By Ghausia Rashid Salam
It’s the stupidest thing. I was telling my best friend all about how I’d stood up for myself and whining on about my love life. And then suddenly, she screamed, “Ghausia, Sabeen’s been shot, she’s dead!” I screamed back, “WHAT? HOW?!” and then she burst into tears.
“She didn’t even do anything! She introduced the burger yuppies to classical music and Urdu literature and she held talks on Karachi every now and then, what did she even do? One talk, one discussion on Balochistan and they cut her down!” I kept repeating this over and over until I burst into tears myself.
And I didn’t even know Sabeen. I’d been to T2F all of two times. I didn’t like it much because I knew too many pretentious people who were regulars there. I understood the point of a cultural space, but I just didn’t want to go there. But I couldn’t stop wailing because they had cut down an activist. They had cut down one of my people.
Heck, she was more an activist than me: she’d been on the streets for years. I disagreed with her on some things, but I am so ashamed that it took her death for me to appreciate her and her achievements fully. I don’t mean to hurt anyone by saying that even though I did not love her as others did, she was still so magnificent that her death was a source of grief for me.
Her mother. Oh god, her mother. She sat there, solid and quiet. She didn’t know me but I hugged her and said, “I’m so sorry aunty, I’m so sorry,” and she hugged me to comfort me. Me! The woman whose daughter died in her arms was comforting me!
A friend started sobbing. A tall man with a deep voice was consoling her, hugging her. I tried to comfort her and burst into tears myself, and that tall man included me in the hug, comforting both of us.
I texted an ex-friend to offer condolences, knowing how much T2F had meant to him. We got to talking, and when he texted me reminding me how we had connected because of T2F, I couldn’t stop the sob that ripped out of my throat. The tall man was there again, squeezing my shoulders and telling me to let it out, to cry. I rushed inside to weep, and my friend came after me as I sobbed, telling me that if we fell apart, others would too, and that Sabeen would want us to be strong, she wouldn’t want us to fall apart. I didn’t know Sabeen but my friend did so I took her word for it. I stubbornly forced myself to stop crying, thinking, I’m going to be strong for you Sabeen because it’s the least I can do.
The room kept filling up. There was a false alarm when we thought Sabeen — her body — was being brought in and my friend fell apart. “It’s not her, it’s not her, it’s just a body, it isn’t her,” she sobbed as someone comforted her. Meanwhile, the ex-friend was on his way to T2F simply because we needed to grieve together. We were ex-friends for a reason. But he was on his way, all the same. Because T2F was once again bringing us together.
Sabeen, why would you do that for someone who didn’t even know you?
As we waited for Sabeen’s body to be brought in, I spoke out loud to the small room full of strangers, telling them how I had to attend a children’s birthday the next day. How my relative had been telling me to get my threading done in preparation. How, when I told her to have some respect because I was grieving, she said, “I understand that it’s really sad, but still, you don’t have to look like a man if you’re grieving.” Those strangers hugged me, patted me on the back as I started to cry again.
Is this who Sabeen was, why she was so loved? Because she brought strangers together?
As people started paying their respects when the body was brought in, my friend broke down while meeting other people. I looked to my left and a woman was consoling another, who was sobbing hysterically. The woman let go of her friend, and I stepped forward and hugged that stranger. She embraced me and even when she let go, she squeezed my hand, and I squeezed back, comforting her as long as she needed.
Is this who Sabeen was? A person who brought out the kindness in strangers?
Some senior teachers from my school were there as well. I have no reason to love any of them, but one of them had been kind to me so I went and greeted her. She asked me how I knew Sabeen and I didn’t. I was there to pay my respects to a fallen activist. “Are you happy now, beta?” she asked me. “Are you happy with your life?” She was in tears but she still wanted to be kind and I lied and told her I was because I thought she needed to hear that.
Outside in the tent, I was with a friend until I saw one woman — she looked vaguely familiar —organizing the pile of shoes into proper pairs. Without saying a word to her, I started helping her place all the shoes together.
Is this who Sabeen was, someone who brought out the best in people, who made people want to work together to help others?
I met an acquaintance, a journalist who helped me calm down when I was raging at the camerapersons standing off in the distance, filming the grieving crowd gathered outside. She told me to save my anger for the people who had sent those crews to T2F, and she was right. If I had charged off and yelled at the crews like I wanted to, I’d have given the bigwigs exactly what they wanted.
Is that who Sabeen was, someone who brought together old friends and new, who healed old wounds and filled the spaces occupied by rage and bitterness with fondness and laughter?
They cut one of ours down. And many said, why should we even bother, why do we even fight when they will kill us all one by one? Let me tell you why I fight. I fight primarily because it is not in me to back down from anything. So I cannot just sit by and do nothing. But I do not fight for the country. I do not fight for its people. Because I don’t believe in patriotism, I don’t believe in human-made borders. I am not a Muslim, Hindu, Christian, atheist, living in Karachi, Sindh, Pakistan; I am, and have always been, a member of the human race, living on one part of the globe. My loyalty is to my entire species, to all forms of life, and to this Earth. A dear friend always says, “We are all Earthlings.”
And that’s just it. I am an Earthling. So I care about the dominant species, and I care about the not so dominant species, and I care about the Earth. So my work is not out of loyalty to one portion of the globe. And I love not being a patriot because it gives me the clarity that other patriots lack. Blinded by patriotic love, they fail to see, to analyse, to criticise. Detractors ask why I don’t just leave Pakistan if I think it is so horrible. My reasons are simple: I’ve made Pakistan my base to fight because it is the culture I know, the people I know, the socio-politics I know. Going somewhere else, assimilating in another culture, among another people, would take up too much precious time, time which could be spent fighting. And I cannot afford to waste time.
Because they are coming for us. Others would call me a conspiracy theorist, at least until it’s me they come for. Yesterday at the funeral, looking around at the grieving people, I said to a friend in disbelief, “They’re killing us. They’ll cut us down, one by one. And this is the life we have chosen.” Today it is Sabeen, tomorrow it will be someone else. It could be someone I know. And it will not make a difference to the masses at large. But the person they cut down would still have made a difference to some people, bettered the lives of some people. That is what I want to do. I do not fight for a massive impact. I do not fight to be the change. I don’t believe in that. I believe that we spend our lives dealing with an existence that was forced on us. So if we must live, then why not make the most of it? For me, making the most of life is helping as many people as I can. Because there are not enough people who do that in this world anymore, we are so few in numbers that we must do all we can before it is our time. I think, perhaps, that Sabeen realized that as well. I think, maybe, she knew that we had to keep fighting till the end because it isn’t like anyone will pick up the flag when it drops from our lifeless hands. They are coming for all of us.
So let them come. I’ll wreak havoc until they get to my name on the list. I’ll set a few fires before they finally get me, and I’ll dedicate each fire to the ones we’ve lost. Rashid Rehman, Parveen Rahman, Sabeen Mahmud, and all the names that follow. I’ll make as much noise as I can before they can silence me. Not because it will make a difference, but because I cannot live without doing something, and I cannot do something without causing as much of a ruckus as possible.
So that is why I will keep fighting. That is why we should keep fighting. Because they cannot silence us with fear. They cannot silence us with grief. They cannot silence us, period.
My tears are all dried up and numb grief is giving way to disbelief and rage. So much rage. I can’t ask her to forgive me, but I can make the bastards that did this to her pay. I can make them suffer and rue the day they tried to scare us by cutting down one of our own.
Rest in Power, Sabeen. We’ll light a few fires for you.
Ghausia Rashid Salam is a contributing editor to the magazine.