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KARACHI: Save The Second Floor

Published Jan 18, 2009 12:00am

KARACHI: The other night I had the immense privilege of participating in a reading and panel discussion with five other Pakistani women writers: Kamila Shamsie, Muneeza Shamsie, Sehba Sarwar, Nayyara Rahman, and Dr Fahmida Riaz. We read excerpts from our short stories in the anthology And The World Changed, which has been published in India, Pakistan, and now New York City.

There were over a hundred people who came out to hear us read, a staggering amount of people for a literary event. Mohammed Hanif, author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, was in the audience. The atmosphere was electric, turbocharged with enthusiasm for the spoken and written word. The venue was, of course, Karachi’s beloved The Second Floor, which, in the first year-and-a-half of its operation, has rejuvenated the arts scene in a city that is in constant danger of being overrun by crooks, terrorists, and philistines of every kind.

I don’t want to use clichés – Enemy Number One of all writers – 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 months’ 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 – oil paintings, political cartoons, vibrant photography – 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: I’ve given several readings at the venue, taken guitar lessons, hung out with friends, learnt from workshops, seminars, and talks, and met people who I’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 isn’t in danger of being snatched under their feet in a year or two. Anyone who can offer premises – a house, a garden, a conference room – 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 they’ve made goes back into running the café. They’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 don’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 they’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. It’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 you’ve enjoyed, the things you’ve learnt, the moments you’ve shared with your good friends at T2F. Let’s not lose that, just as we’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. Don’t you think it deserves a second chance, too?