I sit down to write this on April 21, the birthday of one of my oldest, dearest childhood friends, universally known as Poppy – Shayan Afzal Khan, to use her full name. On Feb 21, 2015, Poppy lost her second battle with cancer, which she had fought with her characteristic grace, courage and humour. One of Poppy’s enduring legacies is her book ‘Unveiling the Ideal: A New Look at Early Muslim Women’, published by Musawah-Sisters in Islam, Malaysia in 2007. For this book, she drew on her writing skills, faith, feminism and history degree (Girton College, Cambridge, 1985).
But what Poppy’s name has become synonymous with is Kuch Khaas – the cultural hub she established in 2010 in Islamabad. For this, she took inspiration from The Second Floor (T2F) in Karachi, set up in 2007 by another dear friend, Sabeen Mahmud.
“Having an open mind and an open-door policy has let us fulfil dreams beyond my wildest imagination,” wrote Sabeen in an essay titled ‘Creative Karachi’, in the Accelerating Entrepreneurship edition of Innovations Quarterly, published by MIT Press in 2013. This applies equally to Poppy.
Three months after Poppy passed on, Sabeen was shot dead in Karachi. This Sunday, April 24, marks the first year of that ghastly event. Determined to celebrate Sabeen’s life and legacy and sharing her belief that the show must go on, her friends, family and co-workers arranged a two-day event at the Alliance Française, the Creative Karachi Festival (CKF) (yesterday and today – from 1pm to 10pm).
This is the second edition of a weekend mela that was one of Sabeen’s many out-of-the-box ideas. A “non-stop party in the park!” is what she called it when she first curated it in 2014 as a fundraiser for T2F. The festival aims to keep alive Sabeen’s “vision for a more creatively conscious city, by sustaining the creative forces that she generated together with us”.
Some of Pakistan’s best visual artists, contemporary and traditional craftsmen, performers, writers, poets, dancers, film and documentary makers, qawwals and musicians are contributing their skills to the event. There will also be film screenings and panel discussions, food stalls, demos, and tastings. The entry fees, priced at Rs350 per day or Rs600 for both days, make it affordable – at least as a one-time expense – for a large section of society.
Both Sabeen and Poppy were driven by the desire to create inclusive spaces where people could gather to imbibe music, poetry, dance, art, drama, and new ideas at discussions, film screenings and book launches. Poppy took the T2F concept further by organising regular classes for creative writing, guitar, dance, and other creative skills. She quietly gave scholarships for these classes to children from low-income families. The Kuch Khaas lawns also became the venue for a farmers’ market, featuring organic fruit, vegetables and dairy products.
The key requirement for such activities, besides creative thinking and open-mindedness, is space and funds. A fairy godmother of a landlord literally gave Sabeen the use of the first two floors of a building he owns, for a token rent of one rupee a month. That generous contribution takes care of the biggest expense (rent) for the foreseeable future. Hopefully, supporters will donate more than the entry fee at the Creative Karachi Festival this weekend to enable T2F to keep going.
Sadly, Kuch Khaas remains shut since September 2015, as the Capital Development Authority (CDA) cracked down against ‘non-conforming use of residential property’, despite the fact that it was a non-commercial, family-oriented space that the neighbours had no objection to. Plenty of commercial outfits are still being run in residential areas as the authorities turn a blind eye, but never mind that.
In October last year, Kuch Khaas applied to the CDA for a space at the back of the immense Arts and Crafts Village in Islamabad.
“We received good feedback and to keep matters transparent we requested a public announcement of a bid for the space for non-commercial, not-for-profit organisations that work in this field with a varied expertise and hoped to compete based on our experience,” says Kuch Khaas director Michelle Tania Butt.
In her memory, Poppy’s family is still paying the Kuch Khaas employees their salaries rather than letting them go, but they can’t go on much longer. If accepted, the proposal would fill a vital cultural gap in Islamabad, as well as bring life to a barren and unused area in the Arts and Crafts Village, for which Kuch Khaas is willing to pay a reasonable rent. The village already houses several (unused) restaurants and an art gallery, besides the CDA training centre. There was no public bidding process prior to these allocations.
In a meeting with Kuch Khaas representatives on Feb 22, 2016, the CDA committed to announcing the bid in ten days. Two months later: no bid, no announcement, no venue for Kuch Khaas. The file remains obstinately unmoving, despite Kuch Khaas’s project in partnership with the CDA for Earth Day celebrations in Islamabad on April 22 of this year.
As the Pakistan government and security forces chase down Chotu gangs and terrorists, perhaps someone in a position to decide will realise the importance of public spaces like T2F and Kuch Khaas. It is such venues that provide citizens a space to breathe and nurture their creative selves – something that indirectly, and sometimes directly, challenges and counters the militant narrative.
As I write this on Poppy’s birthday, with the Creative Karachi Festival for Sabeen and T2F on April 24 and 25, I hope that the government, as well as individuals, will consider supporting the arts and creativity with even more commitment. The time to act is now.
The writer is a freelance journalist, editor and filmmaker based in Cambridge, MA.