Zara Zulfiqar Mannan
Curated by Digital Guest Editor for May 2023, Alainah Aamir.
I have begun chartering my way to schizophrenia. I pray that it will not destroy me, that I will act fast enough to precede the obliteration of any illusion or delusion I hold. However, the business of aiming towards a psychosis, a loss (and gain) of the senses requires complete surrender. This is the crossroads that I have arrived at twenty four years of age, most spent in cycles of yearning and orgasmic climax.
It’s like I’m stuck in a loop.
(This should be your first sign that something is wrong.)
Or, in your ability to recognise it, that something is attempting to become right.
An obvious admission for any subject of a previously colonised nation of peoples will be regarding its relationship to language. Words war in our heads. Though, at times, they will melt into one another. A boy who licked me last night reminded me about biting: “pain and pleasure are interrelated feelings.”
A particular dissonance rings in my brain, in the name of something native versus something unnatural, digital,
a particular sensation smashed into my body and soul at a deeply young and deeply pathetic stage of life, where burnt and bruised, lost in the cultural alienation of existing outside the national imagination of a land I had countless ways to know as deeply mine, I was grasping at straws, performing in ways English idioms can’t begin to capture the way I move and beg and grovel
for a chance at life.
a light arrives
This week, I quit my evil capitalist job.
I feel free: I can finally stop lying to myself. I want to shout at the top of my lungs: I quit my evil capitalist job!
A qualifier: from what I can see, the elite undergraduate degree class ends up participating mostly in evil capitalist jobs; and though the sheer malevolence of these jobs exists on a spectrum, I am gloating in the temporary relief that I can stick it up to one instance of capitalist domination. The question worth evaluating, however, is how I found myself in this situation despite my best, most vocal denouncements of life as a money-seeking endeavor.
How did I end up as a college counsellor in Lahore, Pakistan for approximately two and a half years?
It started with a Facebook post. No, it started with Model UN. No, it begins again with Aitchison. The devil, it appears, is not in the details. So, perhaps, conceptually: In 2020 I was headed back to Pakistan with a deep desire to prove everyone and everything wrong. As a natural contrarian and proud queer, I must admit that it is the fervour of opposition that has driven me since childhood. So, invigorated and educated in the headquarters of the 21st century ruling class, I was hell-bent on imposing my delusions onto the world. The logic is quite brilliant, I maintain. If borders, World Banks, and fashion norms can evolve from the naked, male psychoses of the 16th century European upper middle and ruling class, why shall my adolescent imaginations not attempt a revolutionary materialisation?
Heck, I am a child of the Ummah: Allah will assist every step of the way.
So, to return to Pakistan was to do so in service. My lifelong learning has committed to the art and armour of feminism and thus service was only to be translated as participating in reproductive acts of labour, whether paid justly or not. Cupid’s arrow set on a Teach for Pakistan fellowship, ironically modelled after an internationalist non-profit movement, I was to make a life on PKR 45,000 and not complain about it once.
Landed gentry, starring as “MARXIST HARLOT.”
Of course, the pandemic thwarted the immediacies of my plan. I spent my Spring to Summer days barely clothed, traversing the giant halls and staircases of a mansion that was my home all my life—but all brand-new on my return from the New World. It felt big to me, like it has space for me to play with the world from it. A sort of fort, in which I chose to militarise creatively.
First came the Instagram live sessions—a joint in my mouth, the bored make-up look of a pre-teen who is hoping to find some excitement in cosmetics. Then there was a music video: a first welcome of the ideologue to others, who might perceive in their individual, robust ways, without apology, the obscene transparency of witnessing another in their home. There was kindness, there was benefit of doubt, and eventually, there was also a distancing enlightenment.
For the past two and a half years, the friends that I have retained are only the ones I have fully been myself around. I do not know what exactly that person is. Perhaps there is less guilt (or distaste) at my fluency in English. Perhaps there is less yearning against the fate that feels planned for me. I think it’s so hilarious that amid all my sadness about truly having lost my desire to do something great, my greatest saboteur remains that innate feeling I identified around the time I was six years old: I want to save the world; I want to be the one to save the world.
No one can challenge a witnessing.
It is at some point that the contradiction of the world I was living in and the one I was vying for grew to a point of fiscal boredom. One can spend money, and make life more beautiful.
The first avenue took shape and I grabbed at it. I was lazy in this grasp, unthinking. I wanted it to be easy. How sensual was the freedom I enjoyed at home? I wanted to be naked with someone in it. The price on my time, to coach a few (rich) kids, was set to PKR 2,500 /hour roughly. I thought it would be a good accompaniment to a Teach for Pakistan gig (it’s always good to have spare cash, right?) and when I headed into my first year teaching, the job remained enjoyable because it was my excuse to come back to Lahore.
Ah! How celebratory this joy to always find your way back to those old lovers and romances that seem to define one’s every move, conscious and subconscious. On a night coloured by Nasreem Anjum Bhatti’s poetry, a feminist laughed at how masculine it was that the revered greats, or aficionados of these revered greats, kept finding themselves at the boring lie of a love for this city. “Ye jo Lahore se pyaar hai.”—This love for Lahore—She remarked, and everyone—especially the beautiful, gentle boy beside me— joined in laughter. I thought it was funny, too. But I think, without me knowing at the moment, it slighted me.
This love that I have for Lahore. It is: the taste of freedom it allows me. In a fancy car, I drive speedily. Often, I am wearing a crop top. I’ll have a red lip on; if not a boy, then a joint lit around me. Girls around me always laugh loudly.
In my postcolonial condition, to be free is to have some access to privilege. Very few dreamers survive economies of the 21st century, exploitable ‘third’ world. When they do, they are bruised or disappeared. Sometimes, if they are born rich, they may be allowed to live, tamely, under the influence of a leash and collar.
My romance with the city was meant to coexist with my desire for revolution. So, I planned the revolution over weekends stolen from a life of service in Islamabad and through the money I made killing my creative force, fabricating student lives to impress America. There, to this day, has never been a single moment when I have felt validated for my distaste towards this bourgeoisie alignment with American imperialism in the English speaking classes of Pakistan. Everyone thinks it’s okay, that so many of our privileged, well-resourced young adults’ first experience with meaningfully representing themselves is conducted under the watchful (and, if you’re lucky, rewarding) scrutiny of a deeply American, primarily capitalist mode of education.
When we become our delusion, what do we become? Most prominently, I believe, a truly undeniable cringe fest. Yes, even in the age where sneer is considered far too inferior an emotion both in nature and intellect, there are certain deep cringes that will always bother the finest frequencies of the soul. When I became my delusion, I became a sad memory of talent or beauty that once was. I’m not being corrosively self-critical, I hope. Cringe is a natural trigger; like anxiety, it is brimming with information. To me, cringe often radiates from lack of (self) awareness. What did my cringe look like? I definitely had some points to make about the possibility of queer ambition in Pakistan but my delusions required that I believe this dream to be greater than my personal emancipation. I was to find paradise, and I was to become truth. I wanted everyone to find paradise. The opiate I alchemised was going to take us to the moon, to a fictional iteration of Pakistan that could give you opportunity and love in return for your madness. My Arcadia was a Gulistan, and my cringe-fest was not knowing that only some dreams can be realised in a world ruled by men. My performance art piece was splattered on the national discourse, a glittery pink stain on metamorphosing newspapers. There is something sacred about the maxim that life imitates art (and vice versa, of course). My fahaash pictures are a perfect illustration of how the khwaab appeared when superimposed on the ground reality of my aching, suffering, zard patton ka ban. Purple, blue, silver sequins on an attire that I could only describe as a tech-age lehnga. Behind me, yellowing grass atop an Islamabad hill croaks against my glamour. We are both real and truthful, my gay heart and marred Earth. And so, a different mind's Arcadia mocks us both in concrete and steel. A man, a slogan, and a country. Each, in memory and the present, more illusory than the other; but stronger, shoved in to the ground with the help of machines, money and men in big seats. I guess I had always wondered why women believed so earnestly in the lies fed to them about fathers and boyfriends, why they fed the sameaagay. I love you, I used to yell at Pakistan, in perfectly melodramatic moments inside my air-conditioned car or walking across the manicured Margalla Road. I love you, I love you, I love you, I used to repeat. Like matam? No, like a spell! I did not know then that to believe, unfortunately, is not to love. To believe that you love is just that, the belief that you love. This belief, I would come to find—lest it is activated with humility and temperance, has in fact the littlest to do with love.
Alive, murderous, a warning followed my youthful ishq:
we could make an example out of you.
God knows, better men and women lay rotting or dead in face of Pakistan’s national imaginary. Who was I, but some brat?
Digital modernity came to my rescue again, donning the guise of an undeniable woman. I repeated my love poems to Lahore, although in depressive episodes spent in cruelly wise, sun-lit winter mornings, or debased nights of smoking, watching, eating, and limitless lying down. It is something about the company of women that is so powerful in our country, that it tied me tongue first to a brilliant neoliberal farce.
I only work for women, I have proudly announced over the past three years. In rising Asia, there was space for a Brooklynesque yuppie fantasy. My boss was a woman, and our co-working space was delighted to host my trans-sexuality. I was a dude in a dress, and I had the gait of a boss-woman myself. Slowly, my boss recognized my golden work ethic and awarded me limitless autonomies. After my obscenity scandal, she stood by me like a rock. In fact, for all my commentary on the clumsy ruthlessness of the bourgeoisie, I can credit for a fat part of my survival the natural links of my bourgeoisie ecosystem. An unsuspecting DHA house proved to be my safe house, encasing me within itself like I was a welcome ghost. A boy in a Honda City came to me with pre-rolled sentiments of camaraderie. The mastermind and CEO of my decreed fate into capitalist medicority of the Lahori brand was a woman, who protected me by ensuring I had employability on my side as I battled right-wing desires that wanted to see me punished, ostracised, made an example out of. Not many people know but my performance arts scandal only became scary when Jamiat activists doxx’d me to send threats to my family members. One still rings in my ears: if he thinks we will let him spread this message in Pakistan so easily, he is mistaken.
They were onto me.
My political message was served through art and sequins but I have never doubted its political power. In fact, that is the only reason I still do what I do. In my casual racism of seeing Pakistan as a land of opportunity, bereft only of intellectual will, I had forgotten that there are forces alive and exuberant that rule the narratives of this Islamic Republic. If I thought it was going to be easy to perform my work (which I truly considered revolutionary in many aspects), I was severely underestimating both my opponent and the veracity of our offenses.
So: what could I do next?
The prayer follows simply.
I hold my hands up to God, the one and only Truth of the universe. I find you in the wisdom of the covalent bonds, delivered to me in Aunty’s tiny study within the walls of that timeless house off Peco Road. I notice you across the poetry of the Quran, the heedless hope of the women in my country, the opiate riddling the masses of the world patient. Was Zia’s Pakistan a penance for our sins of ‘71? What about our blessings? I beseech no one for help but You when it comes to the karma that precedes me. I must not make another’s hatred my own. I will rely on nothing but the whole truth. At no one’s request of deception, I can rely that the fate doled out to me is in God’s will.
I proclaim a treatise on colonialism:
(1) First, you dive headfirst into the mirage for foolishness is holy,
(2) Taste it all, and then tell the whole truth still,
(3) When you go tell it from the mountain, don’t forget to pose.
Zara Zulfiqar Mannan is an educationist, musician, and writer. After completing their B.A. English (with a Yale Law School Human Rights concentration) from Yale University, they worked at Teach for Pakistan and served as a lead counsellor at Dream 3.
Hamza Iftikar is an artist and doctor. He works around themes of body, identity, and sensuality. He lives in Karachi. You can find him on Instagram: @2trapazmah.