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Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie '94 offers the Baccalaureate address

May 23, 2015

I graduated from Hamilton half a lifetime ago. During my graduation week, I thought I was saying goodbye to the Hill.  Since then I’ve been back more times than I can keep track of, to give readings, to be writer-in-residence, to participate in symposiums, to visit friends, and on several occasions to spend a whole semester here as a visiting professor. And now, this. I don’t want to compare Hamilton to any kind of mafia but really, every time you think you’re out they pull you back in.

Leading up to my return here for graduation week, I’ve been thinking about the first phase of my relationship with Hamilton - the undergraduate phase - and, as is inevitable when looking back on any past relationship, I’ve been considering the matter of regret.  I have one deep regret about Hamilton: I regret how consistent my GPA was all the way from freshman to senior year.  It was probably sometime around my own graduation week that the seeds of this regret were sown. I was talking to my friend Tony Lacavaro, taking stock of our academic choices, and he mentioned that his overall GPA had been pulled down because of the physics course he took in his sophomore year. Tony was a poet, not a man who I’d ever expect to see around the science building unless a blizzard knocked him off course on his way to Root Hall, so ‘why did you take a physics course?’ was my incredulous response. He said, ’Because I wanted to write a poem about light. And I thought I should take a course that would teach me about the scientific properties of light.’  We considered this for a moment - me rolling my eyes, Tony contemplative.  And then he said, cheerfully, ‘Got a good poem out of it’.

There was a man who understood the possibilities of a liberal arts education. Me, I played it safe. I arrived at university knowing there were subject areas I was interested in - and good at -  and I stayed within those subject areas.  Why didn’t I take more psych courses, given how much I enjoyed Intro to Psych which I took to fulfil the science component of the then-distribution requirement. Why not dance or geology or art history?  Why didn’t I take any French courses, particularly when I had a favourite aunt living in Paris, and had first visited her there at an early enough age to remain fluent in French ice cream flavours and little else?  It is in no way a disparagement of the courses I took or the professors who taught them, only of myself, when I say I squandered the possibilities of a Hamilton education. Because at 20 I was foolish enough to think ‘safe’ was a state in which I could want my mind to live.  Because I didn’t understand that there was a better version of me I could bring into being, and that that is the point of a liberal arts education.

‘What are you going to do next’ people ask university seniors. Really the question is, who are you going to be for the rest of your life, starting now?

Let me tell you about someone who didn’t need to attend a liberal arts college in order to embody the spirit of a liberal arts education. Let me tell you about my childhood school friend, Sabeen Mahmud. While I was playing it safe at Hamilton, Sabeen was at university in Lahore, Pakistan, resenting the curriculum which was confining rather than based on a liberal arts model. After her undergrad years, while I was in grad school writing my first novel, Sabeen was earning a living building websites, but art and music and politics and all aspects of technology were all passions she held on to, and fuelled. Around the age of 30 she decided she’d had enough of building websites for the corporations whose politics she railed again, decided no, she wouldn’t take that job she’d been offered in Delhi which would take her out of the often-violent chaos of our hometown of Karachi - instead she would build her dream. In her own words ‘I wondered if I could create a safe haven for artists, musicians, writers, poets, activists, and thinkers— essentially anyone who wanted to escape the relentless tyranny of the city for a little while. If I built it, would anyone come?’  What she built - after maxing out 7 credit cards and raiding her grandmother’s health fund (with her grandmother’s blessings) - was a venue called the Second Floor (named after its location on the second floor of an office building.) the Second Floor or T2F as it soon became named took up all Sabeen’s time and energy - no more building websites, no proper source of income. She could have given it up and gone back to the paycheque, the salaried life, but instead she pushed forward. She built it, people came. They came to talk, to sing, to listen, to learn, to work, to drink coffee, to find company, to be in a safe haven. Regular events at T2F included OpenMic Night and Literary OpenMic, a Philosophy 101 Series and a Science Cafe - tech geeks, poets, political activists, artists all used T2F as both hub and inspiration. All these aspects of T2F were aspects of Sabeen’s own interests. And there was nothing else like it in Karachi, a city of over 20 million people. T2F was part of my life too - I ran a writing workshop there in its first year to help with fundraising, launched a novel there, sat in the audience, drank the coffee. Through all this Sabeen also continued to be, in her own words, my own personal geek squad, answering any tech-related questions I sent to her from London or Karachi or Central New York. When she wasn’t at T2F she was out on the streets of Karachi, protesting against injustices, maintaining solidarity with the marginalised and the oppressed - whether it took the form of helping to form a human chain around a church after a bomb attack that targeted Pakistan’s christian community or taking part in protests calling for the arrest of extremist clerics. If all this makes her sound very serious, she was anything but. In almost every picture of Sabeen you see her smiling. When asked in an interview if it was more important to be smart or funny, this brilliant woman with the wide ranging mind said, ‘smart…no, wait - funny. It’s very important to be able to make people laugh.’

Of course there were people who didn’t like what she was doing.  She once described her own world view as anti-establishment, anti-war, pro-freedom - there isn’t a country in the world where that won’t get you enemies, and in Pakistan your enemies can be particularly terrifying. So, there were threats. Including death threats.  Most people’s response would be to go into panic mode - but not Sabeen. Two years ago she told me about a threat that came to her via social media - she contacted the man responsible and said, why am I bothering you so much? Come to my venue, have a cup of tea, let’s talk about our differences. At first he didn’t think she was being serious but eventually he turned up. They talked, drank tea, he apologised - and after that, became part of T2F’s clientele. That was Sabeen’s magic.

Last month, she agreed to host a talk at T2F on a subject so politically sensitive that Pakistan’s usually outspoken media is afraid to report on it   — the abduction and killing of thousands of people in Pakistan’s state of Baluchistan, allegedly by the army, though the army denies the charge. She knew hosting the talk might get her into trouble with those who don’t want the topic discussed, but she also knew hers was a small venue, not a news channel, and it seemed reasonable to think that whatever trouble she might get in wouldn’t amount to more than a little harassment. The talk took place, undisturbed; a large audience showed up; she uploaded pictures from it to instagram and twitter and facebook. A few minutes after she left the venue following the event a gunman on a motorcycle shot her dead.  She was 40 years old.

For the first day or two after I found myself thinking about the men who killed her, the men who hired the killers: why did they do it, what purpose did it serve - until a friend told me ‘you can’t make sense of a death; you can only make sense of a life well lived.’ And that’s true. I’ve never in the weeks since found myself wishing Sabeen had made different choices about her life. I’ve never wished she’d stayed designing websites, or taken the job in Delhi, or been the kind of person who wouldn’t open up her venue to people who others were trying to silence. Instead I’ve looked at the response to her death around the world, the overwhelming grief of those of us who knew her, the tributes from musicians, artists, students, political activists, science nerds, tech geeks who say she changed their lives simply by giving them the space and encouragement to be the version of themselves they wanted to be.  In addition to the funeral service where literally thousands of people lined up outside T2F in over 100 degree heat to say goodbye to her, there have been vigils or memorial events in her memory in cities around the world including London, Delhi, Toronto, New York, and Tunis. Mostly though what I remember is that to meet Sabeen at T2F was to meet someone who was living the life she wanted to live - which is the greatest of all gifts.   Sabeen didn’t ask herself the question ‘what am I going to do?’. In fact she didn’t even ask ‘who do I want to be?’ She went a step further. She asked ‘what world do I want to find myself living in’ - and then she went ahead and created a microcosm of that world for herself and for thousands of others.

The world isn’t safe, it never will or can be. So don’t waste your time trying to be safe in it.  The world is, however, full of possibilities, remarkable, varied, wondrous - so, seek out those qualities in life.  As for how much or how little you should risk in order to do that - you can’t do better than keep in mind one of Sabeen’s favourite lines, which is a piece of advice she was given early in life: It doesn’t matter if you can’t swim - jump right in. But make sure the pool has water in it.’

Jump into the water, class of 2015.

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