We’re just about tolerated: Pakistani American gay activist

April 14th, 2008 - 10:52 am ICT by admin  

By Ashok Easwaran
Chicago, April 14 (IANS) Being an openly gay Muslim is not easy, says Pakistani American poet and activist Ifti Nasim who is now the subject of a BBC documentary. Ever an iconoclast, Chicago-based Nasim has on several occasions outraged the Muslim community through his poetry and columns. Accolades have been a little late in coming to him, but Nasim expressed his pleasure at the latest honour - the BBC film.

“Success makes the world accept you on your own terms,” said Nasim. But being an openly gay person in the conservative Muslim community has not been easy. “They never totally accept you,” the 50 plus Nasim told IANS, “they just about tolerate you.”

In 1996, Nasim was inducted into Chicago’s Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. His works are recommended reading at Santa Clara University in California and at Truman College, Chicago.

His Urdu poetry has won him the grudging respect of the Pakistani literary establishment. He has also recited his poems at the festival in India to honour the late poet and lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi.

Nasim talks about his childhood in Pakistan and the discovery that he was gay.

“I had the middle son syndrome,” he said, “as one of a large family, I was the invisible child.” Naturally enough, loneliness was an early and constant companion.

“When I was 14, as a child whom no one loved, I sought other avenues to fulfil my desires. I ended up having a crush on my teachers. None of them gave me a second look. So I created this phantom lover to have secret trysts with,” said Nasim.

Seeking to escape from an arranged marriage, Nasim came to the United States when he was 21. “I read an article in Life magazine, which said that the US was the place for gays to be in,” he said. “Moreover, I was also seeking an escape from the mullahs in Pakistan.”

Nasim has no qualms about making statements which outrage fellow Pakistanis. “Their initial attitude towards me was of total rejection. But after 9/11, when I got increasingly involved in activism on behalf of the community, they have come to a grudging acceptance,” he said.

The sceptics include his family members. “I respect his views,” says his brother-in-law good-humouredly. “He has earned the respect he has today. But I wish he was a little more modest (about being gay).”

Nasim, who had already established himself as an Urdu poet of some repute, shot into fame with the book “Narman” (Persian for half man, half woman).

The manner in which Nasim’s verse was published in Pakistan underscores its controversial nature: Because Nasim’s publisher knew that there might be “trouble” having the manuscript typeset, the publisher stood over the printer’s shoulder as the text was entered into the computer.

The real nature of the manuscript was not evident to the printer until the books were printed. When the printer realized that the books dealt with gay-related themes, he screamed: “Take these unholy and dirty books away from me, or I’ll set them on fire!”

Because of the controversy, the work is being sold underground. It has generated a surreptitious market.

For long, Nasim was a star salesman for a Mercedes dealer in Chicago and drove a trademark gold Mercedes. He has since quit the job to devote himself full time to writing.

“The money was good,” he said, “but each day I found my soul dying a little.”

Besides being a columnist, Nasim is the host of Radio Sargam, which gives him an opportunity to indulge in his love of music. “I love old songs” he says, “they are my lullabies.” Kishore Kumar, Noor Jahan and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan are among his favourites.

Music, says Nasim, should build bridges and through his programme he attempts to build one between the Indian and Pakistani community.

Nasim has taken up the cause of gays, irrespective of their religion or national origin. “If you are a Muslim and a gay, you are a minority within a minority,” he said.

Nasim said that he was totally against marriage for gays. “Why should gays get married anyway?” he said, tongue firmly in cheek. “They have seen enough suffering without it.”

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