Footprints: How do you report that?

Updated April 28, 2015


HUNDREDS gathered at T2F, Sabeen Mahmud’s cafe and activism space, to attend her funeral on Saturday. She was killed on Friday night, minutes after hosting a talking at the venue on Balochistan.—Photo by writer
HUNDREDS gathered at T2F, Sabeen Mahmud’s cafe and activism space, to attend her funeral on Saturday. She was killed on Friday night, minutes after hosting a talking at the venue on Balochistan.—Photo by writer

HOW do you report on a funeral where you were one of the hundreds of people who bore the body?

How do you separate yourself from the grief, the anger, and the dozens of whispered conversations you hear all around you — from your friends, from strangers — about how she completely changed people’s lives?

The streets were filled with people, almost none of them family. “She belonged to everyone,” someone said. A few curious residents of nearby apartments came out onto their balconies, to see what the fuss was about.

Take a look: After Sabeen Mahmud's murder, progressives see dark future

One of the most striking things about the funeral was how friends or acquaintances who you had no idea had ever met her, began talking about how she had fundamentally altered the course of their lives, by being there, by offering the right word at the right time, or by making possible that which they never thought was. Someone talked about how she helped fund his Masters degree. A friend about how he would never have gotten into journalism if she had not, at just the right moment, told him to stick with what he thought was right. Another about how she had helped him set up an organisation when he was a teenager. Another about how she was always pushing her, to be more, to be better, without her even realising it.

In between the tears, the blank looks into the middle distance, and the longing for human contact, there was awe, for someone who was greater than all of us, and who everyone felt belonged to them.

How do you report that?

Sabeen Mahmud, 40, was killed on Friday night, minutes after hosting a talk at T2F on Balochistan, one she felt needed to be held, after it had earlier been cancelled in Lahore on “orders from the government”, according to the university meant to host it. In the days leading up to the talk in Karachi, she spoke of her fear of “blowback” from the state’s intelligence agencies to her friends. She was, they said, more concerned for her staff and volunteers than she was for herself.

Also read: Director T2F Sabeen Mahmud shot dead in Karachi

What strikes one, long after the blood and shards of glass and her battered brown Kolhapuri chappals are cleaned away, long after the rose petals and snow-white gladiolas on her grave have wilted, dried and turned to dust, long after the police team formed to investigate her death is forgotten, is this: how pointless was this death?

Not in that anything that Sabeen did was pointless, but how scared must her attackers be, for them to be afraid of a few dozen people, sitting in a room, talking?

Or, perhaps, it is that they are not afraid at all. Rather than cowering from the light, they wear their colours on their sleeves, well aware that they can act with impunity, and giving no care to the public consequences, which they deem irrelevant. That they can threaten this state’s citizens, and that those citizens can then be killed.

How do you report that?

There were hundreds, in that small, dusty street, Karachi’s cloying, humid heat forgotten, as they stared at her body, wrapped in white cotton, making its way towards them, to enter T2F one last time. They held hands, they hugged, they cried, but, mostly, they stared.

I stared, too. As I saw her body, never known for being still in life, being carried inside, it occurred to me that there is no dignity, in death. That the nobility with which we once looked upon those who fell, with our eyes who had only seen so little, never existed. Death, Sabeen’s unmoving body seemed to say, is just the ceasing to be. It is discrete — there is no continuous spectrum on which one can place a death, to make it more than the ceasing of existence. There are no negotiations — not for the dead, and not for those of us who survive them.

Now that person, who touched so many lives — who did so, every day, in small ways and large — doesn’t exist anymore. Do those lights she lit go out? What about the ones she would have lit? And where does the line lie, now? What can we talk about now, in small rooms, without fear of being killed?

“I’m learning how to live as a dead person,” a journalist, and friend, told me, hours after Sabeen’s death.

How do you report that?

My last memory of Sabeen is from December, during a protest against the Taliban and radical cleric Abdul Aziz outside the Lal Masjid in Islamabad. Dozens had gathered, raising their voices in anger against the Taliban, calling for Aziz to come forward and face those who would oppose him and the ideology he espouses.

Sabeen, who had helped organise the protest, of course, stood a bit to the side of the main crowd, her arms crossed in that distinctive way of hers that made it look like she was hugging herself. On her lips, there was the slightest smile. All she ever wanted to do was get people together, to engage with politics, to engage with each other, to be out in public. To speak.

I didn’t say hello to her, that day, slipping away instead to file a story, and dwell on Peshawar’s still fresh memories.

And now, I’ll never get to say hello, again.

So how do you report that?

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera English’s web correspondent in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, April 28th, 2015

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