A Vicarious Globetrotter interview with Zulfiqar Mannan.
By Hana Davis
Zulfiqar Mannan ambles over to my table in his classic silver shoes, head bopping, shoulders swaying, singing along loudly and without a care to Lady Gaga’s Perfect Illusion. His pink headphones blast so thunderously into his ears that he might as well be playing his music on speaker.
His journey to my place in the corner of Morse takes longer than it should. Despite being at Yale for only two months, Zulfi already seems to know half the campus. His pink Yale baseball cap makes him easy to spot over the crowd of brunch-goers. From my corner seat, I watch as he stops every few seconds, enthusiastically greeting someone new. I ask if he genuinely knew all the people he interacted with, and miraculously he does. He prides himself in managing to make specific comments to each person he saunters by.
“Could I be vegetarian and not eat any fruits or vegetables?” he asks, eyeing my bowl. His brunch that day consists of two things: a plate of bacon and glass after glass of chocolate soy milk. Both foods are recent discoveries of his. In fact, my comment about the dairy-free nature of his soy milk surprises him.
“We don’t eat pork in Pakistan,” he says, referencing his home country, “but it’s become my favorite food.”
His love of bacon isn’t his only deviation from Pakistani culture. Zulfiqar’s flamboyant nature and the blunt rawness of his character dig a trench between him and the reality of his hometown, Lahore.
Zulfiqar is the youngest child in his father’s second family (polygamy is legal in Pakistan). His mother’s age-old maxim supporting education became his desire to find a better future for himself, driving him to apply to Yale. He looks up from his food and says with a smile that a major factor in choosing Yale was that all the arrogant and unfriendly kids from his high school ended up at Harvard. “I wanted to come to Yale specifically because all the kids from my school that had ended up at Harvard were arrogant, uncool or unfriendly.” He wanted to be cool.
‘“As long as you get grades and do well in school, I am happy,’ was [my mother’s] mantra and even if I did not play the piano well enough, she would tell me that it was okay because my grades were not as volatile as my music,” said Zulfiqar.
On the tangent of music, Zulfiqar shares that he has always wanted to be a singer. “It was always about expressing what was going on in my head in whatever medium I could,” he said. He began with writing poetry because he was insecure about his music. Zulfiqar shares, in his almost shockingly truthful way of speaking, that he had an irrational belief that people only disliked him because they could not understand him.
Halfway through our meal, Zulfiqar abruptly stands up. “Listen to the poem I wrote yesterday. It’s called “Spillage and Sight,” he says with a knowing smile. He recalls his poem from memory: “Would you like to play games, on my skin through the veins, They are green from all the spitting I’ve recently done, You don’t have to worry about spillage or sight, I talk too much, joke too much, all of that and nothing of might …” His body sways slightly to the rhythm of the lines as he delivers his poem with his characteristic rawness. His arms and the slight tremor in his voice bring to life the words he conceived the day before. I sat there, unable to tear away my gaze, my ears transfixed and grasping onto every breathy sound he utters.
In the typical Zulfiqar fashion, once the poem was delivered, he abruptly returns to his plate of bacon and picks up the conversation where he left off minutes before.
“I created this ideal of a perfect world for myself and I made it my goal to make it so,” Zulfiqar added. “In 2011, I was doing a lot of things with my life but everyday felt more struggle than enjoyment. It wasn’t a healthy way to live, but I feel I was raised to live like that.”
Zulfiqar’s true love and idol is Lady Gaga. His best friend, Mustafa, introduced her to him in 2011 during her Born This Way tour. She was promoting bravery, equality, and tolerance at a time when Zulfiqar had only recently come to terms with his sexuality. Not only did Gaga’s almost utopian idea of ubiquitous acceptance attract him, but the genius in her music and lyrics even more so. Gaga’s songs freed Zulfiqar from living as someone he wasn’t. She taught him to become everything he wanted to be, but by which he was limited previously. “I would listen to her song, Hair, everyday before school and eventually learned to be free, to be happy living free. I had been bullied and I was a bully before her, but she made me a new person. I got much, much better at speaking English. I started becoming much, much more feminine.”
“I created this “perfect illusion” that all the good in the world was in Gaga,” he says, glancing up at me with a smirk at his clever, albeit overt, insertion of the pun into his sentence. “I would stop crying if I looked at her pictures or listened to her songs. I recovered from my anorexia and self-harm solely because of her,” Zulfiqar adds, never one to shy away from honesty or less talked about conversations. In a fashion almost wholly unique to Zulfiqar, nothing said, regardless of how seemingly blunt or harsh, came off as rude. Rather, his pairing of honesty with smiles and hugs is somehow always received as friendly and loving. The most outrageous words could come out of this boys mouth, and it would be accepted with a laugh from his audience.
I asked him how coming out was back home. He puts down his slice of bacon and says that he handled his coming out so argumentatively and pragmatically that “the few intelligent, curious people [he] was surrounded with wanted to listen.” Zulfiqar says he humanized the concept of being homosexual for a lot of people in his immediate community by being outward about who he was. Moreover, his academic excellence evidenced by his acceptance to Yale caused many to intentionally “overlook” his gayness. Instead of shun him, they respected him and held him, and his “god-given MUN abilities,” in high esteem.
After finishing our food, Zulfiqar pulls me towards the Morse common room. “We’re going to go play the piano,” he says, literally dragging me over to the instrument. He admits that the entire “Why Yale?” section of his Common Application was about the prevalence of grand pianos at Yale. “I recently discovered MIKA,” he proclaims excitedly. “Grace Kelly is my new anthem, besides Lady Gaga of course. Hearing that song blew my mind, it’s everything a song should be.”
Zulfiqar proceeds to perform Grace Kelly (and the others) to me in the Morse common room. He plays the keys with a smooth confidence that he acknowledges derives from his love of the spotlight. His voice is soulful, tending to the vein of Indie music, and for no reason other than forming a recognizable “aesthetic,” his Pakistani accent morphs into a British one when singing.
“I know its idealistic of me, but I’m moving to New York and becoming a singer when I graduate. I have no desire to return to Pakistan,” he says after his performance. When I comment on how hard that life trajectory is, he flashes his characteristic smirk and goes, “That’s why I’m going to Yale, so I can meet people who will become rich and I can live in their apartments when I’m a struggling performer.”
Whether his dream of becoming a singer, or his ambition to become and English major comes true or not, I am confident that his sarcastic, witty, blunt and exuberant personality will carry him far in life. Perhaps it is me who will be living on his sofa one day, and not the other way around as he supposes.
Hana Davis (’20) is a Human Rights major in Morse College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.