festival, I met her again and we chatted for a while before she was again swept away to her administrative duties. The next day, she visited T2F as we were getting ready to record a performance by Subhan Ahmed Nizami, and this time we chatted for a good half hour. She was utterly exhausted after the successful conclusion of the festival, but she was pleased and awfully proud of her staff for having carried it off so well. After she'd left, we finished our recording sessions, bought the latest batch of Kidvai Sb's CDs, thanked the staff, rearranged whatever we had altered in T2F and left, hoping to return again. After completing our journey and returning home, I thanked Sabeen for allowing us use of T2F and her staff, and hoping to meet again soon, and she responded with similar hopes.

A photo posted by Musab Bin Noor (@musabbinnoor) on

The trip to Karachi is a source of many wonderful memories but one of the biggest thrills for me had been finally meeting Sabeen and visiting T2F. She was exactly like I'd imagined her to be, and more. Animated, frank, with a brilliant sense of humor and a complete absence of cynicism, she was a person so absolutely and vitally 'alive' in every sense of the word that it is absolutely impossible for me to think of her in the past tense.The outpouring of grief, messages of condolence and support has been widespread, and I hope Sabeen's family and friends find comfort in the fact that she was respected, admired and genuinely loved by so many. Once the initial, paralyzing shock has passed, it will be time to carry her legacy forward. T2F will (hopefully) carry on, providing a template to encourage the development of similar safe havens for thought and speech. Her tradition of activism will continue to inspire more people to leave the comfort of their armchairs and actively engage in the causes they believe in. Her half-smile will continue to live in the hearts of her friends and admirers, providing encouragement when despair and cynicism start creeping in.

It is sadly fitting that a friendship that began online should have had it's premature end online too. A week ago, idling the hours away at the internet, I'd stumbled across a silly little quote about one of Bruce Springsteen's songs. It had made me laugh and I decided to share it on Facebook. As I was typing it out, I remember thinking to myself, "I bet Sabeen would get a laugh out of this". Sure enough, five minutes later, there was a comment by her, a chuckle. That was the last time I heard from her and that's how I'd like to remember her, chuckling at something silly, with the twinkle in her eye and the characteristic little shake of her head. Like many others, I too shall find closure and her memory will become a source of solace and comfort for me. But for now, while the wound is still fresh and tears are still precariously close, I shall listen to one of her favorite pieces of music by one of her favorite artists; a recording that has, in a cruel twist of fate, become a lament for her. As for how I shall honor her memory, I was discussing it with a friend last night and I think I've decided what I shall do. If and when I ever have a daughter of my own, I know what to name her, and hopefully she shall grow up to be worthy of that name. Goodbye Sabeen, God bless !!

"Ae Daiyya, Kahan Gaye Vae Log?"
"Lord, where have those people gone?"


  1. This is just beautiful and from the heart. Hope that writing it has brought you some solace and reading it will soothe the emotional wounds of your many readers. Stay blessed.

  2. What an eloquent piece of writing! Sabeen will live on in tributes such as your wanting to name a child after her. Her fight for freedom of thought will grow exponentially in the larger world by everyone who reads about what she achieved.

  3. Great tribute to a great soul whose life was cut short by cowards.