Sunday, March 28, 2010

Pakistan Diary - T2F, Karachi's Coolest Café

The Delhi walla's pretension in writing makes me want to lodge a bullet in his balls - Blogger Nimpipi, the woodchuck chucks
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Pakistan Diary - T2F, Karachi's Coolest Café

The Delhi Walla in the fatherland.

[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.

Read more in The Delhi Walla's Pakistan Diary

Pakistan Diary – Reading Chick Lit in Karachi

Pakistan Diary – At Home in Lahore

Pakistan Diary – The Dancing Girl of Lahore

Pakistan Diary – The Karachi Kartography

Pakistan Diary – Jinnah's Mausoleum, Karachi

Pakistan Diary – Is Karachi Safe?

Pakistan Diary – The First Karachi Literature Festival

Pakistan Diary – The First Evening in Karachi

A T2Fite

Somewhere in Karachi

Novelist Bina Shah

Pakistan Diary - T2F, Karachi's Coolest Café

Journalist Insiya Syed

Somewhere in Karachi

A T2F regular

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


Futz said...

but how can this be!!! they are just like us....

Rima Kaur said...

read this first in the paper today

T-m@N said...

Look Busy Do Nothing's music can be found at

mao said...

Your analysis regarding the class composition in this post is incredibly sharp. I'm leaving highly impressed.

Sna said...

A few words from one of the 'Burgers' who frequent T2F:

Besides the horrible misquotes and imaginary BMWs parked outside, I must say I have to point out that sadly your agenda seemed very obviously outlined before you even began to write. Omitting things that would make such a place and the people seem normal and highlighting aspects that would seem otherwise.

You arrived at T2F at the closing night of an exhibit which was raising funds for one of the most gruesome terrorist struck areas of Karachi which the band LBDN was performing for, which had pieces from the exhibit only just hanging on every available space of the walls of the building yet you chose to skip out on that tiny detail and made it sound like an underground drug dealers cove.

I understand that the whole 'Burgers' acting socially responsible and proactive would have clashed pretty badly with the image you were trying to convey to readers of the Hindustan Times and who on earth would read unless you spiced your article up? But we'll make allowances for you just because you seem to be coming to terms with Pakistan and its people at this point in your life.

I'd write more but I suddenly have the urge to rush to the beach wearing a 'strapless dress' as there is apparently nothing else to do here since we overthrew our 'Chaadar and chaardiwari' era.

Anonymous said...

yup Mayank, one or two cafes of Pakistan represent the whole Pakistan, chapeau! to your intelligence of convincing your readers how normal Pakistanis are. There are normal people in Pakistan who aren't radicalized but definitely not more than half of Pakistan. So, when the numbers are so small, how can you let them overshadow the real Pakistan? We know that you are trying to put Pakistan in the positive spot-light and that was the mission of your trip to that country but your articles are rather counterproductive because other people have visited Karachi and Lahore too, you see. Whom are you trying to fool? You don’t even get to see a girl wearing jeans on Pakistan’s streets and the look of the country is rather quite gloomy and monotonously Islamic, no diversity whatsoever. It looks like a big ghetto from India.
Now as far as the fashion industry is convened, even Iran is way better than Pakistan when it comes to fashion and modernity. So, that isn’t Pakistan again. Most Pakistanis look down at these fashion fiesta people including their entertainment industry calling it r*n*d*k*a*a. Pakistanis are that conservative and backward in their thinking. Been there, seen that.
In Delhi, you stick to the basti this and basti that but in Pakistan you managed to find a cafe in some corner garage, away from the terror struck areas and venomous Mullahs who are openly allowed to give inflammatory speeches against India and Hindus.
My attitude towards Pakistan and Pakistanis changed since my visit to Pakistan in 2005. I went with great enthusiasm but came back with a culture shock I would never forget. Who says India and Pakistan are alike, they are world apart! One feels free in India. The way of speaking, eating, talking,’s so different.

kay said...

whoo.. the above was heavy but i sorta agree with her man. all the burger bun kabab and elitist theory is a bit far fetched even for me. but whatever everyone has their own perception i guess. and i live in saddar by the way.. there was no blast here.. i think you'r talking about the soldier bazzar blast that happened during that time. well what ever. live free and rock on.

p.s: t man i still want my penguin back.

el said...

While reading your article, i was thinking to myself...these people sound so confused and crazy in some ways. But reading the last few comments from other people...i guess i wasn't the only one who thought this article was a little off!
nice try to paint a picture of the elite pakistanis but not your best post.

Mayank Austen Soofi said...

Just a few points here:
No quotes have been misquoted.
I had no previous agenda.
As for the Burger Vs Kebab theory, T2F sells Burger-kebab mugs for - if I remember correctly - Rs 200. (Such 'divides' are normal in any society anyway)
On second thoughts, I should have added more quotes in the story. I talked to many people in Karachi about this cafe and many said that it's very expensive and that they don't feel comfortable there. One entrepreneur named Shakir Husain, who writes occasional columns in newspapers, said, "T2F people claim to change the world by selling over-priced coffee in Defence. Let them set up an outlet in, say, Lehari and then I will believe in what they say."

Personally, I found T2F very exciting, if a little pretentious. But then I can’t imagine Delhi without its lovely, pricey, pretentious, artsy, thinking cafes.

mere said...

Maynak, I think you made plenty of references to the elitist patronage of this cafe. It still doesn't make the story any less relevant or interesting. Its still a story, its still a tiny piece of society. What exactly are your readers expecting from you in a 9-day visit to Pakistan? An entire thesis proving the inherent, genetic 'badness' of Pakistan?

What I don't understand is why are certain readers so vehemently out there to make a judgement call? It seems pretty evident that you already have one, why even bother reading an article about the place if you are so hell bent on never changing your mind? Pakistan is crap, we get it. You hate it, we get it. Then why are you reading this series about a person who has time and time again tried to reach out to Pakistanis? It seems to me you must have endless time to kill.

Vishal said...

MAS: I will leave few points to ponder.

A topic can be studied in various ways, even at highest level (say PhD research)....

1. It can be LONGITUDINAL STUDY (study over an extended period of time e.g. over several decades or generations, etc) or CROSS-SECTIONAL STUDY (a specific moment in time eg. things happened during partition, things happen at point of contact when an atom is bombarded with x-rays, etc).

MAS chose to study a specific moment (cross-sectional study) in time just when he happen to visit during concert and exhibition held for the Muslim victims of Pakistan's home-grown Islamist terrorists. Someone once commented that is it a bad thing? i.e. self-destruction by Islamists leading to less catchment population for future breed of terrorists).

2. Regardless of Longitudinal or cross-sectional, a study can be carried out from various view points e.g. causes of depression in males can be studied from biological view point (impact of a specific gene and DNA on depression) or economical viewpoint (impact of financial situation on depression) or ethnic viewpoints (why different races have differing levels of depression even in similar economical and geographical conditions) and so forth......... MAS chose to study from his view point (whatever that may be) ......

If you read his preface to his Paki-terrori-stan trip, he has said, this is his Pakistan (as in how he sees it, and your Pakistan will be different).

This is not to suggest that he has carried out a valid and scientific study as there is no evidence that he chose a "Representative Sample of people" who visit the cafe.

Peace to all ............ (someone once argued, that peace will only come when Pakistan and Islamist terrorist world over cease to exist, 'Tathaa Aastu').


Disclaimer: Author assumes no liability whatsoever in any jurisdiction for these comments and various views quoted herein are merely to provide readers with additional points to ponder.

Jamal Ashiqain said...

You did read "burger" and "bun kabab" written on the mugs very correctly but you missed "Bridge The Gap" written in center of both the Tags on the same mug which was the most important part and the key the message of the whole champagne ...

and please we are neither a ‘Burger’ or a‘Bun Kebab’ nor it is necessary for us to be either one of the two.

You also did not realized that "Burger" and "Bun kabab" are tags and not the class divides

another thing you missed was my unpainted - old - dented almost wrecked suzuki-Fx (SUZUKI MARUTI 800cc) which is often found parked at t2f. and i have never seen any BMWz there.

you did notice people complaining about paying Rs.150 for a cup of coffee but you but you failed to see poor people lower middle class areas like New-Karachi - Lalu Khait and Nazimabad paying over Rs.200/- for a burger just because it's God-forsaken McDonalds.

also found it disturbing when you say Karachi is a rival city of Lahore, we do often compare the two cites with one an other but it doesn't make us rivals ..

and there is more but i rather not go any further.

and i am sure if i read the blog again I am to find more and more things which are so not the real Karachi or the real t2f.

Jamal Ashiqain said...

*correction: (First paragraph of my comment above) the key the message of the whole "Campaign" -

Beenish Qureshi said...

Honestly I fail to understand how you can simply generalize our/ Pakistani culture with those confusing lines above. I am still not able to see the conclusion of your review or article. You visited one cafe and you found the distinction of burgers and bun kebabs and here we are mingling with each person that comes in without thinking what race or social background he or she is from. I am surprised to see you missed out the rich culture and friendly nature of our hosts at t2f rather you focused on people who come there to visit for different reasons. I am unaware of people wearing the strapless dresses around here but tell me is that how you measure NORMAL People? So normal people around the world do not engage in intellectual conversations but they can just wear those modern dresses n become normal.
I am sure internationally when people read your post they will not be sure if Pakistan as painted by you is a positive or a negative place.
Your contradicting statements just add to that confusion. We would have appreciated if you did a critical review identifying the positive and the negative experiences of your visit. Atleast it would have given us a clear picture of what you have in mind.

Anonymous said...

Burgers feel guilty because of the contradictions they live with. They can’t do away with their lifestyle – because they are status conscious too.
If any of those jeans-wearing young moms were asked to choose either a workers' revolution or their son's admission at Karachi Grammar School, they'd all go for the latter. So much for the 'change' they (pretend to) seek. Good post, mate. You are a socialist soofi.

Anonymous said...

There is much more to T2F and what matters the most is they are always welcoming.

PS: I don't live in posh area and we are not backwards either.