performance Magazine


Nadia Manzoor.  

“A rre beta, who will feed your husband if you are floating about in space?” Bouncing with excitement, five-year old Nadia has just told her father of her dream of becoming an astronaut. “One day, you will be a wife and mother, and you will make a man very, very, happy.” The eager expression on the little upturned face falls, confused and crushed.

The adult Nadia Manzoor describes her father’s words as “the prime directive in a Pakistani family — of making a man very, very happy.”

Nadia, like many young women of her milieu, grew up conflicted by contrary directives. On the one side stood her family, which offered her the secure but suffocating comforts of tradition. On the other side, the external world beckoned. Dangers lurked in the shadows of that world, but it offered excitement and freedom.

Her response to this existential crisis is the stuff of Burq Off, a one-person testimonial performance she crafted in an attempt to make sense of her past and help others like her make sense of theirs.

Told from the perspective of a curious and confrontational girl growing up in a conservative Pakistani family in Hertfordshire, Burq Off is a 90-minute romp through the first 20 years of her life. Nadia performs more than a dozen roles, including as a witness and commentator of her own actions. She is variously angry, wistful, sad, abusive, tender and exasperated; but above all, she is very, very funny.

“I am nervous because this is the first time I am presenting this to my own people,” confesses Nadia as she waits in the lobby of the University of Westminster for her event to start. “I spent my whole life lying, because I had to play all these roles. It was only until I was able to find my voice through telling my story that I found a power and liberation — of not being afraid of what other people are going to say, or of being judged. That changed my life,” she says.

Burq Off has run to rave audiences in the United States, and Nadia is to bring her performance to London this September. Nadia’s coming-of-age story is about the dilemmas of identity that afflict the children of British multiculturalism. It adds to an ever-growing body of creative expression on second and third-generation immigrant experiences told by writers, playwrights, filmmakers, and political and social activists.

From an innocent and curious little girl who accepts with befuddlement the advice of her parents — her doting and sacrificing mother, and her conservative but loving father — Nadia acts out her subsequent transition to the school girl who desperately wants cultural assimilation into the white milieu of her school and friends’ circle. From there, she becomes the young woman broken by her mother’s death, and angry with the world, who leaves home to study and seek personal freedom.

From acceptance to deceit to rebellion: what is the message that Nadia wishes to convey?

“You don’t have to be afraid of who you are, it’s okay if it creates conflict, don’t be afraid of provoking, because ultimately we are here to live authentic lives. I think that is the message that I want to inspire in other people,” she says.

Her father — the much-pilloried “ Abbu” in Burq Off — is with her at the venue. “ Abbu, who is my biggest fan, is slowly becoming my manager,” says Nadia. Has he changed, or is her theatrical representation of him fictional?

“The play is definitely an accurate description of who he was, but he has gone through his own transformation and evolution,” Nadia says.

Burq Off ends with the death of her mother of cancer. With the family’s centre-of-gravity gone, Nadia, her Islamicised twin-brother Khurram, and her bereft father move in different directions to nurse their grief and re-construct their lives. Nadia is 20, and leaves for the US with her Irish boyfriend.

Picking up from where the play ends, Nadia continues: “I left instead of taking care of my family. I suffered a lot of guilt over that, and a lot of people judged me because of that.”

In the US, Nadia attended a writing workshop where she wrote her story to much peer acclaim. She always had a performance streak in her, and in acting the story she found that humour dispelled the sense of darkness that pervaded her first written draft.

Nadia is writing her sequel production, on life in the US after she leaves her home in England.

She hopes to take Burq Off to India and Pakistan.

Nadia’s rejection of cultural fetters like the burqa is unapologetic and total, and her play will undoubtedly ruffle conservative feathers.

How does she respond to the argument that wearing the burqa voluntarily is an act of freedom and not enslavement? Nadia says: “I think there is an ingrained culture of patriarchy in the way that women in Islam choose to cover themselves, and equally in the way ‘western’ women choose not to cover themselves. Both are responses to the fact that we are still deeply objectified as women. Western extremism says ‘Be naked, that’s your sexuality and freedom’; Islamic extremism says — ‘You are an object, so cover yourself.’ To me, both those extremes are degrading to the truth that we are humans first and we are NOT objects.”

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Printable version | Apr 12, 2021 3:05:13 AM |

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