Searching for an Underground Generation in Karachi, Pakistan

Home to a staggering 24 million people, Karachi is the biggest city in Pakistan. Partly due to its size and density, the capital of the country’s Sindh province can be a violent place, host to its share of murders, kidnappings, extortion, and terrorism. Though recent reports suggest that an influx of paramilitary forces are making things safer, due to a high level of overall corruption, it can sometimes be difficult to tell if the city’s police and politicians are actually on the right side of the law. It is also a conservative place. When I visited last April to photograph and talk to members of Karachi’s independent music scene, I didn’t see many women walking around in the streets; for the most part, they appeared to be hidden from public view. Though the female locals I met did not cover their hair, I was advised to wear a headscarf in certain areas to hide my blondeness and avoid attention. People generally do not discuss politics out in the open in Karachi. 

But within this cloistered environment is a bastion of progressive thought. The Second Floor, aka T2F, offers a platform for discussion, music performance, and art. When I stopped in one day, grassroots literature and fliers were spread around the café, and old-school feminist posters decorated the walls. In the corner, a group of young women sat around a table in deep discussion, comparing writings in their notebooks. “If there is anyone you should meet while you’re here, it’s Sabeen,” one local musician told me.

Sabeen Mahmud earned a godmother status in the eyes of Karachi’s underdogs as a foundational counterculture figure. As a teenager and young adult, she spent her time trying to drop out of school and replacing motherboards on some of the first Mac computers that were available in Pakistan, while simultaneously learning how to master the depths of the Internet. She dreamed of a Karachi that existed during her parents’ youth in the 1960s: tea houses filled with leftist poets and political discussion; long nights of loud music at the local clubs. She opened T2F in 2007, and the space was an instant success amongst Mahmud’s creative circles—a thriving alternative outpost. It also became a destination for Karachi’s musical underground to rehearse and perform.

As I walked into Mahmud’s office she welcomed me like I was one of her own. “We’ve been under a military rule for most of our history and we haven’t really been able to build democratic movements for a number of reasons,” she explained, discussing her country’s plight. “There is a general distrust of democracy; there is a very military, nationalist agenda.” Her co-worker, Reem Khurshid, continued, “There is definitely a creativity drain in Karachi—you can’t plan any day one hundred percent in advance. But despite all the dangers, people still have the desire and willpower to be creative.”

Read more at Pitchfork.