No Place for Queer Souls
by Omar Sarwar
I knew what he was trying to do: remind me that Islam had no place for queer souls.
The first iftar of the month was at the home of a family friend. I was careful about where and with whom I broke fast, but on this occasion I was simply discharging my duty to my parents, who had asked me to represent them in their absence. As I entered a distinctly patrician building on York Avenue through revolving doors, the lobby seemed to spin with them. Hunger and thirst in the dead of summer erased a delicate line between reality and delusion.
Gul Aunty greeted me at the door, offering a generously lengthened salaam in a light Punjabi accent.
“Omar beta, it’s wonderful to see you. I was so excited when your mother told me you’d be coming,” she said, pulling her olive-green shawl over her shoulder. Her movement suggested fatigue—probably from slicing and stirring and sweating all day. Bits of black cardamom and wet parsley dotted the floor, and a vat of pilau claimed half the stove, impervious to the flecks of blue light beneath it.
I thanked Gul Aunty for inviting me, said my salaams, and made my way to the oval dinner table in the adjacent room, forgetting entirely to ask if she needed any help. Nasir Uncle was already seated, his plate covered in bhelpuri and a curious assortment of dates. He looked up from his mobile phone which he’d been rapidly tapping on and gestured at the chair closest to me. No salaam, which was unlike him. I wondered if he’d seen any of my articles or interviews on what it is to be a gay Muslim in America. Maybe he had and decided that I must be a disappointment to my family, and so to him. Stop overanalyzing. He’s probably just exhausted after a day of starving and bond trading or whatever he does for a living.
As I sat down, I glanced at the clock on the wall behind Nasir Uncle. 8:24. Just two minutes left. Only then did I realize that I was their sole guest that evening.
A plastic box full of dates waiting to be placed in an empty bowl spared me the awkwardness of small talk with a man who once fought in the Pakistan Army against India, and had the battle scar on his neck to prove it. Gul Aunty, now wearing oven mitts with burnt ends, brought two heavy dishes whose contents I was sure would make me perspire.
“Looks delicious,” I said to her.
“Uff. It took me the whole day, but it was worth the effort since your mother told me nihari and pilau are your favorites.”
Her face brightened as mine reddened. I’d made no attempt to communicate with my two hosts in over a year. You don’t keep in touch with people who spend a whole day preparing a feast just for you. What’s wrong with you?
Gul Aunty checked her watch. 1 minute remaining. “You look famished, so tonight we’ll have a full meal and pray afterward. Seventeen hours! Allah is all-forgiving,” she said with a mischievous grin. “Ah, it’s time. Bismillah.” She led the table in ending the fast, slowly chewing the fleshy exterior of a date. “You know, I went all the way to Jackson Heights to get these. Manhattan is useless.”
“That’s very kind of you. You didn’t have to,” I said, hiding my embarrassment.
“Nonsense. It was my pleasure to—”
“Omar beta, what are you writing about these days?” Nasir Uncle asked, cutting off his wife. Like my parents, they spoke to one another in a blend of English and Urdu, though Nasir Uncle’s hybrid vernacular was always delivered in a smoky bass tone.
“Um, I’m still writing about political Islam,” I said, watching him nod as I talked. “It’s analytical without being too academic or abstruse, so … yeah, it’s going well.”
“Political Islam. A major deviation from what Rasulullah taught—purity, humility, compassion.”
“Yes, sometimes we forget that political Islam is a creature of modernity, obsessed with the nation-state—“
“Right. And these silly Jama’atis in Pakistan and Bangladesh think they can create an Islamic state the Prophet would have approved of. But he wouldn’t approve!” He chortled, sending a piece of rice to the floor.
“Have some more roti,” Gul Aunty urged. I reached for another piece of flatbread, thinking about what to say to break the ensuing silence.
“Tell me. What do you think of these progressive Muslims? Or as I like to say, Muslims who take whatever thing they find fun and declare it Islamic,” Nasir Uncle inquired, rolling his tongue between his canines and molars lest any meat go to waste.
“Well, progressive Muslims aren’t quite so shallow,” I said, forcing a smile.
“Nowadays, you can say snorting cocaine is halal.” He nudged his plate closer to himself, dredging for strips of chicken in the mound of rice and peas before him. “You know, this is what they call bid’a.” His head bobbed a few times as his eyes widened. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen him mesmerized by his own powers of observation.
I stopped myself from responding. I knew what he was trying to do: remind me that Islam had no place for queer souls. Gul Aunty—bless her soul—seemed totally unaware. Thank God we aren’t having dessert.
“To each their own path,” I sighed, calculating how to make the least impolite exit. I made an excuse about having to meet some friends downtown and thanked my hosts a second time.
“Shouldn’t you say Maghrib namaz with us before heading off to party?” Nasir Uncle said, now scraping his gums with a crooked toothpick.
I pretended not to hear him as I tied my shoelaces. Leaving the building, I saw only a faint image of the doorman through a film of water. Then the buzz of an incoming text: “Make sure you send a thank you note to Nasir Uncle and Gul Aunty. They are the sweetest people we know in New York,” my mother wrote.
“Indeed,” I said. “Will do.”
Omar Sarwar is a gay Muslim activist and an American of Pakistani descent. He has a keen interest in modern American LGBT issues, particularly those which affect racial, ethnic, and cultural minorities within the gay community. He also specializes in the history of political Islam and diasporic Muslim communities. Omar has been recognized by the Advocate as one of 21 LGBT Muslim activists changing the world, and has appeared on NBC, CNN, HuffPost Live, and BRIC TV. He has a B.A. in Religion and an M.Phil. in History from Columbia University.