Picture a naïve American boy, himself full of high ideals and ambition, but also confused, adjusting to a society that couldn’t be any different than the one he’s known all his life.
After a little less than a year in this country, he has yet to find a spot where he can feel like he really fits in, and is comfortable enough to totally be himself (whatever that is).
Spoiler alert: that person was me.
A colleague recommends this little, assuming place on Khayaban-e-Ittehad.
It’s hard to tell in retrospect what this little place would become. When it started, it really was on the second floor of a dingy looking building. As soon I walked in, this unassuming little café – inspired by the old café and coffeehouse culture of Lahore and other cities which used to thrive in Pakistan – had everything I could want - good books, music, culture and conversation, and yes, excellent chai, coffee, and food.
And the best part is that it was not-for-profit (not only did she not make money from the PeaceNiche venture, she was actually in the red most of the time, although we did my best to support her). She employed poor workers, and put all of the revenue into T2F and other projects.
I don’t remember a lot of customers at T2F in those first few years, but I always saw Sabeen there, and I become one of her first regulars. I think she understood, without either us having to say it, how desperately I needed a place that felt like home. I deeply wish I could tell her now how grateful I am to her for giving me that space, although I think she always knew that.
We talked about our love of Pink Floyd and books, her Apple enthusiasm proved to be infectious (I admit I wasn’t all that into this company before I knew her), and she allowed me to sing and express my voice – in several ways.
When the landlord decided to kick her out for dubious reasons, hardcore T2F fans were concerned, rallied to help her, and she managed to get her own building in Clifton (an even more upscale part of Karachi), this one with two floors.
At was at this point that T2F really started reaching its full potential. And it offered me everything I could want. This is not an exaggeration.
I met friends I still keep in contact with today, back in America. The Acting Wheel troupe rented space on the bottom floor every Thursday night. Writers-in-residence led free workshops you wouldn’t find elsewhere. There were regular art exhibitions by novices and professionals alike, all of them talented, given the recognition they deserved. Although it took a while to get up and running, T2F had the most fun and exciting open mics in Karachi, run by friends and fellow musicians, and proper shows (which I also had the honor of performing in). It had premieres by amateur film-makers. It featured beautiful, traditional Pakistani and other Desi poetry, chants, music, dance, and literature. The Philosophy 101 series (which I also had the honor of participating in). Standup comedy. Music lessons. And, perhaps most important of all, talks from top-rate scholars, political and social activist forums and NGO awareness/dissemination, happenings, “hack-a-thons,” and above all, it was a vehicle for her true goal – elevating critical discourse and conversation, encouraged in the very design of the venue itself. You could go there any day of the week and met new and interesting people, hear every viewpoint, and there was no censorship.
In other words, T2F embodies the Enlightenment ideals that have long made cafes culturally significant, not just as a safe space for artists and intellectuals to escape the numbing conformity of society, but a challenging one too, even revolutionary. As one of her t-shirts read, a takeoff of the famous Descartes dictum, one reflecting her praxis: “I think therefore I’m dangerous… Bring Your Brain.”
The powers that be can shoot us, but that won’t kill true wisdom. That much endures.