This story is adapted from Broadly's Queerly Beloved podcast.
“I also found out that Middle America hates queers, and they hate Muslims too,” says San Francisco drag queen Faluda Islam during a performance earlier this year, reflecting on her travels in America. “They find them both threatening in different ways. So I began to wonder: What if you were to put the two together?”
At that, she disrobes her long, sequined coat to reveal a silk bustier, a wrap-around belly-dancing skirt, and fishnet stockings. Up top, she is wearing a green headscarf, winged eye makeup that reaches nearly to her ears, and bright red lipstick above her black beard. To an upbeat tune, she proceeds to seduce the crowd with flamboyant choreography—fanning her long, graceful fingers through the air, undulating her stomach, and eventually shimmying into the small club’s audience. She’s received with cheers and thrown dollar bills.
Faluda is the drag persona of Bay Area-based artist and curator Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Jr., known to most friends as Zulfi. And she is not merely about camp and fabulousness; she also has an intricate, futurist backstory that functions almost as speculative fiction. “She is a zombie, she was resurrected through Wi-Fi technology and the way she died was in the future queer revolution,” Zulfi explains. “She’s sort of an oracle…she’s able to give an insight into past present and future.”
As a character, Faluda is a complex pastiche of many histories and identities drawing from Zulfi’s own identity as a queer, Pakistani-Lebanese-Iranian Muslim. And she often delivers monologues that use satire to get at searing truths about the ways we perceive the “other” as well as queer our hetero-masculine conceptions of activism and revolution. In some ways, her life story is a retelling of that of Zulfi’s father, Murtaza Bhutto, who was a grassroots socialist political organizer in Pakistan before being assassinated when Zulfi was six years old. “Along with that, I talk about injustice, who gets the right to live or die, who is the decider of that,” says Zulfi. “War comes up, aspects of martyrdom come up, Islamophobia comes up.”
As a futurist icon, Faluda Islam’s existence can be traced back to many moments in history. But one you might not expect occurred in early 2015, not long after Zulfi had moved to the United States, settling in San Francisco. He received a call from his then new friend, Ana Montenegro. She was at a bus stop, crying.
While waiting for her ride, a San Francisco city bus had driven by with an ad that Ana couldn’t believe she was seeing. It featured two images side by side. On the left was a photo of British-Egyptian rapper Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary in a recording booth wearing a tracksuit above the words “Before Becoming Devout.” On the right was an image of the same man wearing a balaclava and holding a blurred human head in his hand, above the words “After Becoming Devout.” Emblazoned above both was the statement: “Yesterday’s moderate is today’s headline.”
“This is like, what the fuck, you know?” recalls Ana.
“Yeah it really was, especially because it was on public transportation,” adds Zulfi. “You’re a Muslim riding a bus—me and many others—and you’re forced to sit in a vehicle that is advertising your expulsion, your criminalization, or simply the paranoia that should be around you, and it was a very scary experience.”
Ana is not Muslim herself, but she had recently come to the US from Colombia to get her MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute, alongside fellow student Zulfi.
“That was the first time I really was made to question where I was,” she recalls. “It really defined our conversations. Where we come from, how people see us, and the differences and similarities between us.”
Ana and Zulfi first met at the school’s international student orientation, where they each stood out to each other amidst a chaotic scene of newcomers.
“There was something very familiar in your smile or in your body language,” Ana recalls to Zulfi. “I think we were all feeling like outsiders… I don’t know, there was some sort of immediate chemistry.”
It was key that Ana found Zulfi familiar, because not many others seemed to. While he has since settled into an artist community, he initially experienced a heavy amount of culture shock, particularly in the masculine-centered pocket of the queer scene he first stumbled into in San Francisco. “It was very, very white, it was very inward-looking in the sense that it didn’t really have a perspective on the outside world nor did it feel like it desired to,” says Zulfi. “But I also just couldn’t relate to it, nor did they have the desire to relate to me or many of the other people that weren’t from the United States that were queer, that were my friends and my family at the time.”
It wasn’t just that Zulfi felt, at first, didn't feel like he fit in. It was that many people seemed to have a problem even comprehending the intersections of his identity. “When I first came to the United States, many people in the gay scene thought of Islam as the anti of what they were,” says Zulfi, “and conversely that ended up them being against everything that Islam was.”
Ana encountered similar stereotyping. People would often ask her why, if she was from Colombia, she had light skin, she says, and make references to drug cartels as if that was representative of Colombian culture.
Then, the Islamophobic ads happened, and the fact that Ana and Zulfi seemed to be the only students on campus who noticed them served to solidify the friendship. They began having long conversations, stoking each other’s artistic practices, dissecting the inseparable intersections of their identities, and discussing what—beyond sexuality—queerness meant to them: In part, not existing with the rigid confines of prescribed identity labels and ways of being.
Faluda Islam began to come into being around two years after Zulfi and Ana graduated, when Zulfi saw his first drag performance and it sparked an idea.
“I thought there was a lot more that needed to be said and I really felt that it was important to say this within the communities that I thought were important to say it to,” says Zulfi, “mostly, the queer community in SF, which thought of itself as being outside of prejudice in many ways.”
One day in Ana’s kitchen, Ana began teaching Zulfi how to use make up and walk in heels. Many kitchen lip-syncing sessions later, with help from Ana’s coaching—both aesthetic and in the form of long conversations processing emotions—Faluda Islam was born.
“Ana’s role was huge,” recalls Zulfi. “She was instrumental in keeping that confidence going. She was like, ‘Just be you, you’re doing something that makes you happy and you’re doing something that can really broaden people’s senses.’”
Today, Ana lives back in Bogotá, Colombia, but she and Zulfi still talk regularly and consider each other queer family.
“When I talk about my experience in San Francisco, I always talk about how the most meaningful thing that happened there was all these incredible friendships that I have now that were only possible because we all went through the journey together,” says Ana, “not only being in another city, doing an MFA, but really understanding who we were and what we wanted to do and also understanding that there’s nothing you can do alone.”