This item is an audio file.

Oral History Interview with Marina

Marina describes her experiences growing up in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, immigrating to the U.S. with family, and navigating her sexuality as a bisexual muslim woman.

Content warning: Abuse

Gender & Sexuality

Duration: 00:55:25

Date: April 15, 2020
Type: Oral History
Source: Archival Creators Fellowship Program
Creator: Mustafa Saif
Location: Los Angeles, CA

Transcriber: Rima Parikh

Marina (0:00)
The first word that popped into my head when you said, “What were you like as a child?” was bookish. I really, really loved reading. I just remember always having my nose in a book. And I was one of those people that like, walked around with a book, went to the bathroom with a book, ate her meals with a book. And I used to write as well. I used to think, “One day I'm going to be a writer,” so I had all these very, I don't know if you know Enid Blyton, but like heavily influenced by her books where rabbits were talking, and people were going away to—little girls were going to dormitories where they played sports. And in my family, there was my parents. And then I had three siblings. So the eldest was my brother, and he suffered from a form of cerebral palsy, and then I had both my older sisters. So I was also, you know, the baby of the family. I was very spoiled. I was born in Saudi Arabia—my dad, my father was like, you know, an expat out there at the time, working. So I was born there in Dammam. And then you know, we moved around a little bit. We lived in Riyadh, we lived in Dammam, Al Khobar. And yeah. I think we were there ‘till I was 11, which was, you know, 2001. My family moved to Pakistan, which is what we basically are. But yeah, so I grew up in Saudi Arabia and I think it's really easy to be a kid instead of a female child in Saudi Arabia because you don't have to deal with any of the bullshit yet. We're just like in a really, really—like you just basically exist in a bubble, right? Like you're never gonna see anybody poor, never going to see anybody homeless. You have to deal with anything, you know, you're just super coddled. So it was a good—it was a good childhood, you know. I just went to school, and played with my friends, and read my books. I think it was always a—the rest of my childhood, there was always a little bit of, you know, strain on my brother. He got unwell in when I was seven in 1997. He actually passed away. And it was very sudden. He just had a series of heart attacks. And before that they couldn't really diagnose what was going on. He passed away. I feel like that—before that was interesting because my parents are so, you know, you really think of your parents as being multidimensional. But, you know, as you grow up, you realize how multidimensional your parents are. In some ways, they had a really awful marriage. And there was definitely some physical abuse and verbal abuse in that marriage. I obviously grew up around that and uncertainty. I guess the worst kind of trauma that kids go through. But in some ways, there were also like this otherwise, this fantastic, like, we used to throw these huge, like, eighty person parties, and they used to do like these little skits, my parents. So there was one where he dressed up as her, she dressed up as him. But I feel like once my brother passed away, obviously so I think that just killed off anything young or fun within them for a long time, I feel like. You know, because all of that stopped. And my father, I think after we moved, or we had a move coming up anyway because he would get posted to a different city. So we were in Riyadh at the time, and then he got posted again to Dammam, which is where they’d been before. So we just moved, and it was, like I think I always remember my mother struggling a lot. But you know, still trying to be a good Pakistani mom and make the kids food and serve everybody's lunches and everything. But I think that was a big marker for change in how my parents lived their life. Mustafa (3:23)
And what was it like being Pakistani and Saudi, and were there and did that impact your experience of Islam?

Marina (3:33)
I think I was young enough again, like before 11, I didn't experience any of the things that one—that most Pakistanis and men frankly, like women experience in Saudi Arabia because I was still under, you know, child, under the child care decree. So I feel like in that way, my experience being Pakistan as of such...yeah, at that point, I also spoke Arabic, which is something that has totally escaped me as I grew up and stopped speaking. But at that point I also spoke some Arabic. So I had, like, you know, friends I would converse with in Arabic. And I could kinda, you know, like write both sides and didn't necessarily feel boxed into being Pakistani. And I feel like that was something that became clearer to me later in life and not something I experienced directly where I was like, “Wow, I feel like Pakistanis are treated like kind of like second class citizens in Saudi Arabia, hmm.” That’s probably what my parents thought, you know? But so, definitely being Pakistani, I don't feel like I experienced anything. I think being Muslim is really interesting, because I guess you absorb—you absorb a lot of stuff unintentionally. And so we were also like, my parents were like, good practitioners, so as to put it, I did have a—I used to call him a qari saab. He’d come and like teach me the Quran and everything, and so I read it and finished it with him once in Arabic, and he had high hopes for me. Except that after that, we moved, so I was no longer star pupil, but, um, I think—we also—I think, before I was 11, we've gone on Hajj twice as well. So, you know, they try to inculcate the religion thing. Maybe I absorbed a little bit as a kid, but I still, like the majority of my understanding came from when I moved to Pakistan and went to like, you know, Islamic studies classes in the sixth grade, you know, and the seventh and the eighth, which is what I did there. So, I mean, the one thing I can kind of point to is like, so I bought a book of hadis and my parents obviously didn’t review it very heavily. It was like, “Yeah, it’s a book of hadis, she can read it, whatever. You know, like the prophet’s sayings. I’m sure they’re fine.” It was a very interesting book. And I remember so clearly that the author was like, “men cannot be allowed to wear gold. Men cannot be allowed to wear silk. They can't wear thread.” And I'm sure there were a bunch of them too, but I remember those and I was like, and it was like these really heavy like scripture which is like, you know, “The part of your skin which touches the silk shall be consumed by hellfire.” It’s just like, the sins of dance?! You know? So I definitely think that—I remember the book as being very like, I was just creeped out after a bit. I was like, I don't know if I should read this anymore. So my move to Islamabad—I think that’s pretty much where I’ve always stayed and lived in. Rawalpindi for a little bit you know, the twin city right there. So I knew Pakistan was. I went there. I had a lot of family, it was often overwhelming. I always—excuse me for this information, but like, I always had the most terrible stomach bug. I could only drink and I could only drink like, bottled water and food made with bottled water. And then I think the other thing, the only other thing I really knew what happened was that every time I went, my parents would fight. They had like all these, you know, family issues and things and everything really resurfaced when we were back [inaudible] we might still be okay. I didn't really have a concept of Pakistan beyond that. Like lots of family, and then fighting. And I don’t know that I ever even—like I almost didn't have any choice whatsoever. So I don't know that I ever even sat down and processed or thought about like, “Oh, do I want to do this” or whatever. Just like, “Okay, we're going? Can I get my books? Can I take my stuff?”you know? My father's the eldest of nine siblings. So like I said, lots of family there. I think I have like—I have about 28 cousins just on that side. And then my mom is one of six siblings, and so got like, a bunch of family on that side too. So we were gonna move there. Things started, school. And I think for me probably, I mean like the first couple of things that happened those years, I feel like were very confusing to me. It's really interesting because my memory is, like, fuzzy up until the time I was 14. But I just feel like I was really confused during that time. So I joined school, but I had like, a hard time with friends. So I made friends but then they also hated me and bullied me. I guess the two things I want to say here is, one is they hated me and bullied me because I wasn't very good at speaking Urdu, because I, like, my parents made sure we spoke more English and I spoke English generally in school. And I read a lot. So I got like, hella bullied for that. Because they’d be like, “Oh, this snooty kid from the outside who can only speak English then? And she thinks she's fancy.” And I'm like, I'm not fancy. I don't know, you know.” And I think the other thing that's really interesting is that part of being so coddled, and like oblivious—I wasn't really a very sharp kid, like a clever kid at all. And I think as a Pakistani kid, you kind of have to be, because you're just in a different environment and you know, you—it’s a lot more survival-based. I don't know, even as a—even for kids. It's a whole lot sharper. I was like a baby fish being thrown to much bigger fishes. So it's a pretty hard adjustment period there, because I never knew that one day, I'd be friends with somebody and the next day, they just wouldn't...they would just, like get up and leave me alone and ignore me to my face. I was like, “What happened? I'm in sixth grade.” And then obviously, I think my family. With my parents, there was a lot of conflict. I think my father wanted to do a lot more for his siblings and be a lot closer to them than my mother was comfortable being. And she was like, us first. Not to downplay the kind of effect that it had on my family in the sense that there were some really, really awful scenes and I was always consistently—even when I was a child—some really awkward scenes between my parents that my sisters and I had no business seeing as children, right? But of course, we were right there and we were seeing them and growing up around it. And I think I think it has, like that conflict has obviously shaped like, a massive part of my personality or the way I am or the way I made my choices. Because like, I mean, honestly, as a teenager, it became like a very serious goal for me, like “Don't end up like mom.” Don't end up in these situations, you know, where you don't have money, or you feel like you don't have support and you have nowhere to go and, you know? Not to downplay the effect, I think, that their their marriage had on me and definitely my sisters too. I didn't really know how to process everything that was happening. So I feel like I spent a lot of time just being like, “Huh?” Just constantly taken aback at stuff. Also, because a few times, I think I confided to a cousin or a family member about like, feeling upset about, like, my parents fighting or something. And so my cousin went and she was like an older cousin, somebody like a slightly older sister figure. So she went and she told her mom, and then her mom told like, my other aunt, and my other aunt came to my mom and was like, “Your kids are talking about this and like, we don't want them talking about this,” you know? You should not want—my mother did not want us talking about this because like, you don't air your family's dirty laundry, you know? And I think a few incidents like this, it was really impressed on me that like, this is not a topic to talk about, right? Like what's happening with family or upsetting stuff is just meant to be buried. I think there's one good example of this and it's probably the—it was really the first time I got my period. And so I think it's really, like I said, I wasn’t a sharp kid. I was also kind of dumb. So I knew what a period was. I kind of had some understanding around it. I wasn't totally like, you know, bamboozled. And yet when it happened, I couldn't tell any—I found myself I think—the...I just couldn't. Like most kids, most people will go and tell their mom or you know, be like, “Mom, I died” or something. And I couldn't even go to her. I didn't tell anybody for like, three days or two days at least. And I'm very lucky, otherwise I would have probably gone into some very embarrassing [inaudible] scenes. Thankfully, it was over a weekend. It wasn't in school. And my mother was a fanatic about doing the laundry regularly, so she was just like, “What's going on?” And she was like, “This can only be Marina.” So it just very, I think became very interesting that it is a part of that kind of caught up into my adult life. Where if I'm in doubt, or if I need, my instinct is to actually go inward, rather than necessarily ask anybody else for help. And I like to be very efficient in that way, you know. I’d say, “Of course, I can handle this.” The other burgeoning, you know, emotion and—or my burgeoning hormones, I should say, were leading me to, you know, think about sexuality or sex, or you know, discover what it was even like to like somebody. So obviously I was like any good, you know, South Asian child should be. I was raised on a diet of [inaudible] films, and you know, like good Bollywood romance stuff, you know, where she goes running in the rain and her sari’s all wet and whatever. So, I definitely had like this whole concept of romance and everything. I think the sad—the sad thing is that there is like repressive culturally, like both Saudi or Pakistani culture does to—is take something that's like, so natural and can be so joyful and can be such a [inaudible]] type of positive discovery, and such a—can be really something that's really affirming to you, as you grow into being like an adult. They take all of that and it becomes like this terrible, like thing of shame that you should never talk about, you should never feel and if you do, there's something wrong with you. I had a few crushes here and there and you know. It's all just things we giggle about with your friends, really, but nothing else, and definitely nothing you ever want to say around your family. I don't even think I told my sisters because, you know, I was like their—and they would totally, like, torture me with the information. So I started dating somebody, I think when I was 13, or 14, I want to say. But it wasn't—so I made a bad girlfriend to begin with, meaning like a friend who smoked on the school premises, you know. Scandal and horror. She was friends with other guys who were older and I mean, I was in an all girls school, is also [inaudible] mention, so. And so, you know, she introduced me to some of her [inaudible] and then dating one of them. Only I don't know if you can call it dating when you're like 13 and the other person's 24. I think I have another name for that. It’s not a nice name, you know. I think I was very, very lucky in that I walked away mostly unscathed or you know, like, in that sort of situation—like there was so much instability at home that I just, I think I, as an adult, I can look back and be like, oh, that somebody just lashing out or trying to find stability somewhere else. So I saw this person a few times, and of course, because you’re a 13 year old who's trying to sneak out on a date, we are going to get caught. You know, and so I think when I got caught the first time, it was probably the first like extremely “Oh no, [inaudible]. It was just a very like, traumatic is the word coming to mind—really traumatic event because, unfortunately, the Pakistani method for dealing with these things is physical and corporal punishment, not talking or you know, “Disgusting. Like, why did you do this, honey? We're worried about you being saved. Like, we don't believe in that stuff. We believe in this, the palm of your hand.” So I got very badly beaten by my father. And he did—he expressed, like, regret almost immediately, but somebody physically abuses you and then is sorry for it, it's just confusing you further, right? You're just like, what's happening?

Mustafa (15:25)
Did you feel like you were in trouble because the person was much older, or did you feel like just in general, you shouldn't be—like, what was the message you took from that, in terms of what was allowed or what was possible?

Marina (15:36)
I think all of the above. Like the message I took was everything,just...I mean, you know, we're definitely far more concerned I think because of the ages right. And possibly if I could have been like a 15 year old, they would have maybe had a more tempered response. I think the message I just walked away with was, “Don’t do anything.” Only that—and I would just say that in case some parents, some [inaudible], listening to this. It never works. So like two days after my ass whooping, I secreted away on landlines, on our landline phone because I didn’t have a cell phone, and I called him back up and I was like, “Hiiii.” And I didn't stop speaking to that guy until I was ready to, which was like about a month later or so. I was just like, “Yeah, you're boring. Why am I here?” At that point, the message was just everything was just wrong. I had just done wrong, been wrong. As an adult, I can definitely see like, your reaction was more, was stronger because of the age difference and because they were worried and didn't know anything else. And, you know, that was what they thought was the right thing to do. And that's how they had been raised. I was at this point in what was the ninth or 10th grade or what's known as O levels. So I was in O levels and there was a whole culture where you went to school, and then you took like some extra tuition in the evenings and went to like his tuition center—tuition centers, and things. So I met a girl there. For somebody who had had like no exposure even, whatsoever, to to being gay or being queer or any of those things. So it was like, super overwhelming because I met her. And there was just a lot of chemistry, and as a 14 year old, like you just have—it’s just so overwhelming. Yeah, so when I met her, it was just the dawn of a new time. And I guess it was funny because she was a girl, so for a while my parents were totally unsuspecting.

Marina (17:37)
My mother didn’t love her from the beginning, and my mother’s always been a very shy woman. It was just like, “Let me.” But she also obviously didn’t have that level of strictness as she might have with a boy or something. But yeah, so I basically got into a relationship with this girl and you know. I think, yeah, it was her first gay or queer relationship, or the first time I think she had feelings towards another woman or girl. And similarly so for me. You’re a teen with angst, you know? But when you're angsting about the fact that, “We are in love, and we're going to hell for this.” It's like a whole new level of angst. And I'm laughing now. But to be honest, I think she and I were together for about two years. We got caught twice the first time. Her sister found some letters we were—we were teenagers, we’d write each other love letters and be cheesy as hell, and you know, whatever. So, love letters I had written her and her sister came over, and luckily for me, Dad was at that time traveling on business. He was gone. So just mom at home. So she came over and met Mom and was like, “This is what's going on.” And so when I got home, I knew mom knew and I was kind of braced for the worst, but all it was like—I mean, my mother, herself, you know, was just like, “What are you doing? And this is wrong and you shouldn't do this,” and everything. It wasn't as tame as that. Maybe just verbal, for which I was very grateful. That kind of thing really instills in you that there's something wrong with you and you are sorry. And you're like, “Why am I like this?” And you are like, “I won't do it again.” But of course, you will do it again, because you're just a person. And it's like a natural, it's just like breathing, you know? The second time I got caught, my sister went to my messages. And like, she just went through my whole cell phone. And she found messages from her. And she liked my parents and told them. And that led to like a second very awful beating. And very often, like seen at home, and it was a really, really bad time, obviously, for me, because I think it settled in—well, it had been settling in all along, but it really hammered home that I felt like I couldn’t trust my family, and now I couldn’t even trust my sisters. It was just really, really hard, you know, because you're just a teenager. Everybody around you at this point in your life has taken enough Islamic studies classes to know that barely men and women can have sex, okay? Much less men and men and women and women and any other, you know, queer or trans or anything, you know? Barely are men and women—and there's a purpose to men and women, like procreating. Don't have fun with this. So you are already getting all of that hammered home, and then you know, your own family reacts in like these ways to any signs whatsoever that you might have—or you might be different, or you might want to do something different with your life. And then, you know, so I totally believe that this entire point, I absolutely...and I think she did too–fully convinced like, we're gonna go to hell. We're bad people. We're unsavable, unrescuable. Mustafa (20:48)
How did—how did it actually start? How did you both like, recognize each other in terms of being interested in each other and more than friendship?

Marina (21:00)
You know, it's really interesting. It was one of those things that really just organically happens. Like I said, it was just like a lot of chemistry. And I think our first reaction was just like, “Oh, we're really good friends.” Just within, like, the space of weeks, we also realized—like within the space of two weeks maybe, we realized, “Oh these things, it’s not really friendship.” I had, thankfully, at this point—talking about support systems—like I had two really amazing friends at this time. And they were, they were pretty much my only support system at this point. And they were also the only people I think I came out and said it to at that time, that like she and I are dating or together whatever. Literally was as simple as one day. One person reached over and just started holding the other person's hand, and that was, and I was like, “Ooooh.” So yeah. I stayed with her for, I want to say, on and off periods included, it was about four years in total, until I was 18. For a brief time there, we were very serious, and you know, we...I mean, very serious in the way 16 year olds are serious about running away, you know, and I was, it was something you're fully like, I'm like, “Alright, you know, like, this is like, we have to wait until we're 20. And then we have to run away. Like, that's the only way,” you know? And it's also really sad that, in order to be happy or ever live with this person, have I life I want—I'm just gonna run away. Bye guys. You know? Um, so it really applies to all that and then I think it basically something to me when I was 17 that wasn't going to run away.

Mustafa (22:38)
Did you have—when you were making these plans to run away, did you have a vision for what this alternative would look like?

Marina (22:46)
I mean, I think I definitely—that was like, “We should leave the country and go somewhere.” Like, just just run away to another place. And I think I think the idea was definitely you know, go away, run away somewhere in Europe or America. They were okay with us in America, right? Which clearly, so watch for that. Anyway.

So I think we definitely like, the Western world we were thinking of. And I think more of the stuff is based on like, “We’ll have this nice house,” which also was a Western great dream. So yeah, when I was 17 I realized I wouldn’t be running away. I guess I just realized like you I didn't, I didn't, I didn't want to run away from my family. It's really, really hard. It's not that—of course people do, and...but obviously, it's super hard. Especially when you're like in a South Asian culture, you know, your family and your parents and you know, you are raised, at least in Islam, with the whole, you know, heaven lies beneath your mother's feet, after God there’s your parents, that kind of mindset. But yeah, so we broke up. We talked on off for a bit, but I also realized, like, I'm a cold turkey sort of person. Like, you can't talk to the same person, which is gonna—or keep doing the same thing, if it's a thing you're trying to stop doing, you know? I just stopped speaking with her. Islamabad is a really, really small city. Like it's pretty small. Everybody knows everybody, and every piece of gossip circulates at least a million times. And another really good example of this is I had a I had a friend visiting Pakistan in December 2019. So this all took place between 2004 and 2008. And so, 11 years later, right, like in 2019, a friend visits Islamabad and a friend of hers, who I've never met, came up to her and was like, “Hey, Marina was your friend, right? Isn't she the one who was gay?” So people maintain that level of scrutiny over your life, and I have been out of the country for six years. I never was back, you know. So it's just very difficult to be different or affirm any sort of sense of self, when you're exposed to that level of concept and scrutiny and just people being jerks, you know? Which I think was really hard for me and really hard for her. Mustafa (25:19)
How did you—what were like the strategies you used to be able to continue doing what you wanted, while constantly feeling that fear of being found out?

Marina (25:28)
I am a really great liar now. Like I'm fantastic. Really good. Actually, in later years, I've become slightly less good, because the need has reduced so much. But I learned how to lie really well, and learn how to plan really well. It's sad. I had to work my parents a little bit, right? If I tell you, if I tell them, I'm going to be back by 8:30 and I'm back five times in the sixth time I'm not, that'd be okay. But if I'm not back at 8:30 from the very first time, they're going to be really suspicious and they're gonna do some crazy stuff. So I learned how to like, adhere to certain boundaries in order to push others in certain ways, you know? And then, like I said, like, the—I mean, I can't emphasize the lying and the planning enough. And I think this one time I was the end of our exams, and I was going out with a bunch of friends, and we were just going to get pizza and hang out and whatever. And I stopped to see her. She was hanging out with her friends, but we had just stopped to see each other. Only the problem was her party was far different from pizza and hang out, it was—she got drunk. So when I met her, she walked towards me and she fell flat on her face, and I was just like, “Are you okay? What is happening?” But then I stuck around because she was like, very, very drunk. So when me and my friend, we stuck around. We just took care of her and like, try to sober her up and then send her back. But you know, so I was driving home and I had a, we had a driver, right? Like everybody in Pakistan. And then I was like, “Shit.” Like, what if I go back and he mentions like—mentions all this all this because he witnessed all of it. So I was just like, Mural bhai. He was like, yeah. I was like, “If mom asks, can you please just say we went to my friend’s house and—you just don’t tell her all of this? He just had this person to collect, like he had no idea of any of the details, but he clearly was just like she’s just been helping the drunk person. So he was just like, he just gave me this super sympathetic look and he’s like, “It's okay. Don't worry [inaudible], I won’t say anything. And I was like “Thank you so much.”

Mustafa (27:23)
So since dating in general isn't allowed, what did you feel like—even for straight couples—there was still...there was like, a similar sense of it needed—a need to like have secrecy and privacy from parents. So did you feel like, connected to that, like, larger need that other folks were having? Or did this feel very different?

Marina (27:41)
I feel like that's really interesting, because after that, I dated almost exclusively men or boys, in Pakistan. And there's always a need for secrecy. And people, like girls especially have—women especially have reputational concerns, right, like men are going to lie about what they did or didn't do, or even if they really did something, something like dishonor [inaudible] but it's not. So I feel like there was some—there was some similarity there in terms of secrecy and everything, right? But whereas one will garner you still some sympathy and and you know your friends will still have you, and the other being queer or gay or identifying with a different sort of sexual orientation—basically besides being straight is going to garner you social ridicule. You have to lie to your family, but you have to lie to your friends too. The stakes are still so much higher. This is the kind of thing that can, where being a woman, where rejecting the guy is bad enough, that can get you killed. But this is definitely the sort of thing that can get you killed, right? [inaudible] Like, don't want to hurt a programmer wasn't like and had like some sort of religious leanings it would have been. It could have really, really killed,because that's the kind of thing people take it upon themselves to do. And I was so like, I can't say how privileged I was, right? Like, I lived in a city, and I had relatively like an, you know, affluent lifestyle. I had a few friends I could talk to, had access to the internet and things like—just exposure in general, you know. So I really wanted to leave the country to study and you kind of had to, but—so we definitely didn't have money, and this was like a pretty bad financial time for my family. So I barely enrolled. We just made it. I just made it through law school based on some money I had earned and some savings my mom had basically and some stuff my father was able to pull together, too. So I finished that. I think what I really wanted to do after that was I started working at a law firm in Pakistan, and I really, really wanted to get my master's in law and I wanted to go out, leave the country for it and go somewhere else. I just knew I wanted to do something different and go somewhere. And I think it's funny people don't realize like...I think Americans don't realize like, they're all like “We’re the greatest country in the world,” and it’s like, “Sure,” but they also genuinely don't realize the fact that other people really do think it is the greatest country in the world, too, you know? I think they legit don't get how much America does represent freedom to people all over the world, right? And now it's like, “Well, we don't want immigrants” but it’s because we believe in you, goddammit! You know? And I used to really, really believe this that, you know, if you work really hard in America, you know, or you have merit, you really succeed, you know. And you—all this like, nepotism and connections you won’t—it doesn’t work like that there. Like it’s a far more merit-based and like a fair system and everything. And you know, my dreams really died, because, look at it where we are. I definitely had this idea too that—which this part is true, that I could be a lot freer individually and have a lot more autonomy in my own life if I could leave the country. Actually, there was one other thing. So the whole religion aspect, I just want to talk about that a little bit more. And also, can I just dwell on like, not strange but the very pedantic or like tiny like, procedural things that somehow we’re taught about, like all religion like resides within this, you know? There was so much emphasis laid on things like posture in your brain, right? Like I remember like really, like l my teacher really drilling this into us. That like when women go and do such, right, your elbow should not be flat on the ground. So to this day, it's like something that I got out and for my elbow was on the ground like, I was always since my parents practiced and you know, religion was kind of a part of our lives and everything. And I studied it. It was in school, and I did believe it deeply. You know, it's just interesting. And it takes so much unlearning over time, you know. The kinds of things that you’re taught are important when you're raised in cultures that treat religion as some sort of strict, severe, not human-friendly, not people-friendly. You know, just like the scripture you have to follow. Like religion or being Muslim has always been part of my life and has always been really important. I didn't start drinking until I was 25. It's just—it becomes very—at some point, you have to really sit down and reconcile with yourself what kind of God you believe in, and—but because you can’t go on believing like, “I'm gonna go to hell for who I am.” LIke at least for me, at some point, I was like, “Alright, I can't believe this, you know, like, if that's what you are, then I can't believe in you,” you know? Or have faith in you. So you kind of just have to sit down and like reckon with yourself and whatever it is, you know, of religion, whatever it is. You research and find out and redefine your faith. Really, especially as like a queer person, I think. And I think I mean, I'm, I assume that that's definitely true for Muslims that want to maintain like, a relationship with God. A queer Muslim doesn't want to maintain a relationship with God that are raised in ways where you know, everything is unnatural you should—and are raised with rhetoric like, “Your challenge is to marry someone of the opposite gender and be happy with them.

Mustafa (33:44)
What are like—what are some of the things about Islam that you went—in like redefining what you had? What were some of the things that you wanted to carry with you that did feel supported or like, like, what was his desire to still have that connection and like reconcile the parts that weren't working for you?

Marina (34:02)
I think insofar as why, I think I wanted to reconcile just because, I mean you know, one of those great pieces that people write on, “Why do people believe in God?” because we need to have something bigger, or have a faith that there's something bigger. So I guess I believe in something bigger. I think the parts that helped me reconcile or that I still focus on a lot and go back to to a lot is part of religion itself that shows so clearly to me that—that both of these things together cannot be true.There's a story that like the Prophet Muhammad used to walk by a woman's house every day, like was one of his neighbors, and she used to throw [inaudible] and every day. Like he used to walk by her house and she used to harass him and he used to walk and she’d try to throw trash on him. Right? And so one day he walked by, and she didn't throw trash on him. And then so like the second time he was like, “Why isn’t she there? Where’s the trash lady?” [inaudible] she was really sick. She was an old woman, and she was really sick. So he tended her back to health and everything, and you know, took care of her. But when she was nursed back to health and she realized like, he was a really good person, she converted. She ended up converting to Islam. If you can hold that for true, like this is how you're supposed to treat somebody who throws trash at you every day, right? You can't possibly hold true this other rhetoric that like Muslims and Jews are not supposed to be friends, right? Which is a very strong one in Pakistan. So Islamic studies, it can’t all come together for me. THere’s this scholar called [inaudible] who did a really great Facebook post on this actually. But like I was raised with the concept of God is always watching. And he's like, it's meant to be like an authoritarian, like God is watching you. And he's like, I've always been–it’s meant to be...but he's like, the point is that God is always with you. It's nothing that he’s watching you and trying to like, keep an account of stakes and watching, like, watching you like a guard or something. But he's always with you. And he's always a presence in your life, right? So just, I mean, kind of looking at that kind of thing and just being able to reframe what I believe and what I hope to be true, you know, I think that has really helped me kind of reconcile. So my father and his siblings, when we moved to Pakistan way back in 2001, they had gone into business together and then they ended up in business with loan sharks and it ended up in a very bad situation. And then simultaneously somehow they retreated and had trouble with a local political terrorist group, who ended up kidnapping my uncle. They were actually seeking to kidnap my father, but they could only find my uncle, so they took him. And it became a really, like, terrible situation. And the loan sharks had basically kept the police at this point, so there was no help to be had. It was was just a very awful time since I think. This is in my first year of law school, so it’s still 2008ish at this point. Over the next two years, like my father was in court, in and out of court, and trying to, you know, plead his innocence. And the corrupt justice system doesn't really help you a lot if you're not rich or very well-connected. And so he basically at some point, then I think 2010, 2010, 2011 or so, he sought asylum in the US and he moved here and was able to obtain asylum here and everything. And so it was me, my mom and both my sisters there. The middle one got married. Older one also got married after a bit, you know, and so it was me and my mom at home. I think it’s really interesting that around—after I turned 18 or so, and after all this happened is when my relationship with my mother really grew by leaps and bounds. I think I really came into understanding her as a person, as an individual or somebody who had once been young and had some sort of, you know, ideas about her own life and how that turned out, you know. I think we had spent more time together at this point and just you also had fun doing stupid things and you know, having fun and going to market and harassing our tailor or whatever.

So I think that, I mean, I remember this most for that, like she and I would have dinner together every day or whatever, and kind of schedule like, like, “How do you need the car? Do I need the car?” and whatever else for the next day and just spend time together. So that was good. In other ways, it was like the family was split up. So it's kind of, you know, a hard time in that way. My middle sister's husband of choice was a total demon. My father, as long as he was in the country, there was a time [inaudible] of the driveway to come pick me up from a school, college or whatever.

[Inaudible] Fashion is was a big catalyst and these cars came up from behind and like around his car right in the driveway and started, and like these tools just jumped out with like clubs and everything. And so he managed to like, accelerate and like just get inside the driveway. And then he just got out and like my mom was also in the—she had been closing the gate when he took the car out. So she like yanked him into the house and she closed the door and ed the door and bolted the door. And like the cops showed up, and they wanted access to the house so they could search for him. And she basically denied access to the house, and was like, “You can't come in. It just means my daughters, and I can’t just let you into the house.” Totally played this like, Pakistani woman card, where she was like, “I can’t let you in the house. We’re all women here. I don’t know what you’re doing.”

And he kind of had to go to hiding after that, and everything. And so, you know, he hid out like he basically hid out in a few different places, at relatives and family friends’ houses and then he left the states because I think that got very, very bad at that point, because they were basically like, I mean, the cops paid off by the loan sharks had also gotten my uncle at this point, and were beating the living shit out of him in jail. Like he was basically like a big walking wound. It was really awful, all of it. So Dad leaves and there was a little bit of danger on the whole thing because these guys, these loan sharks they’d done business with would keep finding out where we lived. Like we moved a couple of times, and I found that they kept finding us every single time. But once Dad had gone, you know, I think they threatened like some of my extended family on the other side and they definitely followed Mom around the city a couple of times. From there on kind of started like this limbo period because my father was applying for my mother and I to move as well, as you know, dependents of an asylee. So you know, we kind of had the process, we've had an interview and everything. And of course we didn’t get approved, and then it got approved. But then they were like, “Oh, it's in processing.” It stayed in processing for the better part of two and a half years. And I still again have nothing—like that's no time compared to what other people have been waiting for. Pretty much in 2014, one fine day, I got a call from the embassy being like, “Hey, your passport’s ready and so’s your mom’s, so you can pick it up.” So yeah, we moved to the States then, June 2014. And so my middle sister had also had also [inaudible] And so we were in San Jose first, and the Bay Area in general. And I started working. So at this point, I'd been working as a lawyer for like two and a half years in Pakistan. But what you learn very quickly, or if you don't already know about America, is that anything you've done outside doesn't really matter. So I moved here. I was pretty lucky and got a job as a paralegal a a really good firm. And I worked there for a year, and then I reapplied to Berkeley at this point, my masters, and I got in again. So I moved to Berkeley and started school in 2015. The masters was a one year program, so I did that. And I think it was really awesome in the sense that I was living alone for the first time. Because even when I moved here, so my middle sister had also moved here. And her son. So it was her, her son, both my parents and me. And I love them all dearly, but we're not very functional as a unit so it's hard to...I kept saying, “I’m going to move out,” but I wasn't making enough and I knew my parents didn’t want me to. So in that way Berkeley was a good excuse where I was like, “Okay, now I have to go away to school and live close to school and get the full experience.” You know, I think what else was really formative about this about 2014, 2015, 2015 was that I was sexually assaulted, but that prompted me to seek therapy, which was the first time I've ever been to therapy. And I think it just helped me finally process pretty much all of my life and just deal with a lot of guilt and shame and terrible feelings I'd been carrying around, having been believing I was going to hell, and believing—it's weird how that sinks in. Because after that, I was like, “Well, I'm not dating a woman anymore.” But despite that, “I was like, yeah, I'm unsalvageable.” Like, I can't be rescued, you know? And become what you believe about yourself as a person, right? So you're not treating yourself very well, basically. So that was, I think, a really, really, formative time. I went to therapy. I went to school. I tried different things. A hard time, a really hard time, but still important and formative. I made some very good friends. I kissed a few girls. But I—and this is interesting. I don't know. I didn't I didn't take another woman. And I don't know if it was because, like, what I went through the first time was so bad that my brain was just like, “You know what, it's okay. You're still attracted to the other gender too so let's lean on that.” Let's just listen to the easier one for you. So I don’t know if it was that, or also the fact that I didn't really need somebody who evoked, you know, like a strong emotional connection or response, or, you know, that kind of thing.

Mustafa (44:24)
When you were talking earlier about your experiences in high school, and even now, what was—was it helpful to have language for like, or labels for understanding those identities or not?

Marina (44:37)
I think it was for me. It was probably scarier. I think it was a little bit scarier to just finally, you know, be like, “I'm bisexual.” But I think it helped me. I think because a lot of everything, a lot of stuff in my life has been kind of fuzzy, right, and just been, you know, trying to figure it out for most of the time. And I think there's an element of fear too, and I think yeah. What’s scary about naming it is then you're really like, saying it. You're like, this is part of who I am. And you're giving it a name. And for me at least, giving it a name means that I’m giving it space. And I'm like, “Alright, this is, you know, this is where the woman part is, and then this is where the Muslim part is, and this is where the [inaudible] is. And then this is also where the lawyer part is,” you know? So I think it's also part of being a lawyer. Maybe I like things categorized in my own life. So to me, I think it was the feeling, it was a good, positive feeling. And to have labels and finally use them and be able to say, “Okay, this is part of my identity.” The way I feel, like I can always change my label around, so I feel like I'm not too rigid about that anymore, either. Like, I can label myself and give myself space to kind of swing around on various spectrums and see what I feel like.

Mustafa (45:58)
Was it important for you to find other bi Muslims or queer Muslims or queer Pakistanis? What were the sort of factors for you that were most important in terms of finding community and feeling understood?

Marina (46:11)
This is something I'm still working on. I think finding community is important to me. And, you know, base levels of community, like, I gotta find, like a larger queer community and then like, Muslim queer community, right, and then just like other Muslim bisexual people, you're just gonna—so know, it's definitely important. And it's not something I feel like I've been very successful at. So it was really great at Berkeley, because I was definitely able to reach out to a larger community and kind of hang out with people, and talk to them and connect with them. But I think it's harder. It's been harder for me as like a professional adult to make time and make energy to find myself those spaces. I think the couple of ones that have have become really important to me over the years and definitely finding like Muslim queer community. I moved to LA in 2018. And I started looking for a progressive Muslim community as well. And I found like, I definitely have found some online ones. And then there's a, there's one, the biggest one I think in LA is called Muslims with—MPV: Muslims with Progressive Values. I think that's the name. And it's founded by this really fantastic woman called [inaudible] and she's also female, a mom and everything. And I've actually asked her to conduct our wedding later this year. So appreciate, appreciate. So I think that's been good, but I still want to make closer connections and more personal friendships. Because I grew up in a culture where secrecy was of the utmost importance. It's also difficult for me to show up. I think the other thing that has recent—I mean, it’s ridiculous that only recently occurred to me, really love all women's spaces too, and I actually really crave them. And it came about in the weirdest way because I went to my friend's bachelorette, which was a weekend away. It was like 10 women. And I was just like, “Oh my god, I've been missing this so much. This is so nice.” And then similarly, I went to what's called the Women's Mosque of America and they had female imams and female [inaudible] who do like Friday prayers, and [inaudible] everything and it's a very inclusive and diverse and welcoming space for women of all backgrounds and orientations. So I think that was really lovely. I attended a bunch of theirs as well. When I moved to the States, I've developed sadly like a greater feeling of not feeling enough for either side, right. So I'm not Pakistani enough. I’m really not American enough. I’mnot Muslim enough. I'm not. Sometimes I really do feel like I'm not queer enough. Right? Because I ended up in this very good foreign lifestyle, right? So it just I think that’s part of the other thing that stops me from engaging—I feel like I'm not enough of anything for anybody you know. And so in Pakistan it was always that I was too liberal or too Westernized and too modern. I wore jeans. I wore sleeveless dresses. At some point, I just gave up on trying to be ashamed of who I was dating, and men at least. And I was like, yeah, I’m dating this person. But then when I moved here, in so many ways, right like, I'm just not American enough in my face. My accent is like so clear. Like I have a very clear accent and I have no plans of losing it. And in every way that counts. I mean America is my home now, and I believe in it as my home and you know, love it my home. It’s the place that's given me any individual freedom that I'm experiencing right now. Any ability to dress the way I want or live the way I want or move out of my parents’. home, or—and has, at least I've been lucky enough. I've been one of the few people whose hard work it has rewarded with, you know, a good job in the field I wanted and all that good stuff. But at the same time, as much as I want to claim America, I don't think America wants to claim me necessarily. It's difficult to try to find my place. Communities help with that, which I'm not acing at right now. But it's kind of hard to find your place that you love and that you admire, but you also disagree with.

Mustafa (50:35)
Do you want to fill in a little bit on this like move to LA and what prompted that, and what your life has been like adjusting to this most recent move?

Marina (50:46)
So what happened was I got out of Berkeley, and that was when I was dating my now fiance. He was still—he was doing a JD, so he was still in school and I was working in San Francisco then, living by myself in Berkeley. That move was hard for my parents, in the sense that once I graduated, I moved back for three months, and I got a job and then I moved out again. So when I moved out again, my father was like, “What, you don't want to live with us?” He wasn't happy about it. But this is the great thing about America. I had money and I was like, “I love you guys. But no.” And I could never have done that, even if I had money in Pakistan. You know? My fiance finished, and he got a job in Los Angeles. And he moved down here. So we were long-distance for a bit, but I wanted to move to a bigger firm. I was at a boutique law firm, a smaller place, so I wanted to move to a bigger one. And then like he was job hunting north and I was job hunting south, and then I just got a job first, so I was like “Oh okay, I’ll move to LA.” And I think—so I never really felt like the area was...I don't know, I think people love the area and there's a very strong South Asian community and people are like it's—I was just never a really big fan. I think maybe just, like, the sexual assault happened there. I feel like I just kind of developed a sense of not feeling very safe, but thankfully I think I feel more at home. And I do like..I think there's a lot more diversity than maybe there even is in the Bay Area. And then like I said, I found the MPV community and those guys here, which which I think is good. Because the area, the mosques and Muslim communities I've met there, encountered there, were a little bit more Muslim than I am. So I didn't feel like I really, I wasn't as good as—the group—as good a practitioner as I felt like I should be there. Or maybe I don't maybe it just felt slightly less welcoming is what I'm trying to say.

Mustafa (52:34)
What did it feel like doing this, like an oral history while also—it seems like some of the themes that came up were like, fuzziness and also having grown up or having strong messaging around secrecy. So like, what did it feel like to tell, you know, this like, very in-depth story, where you had to like, confront some of that fuzziness and also had to be really, really open and comfortable?

Marina (53:00)
I feel like fuzziness has been one of my coping mechanisms, I guess. I think my brain protecting me from a lot of things that I don't necessarily want to remember, or a lot of other things. Although yeah, I don’t know. I feel like I've been working on affirming myself more and my life more. And I feel really good about the fact that in some record out there somewhere, like, like 60 years from now—see this is like Bollywood—like, somebody will listen to this and it will maybe actually tell them like, you know, it ends. It gets really awful and you get fuzzy and you forget things, and some people lose the place that they had in your life and you lose the place you had in theirs, and now, you know. But it is worth it. The word I was looking for is “seen.” I think it makes me feel seen, and I kind of hope it makes somebody else feel seen at some point. I feel so strongly about other young Muslim people who go through this. And you know, you're told like something's fundamentally wrong with you. Or you know, the only kind of life you deserve is one where you're denying your deepest self and your deepest desires. Like that's the life you deserve. And it's something you receive in a message to you in Muslim culture. And then you have something received message to you in like other random places, where you end up in a country where the vice president thinks that conversion therapy is like, a great, is like totally a-okay to do. Yeah, it just breaks my heart. The things I went through and then I think other people go through so much worse. In some ways, I wish I had a more queer ending to my story. Just so I could be like, “It's okay, you're gonna get out and do the things you wanted to do.” This is the thing I wanted to do, which is good. And it's something like, you know, I’ve said to my sisters because now one of them has two children and one has one and I'm like, “Your children are queer or gay. Don’t be an asshole.” I’m like fully prepped, sitting here. I want to be the [inaudible] aunt, quick, just like watch out on my own. So if anybody else needs taking in, I've got them, you know? It just makes you feel so strongly and how unfair and how shitty it is what people go through, but you know, we can’t and hopefully you make it through and find a place of your own.

Collection: Mustafa Saifuddin Fellowship Project
Item History: 2020-07-17 (created); 2020-12-02 (modified)

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