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The Second Floor Cafe
Though article 19 of Pakistan’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech, the country has a notorious reputation for censorship against any voices that contest the power and legitimacy of Islam, the military and the ruling Government. Individuals, groups and members of civil society are often faced with material, epistemic and social threats to expressing, developing and publishing voices on social justice issues such as violence against religious minorities, missing and murdered Balochistani activists and academics and gendered violence.
Inspired by the revolutionary roots of the Pak Tea House in Lahore, The Second Floor Café (T2F), founded in 2007, is a coffeeshop, bookstore, politico-cultural community space and alternative learning centre in Karachi, Pakistan dedicated to promoting democratic discourse and conflict resolution through intellectual and cultural engagement. PeaceNiche and T2F are founded by Sabeen Mahmud, a local and global activist, graphic designer/tech consultant, human rights advocate from Karachi who was murdered by an armed gunman on April 24 2015 after hosting the seminar “Unsilencing Balochistan”. It is the first of its kind in the nation, and has inspired many other café/community spaces to open up from Lahore to Lyari. Self-defined as a social entrepreneurship project, T2F relies on participation from local artists, activists, thought leaders and engaged audiences to revitalize Karachi’s cultural and political landscapes by offering an alternative and space for discourse. It has and continues to provide space for local social movements and activists targeted by land mafias, the military and government such as Citizens Campaign to Reclaim Karachi and Balochi activist Mama Qadeer.
Its primary focus is 1) strengthening the voice of Pakistan’s developing civil society through: 1) alleviation of intellectual poverty, 2) providing a platform for dialogue and creative expression, 3) social change through the arts, 4)development of a vibrant community of civic-minded citizens,5) supporting local entrepreneurship, 6)accessible early childhood education programming and 7)youth engagement. Towards this goal, some on-going projects at the T2F include Faraar, a visual arts gallery to promote local talent and social change through art, Science ka Adda, a platform for debate on the role and influence of science on our lives, Urdu Preservation Project, an archival project for urdu poetry and prose, and Raahnuma, an online resource for victims of violence and abuse.
It is funded as a branch of the PeaceNiche project, a not-for-profit organization in Karachi, Pakistan founded in hopes of creating a space for rational, creative and critical dialogue to counter growing religion-based violence, corruption, mafia-presence and extremism in Karachi. Though initially ran out of Mahmud’s own pockets, after relocating to a donated rent-free space, maintenance and salaries are covered through different grants. The café now operates on an honour code, where some individuals pay nothing and others donate generously.
The café has an open door, open mind policy and has hosted people from all walks of life willing to participate in democratic dialogue from students, elders, exiled leaders from skype, interfaith representatives, security and military professionals.
Major Projects and Events
The multi-purpose café functions as a medium for mobilizing political resources, a community space for dialogue and deliberation and finally, as a site for preserving the intellectual and critical strain of Islamic and Pakistani traditions. The events hosted include everything from workshops/seminars on sectarian violence, state violence against and upon Balochistan, critiquing the blasphemy laws, critical and interfaith religious studies to stand up comedy and open mic shows. One event which illustrates how the café mobilizes community members to solve civic problems is the Civic Hackathon in which developers, urban cartographers, data analysts, and designers/developers gathered to create web and mobile solutions to Pakistan’s civic issues such as crime mapping to emergency services, disaster relief, and improving quality of education. Other programs include Philosophy 101, Traditional Music Preservation series and Zambeel Dramatic Reading group.
Notes and Analysis:
What separates T2F from other not-for-profits is its specific focus on developing civil society for the sake of building capacities for democracy through the relationships between citizens, especially relationships with marginalized members and voices in Pakistani society. This has democratic value in and of itself, building trust and solidarity between and across sectarian, ethnic and regional differences for more effective coalitional critiques against the state violence and corruption. Unlike in other countries, because of Pakistan’s, and especially Karachi’s, security situation, the cultural, artsy and critical nature of T2Fs activities and mission have not only a democratic function but also, a revolutionary aim to reclaim the city from the hands of the land mafia, the corrupt political parties and feudalist strife. One issue with the project is that because of the security situation, the activities and events are not broadcasted, publicized on a large national or even media scale. With the murder of the founder Sabeen Mahmud, the organization has a lot of political enemies/critics whose gaze must be avoided by the project. And so, most of its activities and their influence stays within a very local, off-the-radar, and directly in response to local communities of Karachi. Though its influence and capacity for social change may not directly bring about democratic social change at the level of the state, the café is a space for cultural preservation and building agentic capacities through awareness/education, a place to retreat to from the violence, to become stronger for the tougher political landscapes and climates outside, and to-come.
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