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Transcript
TOPIA 19 137
Ibrahim Abraham
“Sodomized by Religion”: Fictional
Representations of Queer Muslims
in the West
ABSTRACT
This article explores fictional representations of queer Muslims in the Western
world. Analysing two films (My Beautiful Laundrette and Touch of Pink) and two
novels (The Taqwacores and Bilal’s Bread), the article argues that despite queer
Muslims facing multiple forms of alienation and othering, new hybrid identities
and relationships are developing, rejecting the rhetoric of a “clash of civilizations”
between Muslims and the West. The article explores the political, cultural, sexual
and economic situation of Western Muslims as they seek meaning, belonging and
faith in late capitalism.
RÉSUMÉ
Cet article étudie les représentations fictives des musulmans queer dans le monde
occidental. En analysant deux films (My Beautiful Laundrette et Touch of Pink)
et deux romans (The Taqwacores et Bilal’s Bread), l’article soutien que, malgré le
fait que les musulmans queer font face à des formes multiples d’aliénation, de
nouveaux rapports et identités hybrides se développent, rejetant la rhétorique du
« désaccord des civilizations » entre les musulmans et l’occident. L’article étudie la
situation économique, politique, culturelle et sexuelle des musulmans occidentaux
alors que ceux-ci cherchent la signification, l’appartenance et la foi au sein du
capitalisme tardif.
¤
TOPIA 19
138
This article explores fictional representations of queer Muslims in the Western
world, an inherently complicated and rather intriguing identity group. While
sociological explorations of the identities and beliefs of queer Muslims are still in
their infancy, fictional explorations have recognized the dramatic—and comedic—
possibilities that such an apparently difficult identity offers. This article suggests
that studies of queer Muslims are uniquely positioned in the ongoing debates
about Islam and the cultural politics of late capitalism. Constructing, performing
and embodying necessarily hybrid identities, queer Muslims in the West present
a lived critique of the increasingly antagonistic rhetoric from both sides of the
supposed “clash of civilizations” (Huntington 1996) between an essentialized
Western polis and the equally misrepresented followers of Islam. The exploration of
queer Muslim identity and experience also critiques the increasingly complicated
and conflicted queer politics of the West, where the dual impulses of globalized
sexuality (cf. Altman 2001) and so-called homonormativity (Duggan 2002) are
being fought out in relation to the non-Western Other—specifically, the Muslim
Other.
I will analyse two films and two novels: the 1986 British film My Beautiful
Laundrette, written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Stephen Frears, the 2004
Canadian film Touch of Pink, written and directed by Ian Iqbal Rashid, the 2004
American novel, The Taqwacores, by Michael Muhammad Knight and the 2005
American novel Bilal’s Bread, by Sulayman X. The texts each explore, in their own
way, issues pertaining to queer Muslim identity, belief and acceptance in the West.
Although the films My Beautiful Laundrette and Touch of Pink focus on politics
and relationships, respectively, rather than religious belief, The Taqwacores and
Bilal’s Bread have more didactic purposes. Written by authors with ambiguous
relationships to Islam, both books have specific arguments to make about the faith.
All these texts, however, explore the common themes of identity and alienation.
Indeed, these texts are studies in otherness, in the shifting, multiple and hybrid
identities and the search for self-understanding, both by the fictional protagonists
and by their creators.
The author of Bilal’s Bread, Sulayman X, is the founder of an American queer
Muslim internet activist network, Queer Jihad. An impoverished, drug affected
outsider before he converted to Islam, Sulayman became alienated from Islam
when he learned—only after he converted, apparently—of the proscription
on homosexuality within normative Islam. He chose to own and embody this
alienation, replacing the Muhammad in his assumed name with “X,” in protest at
the attribution (which he rejects) to the Prophet Muhammad of the injunction
that homosexuals should be thrown from the tops of buildings (Sulayman X
1999). This is the same strategy that Malcolm X used to articulate his sense of a
fractured, lost identity as a black man in America (Malcolm X and Haley 1965).
The novel concerns a teenage boy, Bilal, and his family of Kurdish refugees from
Iraq, living in Kansas City: his widowed mother, his older brothers Hakim and
Salim, and his sister Fatima. Bilal confronts the sexual abuse he suffers at the hands
of his oldest brother, Salim, and his growing attraction to his friend Muhammad.
The novel is at once a graphic study in sexual abuse, a shamelessly romantic story
and, at times, a thinly veiled treatise on Islam and sexuality. Like Bilal’s Bread,
The Taqwacores was also written by a white American convert to Islam, Michael
Muhammad Knight, who combines a love of punk with an exploration of the
margins of Islam in America. His book is a literary creation of the sort of Islam
that he would like to see. An ensemble of outsiders—including the queer Muslim
punk character, Muzzammil—populate a novel that, like Bilal’s Bread, has its own
religious agenda to push: an explicitly hybridized American Islam.
It took Ian Iqbal Rashid eleven years, “a long time since My Beautiful Laundrette”
to finance his film, Touch of Pink, a fictionalized account of his own experiences
as a gay Muslim (qtd. in Hays 2004). Born in East Africa into an Indian Ismaili
community (a small branch of Shi’a Islam), raised in Toronto and now residing
in London, Rashid embodies the thoroughly cosmopolitan and hybrid Islamic
identity that he articulates in the film. The abiding difference between Rashid
and Touch of Pink’s protagonist, Alim, is that Alim has an imaginary friend and
mentor, Cary Grant, played in the film by Kyle MacLaughlin. Indeed, the title
of the film refers to the Cary Grant-Doris Day romantic comedy, That Touch of
Mink. When the film opens, Alim is in a seemingly stable relationship with the
very English Giles, but when his mother Nuru arrives in London to convince him
to return to Toronto for the wedding of his cousin Khaled, Alim is unable, and
TOPIA 19
While The Taqwacores is a literary exploration of a fictional hybrid Islam, the
1986 British film My Beautiful Laundrette explores the very notion of hybridity
itself, and did so before the term became popular in academia. Depicting an
extended family of Pakistani immigrants in England, the focus of the film is the
political and social reality of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain of the 1980s. The film
focuses on the experiences of Omar. An initially directionless young man, Omar
is caught between his role of caregiver to his ailing, alcoholic Marxist journalist
father and the entrepreneurial ambition instilled in him by his Uncle Nasser and
drug-dealing cousin, Salim, who seem to perversely embody the Thatcherite spirit
of “this damn country which we hate and love.” Omar’s nonchalantly depicted
romance with the even more directionless ex-fascist Johnny explores questions
of race, class and sexuality in what has become an icon of contemporary British
filmmaking.
139
eventually unwilling, to stay in the closet; he finally reveals his relationship with
Giles and his boyhood relationship with Khaled.
TOPIA 19
140
I now wish to expand on four aspects of contemporary cultural politics explored in
these texts. Firstly, I will examine the sense of alienation and otherness experienced
by queer Muslims in the West, who are depicted as alienated from mainstream
society, the Muslim and queer communities, their families and often themselves.
Secondly, I wish to study the complex question of competing, closeted and
performed sexual identities of queer Muslims and to challenge both the notion
of the universality of contemporary Western sexual categories, and the notion
of Western sexual exceptionalism—the suggestion that it is only in the modern
West that one sees genuinely romantic same-sex relationships. Thirdly, I will
explore the question of hybrid identities of queer Muslims in the West, arguing
that the characters inhabit, or seek, a “third space” that lies beyond the redaction
of its composite elements. Noting the culturalist limitations of much hybridity
theory, however, I would like to locate the emergence of hybrid identities within
the material realm of social and economic life in late capitalism. Finally, I will
investigate the role of fictional texts in analyzing contemporary Islam and cultural
politics in the West, thereby attempting to subvert the dominance of religious and
secular authorities, and to open up debates about Muslim culture and politics to
non-Muslim audiences.
As-salaam alaikum: Alienation and Otherness
Although they explore different terrain—family, politics, abuse, ethnicity,
immigration, subculture—these texts are all explorations of alienation and
otherness. An excellent example of the multiple layers of alienation experienced
by queer Muslims in the West is presented in an early scene in Touch of Pink.
Alim and his partner, the blond-haired, blue-eyed economist, Giles, have been
thrown a surprise anniversary party by Giles’s sister in a gay bar in London
called The Ramrod. Giles’s stuffy English parents are there, as well as a dozen or
more of Giles’s ex-boyfriends. Stumbling to the bar out of confusion more than
drunkenness, Alim is greeted by one of Giles’s ex’s, shirt open to his waist, calling
out, “as-salaam alaikum” (peace be with you)—the traditional Arabic-Muslim
greeting. “What?” Alim replies in bewilderment. “Isn’t that how you say it?” the
young man innocently asks walking away. The viewer is not quite sure what to
make of this. Is the young man flirting? Is he being condescending? Or is he just
trying to be friendly and make Alim feel welcome?
Alim is not just alienated from his partner—Giles’s history of many partners feeds
Alim’s insecurity—he is also alienated from the British establishment, embodied
by Giles’s parents, from London’s gay “scene,” and from himself. The conversation
that follows the above encounter helps explain a great deal of that, for as soon as
the young man’s back is turned, Cary Grant appears, suggesting Alim might like a
drink—“a mimosa for my little samosa?” When Alim expresses his surprise at the
presence of Giles’s parents at The Ramrod, and asks rhetorically, “can you imagine
my mom here?,” Cary’s answer is, “She’s different. She’s Muslim. From the third
world.” “I’m Muslim,” Alim replies forcefully. “I’m from the third world.” “Yes,”
Cary agrees, “but you’re a sophisticated, elegant young man.” A well-assimilated
man, in other words. Of course, Cary is a figment of Alim’s imagination. At times
he refutes Alim’s self-doubt, while on other occasions he gives voice to Alim’s
subconscious fears about the “clash of civilizations.” Significantly, after Alim
comes out to his strongly disapproving mother, Alim utters those same words to
Giles: “She’s a Muslim woman from the third world, she’s not like me.”
Like Alim, Rashid’s parents initially rejected his sexuality, and him. “They
essentially threw me out when I told them,” he recalls (qtd. in Hays 2004). Similar
experiences are recounted by numerous queer Muslims from a South Asian
background, living in the West. One respondent in Andrew Yip’s study of British
“non-heterosexual Muslims” spoke of fearing “the rejection of the family. That’s
something I always worried about, that my mum and dad will kick me out, and
I’ll never be able to visit” (Yip 2004: 342). A respondent in Omar Minwalla et al.’s
study of North American queer Muslims shared a similar fear:
If [my family] thought I was going to come out and all, they probably
would kick me out. There is so much I have to hide, but it’s necessary for
my safety. You have to make sure that being true to yourself doesn’t mean
getting killed. (Minwalla et al. 2005: 121)
Bilal, the protagonist in Bilal’s Bread, is also alienated, wrestling with his identity
not just in terms of sexuality, but also family, ethnicity and religion. Bilal is
alienated within his family, the youngest son who doesn’t live up to the toughness
of his abusive brother Salim or the assimilated assertiveness of his other siblings,
Hakim and Fatima. He is also alienated outside the home, being an impoverished
TOPIA 19
Alim’s alienation in Touch of Pink is a somewhat fictionalized account of writerdirector Ian Iqbal Rashid’s own experiences. Rashid, like Alim, admits to loving
old Hollywood movies. “Those films have brought me a lot of joy. At the same
time, they’ve messed me up. They entertain, but they don’t let me in—I’m not in
them” (qtd. in Hays 2004). In a humorous reversal—what José Munoz (1995; cf.
Gopinath 2005: 63-92) might call a strategy of “disidentification”—Cary appears
dressed in his safari suit from the film Gunga Din later on in the film, declaring,
“it’s an Indian wedding, I didn’t know what to expect.” Such films have been
“alienating,” Rashid understandably declares, for “[o]n some level I think I’ve
always yearned to be white, Hollywood white, and wanted to have that happy
ending. And yet it’s impossible” (qtd. in Hays 2004). Revealingly, at one stage in
the film Cary talks about being in love, but not just being in love, being in “lovelike-in-the-movies-love,” with fiction becoming more real than reality. As we will
see, this is a strategy that all these texts in some way embrace.
141
Muslim living in Missouri in the months following 9/11. The title of the book
comes from the loaves of bread his family bakes and sells to local stores, some of
whom refuse to buy their bread after 9/11: “You people killing Americans—that
just don’t sit right with me,” one store owner tells Salim (Sulayman X 2005: 27).
The security concerns about Muslims in the West are remarkably similar to the
suspicions about homosexuals: they are not “true” members of the community, and
they are quite possibly in league with foreign subversives (Edelman 1993). Noting
the proliferation of racist, sexist, Islamophobic and homophobic Western imagery
surrounding conflicts with the Islamic world, Jasbir Puar argues that in the “war on
terror,” the stereotyped image of the Muslim terrorist is constructed as the “queer,
non-national, perversely radicalized other” (Puar 2006: 67; cf. Puar 2005; Puar
and Amit 2002). Indeed, Anjali Arondekar recalls that one of the first victims of
retaliatory violence after the 9/11 attacks was a gay Latino man in San Francisco,
attacked by other Latino men who thought his less macho behaviour marked him
out as an Arab (Arondekar 2005: 242-43; cf. Muneer Ahmad 2002).
TOPIA 19
142
This fear of the Muslim Other as the sexually perverse predator carries over to
heterosexual/homosexual discourse as well. In Australia, the popular stereotype of
the male Muslim has lately come to be equated with the predatory “Leb”—the
Muslim Lebanese-Australian gang rapist, preying on “Aussie” (i.e., Anglo/Celtic
Australian) women (Gleeson 2004; Poynting et al. 2004). In Western discourse,
Islam and rampant (homo)sexuality have historically been closely linked. Victorian
adventurer-scholar Sir Richard Burton (1993) was fascinated with what he
claimed was the inherent sexual immorality of the Muslim world, culminating in
his theory of a geographic “sodatic zone” that rendered its wretched inhabitants
unable to resist the lures of sodomy, not to mention “hot beds of sapphism” (qtd. in
Murray 1997: 97). Fittingly, Sir Richard makes an appearance in John Greyson’s
ultra-camp Canadian film, Patient Zero, which attempts to trace the origins of
HIV in Canada (Greyson 1993). Even as far back as the Crusades, accusations of
rampant homosexuality in the Muslim world proved to be effective propaganda
in Christian Europe, with the queer Muslim predator often depicted as forcing
himself on his pious European Christian victim, or infecting returning Crusaders
with his sexual immorality and effeminacy (Boswell 1980: 194-200; 278-82).
A similar sense of otherness and indeed menace is played out in The Taqwacores.
It presents a cast of characters—punks, radical feminists, drug addicts—alienated
from their families, society and religion. Unlike the others, the queer Muslim,
Muzzammil, openly embraces his otherness. Muzzammil and his friends
celebrate queer Muslim punk, so-called liwaticore (Arabic for sodomy), which
is itself a subculture of a Muslim punk group, taqwacore (consciousness of God).
Thus, the Muslim punk Jehangir describes the liwaticore band, The Ghilmans (its
name recalling the eternally beautiful, pearl-like young men held to wait upon
the faithful in heaven according to the Qur’an [52:24, 56:17, 76:19]) so: “[t]hey
have the talent to be big but instead they commit commercial suicide by playing
taqwacore. What a fuckin’ demographic: gay Muslim punks. Not just gay, not just
Muslim, not just punk. Gay Muslim Punks” (Knight 2004: 129).
It is when Muzzammil relates the story of the 17th-century Indian sufi saint,
Sarmad, who walks “naked through the streets of Delhi, singing of his love for
a gorgeous Hindu boy” (Knight 2004: 155), that the notion of the menacing
queer other emerges. Unlike Bilal’s Bread, this story explores the notion that
queer sexuality poses a civilizational threat to Islam. Sarmad, and by implication
Muzzammil, is accused of being an “outside force coming to destroy Islam” by the
conservative Muslim punk, Umar (ibid.). Ironically, Umar would be as unwelcome
in a conservative Muslim space as Muzzamil, because of his prominent tattoos—
tattooed Xs on the back of each hand, denoting his commitment to the noalcohol, no-drug, no-promiscuous sex ethic of straightedge punk (cf. Haenfler
2006), and Qur’anic ayats across his throat. Rather than offer a liberal defence of
Islamic diversity, Muzzammil embraces the notion of outsider status, speaking
approvingly of Sarmad’s Jewish heritage—“He was a yahooda rabbi, he even said
it himself ” (Knight 2004: 155); he even infuriates Umar with a jocular rant about
the “global conspiracy by Jews and homosexuals to cripple the Muslim Umma
[community]” (Knight 2004: 155).
David Halperin (1990: 8) argues that “[h]omosexuality and heterosexuality, as
we currently know them, are modern, Western bourgeois productions.” These
productions may have parallels in the Muslim majority world. Will Roscoe (1997)
suggests that such parallels exist, though others are more sceptical (notably, El���
Rouayheb 2005), with many conservative Muslims joining conservative Christians
(see D’Emilio 2002: 156-59) in questioning the very notion of sexual “orientation”
and preferring to focus on the individual’s choice to engage in activities that may,
or more likely may not, be considered permissible (halal) (Halstead 2005; Haqq
2000; Hidayatullah 2003: 277-78; Moosa 2004: 230).
Despite the attraction of various forms of Western exceptionalism for antiessentialists, who are keen to argue that sexual identities are socially produced
discourses, there’s a problem here. As reasonable as it seems to argue, after Halperin
(1990) and especially D’Emilio (1998), that capitalist modernity, notably in its late,
post-industrial stage, has established the necessary material conditionings for the
articulation of gay and lesbian identity, where does this leave non-Westerners—
especially those from non-Western backgrounds living in the West—who also
wish to articulate a queer identity? Such Western exceptionalism, even if it is
intended as mere historical (materialist) sociology, runs the risk of reinforcing the
notion that homosexual identity and community are the purview of Westerners,
and thus outside what might be called the legitimate “������������������������
life-cycle of a Muslim”
(Saeed 2003: 83-88) in the West, or even a “Western disease” (Shah 1998; Yip
TOPIA 19
“You don’t love men”: Sexual Identity
143
2004). An unfortunate but logical endpoint of such discussions is the chauvinism
of the sociologist of sexuality, Jeffery Weeks, who argues that the only future for
sexuality in the Muslim majority world is to “approximate more and more to the
secularized Western model, or come increasingly under the sway of a new religious
militancy” (Weeks 1992: xi). Rather than promoting the uncritical embracing of
mainstream secular Western queer identities, the four texts I have chosen reveal
that we should not assume that non-Western sexual identities and practices will
so quickly disappear through the experience of migration or globalization. Since
religious and broader cultural practices and identities are not entirely superseded
or replaced by dominant local ones—even among “model minorities”—we should
not assume sexuality to be any more “destructively presumable” (Sedgwick 1990:
48) than ethnic or religious identities. Rather, what I call a “sexual hybridity” will
develop.
TOPIA 19
144
This issue is explicitly explored in Touch of Pink. When Khaled propositions Alim
the night of his wedding, Alim turns him down, insisting that he is in love with
Giles. Khaled finds this incomprehensible, despite having had sex with Alim
in his childhood. “You’re in love with a guy?” he asks incredulously; “You don’t
love men, Alim. Fuck ‘em by all means, but ... it’s just not normal.” Khaled is
expressing a view that seems to predominate in much of the Muslim majority
world; same-sex sexual activity certainly takes place, but is not openly discussed,
and not seen as a socially legitimate lifestyle or identity category. The respondents
in Minwalla et al.’s study appear to have a broader appreciation of same-sex
sexuality. As one respondent says, “[i]n the West things are labelled ... you have to
pick a box that you’re in” (2005: 120). Thus Touch of Pink’s writer-director speaks
not of homophobia within conservative Islam, for that would imply the strict
applicability of the Western bourgeois hetero-homo binary, or imply that samesex intimacy does not occur. Rather, he argues, “[t]here’s a great deal of hypocrisy
in the Muslim community around homosexuality” (qtd. in Hays 2004).
Bilal’s Bread presents the clearest example of sexual hypocrisy, in the relationship
between Bilal and his older brother, Salim. Despite their violent sexual relationship,
Salim will not accept Bilal’s insistence that he is gay. Salim sneers at Bilal, “You’re
going to be a faggot? [...] Is that what you think you’re going to do? You think
I’m going to let that happen?” (Sulayman X 2005: 78). However, when Bilal
confronts Salim, asking “What have you and I been doing all this time? That’s not
homosexuality? Isn’t that what the people of Sodom did?” (125). Salim’s response
seems to break down the notion that it was merely sex, that men, as Khaled argues
in Touch of Pink, cannot love other men, merely fuck them. Salim asks, in a voice
we are told is “plaintive and full of hurt,” “Don’t you love me? [...] Are you going
to have a nervous breakdown because I tried to love you and make you happy?”
(Ibid.). While these are undoubtedly the words of an archetypal sex offender who
cannot acknowledge the difference between love and abuse, there is nevertheless a
problematic irony present, for Salim’s excuses rhetorically break down that barrier
between love and sex. The barrier is completely broken down in the novel through
Bilal’s relationship with his schoolmate, Muhammad, the son of the local Imam.
The relationship is presented in an unapologetically romantic manner, culminating
in that happy Hollywood ending that Rashid longs for:
Having sex with Muhammad was unlike anything Bilal had ever
experienced. With Salim, Bilal had sometimes known pleasure, but more
often he had felt brutalized. Now he felt himself ablaze with passion—alive
and incredibly happy.... “If it’s a sin for me to love you,” Bilal said quietly,
“then I’m going to burn in Gehenna [Hell].” “So am I,” Muhammad
answered. (Sulayman X 2005: 49, 221)
“There is no race question”: The Economics of Hybridity
Significantly, despite the problems that the queer Muslim characters face in the
four chosen texts, their desire is to articulate an authentic hybrid identity; they
neither reject their ethnic or religious heritage, nor return to their country of
birth or ancestral homelands. Homi Bhabha, acknowledging his partial debt
to Fredric Jameson (Bhabha 2004: 314-19; Jameson 1981), has theorized the
creation of a hybridized “third space,” in which seemingly conflicting and unequal
cultures—typically those of the colonizer and the colonized—create something
new, something sufficiently ambivalent and resistant to classification, so that one
cannot readily see where the one culture ends and the other begins. Rather than
concede that hybridity carries with it an inevitable “politics of heterosexuality”
(Young 1995: 25), the four fictional explorations of the lives of queer Muslims
TOPIA 19
While the relationship between Omar and Johnny in My Beautiful Laundrette
is just as much a romance as Bilal and Muhammad’s, it is depicted in a far more
nonchalant fashion, lacking the didactic force, but maintaining the sadness of
Sulayman X’s text. Their relationship is complicated and coded by race and class;
they were boyhood friends who drifted apart after Johnny embraced the neofascist National Front. Johnny is rather resentful at ending up in the employ of
Pakistanis, first Nasser, and then Omar in his beautiful laundrette. “What are you
doing now?” Omar asks Johnny, “Washing my floor. That’s how I like it. Now
get to work.” This seemingly matter-of-fact depiction of a queer romance carries
with it the weight of not just Johnny and Omar’s history, but a wider colonial
legacy. The relationship embodies the contradictory legacies and failed logics of
colonialism, both desire and domination of the Other—the rhetoric of control,
within the language of yearning. This “erotics of power” (Gopinath 2005: 2) plays
itself out in the lives of many queer Muslims, when the legacy of colonialism
manifests itself in relationships with some English people who, as one of Yip’s
respondents argues, “see [South Asian Muslims] as exotic and different. Oh you
are a novelty and I’m going to have sex with you tonight because I’ve never had
sex with an Indian before ... it is a very colonial kind of attitude” (Yip 2003: 10).
145
insist that the discourse of hybridity goes well beyond the merely biological or
reproductive, to embrace seemingly all facets of identity and community.
Indeed, the hybrid identities of queer Muslims in the West do not merely raise
issues of sexual identity and cultural or religious belonging. These four texts reveal
that sexuality has as much to do with economics as it does with religion, culture
or biological reproduction. One cannot, therefore, understand homosexuality
except from within the broader framework of a political economy of homosexuality
(Altman 2001: 36; cf. Hennessey 2000). Cohen (1997) notes the economic safety
net that is often provided by direct and extended families in diasporas, and Saeed
(2003: 90) notes the persistence of economic safety networks in Muslims diasporas
in the West, despite the existence of the welfare state’s economic safety net,
illustrating that the support given goes beyond dollars and cents. The catch is that
family safety nets typically function through a degree of coercion—that younger
members of the family will fulfill their family’s expectations. In discussing her
family support network, a British lesbian Muslim in Yip’s study explains that she
would not disclose her sexuality and upset her family, because “[i]n my culture,
they [family] play a very important role. We support one another when things get
sticky, like racism” (2004: 346).
TOPIA 19
The economic complexities of sexuality and migration are clearly illustrated in
Bilal’s Bread. After Bilal admits to Salim he’s gay, Salim says “in a strange voice”:
146
This is just what I need.... After all I sacrificed on your behalf and this is
what I get—you come home and tell me you’re a faggot. All my effort all
my sacrifices … if you get kicked out of school, after all the money that
we’ve paid so that you can have a proper Islamic education—you better
hope to God that doesn’t happen. You better fucking hope to fucking God
that doesn’t happen because I’ll fucking kill you. (Sulayman X 2005: 78-79)
Bilal’s sexuality, in other words, is a threat to the economic wellbeing of his
impoverished family. His family’s investment in his education was never meant
to pay off with a son who is queer. Equally, when Bilal wants to tell the police
about being abused, not only Salim but also Hakim and his mother argue against
it. Partly this is for reasons of privacy and shame, but it is also because of the
economic implications of Salim, the primary earner, being taken away. “[W]hen
we can’t put food on this table, don’t you say a word to me about it,” Bilal’s mother
tells him. “Don’t you dare complain to me about an empty stomach” (204). If
everything just stays in the closet, economic life can carry on as normal.
Economics is also on the mind of the characters Hassan and Dolly in Touch of
Pink. Organizing the wedding of their son, Khaled, who is a dentist, Hassan muses,
“We’ve done it all. Came here from Mombasa without a cent ... took all their shit
... we’ve won.” And so, when it is revealed that Khaled might be queer, Dolly, who
knew all along about the boyhood sex play between Khaled and Alim, insists that
she doesn’t care. Looking around at the elaborate wedding she says, “I’ve always
given Khaled his freedom, and he’s given me all this.” She admits that what she
really wants is “grandchildren, ice sculptures and place cards.” Director Rashid
argues that Dolly’s expectations for Khaled, which are also shared by Nuru for
Alim, are very much the standard expectation for sons in traditional Muslim (and
non-Muslim) families—to “get married and have kids, do the right thing, [be]
upstanding citizens.” Rashid also maintains that that so long as Muslim men fulfil
their economic and social familial responsibilities, “then anything that happens on
the side is fair game, really … whole families are kind of complicit in this” (qtd.
in Shapiro 2005). Indeed, as Bilal’s sister, Fatima, argues in Bilal’s Bread, “[a]ll we
do in this family is lie ourselves to death.” Nuru articulates Rashid’s critique of
the “hypocrisy in the Muslim community around homosexuality” by acerbically
asking Dolly: “the ice sculptures will melt, and then what?” (Sulayman X 2005:
206).
Much of the conflict generated in these four texts emerges from the resistance
to hybridity that the protagonists encounter. This is seen in the insistence on
heteronormativity: from Omar’s father and Uncle Nasser and Johnny’s racist
friends in My Beautiful Laundrette, Umar in The Taqwacores, Dolly and initially
Nuru in Touch of Pink and Bilal’s mother, who insists that “someday you’ll find
a girl” (Sulayman X: 2005: 197). In multicultural communities, it is not just
a question of cultural or religious norms resisting hybridity, but a question of
the maintenance of conventional—typically religious or nationalist—identities,
jealously guarded by “the wrath of those who see salvation only in conventional
solidarity” (Kalra et al. 2005: 63). Thus, Omar and Johnny’s relationship becomes
a unique study of comparative alienation and belonging. Johnny, despite being
a white, native-born Englishman, is just as lost and confused as any immigrant
just-off-the-boat, even asking Omar, “How can I be all right in the state I’m in?
… Where exactly am I?” And as though alluding to a “third space,” Omar replies,
“Where you should be. With me.”
TOPIA 19
My Beautiful Laundrette is often praised for its matter-of-fact, low-key depiction
of a gay couple, and this comes about partly because the film’s main concern
is with exploring politics, economics and race relations. Not setting out to be a
specifically gay-themed filmed, it ends up treating Johnny and Omar’s relationship
the same way as the heterosexual relationships. None of the film’s main characters
are conventional or especially well functioning—Kureishi deliberately avoids the
“model minority” approach in all his writing—but there’s an equal opportunity
dysfunction present. In exploring hybrid ethnic and sexual identities, every
aspect of the characterization in My Beautiful Laundrette places the film in an
overdetermined borderland, Bhabha’s “third space,” with all its postmodern
possibilities and disappointments.
147
TOPIA 19
148
It is significant that the complex characterizations of My Beautiful Laundrette are
set within the framework of what we might characterize as a hybrid economy. The
Thatcher years were of course ones of economic and social upheaval, and the film
goes beyond the devalued notion of the mixed state-owned and private enterprise
economy to include the so-called black market in the economic mix. It depicts an
economic “third space” where one cannot really tell where legitimate enterprise
begins and ends. Here, rental properties are overseen by thugs-for-hire; Salim’s
drug dealing funds his south Asian art collection; drug money stolen by Omar
from Salim facilitates the expansion of the legitimate laundrette. Salim insists that
“Mrs. Thatcher will be pleased with me” for keeping Omar out of the dole queue,
while he and Nasser perversely take upon themselves the burden of “keeping this
damn country in the black.” Despite the so-called “new enterprise culture” in
which, as Nasser insists, “there is no race question,” in reality, the Britain depicted
in the film is a long way from a world in which Nasser, Salim and Omar can
simply be “professional businessmen, not professional Pakistanis.” Identity and
community are simply not so fluid as to allow such easy hybridity, and economic
participation does not necessarily lead to equality (Swami 2003: 148-49; cf. Aijaz
Ahmad 1995). Nevertheless, a hybridized Britain—or a Britain on the road to
hybridity, despite itself—is a place in which the genteel certainties of the past (i.e.,
a place for everything, and everything in its place) no longer apply. It is in this
context that we are to understand the following exchange between Omar’s father
and Nasser concerning home and belonging in Pakistan and England: when
Omar’s father insists that “this damn country has done us in, we should be there,
not here,” Nasser counters, “but that country has been sodomized by religion. It
is beginning to interfere with the making of money. Compared with everywhere,
this is a little heaven, here.” When hybrid identities become the norm, depicting
Pakistan’s drift to fundamentalist Islam as an act of sodomy would seem to make
perversely perfect sense.
“Telling the truth”: Fictional Debates
The final issue for this discussion concerns the role of fiction in the interplay
between Islam and cultural politics. Each of the chosen texts uses their fictional
status in different ways. Touch of Pink is essentially an old-fashioned Hollywood
romantic comedy, also fitting nicely into the subgenre of multicultural comedies
alongside films such as Bend it Like Beckham, or My Big Fat Greek Wedding. My
Beautiful Laundrette is perhaps the best example of a “cross-over” hit film, moving
from art-house towards multiplex (�������������������
Geraghty 2005: 5). Bilal’s Bread is published
by a well-established queer publishing house (Alyson Books) and fits within the
specific subgenre of adolescent coming-out literature. The Taqwacores, initially
distributed via punk record label and publisher Alternative Tentacles, features
a favourable review from the leading punk ‘zine, Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll on the
back, and lyrics from pop-punk band Rancid on the front—“he said, this is a
Mecca / I said, this ain’t no Mecca man, this place is fucked.” Thus, each of these
texts offers something beyond their commentary on religion and is targeted to
Muslims and non-Muslims, opening up the debate about the place of Muslims in
the contemporary West.
Perhaps more significant is the role of fiction in opening up new spaces for
new voices to explore the permutations of Islam and cultural politics in the late
capitalist West. Until the recent emergence of ethnographic studies such as that of
Yip (2003, 2004, 2005) and Minwalla et al. (2005), ����������������������������
one can note the pugnacious
presence of the “speaker’s benefit” (Foucault 1979: 6-7), with literature on
Muslim sexuality being dominated by non-Muslim commentators (cf. Puar 2005:
24; Massad 2002). Just as problematic has been the dominance of conservative
Islamic voices in the debate on Islam and sexuality. By working within the realm
of fiction, and just as significantly, partially from within subcultural contexts
(queer and punk), the authors of these four texts have subverted the hegemony
of both religious conservatives and the academy. For instance, in Bilal’s Bread, we
have an example of the subversion of the monopoly on information, when Bilal’s
principal admonishes him for looking up information on homosexuality and gay
Muslims on the internet:
Of course, by researching Islam and sexuality online or in novels and films, one
soon realizes that Islam is really not all that clear on the matter of homosexuality,
at least not if one considers Islam to be a lived experience. The very act of religious
inquiry in the realms of fiction quickly breaks the stranglehold of both religious
and secular authorities.
Fiction is not just a significant way of exploring religion and cultural politics
because it allows for the expression of unorthodox ideas; in the same way that
Cary Grant, in Touch of Pink, understands that we all want that love-like-inthe-movies-love in real life, fiction is also an excellent way to articulate identity,
especially marginalized identity. In Bilal’s Bread, Bilal uses various fictional
characters, from ogres to heartbroken women, to try to express the reality of his
abuse in a series of poems, leading up to his first-person coming-out poem, recited
very publicly at his Islamic school:
So finally let the truth be spoken
here and now for all to hear
finally let the truth be said
I am queer,
Yes I am queer. (Sulayman X 2005: 230)
TOPIA 19
Islam is very clear on the matter of homosexuality, and if Bilal needs
information on this matter he should seek it from the appropriate sources,
either myself or the Imam … or the men in the community. But such
information ought not to be sought on the internet or anywhere else;
otherwise Bilal could be led spiritually astray. (Sulayman X 2005: 74)
149
Equally, when Michael Muhammad Knight wrote The Taqwacores, he had no idea
that several Muslim punk bands, including The Kominas from Massachusetts,
Vote Hezbollah from Texas, and the Secret Trial Five from Vancouver, would
adopt the mantle of taqwacore, and thus begin to realize his fiction.
Conclusion
This article has attempted to show that looking to non-traditional literary
sources as a way of exploring issues of Islam and cultural politics can be rather
productive. Not only would I suggest that there is nothing wrong with being
led a little spiritually astray from time to time through fiction, but also, fictional
representations of queer Muslims offer significant insights into the formation
of new, hybridized (sub)cultures and identities as diverse Muslim communities
continue to find their places in the shifting cultural, political and economic
landscape of the West.
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