IT’S 1971 and tensions are running high at the United Nations Security Council meeting in December. Seated at the table is a silver-haired man dressed sharply in a dark suit as stiff as he—legs crossed, arms folded. A discussion begins. East Pakistan is hours away from breaking from the unity of Pakistan, and the fought-over territory is soon to inherit a new name: Bangladesh. But it comes at a cost—a genocide, India’s intervention and, ultimately, a humiliated and defeated Pakistan.
That man, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was sent to the meeting to deliver a fiery speech condemning the members for legalizing India’s aggression as the catastrophic war raged on for thirteen days—each day hinting at the possibility of Pakistan’s eventual dismemberment. (Refugees that were spilling into India caused the neighboring nation to become an active player in the war. Some say India goaded the war along for its own economic interests—hosting the refugees was more expensive than joining the war, so it chose the latter.) A day after that speech, Pakistan would indeed lose its eastern portion; and five days after that speech, Bhutto would become president of a shrinking Pakistan.
But on that day, he busied himself with an emotional tirade—sometimes flailing his hands in the air, at other times fighting back tears. “Legalize aggression, legalize occupation, legalize everything that has been illegal up to [today],” Bhutto said, his anger rising like heat. “But I will not be a party to it. We will fight; we will go back and fight. My country beckons me.” Then, Bhutto ripped up a sheet of paper and scattered the shreds in the air. “I find it disgraceful to my person and to my country to remain here a moment longer than is necessary.” He stood, poised at exhibiting a sense of calm in the midst of fury, and left the meeting.
It was a storied performance— like Ronald Reagan’s emotional 1987 speech in Germany when the former president of the United States directly called upon Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. It was something that would be applauded or critiqued; something to be studied in history books and discussed in Pakistan for generations to come.
Today, another Zulfikar Ali Bhutto displays similar passion during performances—not in a suit, but in a dress with ripped fishnet stockings and a face full of costume makeup; and not in front of the U.N., but in front of a curious audience that crowds San Francisco’s de Young Museum on a recent Friday night.
Like the first Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, his namesake also has a big personality, is charismatic in his own way and is known for his theatrics. But the two share more than just the same name; they share the same DNA, separated by just two generations.
Today’s Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, or Zulfi, performs much differently than his grandfather, though—in drag and under the alias of Faluda Islam. “I’m a zombie from the future,” the six-foot-something bearded drag queen tells her story poignantly in a gaudy body-con dress and gold platform heels. “I was martyred in a great revolution and have been resurrected through WiFi technology.”
Faluda Islam pairs her minidress with a lettered, bejeweled gold sign that dangles from her neck and shines under light. It reads, “Terrorist. Monster. Fag.” in bold print. Wrapped around her head is a black and white checkered keffiyeh. The stage name, Faluda, refers to a popular dessert made of rose milk; it’s served with soft vermicelli noodles and crunchy, sweet basil seeds. Like her outfit and performance, the pink drink is flavorful and combines different textures in an exciting way.
“Revolutions come and go,” she starts. A wide-eyed woman in the audience begins filming on her phone. “Sometimes revolutions erupt into civil war, international war, occupation—but most times, revolutions simply lead to more revolutions and more revolutions and more revolutions…” She repeats herself six times before stopping, inhales a deep breath, and continues: “And more revolutions.” There are some coy smiles and soft giggles, but it’s mostly the audience’s discomfort that fills the air. Drag queens aren’t known for their history lessons, so the audience is caught off guard. “For example, East Pakistan revolts against West Pakistan in 1971, and India gets involved as well. Then Bangladesh is born, but not before the deaths of three-million Bangladeshis at the hands of the Pakistani army—”
But Faluda Islam is triggered by violence. She circles the stage, gasping for more air. In between breaths, she asks her viewers to scream. “Please. It’s what calms me down.”
The museum erupts in a roar, and Faluda Islam breathes a heavy sigh of relief. She’s back. “Dead people have feelings too,” she chuckles before switching to the next conversation. “So, what’s the [singular] of dice?” The audience is polled, and a few mouth the word “die.”
That’s right. “Our leaders have either failed us, or they have died,” Faluda Islam says, her liquid black eyes pouring into the crowd.
HOW AMERICANS VIEW THE KENNEDYS is how Pakistanis view the Bhuttos: powerful dynasties, each with enough power to leave imprints on all aspects of society. But still, despite immeasurable influence, each family endured untimely suffering. Like John F. Kennedy, the first Zulfikar Ali Bhutto died prematurely and violently. His demise came quickly: While still president, Bhutto implemented a new constitution which shifted the nation’s power from the president to the prime minister. He then assumed the role for himself, becoming Pakistan’s 9th Prime Minister in 1973. But by then, he had already begun losing support, and in 1977, his government was overthrown by the army. He was hanged two years later.
Some historians say that it was either his risky nationalization policy, which eventually had disastrous effects on the economy, or his creation of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program that caused him to lose support; others attribute it to his amnesia surrounding the gory events of the 1971 war: Bhutto never punished the army for the bloodshed in East Pakistan. But that violent history has found fertile soil in his grandson’s drag performances, during which victims are remembered and the army is shamed.
“No one who knows about my grandfather has a lukewarm feeling about him,” Zulfi says to me after the performance at the de Young Museum. “They either love or despise him.”
Zulfi believes it is easy to co-opt the legacy of someone like his grandfather—someone who is said to have forged a new identity for Pakistan. “He takes up a lot of space as a big, symbolic presence in the Pakistani popular and political culture, so it’s easy to use his name, unfortunately, because it’s there.”
On his grandfather’s death anniversary, Zulfi shared a post with his social media followers: “A man who I am named after and whose name has been co-opted by the questionable. Nevertheless, he believed in a Pakistan in which the people ruled and for that he gave up his life. Like many people I admit his mistakes but applaud his triumphs. I wish I had known him but his memory is ingrained in everything I do.”
Many Pakistanis left comments on his post, pressing the younger Bhutto to return to the country to reclaim his family’s legacy. But Zulfi has other plans. “I don’t think a lot of people in Pakistan who see me as a political heir know about the work I do here,” he says, coyly. Imagine a young Kennedy choosing drag arts over politics, business or law. That’s what Zulfi did.
But through art, the 28-year-old, soft-spoken visual and performing artist unpacks complicated themes including the intersection of queerness, Islam, and resistance movements; he explores politics and war; and he challenges traditional concepts of masculinity. Zulfi completed his MFA in Studio Art at the S.F. Art Institute, and says he stayed in The San Francisco Bay Area because he has fallen in love with the city.
But his work takes him anywhere and everywhere—even sometimes back to Pakistan to collect not just fabric for future artworks, but inspiration too. Despite his family’s strained relationship with Pakistan, Zulfi says he enjoys his time alone in the country that his grandfather sought to rebuild. He tends to lie low, choosing only to visit the beach and shop for material. “I go and come back with two full suitcases of fabric. There are very few comparisons to Pakistan,” he told an onlooker at one of his art exhibits, speaking in regards to the country’s vibrant art scene. “It’s mind-blowing.”
IMAGINATION AND CREATIVITY are to Zulfi what politics and power were to the elder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto: A way to rise above the establishment.
“I grew up in a very political family in which struggle, rebellion and political dissidence were every day talks,” Zulfi says. Indeed, the Bhutto family’s dynasty is drenched in complicated politics: it is coated in military coups, in forced exiles, and in assassinations.
Zulfi’s father, Murtaza Bhutto, was forced into exile in Afghanistan following the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. There, he founded the organization al-Zulfiqar, which was formed in an attempt to avenge his father’s death at the hands of the military. But, the group was soon branded an militant insurgency for its purported acts of terrorism and attacks against government officials, despite Murtaza’s denial of such claims.
Zulfi’s aunt, the famed Benazir Bhutto, went on to become the first female prime minister of a Muslim-majority country in 1988. She had differing political opinions than her younger brother, Murtaza, so when he returned from exile, she had him arrested for terrorism. It is also heavily speculated that she was involved in ordering his assassination as well. Zulfi watched his dad get gunned down outside of his family’s home when he was just a 6-year-old boy. His aunt was also assassinated years later by the then-leader of Pakistan’s Taliban.
“A lot of these histories around martyrdom end up being very gory—almost as if there’s a need for the establishment to embarrass the people they kill and find the most gruesome ways to do it,” Zulfi says.
Faluda Islam is a metaphor for a lot of these ideas and politics around death. Zulfi thinks she is especially informed by histories of martyrdom in South Asia, where the Bhutto family’s name will always remain relevant. On stage, Faluda Islam’s flamboyant getup—notably, a face smeared with crimson red stains and glued-on flesh wounds—somehow finds a way to mingle with the scars of the family’s past: “That’s where I pick up on the gore element—the makeup is meant to grab your attention, but it really looks back into the real horror that exists,” Zulfi says, alluding to his many family members’ deaths, most of which he says were “very gory” and made out to be “a spectacle.”
These are also the kinds of memories that rise up from his bones and onto the center of the stage when Faluda Islam prances around shouting, “Who gets the right to live? Who gets the right to die?” her voice climbing like freedom to the heavens. These words are close enough to be touched by the spirit of the elder Bhutto’s words from nearly five decades prior when he sharply asked the security council, “What if our state is obliterated?”
Zulfi thinks Faluda Islam represents the darker side to his art, which he describes as “politically inspired art-research.” She is the creation that “dives to the deepest, darkest end first” in terms of the politics of genocide and death, of violence and injustice. But she was once just a distant thought for the artist. “I never saw drag as an option growing up [in Pakistan],” Zulfi says. The creative mind has always enjoyed performative aspects of art-making, like theatre and dance, but says that drag and gender play felt far away. “I saw it, and I knew it existed, but I didn’t see it as me.”
That changed after he completed grad school. “I took myself outside of the art world for a little bit to find queer community,” he says, referring to the time he saw his first drag show in 2016 and was captivated. “It was accessible to me as a form of conveying a queering of history, in particular histories of resilience.” When his drag persona takes on the history of the Bhutto family, for example, it is a way for him to own that history—“specifically, the history of martyrdom and the very culture that we have of bravery and resistance,” he says.
He then balances his performative work with “lightness,” he says, as portrayed with the “opulence” and “glam” that can be seen in his visual work: illustrations of rocket launchers blasting paisleys, images of muscled men rendered against glittered fabrics. His recent exhibit at SF Camera Works, “I am to see to it that I do not lose you,” featured examples of this lighter work with free-form shapes and brightly-colored textiles that he lovingly selected during a trip to Pakistan.
A large piece shows a black and white photograph of a wrestler standing with his arms on his waist, but his typical off-white loincloth has been swapped with a bright purple fabric and shimmery gold trim. Emerging from the wrestler’s back is a pair of vibrantly colored angel wings, adding delicacy to an otherwise crude vision. “Why are our imaginings of revolutions—one—so heterosexual and—two—so drab?” he smiles as he asks the onlookers. Everyone laughs before he adds, “Why can’t they have some glitter and flair and sparkle?” There’s a twinkle in his eye when he smiles. He often fiddles with his beard in conversation.
FOR ZULFI, HIS ART—whether on canvas or on stage—is a way for him to reflect on his own family’s turbulent history. “I don’t want to say that art is a way to make sense of it, though,” he says. “Because violence is nonsensical; it’s simply absurd.”
The duality between his live performances and pieces of artwork is important, Zulfi says. “My visual work is less of a deconstruction and more of a playful reconstruction.” He paused when asked if that was because artist Zulfi lived in his hopeful imagination while Faluda Islam is a martyred zombie returning from a future rife with revolutions. “Oh, that’s good,” he says to me before chuckling.
And despite being born to a Pakistani Muslim family whose every moves are watched, Zulfi says his close family has been supportive—with “very natural concerns for safety.” As for his relatives who are no longer living, Zulfi says he’ll ask them of their opinions when he gets the chance. But for now, he says he chooses to believe that, from their vantage point, they see that he honors their legacy every day.
Towards the end of Bhutto’s 1971 farewell speech at the U.N. Security Council’s meeting, right before he shredded the paper and stormed out, he said, “As you sow, so shall you reap […] You will see how the chain of events unfolds itself.”
He was foreshadowing the same grim future that Faluda Islam refers to during her elaborate performance—a future marked by violence and hostility, intolerance and hate. A future spurred on by revolutions, and more revolutions, and more revolutions, and more revolutions, and more revolutions… And more revolutions.
“There will be an apocalypse of epic proportions,” the martyred zombie says before exiting the stage. “But, another time.”