What my father taught me about Love.
The story behind Correspondence: BBC Radio 4 at 00 30 19th February 2012
Last year, I was given the opportunity to take part in a South Asian Literature Festival event , Same-Same: Sex, Love and other Queeries which showcased, in part, the writing of South Asian gay writers. A wonderful opportunity; because yes, I am gay, and British Asian, and a writer. Save for this; I had no “gay” material. It is an issue that, up till very recently, I have not engaged with: that of being a lesbian, Muslim and of Pakistani origin, all at the same time. It is an issue that I still struggle with. I wanted to write a performance piece about that identity, and the experiences or struggles, that I have had because of it. I ended up writing a story, Correspondence, about my father, or more specifically, what he taught me about love.
My father was a devout Muslim from a traditional family. A family in which most of the women were not educated and who still observe a form of purdah, separation from men. A family in which izzat, family honour and reputation, as represented by the “virtue” of women, is prized above all else. A family, in which, it is still normal to marry one’s first cousin.
At one stage, it was hoped that I would marry my first cousin. No hardship, he is a good, kind man. I would have been lucky to have him. But life took us both in different directions. As different as the direction my father went from his family, many decades ago. To be exact: the northerly direction from Karachi to London on a passenger ship. A passenger ship that had started its voyage in Bombay, where along with many other travellers, it had picked up my mother; a non-proselytising Baptist missionary. At the time she was a matron of a maternity hospital in the South East of India.
My father told me, that almost from the first moment he spoke to her, he knew that he would never meet a cleaner purer spirit. He told me that she was the other half of his soul. My mother tells me, that he proposed marriage long before they finally both disembarked in London. In the event, it was almost ten years before they finally did marry. Two ceremonies: one in a mosque and the other in a church. My father wore a tailored sherwani; my mother, a shimmering white sari.
Many thought it strange, considering my father’s devotion to his faith, that my mother did not convert. He told them that there was no need; that she was as virtuous as any Muslim, that her essential spirit was good. She was, therefore, not in need of any conversion. The Islam I grew up with was a confident, inclusive faith which appeared to accept many forms of difference.
One of the strongest images of my childhood was a photo of Muslims on Haj, circling the Kabbatullah. It was a colour photo clearly showing the faces of many ethnic groupings. My parents had friends from all races, backgrounds and indeed sexual orientations. As far as I was aware, my father was as accepting of homosexuals as he was of Christians. I assumed, as he had taught me, that as long as the “essential spirit of a person” was good, that any external identifiers were irrelevant.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that my Muslim upbringing was all love, acceptance and no prohibition. Although, I was deeply proud of Islam, it was in practice for me essentially three things: no alcohol, no pork and no, absolutely no, completely and without equivocation, no boyfriends. It seemed to me, that as long as I followed these three rules the Almighty and perhaps more importantly, my father would smile on me. This turned out to be a gross over-simplification. An over-simplification which led to a major cooling in relations between my father and myself.
I was seventeen. My best friend had asked me to go a gig with him. The gig was to start late in the evening and would end well past midnight. It made perfect sense to me, to stay the night at my friend’s house. I was rarely allowed out at night, but I think there was something special about this gig. I can’t remember now. I explained the whole situation to my father, including the fact that I would be completely safe. The arrangement to stay with my friend , who was a little older than me, seemed very sensible. My father looked absolutely horrified. He suggested that I was actually in the throes of some major delusional episode, if I thought it was acceptable for me to stay at the house of a boy. I had been brought up to believe that “whenever an unmarried man and woman are alone together, the devil is there with them.”
“Oh, no Papa, it’s fine. No problem. He’s gay.”
The reply that came, shook me to the very fundaments of my being. It shook my understanding of my father. He became in, that second, a stranger to me.
“Your so-called friend is an aberration. Homosexuality is a vile aberration. You must never see him again.”
My father might as well have told me he that was having an affair, or that I was adopted, or that he drank alcohol. At ten o’clock that night, full of pained indignation, I snuck out of the house whilst my parents watched TV, knowing that I risked corporal punishment if I were caught. In the end it wasn’t worth the risk. I hated the gig. My heart was broken.
Of course I knew that Islam “technically” forbade homosexuality. But the Islam that I knew, was not technical. I had been taught that it was a Muslim’s duty to interpret the words of the Quran in light of the demands of modern society and industrialisation. In effect a personal ijtihad, re-interpretation of the Quran in a modern context. I had no idea that this antiquated rule, forbidding men lying with men, set down in the 7th Century, had any relevance to me, my father or my faith.
I came home in the early hours from my friend’s house; my parents did not see me sneak in. My father and I did not speak about homosexuality that day, on indeed till years later. It was during a period of mass media coverage of the Aids “epidemic”. My father had watched a documentary about a man who had nursed his lover through his final days. My father rang me. I was shocked. He hated using the phone. He told me that he had rung to apologise.
He said, “I am so sorry. I didn’t understand. I didn’t realise that it was possible for homosexuals to have meaningful relationships. This man I saw on TV; he was as loyal as any spouse. Faithful, devoted. I owe you an apology.”
I have no words. No words at all, to explain my feelings in that moment. The psychological journey my father had gone on, was a million miles further than those early voyages from Karachi to London. Little did I know that I would ask him to travel further still.
My first love was a girl. She completely and utterly broke my heart into a thousand undignified and needy pieces. I met her, by chance, as an adult, years after those first teenage fumblings, and my legs shook. I have experienced deep profound love for both men and women. I still love my ex-husband, the father of my sons, dearly. But ultimately, I am sexually attracted to women and find myself much more suited to living with a woman. It’s much more fun really. Despite all that, it took me years to “gay identify”. It was meeting my girlfriend, whom I hope will be my wife soon, that forced my hand.
Just as my father knew that my mother was the woman for him, “I knew”-within minutes. We moved into together, as per lesbian tradition, within weeks of knowing each other. We didn’t need to get any cats, because I already had children. We were, all four of us, within months, a family.
I told my father that I had made a good friend at work and that she had moved into my flat. I have a two bedroom flat. One bedroom for my sons. One for me. My father never asked where my “flat-mate” slept. And indeed, when I brought my “flat-mate” home, he did not question the fact that we shared the same bed.
He was as welcoming with my “flat-mate” as with all my other friends; many of them used to call him “Uncle”. Welcoming, with my “flat-mate”, save for this: at the moment they met, the moment when my father usually embraced my friends warmly, he just stared at her. And then with formality, shook her hand.
My girlfriend like me is half Pakistani. She like me has the potential for long flowing Desi thick brown hair. She unlike me, has it shaved right off, close to the bone. My father loved hair; absolutely, completely and without reservation, he adored long flowing locks. When I cut mine as a teenager, he wept and wouldn’t speak to me for days. I have no idea what he thought about my girlfriend’s hair. She had recently recovered from cancer. I wonder if he thought that she had lost it because of illness. I wonder if he was just sad that she had denied the world the gift of her tresses. I wonder if my father was a little more worldly-wise, than he let on. If in that moment, he knew, assumed, wondered, that my “flat-mate”, by virtue of the short- hair- indicator, was gay, a lesbian. And did he, therefore, deduce, being a logical man, that so also was his beloved daughter?
I have no real idea what he thought. I did not ask him. I was keeping my head down. I had no desire to discuss my sexuality with him. I saw no reason to shake his world more than I already had done with my previous forms of “westernised behaviour and derelictions.” Although, I knew my father was now tolerant of homosexuality, in the abstract, and indeed very welcoming of my other gay friends-I also knew that my being gay, might just have been one step too far.
In our first year of being together, my girlfriend and I went home to see my parents often. My father made no comment on the relationship, but simply watched it. He watched my girlfriend’s hair or lack of it, the way she played with my sons, the way she and I always seemed to be laughing.
Despite the laughter, we used to fight a lot. I think, in part, because I was not, if I am honest, happy about being gay. Who doesn’t want a simple life? A life which will not cause ructions and inspire prejudice. I was getting used to the idea. And in part, as my father was also, I am actually quite solitary by nature. He used to pride himself on how independent I was. It’s not that at all. I’m just not very good with people. So suddenly, living so intensely in a tiny flat with two male toddlers and a woman who loved company 24/7-well… It was a challenge.
Eventually, after weeks of arguments my girlfriend moved out. I was very upset and found myself calling my father. Of course I couldn’t tell him that I had “split up with my girlfriend”. I just said that living with someone else wasn’t for me-and that I was better of alone. I expected him to applaud my decision. He had always encouraged me to manage life on my own. His response surprised me a little “Really? Are you sure? You seemed so happy.”
And then my father did the most surprising thing. Again, I do not have words to express my feelings about it. He never told me what he had done. It was my girlfriend who told me. I never got the opportunity to speak to him about it.
He contacted her and asked her to forgive me.
He told her that I was stubborn and overly independent; that it was his fault. He said that he had brought me up badly, like a man. He asked her to forgive me, and begged her to go back “home”. The final letter in my story Correspondence quotes closely from the words he used.
If my father did know that I was gay, as seems very likely, then it was the ultimate act of love. He overcame every vestige of historical prejudice to see with fresh eyes the “essential spirit” of love. This is the Islam that I know. This is the Islam that I was brought up with.
Correspondence will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Saturday night /Sunday morning at 00 30 on 19th February 2012.