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Writer Natasha Noman On How She Turned a Lesbian Tinder Date in Pakistan into a Successful Play

DSC_6049.jpgMic staff writer Natasha Noman has recently returned home to New York, after a stint performing her one-woman show, Noman's Land, in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The English-Pakistani writer's show chronicles her post-grad experience of working as a journalist in Lahore, Pakistan, where she went on a Tinder date with a woman whose father had been kidnapped by the Taliban. Combining comedy and drama, with a sharp eye for the challenges of adjusting to a new culture, Noman and her well-reviewed show have been featured everywhere from the BBC to a recent Twitter controversy. We caught up with Natasha to talk about her experience in Pakistan, creating narratives out of personal experiences, and whether she still uses Tinder.

So, you graduate from Columbia, then all of a sudden you're a journalist in Pakistan. How did that happen?

"What went wrong?" That's a perfect question. "So, you graduate from Columbia and you're mentally unstable. Walk us through it." First, I worked at Women's Refugee Commission and even though it's an amazing organization, which I respect enormously, the nature of my job was a little frustrating in some ways, because I was sitting in a cubicle and I'm too loud and need to talk to people too much -- I need interaction. So, then I thought, "I've always wanted to be a journalist, so why not go to the place where it's most difficult to be a journalist and see if I can survive? And if I can survive (literally), then I can do it anywhere!" Given that I'm half-Pakistani, I already knew some people there, which made it much easier and which made it a lot more feasible for me to go and work there than if I was just some random white person, because I could pass as a Pakistani if I didn't open my mouth. So, I sent some writing samples and expected to get an internship offer, but they offered me this really cool position as a features writer at this weekly newspaper along with work on the production team of a punditry show on the weekends. So, I showed up, and drove around in a bulletproof car and had all these exciting, amazing experiences, learning so much every single day. But I also got a little lonely, really horny and pretty repressed; it was like going back in the closet.

What happened when you eventually came out to your friends over there?

When I finally felt safe enough to tell my friends that I'm gay, one of them responded, "Oh, my God, try gay Tinder!" And I was like, "Noooope, I don't think that's a good idea." And she insisted, "Such fun! Gay Tinder -- the gay Tinder!" So then I said, "Alright, let's do this." I opened up Tinder and I put it on the maximum proximity setting and there were three women on there. Well, allegedly. I'm pretty sure two of them were men.

Are many young people in Pakistan on Tinder?

It's all relative - not many in comparison to the country's population, as it's a very elite tool. Anyone using it has to be A) rich enough to have a smartphone and B) have Internet access (telecommunications infrastructure being what it is means 3G isn't really a thing) and C) international enough to know what it is. Having said that, there are still way more than you'd think for straight people. There are enough of the Pakistani elite and expats to mean there are more than just a few options.

And this one chick -- given that the competition was so dire -- immediately agreed to meet with me. We were both rather desperate.

We met up and, on the first date, she starts telling me about how her dad was kidnapped by the Taliban. We ended up having sex once. And she was really tiny -- she climbed me like I was a beanpole. Anyway, we never spoke again after that. Clearly my skills blew her away... The whole encounter was very bizarre.

Did your date shed any light on what it's like to be a young, gay woman in Pakistan today?

Not my date in particular, but the whole experience gave me an insight into how gay people conduct sexual relationships in a country where homosexuality is illegal. Technology has made it easier to find one another and, more importantly, to do so under the radar. It's a mixed blessing. On the one hand it facilities clandestine encounters, making it easier to be gay in an immediate sense, but in the bigger picture, it strongly reinforces the modus operandi for gay people of conducting their romantic life underground and not exposing that side of their identity. Micro gain, macro loss.

What happened next? Did you have any more dates? 
I continued on as my merry, repressed self. A little while after that, things began to get more volatile. One of my colleagues was the target of an assassination attempt and there were lots of death threats because the paper I was working for was basically criticizing the government's negotiations with the Taliban, which was a big no-no. So, the Taliban essentially responded by saying, "We're going to come after all of you." My editor said, "They know who you are because you work for the paper, and they're coming after everyone associated with us, so you should really go." So I relented and said I was going to chill in England with my family for a couple months until things simmered down, and I'd come back. But then, when I was in England, another one of my colleagues was tragically shot and at that point I decided it just wasn't worth my returning.

So I went back to New York, and was a little listless and depressed for a while. It was around this time I had lunch with my friend Veds [Veda Kumarjiguda, director of Noman's Land] and I was like, "Hey, Veds, I've got this really cool story," and she goes, "Oh, my god, this needs to be a play right now. It doesn't need to be consensual -- it's happening." So we started it. The Fringe was just a pipe dream because it's the ultimate place to go for theater and I didn't think we'd get accepted. And then, after we did, I thought maybe if we could get two people in the audience that would be great. So, the confluence of the various outcomes is just insane. It's just been overwhelming and so wonderful. It's been hands down one of the best experiences of my life.

I'm interested in the shaping of the show -- how did you craft a narrative out of your experiences?

I'd be lying if I didn't say the lesbian Tinder date with the dad kidnapped by the Taliban wasn't a sensationalist hook. Because the minute you mention those three words -- Taliban, lesbian, and Tinder -- people are like, "Can I get my ticket now, please?" It's a hook and also a framework -- the date happens throughout the course of the play and it weaves in and out of vignettes and asides. So, it functions as a map for dealing with much more serious themes, the two major ones being the narratives we create for ourselves in order to make our situations tolerable and also the extent to which people are willing to make compromises.

Living in Pakistan, especially living around gay people who end up entering into heterosexual marriages because that's really their only option, I suddenly saw that there's a difference between compromise in life, which everybody has to do, and compromise of oneself. And I think the degree to which we are willing to compromise is something that everybody all over the world has to deal with. But, in more extreme circumstances, it's something that's more acutely demanded of people on a daily basis. So, we deal with that in the play: we talk about people I know being shot and people persisting every day, despite the risks. Well, that and the awkward sexual encounter. I hadn't done it in six months, so I was pretty sure I'd forgotten how to at the time.

It's like riding a bike.

Ha, sort of. I was a little wobbly at first, but I got there in the end. We had nowhere where we could have sex. We're getting off track here, but I had these wonderful friends who said, "Ok, you can come and use my apartment for sex. We'll go out for the evening." I mean, we couldn't do it in the car because there was a driver, and we would be arrested or worse; basically, sapphic, roadside car sex was not advisable. And we couldn't do it at her house because her parents were there. I couldn't do it where I was staying because I was staying with a family.
Anyway, ultimately, this bizarre and surreal date involved so many essential themes -- from extremism to sexuality to identity -- it offered the perfect window into an often inaccessible world. I guess something rewarding came out of it, even if it's not what I expected.

Now that you're back in New York, how has your experience of being in Pakistan affected what personal identity means to you?

I don't know how to emphasize this enough -- and it sounds trite and hackneyed -- but the freedoms and luxuries that we're afforded on every single level are really remarkable. Because the majority of the world just doesn't have what we have. I think also, ironically, it's watered down my identity politics because I realized obsessing over these ideas is in some ways arbitrary and synthetic, when this isn't the reality that most of the world is facing. Obviously, it's important to live in a place where there's pluralism and transparency and people can be who they are, but there are many more pervasive, fundamental issues that need to be dealt with before one starts talking about gay rights. And I feel like the inability to be gay somewhere is symptomatic of larger issues, rather than the source of the problem. So, it made me more grateful for being a gay woman in New York, but also less feisty about identity politics.

Do you think that there's any sort of work that people can do to create the sorts of environments, on a global scale, in which which people can be free to live as they choose?

I think caring, first and foremost. People are so myopic and self-centered -- and I don't say that in a censorious way because I'm incredibly guilty of that, as well. But if people can take even five minutes out of their day to do something that either is contributing to a larger movement or even just reading about an issue that you didn't know about before, that makes all the difference. I was on this BBC panel in Edinburgh with these South Asian, female comedians and one of them, Bisha K. Ali, said, "Existing is a political act." And I never thought of it like that before, but she's absolutely right. And what you choose to do with your existence is just as much a statement as being the loudest voice in the Black Lives Matter movement. And it's important to recognize there are people who desperately need their voices heard and compassion from a world that is often uncaring and complacent and selfish. Doing nothing perpetuates this kind of disenfranchisement.

Do you have any plans for this show going forward?

Well, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown for about three months leading up to the Fringe, because I was working long days -- I fucking love my job at Mic, it's like a dream, but it is a very intense job. So, doing that in conjunction with editing the script and dealing with PR and all those administrative details of the Fringe at night and all the rehearsals on weekends, it literally felt as though I was on the verge of a breakdown. And I kept telling myself, "OK, all I've got to do is get through the Fringe and, after that, it's over." But then, unfortunately, the play was received rather more favorably than either of us anticipated.

What a bummer.

Yeah, I know, it's the worst. So, after it was received favorably and got quite a bit of media buzz, Veda and I thought, "It would be really fucking stupid to end it here because we have a momentum that we've worked hard to create." Also, we're very passionate about offering voices to people who ordinarily don't have them, and I think characters in my story have that opportunity. Even if it's contributing in only a small way to this larger theme of giving a voice to people who are marginalized, that is what drives me to keep the play going. And if people are interested in seeing what it's like for Pakistanis on a daily basis -- a country that's so often misrepresented as something that's two-dimensional and violent -- if people are interested in seeing another face of that, then that's to be celebrated. Who knows what's next?

I wanted to save my most important question for last: are you currently on Tinder?

Let me check! I think I have a folder in my phone called "Dating," or something. Or maybe it's just called "Sex." I don't think it's on here. No, I don't think it is. I had it on my phone for a while. I don't ever want to use it again -- it's pretty gross.

Well, sorry, ladies.

Sorry, ladies, indeed. You'll have to come to the show and be my groupies and hit on me afterwards. If a one-woman show is the product of every Tinder date, I just don't have the energy to use it anymore.

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