Pakistani Cafe Is Oasis In Desert Of Civil Discourse

Pakistan's Second Floor cafe is listed in a local Karachi social blog as one of the coolest cafes in town. Since it opened its doors five years ago, it has become a haven in a city more known for its violence than its civil discourse.

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In Pakistan, there's a cafe called the Second Floor. It's listed in a local Karachi social blog as one of the coolest cafes in town. Since it opened its doors five years ago, it's become a haven in a city more known for its violence than its civil discourse. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston paid a visit.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The artwork on the front stoop of the Second Floor Cafe in Karachi says it all.

SABEEN MAHMUD: I wanted something right at the entrance...

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Shameen Mahmud. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Mahmud's first name is Sabeen.] She runs the Second Floor. And she's showing me a painting of a giant Escape Key on the stoop...

MAHMUD: Indicating that when you enter this space, you will escape from the world for a little while. So, one of our artist friends just stenciled that.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Shameen Mahmud is a 30-something social activist in Karachi, and what she's created sounds simple enough. She opened a place where people could gather to exchange ideas while eating organic wraps and sipping lattes.

MAHMUD: We have art exhibitions. We have book readings. We have talks, film screenings, theater, dance - essentially, anything that covers the realm of arts and culture, science and technology - and ideas.

TEMPLE-RASTON: If you were in Greenwich Village or SoHo in New York, this would sound like more of the same. But this being Pakistan, the Second Floor is unusual. When lawyers demonstrated after then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf fired dozens of senior judges in 2007, demonstrators planned their next moves at the Second Floor.

MAHMUD: We used to do these flash protests, and we used to just tell all these guys that we're going be here at such and such a time. We'd organize them over SMS.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Organizing demonstrations by SMS - or text messaging - back in 2007. A former Pakistani naval researcher named Ayesha Siddiqa, was looking for a place for a reading. She'd written a controversial book on Pakistan's military business interests. The Second Floor offered to host the event.

ZAHEER KIDVAI: We got telephone calls from agencies - so did she - that we shouldn't have it.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Zaheer Kidvai, who helped open the Second Floor. And he talked to the intelligence officials from the Inter-Services Intelligence, who called.

KIDVAI: My answer was, this is just a discussion. And so if you don't like the idea of what she's written, then come there. Don't bring guns; don't bring anything. Just come there.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And they did. Shameen Mahmud said the ISI agents were easy to spot, and they asked pro-army questions. But it all worked out just fine, she says.

MAHMUD: I'm sure there's a lot of stuff that I don't know about, that goes on; that I'm not aware of - because I know that the agencies visit. And you know, people will show up from the ISI, and from here and there. And they're just people; they're just doing their jobs. And I wish they didn't have those jobs, but they have not troubled us.

HEDRANI: It's the only place in Karachi, you know, that actually serves people like us.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's 21-year-old Hedrani, a film student and a regular customer.

HEDRANI: You can really have nice conversations out here with just general, random, people. You can just walk up to people and have good conversations.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Of course, that's why the Second Floor was created in the first place - to spark discussion, says Zaheer Kidvai.

KIDVAI: It's nice to see them sit down in conversations and discuss - whether it's politics or religion, or anything else - things that are not allowed to be talked about in public here.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The Second Floor hopes to keep that conversation going. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Islamabad.

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