Nadia Manzoor’s one-woman comedy show explores the cultural contradictions of growing up as British-Pakistani Muslim
As starting points for a one-woman comedy show go, family estrangement and religious tradition rarely have the audience rolling in the aisles. But when Burq Off!, Nadia Manzoor’s humorous autobiographical ramble through her life as a British-Pakistani Muslim living in London, begins its run in the UK capital today, it will do so on the back of some impressive reviews. The Economist called it “terrific”, and with CNN and the BBC both featuring Manzoor’s show, there’s a real sense she has touched a nerve.
“Incredible, really,” says Manzoor from Brooklyn, New York, where she now lives. “When I first wrote the material it was purely for my own catharsis. I wasn’t talking to my dad or my brother. My mother had passed away. There was certainly no humour – it was more like a heavy, dark, cultural memoir.”
But Manzoor says she has always enjoyed performing and, after working with a New York improv group, she realised comedy could actually make her story more powerful. So, in Burq Off! she plays 21 characters – most of whom are her family – in a coming-of-age drama that starts when Manzoor is 5 and ends when she is 20. Along the way, she adeptly picks apart a childhood full of contradiction and frustration.
“Really, it’s a journey through my life as I battle with the blindly accepted traditions I had to grow up with as a Pakistani growing up in England. What I like to do is point out the ridiculousness in some of them – like my grandma telling me that if I spilt salt on the floor, I would have to pick it up with my eyelashes in hell. I mean, I knew that wasn’t going to happen.”
Happily, Manzoor doesn’t rehash old clichés comparing eastern restriction with western freedom. “I really worked on making sure this show wasn’t a value judgement,” she says. “It’s very much my experience and it’s conflicted. I grew up watching my parents fearing that they were losing their culture – their children, even – to the host country. They clung to their roots and as I began to have more white friends, my brother got more and more angry with me. But at the same time, my white best friend would call her mother some terrible names and I could never understand that.”
But despite Manzoor falling out with her family, deep down her biggest fear was how they would react to the show. As a storyteller, she knew she couldn’t capture every single aspect of a person in 85 minutes. Add that to her belief that a Pakistani woman would never go on stage and talk about her family and Manzoor certainly felt vulnerable. It took a post-show encounter with her brother – who embraced her – for Manzoor to feel she was on the right path.
“He’s not the person in the show now anyway – but I was surprised at, generally, how much laughter there was when we went through the material together. Of course, he denied ever saying some of the things he does in the show ... but he did say them.”
Manzoor’s father has also been on a similar cathartic journey. This was the kind of patriarchal figure who uprooted his family from the United Kingdom to Dubai because he was worried about the western influence creeping into his daughter’s life – only to send her to a mixed school which was, as Manzoor recalls, “more British than anywhere else”. Ironically, he missed the community they’d left in the UK, and they only lasted two months in the UAE.
“I definitely remember not being allowed to go anywhere while my friends all went to the mall,” she smiles. “But now, with a lot of humility, he will say: ‘Yes, that’s how I used to be.’ So he has gone through a dramatic change as a person too. I mean, I wasn’t allowed to talk to boys on the phone and there was no concept of premarital dating in our family. Now I am dating a black guy and we’re in a great relationship – my dad has met him and is encouraging us to get married. In the community I grew up in, that is unheard of. He’s become extremely supportive of the show.”
And while this is the personal tale of a woman suffocated by tradition, Manzoor does hope that the show can encourage reflection in her audience, too.
“I want people to feel moved and able to ask questions of themselves about traditions in their own lives,” she says. “I was taught religion as being about rituals that made me look like a good Muslim, but surely it should have been about embracing that faith with my heart. This show has been the most liberating experience for me and I hope it can be liberating for the people who see it, too.”
Burq Off! runs from Tuesday until September 13 at The Cockpit, London. Visit www.nadiapmanzoor.com