I have been to The Second Floor (T2F to friends) twice. First, in September 2007 when I tagged along with Teeth Maestro Awab Alvi to a Karachi bloggers meetup there while passing through Karachi. Next, more recently, in December 2008, when invited by Zakintosh Zaheer Kidvai and Sabeen Mahmud to give a talk there on democracy in the Muslim world (here for how I got there; here for what I did there).
Each time I left enthused and invigorated. Felling good that such a place not only existed, but seemed to be thriving, in Karachi. I have mentioned to many that the fact that it did was testimony to the intellectual vibrancy of Pakistan and Pakistanis. A sign, even if a small one, that all has not been lost. A sign, more importantly, that the young in Pakistan are not ready to give up. Not just yet.
It was with a heavy heart, therefore, that one heard the news that T2F is about to become homeless (their landlord has asked that the space they now occupy be vacated). Sabeen Mahmud, the moving force being T2F, has made clear that T2F will indeed find a way to continue. But they need help.
For all our sakes and for the sake of the daily statements of resilience and resistance that T2F makes on all our behalf, it is important that T2F survives and thrives. In a world where everything around us seems to be falling apart, and where so many just causes demand our attention and support, T2F’s survival may seem like a small thing. But it is not small. Because the statement it makes is big.
More importantly, this is something that we can do. Unlike so many of our other challenges, this one is not just worth doing, it is doable. If we can all chip in to help T2F survive this crisis, we will not merely be saving a much-needed fledgling institutions, we will be giving ourselves the reassurance that that resistance can work, that resilience is rewarded, that a few good people can make a difference. In the long and hard battles that lie ahead of us, that reassurance is priceless.
I understand that for some of our readers T2F may just be a “Karachi thing.” It is more than that. I urge people to visit its website, learn about its purpose, and explore its events, to find out just why it evokes the type of passion that it does, for example, from writer Bina Shah in this recent piece in Dawn:
I donâ€™t want to use clichÃ©s â€“ Enemy Number One of all writers â€“ to describe what The Second Floor has been to writers, artists, musicians, comedians, students, and intellectuals from all over the city and of all ages and backgrounds. But The Second Floor has been like oxygen to those of us who were in danger of suffocating in the cultureless pollution of this brutal, raw city.
But as we learned from Sabeen Mahmud, the director of Peace Niche and T2F, in an emotional announcement she made after the reading, The Second Floor itself is now in danger; their landlord has informed them that he wants the space back and has asked The Second Floor to vacate its premises on Khayaban-i-Ittehad in two monthsâ€™ time.
The news came as a shock to all of us who have come to regard The Second Floor as a second home. Sabeen and her partner, Zaheer Kidvai, assured us that the institution will continue, if in guerrilla format; they appealed to the community to help with finding temporary venues for events, if nothing else. But the question in all our minds is this: where will we all go once T2F is forced to leave its current premises?
The medical students who study from noon to late evening, a skull from anatomy lessons sitting on the table in front of them, like something out of a Hamlet play, will be homeless. The musicians who get together to jam on guitars and try out their vocal chords, will be voiceless. The art â€“ oil paintings, political cartoons, vibrant photography â€“ will no longer have walls to hang on, facing the brilliant mural that has been the starting point of so many conversations. It too will be torn down once The Second Floor has gone.
Personally, I was dismayed: Iâ€™ve given several readings at the venue, taken guitar lessons, hung out with friends, learnt from workshops, seminars, and talks, and met people who Iâ€™d never have had a chance to interact with in my normal life. The Second Floor has served as auditorium, sounding board, activist meeting place, and safe haven for literally thousands of Karachiites and visitors to the city. In 18 months, it has become larger and larger, growing and changing, and surpassing all our expectations to meet the needs of the community that it serves. It felt like a cruel blow to hear that this nascent project, which is showing every sign of success, will suffer such a damaging set-back.
So what is it going to take to save The Second Floor?
Firstly, permanent premises. They need a place that isnâ€™t in danger of being snatched under their feet in a year or two. Anyone who can offer premises â€“ a house, a garden, a conference room â€“ to temporarily host T2F events should get in touch as well, but a dedicated space is the first priority.
Second, donations. Peace Niche, the umbrella organisation under which T2F is run, is a not-for-profit foundation, and every cent theyâ€™ve made goes back into running the cafÃ©. Theyâ€™ll need money to refurbish and renovate a new space, install Wifi, decorate, do up the bathrooms, install electricity. This is going to take a lot of money that they really donâ€™t have in their bank account, and they need our help to do it.
Third, volunteers. Can you paint walls? Are you an interior decorator? Would you be able to help move electronic equipment and set it up in the new premises, once theyâ€™re found? Then The Second Floor needs you to give your time and energy in helping them move house.
The Second Floor has given us all so much in its short existence. Itâ€™s time for us to give something back. So I put out a plea to all of you who love culture and the arts and a good chat over a cup of coffee in unpretentious, welcoming surroundings: do something. Think of all the good times youâ€™ve enjoyed, the things youâ€™ve learnt, the moments youâ€™ve shared with your good friends at T2F. Letâ€™s not lose that, just as weâ€™ve found out what it feels like to have a place that artists and writers and social activists and the people that love them can call their home.
The Second Floor has been our second chance over the last 18 months. Donâ€™t you think it deserves a second chance, too?
I realize that I am doing this in reverse order, but here is the original appeal from Sabeen.
Dear PeaceNiche and T2F Community,
612 days ago T2F opened its doors to you. Our vision was lofty, and frankly, a bit mad. Who would walk up to the second floor of an office building on Khayaban-e-Ittehad to listen to a poet rambling on about revolution, or a scientist arguing in favour of evolution, or some kids playing drums? Well, as it turns out, thousands of people â€¦
In these 612 days minus Mondays, our tiny space has hosted over 150 events featuring thought leaders, artists, poets, musicians, scientists, magicians, writers, philosophers, dancers, actors, lawyers, and activists. Hundreds of you have written in to tell us how much T2F means to you and to the city of Karachi. Every e-mail, snail mail, text message, and Facebook Wall post that you have sent has given us the strength to carry on. Many of you have supported us through your donations and even helped us replace our stolen Mac. We canâ€™t thank you enough.
By now you are probably thinking that weâ€™re closing down and that this is a goodbye note. No such luckÂ But there is some critical news that we need to share with you.
We called our landlord the day-before-yesterday, to ask him when he was going to get the lift fixed. He was non-committal and then said he wanted us to vacate the premises. The initial shock was soon replaced by calm determination and optimism.
At yesterdayâ€™s literary event, we broke the news. Practically everyone came forward to express solidarity and support. Some of you graciously volunteered your offices, houses, gardens, and basements for us to conduct our events till we find our own space. And one of you, a volunteer/student/journalist, kick-started the donation drive with a contribution of Rs. 5,000. Thank you Batool.
So, hereâ€™s the plan:
We plan to vacate the current premises by early February 2009. We have already been offered several temporary spaces to conduct our events until such time that we find a permanent venue. We would like to move to a new space – a home we can call our own – as soon as possible. Itâ€™s going to be tough and we canâ€™t do it alone. We simply donâ€™t have the funds. As you know, PeaceNiche is a non-profit organization and we have meagre funding. We are reaching out to you to help us in any way that you can. We will be writing to you again with specific requirements, but in the meanwhile, please spread the word about our need for a permanent, rent-free space so that we can get up and running without losing momentum.
Over the next few days, please come to T2F as often as possible – weâ€™ll recreate the magic wherever we go but this is where it all started. Thank you Karachi for believing in us.
17th January 2009
On all our reader’s behalf, we at ATP will be making a contribution from our advertising revenues to T2F’s survival. I hope that those who can, will help; in whatever way they can.