Thursday, May 13, 2010

Karachi Landmark - T2F, Defence Housing Authority

"Pakistan Paindabad has set others a model of what a blog/site should be."
Late Khalid Hasan, US correspondent for the Lahore-based Daily Times and The Friday Times
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Pakistan Diary - T2F, Karachi's Coolest Café

Karachi's coolest cafe.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Most regulars to The Second Floor, or T2F, are young and speak with an American accent. If this were some other city in some other country, T2F would have gone unnoticed. But this pricey café with a rather unimpressive bookstore and an art gallery is unique. There is no other hangout in Karachi — or in Pakistan — that brings such a crowd of writers, poets, painters, filmmakers, musicians, bloggers, book-lovers and trans-gender people to one place.

“This is an alternative space,” says Karachi-based author and former editor of the Internet magazine SPIDER Bina Shah whose new novel, A Season For Martyrs, has just been translated into Italian. “It’s not a pro-establishment place. It’s a little subversive.”

This isn’t Islamabad or Talibanland. The wall opposite Shah is decked with a painting of two nude men. “It was part of a mural done by the gay artist Asim Butt who committed suicide early this year,” says Sabeen Mahmud, who co-runs T2F. “I have queer people saying to me that this is the only place in Karachi where they feel safe.”

Opened in 2007, T2F, operated by — like most things in Pakistan — a non-profit organisation, quickly became the place for Karachi’s cool set to hang out. Urdu poet Zehra Nigah came here to recite her verses on America’s war against terror. A session on Mirza Ghalib attracted an unexpectedly large crowd after the 19th century poet was marketed as ‘the original hippie’.

T2F has also held events in the past that were not calculated to please the Pakistani establishment. It invited author Ayesha Siddiqa to talk about her book Military Inc., an expose on Pakistan’s military institution, screened a film on the country’s missing people while its director was being hounded by the Inter-Services Intelligence. Call it Pakistan’s radical chic spot.

This silent chattering class is also the set of people who make up Pakistan’s liberal, urban, globalised civil society – sandwiched invisibly between the politicians, lawyers, the generals and the Taliban-types. The hijab is non-existent in this layer of Pakistani society, but it’s still tucked away from the usual ‘international’ images of a country buttressed by violence and disorder.

In the past, Pakistan’s liberal ‘café society’ had more influence than it has now. In Karachi’s rival city Lahore, the now-closed Pak Tea House was an artistic hub frequented by poets and writers such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Saadat Hasan Manto. In Karachi’s Irani cafés, politics was dissected over tea and patties. “A modern successor to old-world cafés, T2F caters to a new generation that has grown up in the so-called ‘liberalism’ of the Musharraf era,” says journalist Beena Sarwar. “Here people come in with their guitars or laptops. They care about the state of the world and also like their coffee well-brewed.”

In keeping with T2F’s high-brow USP, TV journalist Insiya Syed is reading a Michael Ondaatje on the terrace. “The impression that Pakistani women come out only in a burqa or a dupatta is bullshit,” says Ms Syed, wearing skin-tight jeans and a t-shirt. “I usually wear jeans to office, which is on the busiest road in Karachi, which I cross ten times a day and no one frowns.”

In a city that hosted Pakistan’s first fashion week in 2009, the women wear is coming into its own after years of hibernation called ‘Chaadar and chaardiwari’. Dupatta is no longer necessary. Girls on streets are seen in hipster jeans and long skirts. In evenings, society ladies wear strapless dresses, long flowing gowns and even short cocktail dresses at charity balls and club dinners. Sarongs are popular in beach parties.

In Karachi lingo, you are either a ‘Burger’ or a ‘Bun Kebab’. ‘Burger’ kids live in the posh areas of Defence and Clifton, speak accented English, date in Zamzama Boulevard cafés, and party at the secluded ‘French Beach’ on weekends. ‘Bun Kebabs’ live everywhere except in the posh bits of Karachi, speak Urdu-peppered English, hang out at Jinnah’s mausoleum and meet extended relatives for social dos. Burgers feel at home at T2F, Kebabs don’t.

T2F’s posh reading tastes come out strongly. “We don’t accept John Grishams,” says Mohsin Siddiqui, a blogger who selects books for the café. “The point of this place is to encourage discussions. Trash literature such as the Twilight series won’t be able to do that. We keep Robert Fisk, not Dan Brown.” Literary snobbery in a country where a book is a bestseller if it sells 5,000 copies. “I wish Pakistan had a Chetan Bhagat and a Shobhaa De,” says Ameena Saiyid, managing director of Pakistan’s Oxford University Press, which, organised the Karachi Literature Festival with the British Council.

Wearing an embroidered salwar kurta, graphic designer Tehmina Fatima, is waiting with Ms Syed for a gig to be performed at the T2F by Karachi band, Look Busy, Do Nothing. As she lights up a cigarette, the talk veers towards terrorism. “Yesterday three people died in a blast in Saddar Bazaar but it was not breaking news as the number [of people killed] didn’t reach 30,” says Ms Syed.

“Sometimes it gets really depressing and then you come to T2F where you meet people who feel the same way as you. ” Ms Fatima butts in, saying, “You can’t imagine it in other hangouts. There, everyone lives in a bubble and talks about beach parties and boyfriends.”

But isn’t that also important? “Yes, sometimes I go to other cafés to talk crappy stuff,” says Ms Syed with a laugh. “It’s a release valve.”

Meanwhile the three-member band has swung into action. The pencil-thin Talha Asim is playing the lead guitar. The curly-haired Kayzad is beating his drums so fiercely that the cymbal falls on the floor with a crashing noise. Daniyal, the bassist, stops to look up but then resumes with his guitar. As the evening ends, everyone claps. A few hugs later, they all get into their BMWs. Most probably to the beach.

A T2Fite

Somewhere in Karachi

Novelist Bina Shah

Pakistan Diary - T2F, Karachi's Coolest Café

Journalist Insiya Syed

Somewhere in Karachi

Graphic designer Tehmina Fatima

Somewhere in Karachi

T2F's co-owner Sabeen Mahmud

Pakistan Diary - T2F, Karachi's Coolest Café

Blogger Mohsin Siddiqui

Pakistan Diary - T2F, Karachi's Coolest Café

Like-minded T2Fites

Pakistan Diary - T2F, Karachi's Coolest Café

A fellow T2Fite

Pakistan Diary - T2F, Karachi's Coolest Café

Outdoor scene

Pakistan Diary - T2F, Karachi's Coolest Café

Look busy, do nothing

Somewhere in Karachi

Are they looking busy?

Pakistan Diary - T2F, Karachi's Coolest Café

Another world is possible

Pakistan Diary - T2F, Karachi's Coolest Café

Monday, May 03, 2010

Pakistan Diary - Reading Chicklit in Karachi

"Pakistan Paindabad has set others a model of what a blog/site should be."
Late Khalid Hasan, US correspondent for the Lahore-based Daily Times and The Friday Times
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Karachi Literature Festival

A trip to the fatherland.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Pakistanis love reading Chick Lit as much as Delhiites. The Delhi Walla discovered it while attending the two-day Karachi Literature Festival. Held on on March 21-21, it was organised by Pakistan's Oxford University Press (OUP) in collaboration with the British Council.

In the festival, rather than seeking appointments with novelists and critics, I was more interested in finding out the reading taste of young Pakistanis. So, between the sessions, I caught up with youngsters who said that they feel deeply for novels such as the Twilight series.

“I love India’s Shobaa De,” said Falak Abbas, a college student, referring to a bestselling Bombay-based novelist. “She is old and yet looks so sexy and her books are so easy to read.”

On the second day, I met Karim Aman, a Master's student of Karachi’s Aga Khan University who has studied Ms De more closely. “When Shobhaa De writes a novel, she brings in certain words which are pregnant with cultural symbols to which ordinary Indians can relate to,” he said. “For instance, she doesn’t translate ‘mirchi’ as ‘pepper’. However, Pakistani writing in English is still evolving. We still are tempted to translate ‘surahi’ into ‘pot’.”

Pakistani writing in English is making waves in the global literary circuit. Bestselling novels such as The Reluctant Fundamentalist and A Case of Exploding Mangoes are read widely by Pakistanis who take their reading seriously. But the country has no home-grown trash writers. For instance, Pakistan has no Chetan Bhagat, the wildly popular Indian novelist whose quickies are lapped up by the non-reading youngsters.

Quite a few Karachiites were frank in confessing that while they had come to the festival to look at famous authors such as Bapsi Sidhwa and Mohammed Hanif, they don’t care much for reading. “My girlfriend’s Facebook status never says that she is reading a book,” jokes Saquib Shaikh, an engineering student. “Our generation doesn’t read. We don’t like books. Even our university lectures are saved on the laptop.”

That said, romantic shairis are popular in Pakistan. Famous verses of great poets such as Ahmed Faraz, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Sahrar Ansari are routinely forwarded as text messages. “Sometimes, we save their entire collected works on our iPhones,” says Sultan Abbas Rajput, a business student.

One of the first sessions in the festival was dedicated to a creative writing workshop. Noor Ussana, a literature student and an aspiring poet, had specially come to attend it. “There is currently so much negativity in Pakistan and the world,” she said, referring to the unending terror attacks in her country. “To escape, one draws peace from nature and that’s why I want to write on the secluded world of forests and flowers.”

When a college student named Fatima Ansari, who had come to attend the festival, discovered that The Delhi Walla is from India, she said, “You must tell your countrymen that Karachi is as normal as any other city. We have no caves. Yes, there is instability and our parents get worried for us when we go out but we know how to have fun.”

Indeed, the popular weekend time out in Karachi is having nightlong parties on the city’s beaches. “French Beach is most prized,” says Saquib. “And when there’s a beach, there’s also booze.” Eh, why care for the books?

First day in the fest

Karachi Literature Festival

Novelist Mohammed Hanif signing copies of his novel

Karachi Literature Festival

Shh

Karachi Literature Festival

All ears

Karachi Literature Festival

Author Sadia Shepherd

Karachi Literature Festival

Columnist Irfan Husain

In Search of Lost Time

Engrossed

In Search of Lost Time

Friday Times editor Raza Rumi with OUP's Ameena Saiyid

Karachi Literature Festival

Lost in the literature

Karachi Literature Festival

The rest is lit

Karachi Literature Festival