Tony Saunois

Told through the eyes of two young, gay, Pakistani men, Zafar, an asylum seeker from Pakistan, and Bilal (or Billy as he prefers to be known) from London, this is a hard-hitting, dynamic play that strikes out at oppression and discrimination.

Homophobia, racism, the horrific plight of asylum seekers in the UK, and a not-so-subtle warning against judging people by appearance and personal relationships, are all portrayed in brutal honesty. It ends not in a Bollywood ‘happy every after’ conclusion but in a moving and dynamic call to action to fight back.

Zafar is reliving, through his memories, the horrors he endured in Pakistan while fighting for asylum in Britain. His father in Pakistan owns a factory and has connections with the military. The love of his life was Haroon. His father discovers their relationship and has Haroon murdered, and his son arrested and tortured by the police. A tragedy that is all too real in Pakistan and other countries.

Zafar manages to flee Pakistan with the help of his mother, and comes to the UK seeking asylum. When he calls her from London his hopes are dashed as she says she has no son and knows nobody called Zafar. “Please don’t call here again” are the last words he is to hear from her. He fled Pakistan rapidly using his brother’s passport without even “a single picture of him” (Haroon), and no other belongings – a fate which torments many who flee repression, war, and other horrors.

In London he is subjected to vicious racism and homophobia by the immigration authorities who refuse to believe he is gay – an all too familiar reality faced by many LGBTQ+ people seeking asylum.

Zafar eventually meets Billy, an openly gay young Pakistani who lives in London, at the London gay pride in Soho. They are from two different worlds. Billy has virtually no contact with his family as he is gay and has turned his back on Pakistani culture, refusing to visit there since he was very young. On one level he is enjoying living his gay life through Grindr and casual hook-ups which he is increasingly finding unsatisfying. The angst he feels at constantly waiting for replies to texts from someone he met on Grindr, hoping for something more, is very inventively acted out.

When Billy and Zafar meet, Billy is initially hostile and rejects him. Zafar, shocked by the open London culture, feels an alienation or confusion at his new surroundings. The play has good humour in confronting all the discrimination and prejudice. Zafar comments that one thing he cannot understand about Britain is that “nobody speaks English”, using phrases like “innit bruv” and “that’s banging.”

Following a wild drunken encounter, on Billy’s part, at London gay pride, a friendship and bond eventually grows. Zafar, haunted by the threat of being deported back to Pakistan as his application is turned down, is initially embarrassed to reveal his real status to Billy. Eventually he does by expressing his fear of being deported back or “even to Rwanda”. Billy naively says: “You’re in Britain now. They wouldn’t send a gay person back to be harmed”. Zafar hits back: “I’m not in your Britain. I’m in another Britain.” Billy appears later a bit taken aback as he encounters his own discrimination as he is turned down for a promotion at work for racist reasons.

Here he receives support from a colleague at work he has ridiculed, ‘Fat Jason’. Jason turns out to be gay with a partner who is a Pakistani lawyer, Javid. His help becomes invaluable in helping Zafar. Billy is far from a perfect character but what is portrayed is his capacity to learn and change as life experiences burn down on him.

Zafar is arrested and put on a plane to be deported back. Here Billy, who has begun reembracing some Pakistani culture through Zafar, makes a stand. On the plane he protests and enlists the support of other passengers. Zafar is finally removed from the plane. A happy Bollywood ending? No, here we are taken to a finale of the brutal reality of all those who have been deported from many countries – some back to their deaths or horrific situations. This is done in a powerful imaginative way – which it is better to see at a performance!

This short play, one-and-a-half hours, is an emotional rollercoaster, captivating, moving but also a realistic portrayal of the life and struggle of those facing such oppression. This is not to be missed.

  • The P Word by Waleed Akhtar is at the Bush Theatre, London until 22 October