Sabeen, The One Who Never Backed Down

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The Dawn (Pakistan)

Sabeen, The One Who Never Backed Down

Sabeen Mahmud, social media campaigner and human rights activist. (Photo: Khuda Bux Abro/The Dawn)

The fingers type, but I don’t feel them moving. The ears sense a commotion, but I cannot hear. The eyes fight back tears, but it’s futile to resist.

How can you feel, how can you react, how can you respond, when the news of a friend’s death hits you, right between the eyes?

But Sabeen was far more than a friend, she was a beacon; an island of calm in a sea of madness.

The Second Floor, conceived and modelled in her own image, was the physical embodiment of her intangible love for all things; food, the arts, knowledge and ideas, and, of course, people.

As bleeding heart liberals go, Sabeen’s was the bloodiest heart I have ever come across. Sabeen did a lot more than just help people. She championed causes, thought outside the box and wanted, with every breath, to make a difference.

A leading light of the #PakistanForAll and #ReclaimYourMosque campaigns, she was usually the first to hit the streets and the last to go home.

When they came for the Shias of Alamdar Road, she was at Numaish from the very beginning to the bitter end.

When they came for the Christians of Peshawar, she was right there at the heart of the human chains that protected churches on Sunday mass.

Always one to challenge convention, always one to take the unpopular stand, always one to side with the underdog; Sabeen Mahmud never backed down from a fight.

When the bearded brigade came after her for daring to say “Faasla na rakhein, pyaar honay dein,” she didn’t get cowed.

When Maulana Abdul Aziz was shouting obscenities into the loudspeaker, she was right there with Jibran Nasir and Shaan Taseer. I remember, because I met her, hugged her and asked her for some words of wisdom.

That was the last time I met Sabeen. On a cold Islamabad evening, outside the Aabpara police station.

She paced the crowd as Jibran held forth. She saw from a distance the incivility of a civil society, but turned and walked away, quietly smiling to herself.

I remember her as the flower-child in a sage’s body. I remember her youthful exuberance in the face of all adversity. I remember her because she introduced me to half of Twitter when she single-handedly conceptualised and hosted the Social Media Mela. I remember her because of our shared love for bad 80s pop.

I remember her because I can’t forget.

Over the days to come, a lot will be written and a lot more will be said on the woman I’m talking about. Some of it will be good, some bad. But none will manage to capture the essence of the woman herself.

No one can ever take her place and nothing can ever make up for the loss we’re all mourning. It comes in spurts.

As I fight back the tears and force my fingers to type words, all I remember is her slight smile, the fire in her eyes and the conviction in her voice.

We once bonded over our mutual love for the Wax song, ‘Right between the eyes’. As I write these words now, I’m listening to the same song again. It’s a love song, as much as this feeble blog is a love letter. But then, why does it feel like a bullet?

Why does it feel like I’ve taken one, right between the eyes? It’s because we all have.

Rest in peace Sabeen. You were truly the best of us.

All I’m afraid of now is, who will stand up when they come for us?

Who will stand up when they come for me?

Hassan Belal Zaidi

Hassan Belal Zaidi is a staff writer for The Dawn newspaper in Pakistan. Follow him on Twitter: @mightyobvious

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