Nadia Manzoor: From Art to Activism and Beyond

Nadia P Manzoor is a British Pakistani actor, writer, and producer, whose autobiographical  one-woman show, Burq Off! has had sold-out runs in New York, LA, San Francisco, London and Toronto. It has been called  a “Gutsy, honest, hilarious must-see!” by Deepak Chopra, and “Terrific” by The Economist. She is the co-creator and performer of Shugs & Fats, a Gotham Award winning web series and has recently been named one of the twenty-five new faces of independent film by Filmmaker Magazine.

 

Incisive and outspoken, Nadia’s has appeared on CNN, The BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera and Radio Q and has been featured in Elle India, Vogue India, The Daily Beast, and The Times of India. She recently delivered a TedX talk on creative collaboration, and is a frequent guest speaker on panels that focus on women in Islam and the Muslim identity. Her writing has appeared on the Huffington Post, India.com, and Brown Girl Magazine. Manzoor’s interests lie in challenging the status quo through laughter. To further fuse her passion for performance and social justice, she founded Paprika Productions, an all-female production company that produces works by brave, curious women.

“The first thing I ever wanted to be was an astronaut.” This is first line of my autobiographical one-woman show, Burq Off!. I was five, and everything seemed possible. And it was…until my Pakistani father heard the news. He looked at me and smiled with a furrowed brow, challenging, “How can you be an astronaut? Who will cook? Who will clean? Who will feed your husband if you are floating around in space? One day you will be a wife and a mother, and you will make a man very, very happy.”

My father was a practical man, and he believed that ideas about space and limitlessness were far too abstract for a young immigrant girl like me. As a child in a foreign land, it was important for me to have a clear sense of my purpose, which he defined with wooden spoons and pampers. A curious kid, I wanted to know why. To which the response was almost always. “This is our culture.” Looking around me, it was clear that it wasn’t the culture of Hertfordshire England where we were living; it was the culture of the tight knit South-Asian community I was raised in.

I was different, and Pakistanis were not celebrated for their difference in England in the 1980’s. But we were certainly noticed for it—people looked at us funny when they heard us speaking Urdu, and held their noses as they walked past my mum. It’s not that she smelled bad it’s just that she was a brilliant, obsessive cook and always wafted the heavenly potent scent of curry and lamb samosas in her tracks.

Looking back, I can say this with pride—my mouth still waters when I think about how soul nourishing her food was—but when I was seven and attending St. Albans school for girls, pride was the last thing I felt. All the yellow-haired girls in my class brought their lunch to school in pink Barbie boxes. I had a plastic Tesco bag filled with plastic pots full of roti, and curry, and stench. Some days, I was so embarrassed about my lunches that I wouldn’t eat. In small ways, I had to hide my Pakistani-ness from my white classmates.

Ironically, I also had to hide my whiteness from my brown family. I wasn’t allowed to utter the word pig in my home, so at school I snorted incessantly. Noticing this, my teacher cast me as a pig in the Christmas play. My father assumed the worst, and built a fortress of rules.

I wasn’t allowed to show my legs, so every summer I had to wear thick wool tights under dresses; I wasn’t allowed to wear shorts in P.E, so I wore big baggy pants that tripped me up and slowed me down; and I definitely wasn’t allowed to do ballet, because that would mean wearing a leotard, so I took Judo with the boys. But I wanted to dance. There was something inside me that needed to be expressed, that wanted to tell my story. So I’d lock myself in my room with Janet Jackson, and dance in the mirror to my heart’s content.

This was the very beginning of my understanding of myself as a performer, a process that was rather like peeling an onion. It took a lot of layers to get to the heart of it, and there were many tears along the way. After the pig incident, my teachers made the safe choice of casting me as a piece of wood in the Easter play. I was nine years old, and I spent the entirety of the performance standing in a yellow t-shirt with my arms in the air, facing another girl.

When this went over well, and the voice inside my head begged for more, my teachers grew more confident, and asked to play a chef in The Tastes of Europe. My speaking part debut. I sang, and twirled, and wore a chef hat, and an apron, and underneath…a leotard. When I looked into the audience and saw my father’s face, I had a sinking feeling I wouldn’t be allowed on stage again for a long time. I could read his mind. I was not supposed to perform, especially not in tight clothing, especially not after I hit puberty.

And so I learned to hide. I hid my contours, I hid my emotions, and I hid my thoughts. Anything that brought attention to myself had to be concealed. So I concealed it, but it had to go somewhere. So I lied, and I snuck out to see boys, and I danced in clubs and drank alcohol and lead a secret life of rebellion and self-discovery. And I wrote it all down. Because the double life was confusing, and secrets can be lonely, I kept a journal. It’s where I put my true self, and where my stories began to grow.

I have just stepped onto the stage, into the light, and the audience is silent. I take a breath, drawing in the moment of anticipation before anybody has any idea of what could possibly happen. It’s a blank slate. It’s a moment when anything is possible.

I linger, my whole story expanding and contracting in a breath: all the times I’ve lied about who I am and what I believe to make myself feel accepted. I hesitate because although I’m ready to be done hiding, I also know I can never un-speak what I am about to say. I can’t turn this truth back into lies. It’s my story, and the people I’m performing it for are the very community that created the rules that I broke as a child. The rules that I’m breaking now, by performing my story. But I’m ready to let my story define me. So I shatter the silence, and as I tell my story I relive it.

The first time I performed my life on stage, I don’t even know if I could call it ‘art’ it was so raw. Now, as I write this, after having performed 37 sold out shows to audiences in New York, LA, San Francisco, London, Toronto, and Detroit, I have begun to realize that my story is their story. After each performance, people spill their stories to me, sometimes holding my hand, sometimes tears staining their cheeks, sometimes laughing every word. And their stories weave their way into my own. My story is not wholly mine any more. It has become universal; it has become ‘art.’

The reactions to the show are as curious as they are confessional. I am often swarmed with questions, and the questions are as much about the story of my life as they are about the performance of that story. But there’s something more to their questioning. It’s those rules that they might still live by. Unspoken, at the heart of all of the questions, is trembling fear-glinted wondering: how could you do this (disdain at my lack of shame) and how could you do this (awe at my courage) it’s a paradoxical sentiment within itself. I represent so much of what my community is ashamed of and so much of what my community needs and yearns for, and my willingness to speak the brazen truth shakes the very foundations of how we’ve defined ourselves.

As confounding as that central question seems to be, the answer is shockingly clear. How could I do this? Through humor. The cultural conundrum of my immigrant experience, personal and universal, has always puzzled me to the extent of hilarity. Laughter often bursts out through the seams of the absurd, and laughing allows us to heal the wounds that conflict can cause to open. And so, with a wry smile, I’ll continue to explore the space of what happens when I break the silence and break the rules.