Creative Karachi: Establishing an Arts & Culture Center for the World’s Most Rapidly Growing City

by Sabeen Mahmud

Twenty-four years ago, I fell in love for the first time—with a Macintosh Plus computer which profoundly altered the course of my life and was significant in shaping my anti-establishment, anti-war, pro-freedom worldview. It became an invaluable portal into myriad subcultures, from beat poetry to the Yippies, fuelled by the dark meanderings of Pink Floyd.

After college, I spent the next several years developing multimedia products, exploring the intersection between technology, art, literature, and music. But, by the mid-2000s, I was getting increasingly restless. Karachi was a cesspool of chaos. People were leaving in droves, our politicians continued to make promises they had no intention of fulfilling, and the country lurched from one military dictatorship to another. It was a depressing time and my first moment of existential crisis. Disillusioned, I agreed to an offer to move to Delhi.

Part-of-the-exhibitionBeginning to dream

Whilst waiting for my visa to come through, I started fantasizing. What would it take to create a space that espoused liberal, secular values through its programming and projects?

The next day, the conversation moved out of my head and onto a whiteboard. I sketched out a fantasy space: a large open courtyard for theatre, dance, spoken word and improv performances, readings, talks, and film screenings. All around the courtyard would be smaller rooms for workshops and events, a bookshop, a coffeehouse, studios for artists and designers, shops for artisans to showcase their work, and a bed-and-breakfast that would pull in some income to subsidize operations. With Rs. 12,000 (about US $113) in my bank account, I ran a check on the cost of land through my estate agent who gave a ridiculous, astronomical figure which paralyzed me into inaction for months.

Toward the end of 2006, I was walking up the stairs to my office and the penny dropped. I realized that the grownups were right: I should start small, test, and iterate. So, trained by those key people in my life – my mother Mahenaz and my mentor Zak, I took a leap of faith and relinquished my Dehli plan to cater to my lofty ambitions settling on an 1800 square feet office, with an open(ish) on the second floor of a building.

Finding some money

I had decided that this little social enterprise in the making was to be a not-for-profit venture and with that model, raising capital from investors or getting a bank loan approved was not an option. We had Rs. 1,000,000 (about US $9,400) stashed for my grandmother's health fund. With her consent, I used the money to get things going.

In January 2007, we christened The Second Floor (T2F). After some quick consultations and brainstorming, PeaceNiche was born and T2F became its first project.

The target launch date for T2F was set for May 2007.

Decorating—and opening—on a shoestring

T2F opened its doors to the public without any fanfare or glitzy launch parties. My uncompromising adoration of Steve Jobs meant I could not stomach focus groups and just went with intuition and the fervent hope that there were at least a few more people like me.

The look and feel of the space was a pre-eminent focal point for our identity building. To slowly build on it, the next few months really took their toll. I was on my feet for a minimum of 20 hours a day, with a hundred tasks to attend to and the eternal lack of cash in hand. It was back-breaking to make ends meet with all the early injections of cash long gone on capital and operating expenses.

On the home front, my relationship with my mother was severely challenged. I got home late, leaving us no time to converse or for me to deal with any responsibilities coupled with the fact that I was not earning a penny and couldn't contribute financially or help with anything. We got through those dark days somehow. If it weren't for my mother's uncompromising support, I would have crumbled and given up.

During those months, we had our first open mic, our first Urdu poetry reading, our first science talk, our first film screening, and our first press review.


By 2009, we were picking up speed. A community began to develop and the place had grown and gained respect, with me feeling a little more in control.

The dreaded phone call to vacate the premises changed everything.

I overcame the initial shock by deciding not to give up and stay optimistic. We reached out to the community for help and were generously offered several temporary spaces until such time that we find a permanent venue.

A week later, I received an e-mail from someone who said he had a space he'd like to show me. With a heavy heart, I went to have a look. It was a five-story building under construction with a lot of promise and possibilities. Though I knew that whatever rent he'd ask for would not be an option considering our dire financial situation.

To my complete surprise, he nonchalantly said, “50 paisa for the ground floor and 50 paisa for the first floor”—a grand total of Rs. 12 (about US 11 cents) in annual rent. Emotionally charged by the response, I muttered incoherently and went home unable to ascertain this gentleman's agenda who preferred to stay anonymous. Anyhow, I quickly stopped theorizing and shared an update with the community.

On April 1 of 2009, we vacated T2F 1.0 and set plans in motion for the next version.

Hard choices pay off

It took like what felt forever to get up and running again. We finally moved in December of 2009! I felt I was in the throes of a near-death experience but we had such a beautiful space that it was all truly worthwhile.

Following my Doctor's advice, I took some time off and travelled to NewYork where I crashed at a friend's place. My friend who validated my work, reminded me that I'd created something valuable and should get over my anxiety about asking people for financial support. We worked out a yearly budget, including a salary for me, and I went off to see someone at the Open Society Foundation's headquarters. We received an institutional grant that we were fortunately able to stretch out over a 2-year period. For the first time in years, I could take a breath and focus on programming and innovation.

Observing how people interact, I learnt a great deal about how much built spaces affect communication and engagement. A lot of our programming is proactive and responsive to current affairs, visitors to the city, and the serendipitous discovery of awesome people and ideas with several specific, recurring programs like First Fridays: Open Mic Night and LitLab: Literary Open Mic to provide a platform for emerging musicians, comedians, poets, and writers to showcase their talent.

Our Philosophy 101 series, introduces the works of great philosophers, ranging from architects and environmentalists to musicians and doctors. Our Science Ka Adda series pulls in a similar mix; with people heatedly discussing various embryonic scientific theories. On Saturdays, Ustad Khurshid Hussain plays the tabla; where anyone can sit and audit a lesson.

One of our quarterly features is the Jumma Hafta Art Bazaar (JHAB), which aims to cultivate a new and fresh viewership for the arts, allowing established and emerging artists to get to know and interact with each other and sell their artwork in a vibrant, approachable community setting.

We also offer our space and guidance to the Debating Circuit; to make debating more accessible and Open Letters, where fortnightly workshops are held to allow a growing community of writers to read out and discuss their work.

Since its inception in 2007, T2F has hosted over 600 events and has slowly and organically, become the hub of artistic and intellectual activity that I had envisaged six years ago. Although, a very difficult journey, it has been truly rewarding. If I had made a business plan, T2F would have not gone beyond the idea stage. It is still financially unstable but the model is workable and replicable. By creating this space, I have had the honor and privilege of meeting hundreds of talented individuals who have renewed my faith in humanity. Many of them have become dear friends, co-conspirators, and advisors and I look forward to continuing this shared journey of creativity, rabble-rousing, and resistance.

To make a donation to T2F in any amount, please click here.

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Sabeen Mahmud is the Founder and Director of PeaceNiche, a not-for-profit organization based in Karachi, Pakistan that promotes democratic discourse and conflict resolution through intellectual and cultural engagement within and beyond the premises of its multipurpose space, called The Second Floor (T2F).

A social entrepreneur, committed to the intersection between the liberal arts, technology, and activism, Sabeen has created a hub for creative expression in the chaotic, troubled port city of Karachi. A meeting place and playground for poets, writers, artists, musicians, thinkers, entrepreneurs, students and activists, she has founded, in the words of leading Pakistani peace activist and physics professor Pervez Hoodbhoy, “the only worthwhile arts and culture centre in the city”. On the organisation's fifth birthday in 2012, the acclaimed Pakistani author HM Naqvi, tweeted “Sometimes one wishes that there was a T2F when one was growing up”. Other PeaceNiche initiatives include Faraar (Visual Arts Outreach), Science Ka Adda (Science and Rationality for Laypersons), Raahnuma (Online Resource for Women Undergoing Abuse), Urdu Preservation Project (Archive of Rare Urdu Prose and Poetry), SparkPlug (Community for Startups and Entrepreneurs), and Jaras (Alternative Learning Space for Low-Income Children).

Sabeen has 20 years of experience in graphic design, new media, and technology and is a co-founder of b.i.t.s., a boutique interactive media and technology consulting firm. She is a blogger, civil liberties activist, a founder member of the All Pakistan Music Conference Karachi and the Citizens' Archive of Pakistan, and is the former President of the Karachi Chapter of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE). She is the Secretary of the Pakistan chapter of the South Asia Foundation and a member of Citizens for Democracy, a people's movement that aims to mobilize public opinion against the dangerously rising tide of religious intolerance in Pakistan. She is a Fellow of the Asia Society's India-Pakistan Regional Young Leaders Initiative, a forum designed to broaden the dialogue on India-Pakistan relations through a focus on next generation leaders. She is of 3 Pakistanis selected for the 2014 class of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders. Sabeen's work has been featured in Wired, NPR, Huffington Post, Seed, Le Monde, Financial Times, MIT Press's Innovation Journal, and a range of local publications.