The life of an exile is always complicated, but being an LGBTQ+ refugee can sometimes mean exile from your family and community as well as from your homeland. Today we look at writers from Iran, Somalia, and Pakistan who have confronted the challenge of being a gay refugee.
Négar Djavadi flatly states, “I’m not an immigrant, I’m an exile”. Born in Iran to a family that opposed both Shah Pahlavi and Khomeini, she fled with her mother and sister at age 11, crossing the mountains of Kurdistan on horseback and eventually finding refuge in France. Like most exiles, she experienced dizzying cultural deracination, yet as a gay teen who had grown up under an anti gay regime, she had to traverse an additional layer of identity crisis. Djavadi drew on these youthful struggles in her debut novel Disoriental (translated from the French by Tina Kover). In describing the unusual title Djavadi says:
“I see the term “disoriental” as a neologism combining “oriental” and “disoriented.” I feel that this invented adjective applies very well to the story’s protagonist, Kimiâ, who is at the same time oriental and yet without the Orient; disoriented in her newfound life of exile, and then in her sexual identity” .
Kimiâ Sadr, like her creator is a teen punk lesbian, uprooted from her home in Iran after her parents run afoul of the Khomeini regime. Although the family copes with the usual refugee fears of not belonging, (her father is leery of riding escalators in Paris, believing they are only available to French taxpayers) Kimiâ has her own struggles with integrating her ethnic identity with her sexuality. “To really integrate into a culture,” Sadr says, “I can tell you that you have to disintegrate first.”
Soon I will be born for the second time. Accustomed to coming into the world amidst blood and confusion, to awakening Death and inviting it to the party, this rebirth- from the crossing of the wild, violent land of Kurdistan to the hotel room in Karakoy – is undeniably worthy of the first. Soon, my first name won’t be pronounced in the same way anymore; the final â will become a in Western mouths, falling silent forever. Soon I will be “disoriental.”
Kimia’s “disorientalization” is twofold: she is no longer comfortable identifying as Iranian, but she is equally uncomfortable identifying as female and straight. Her path as a refugee and an exile is to integrate these conflicting identities.
By age 31, when he wrote his memoir Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali had already survived the Somali Civil War, family disruption, addiction and homelessness. Born in 1985 in Mogadishu, his father secreted him out of the country without telling his mother, taking him first to the United Arab Emirates, then the Netherlands and, finally, Canada. Struggling with depression, hopelessness and addiction , he spiraled into addiction.
In a Toronto shelter he began to write his memoir of life as a gay refugee. The result, entitled Angry, Queer, Somali Boy, A Complicated Memoir, is both a refugee narrative and a coming out story.
Part of Ali’s difficulty is the stark differences between the cultures of the 3 countries he lived in after leaving Somalia; UAE’s strict version of Islam, which forced him to repress his gay identity; the Dutch policy of assimilation, which sought to obliterate his Somali identity, and finally Canada, which ostensibly supports both, even as Ali notes increasing hostility and police violence directed against people of color and Muslims.
Yet as a gay Somali man, Ali struggled find a place for himself in Toronto’s expat Somali community. “The Somalis that I grew up with in Toronto, they were very much Somali,” Ali says. “I didn’t necessarily feel Somali. I grew up in Holland. Not appreciating that I’m Somali signalled I was a traitor.”
Ali also discusses his complicated relationship with gayness and Islam, which he now describes as “a beautiful religion” but which became stereotyped in the West as “backwards” especially after 9/11. Like Nega Djavadi, Ali rejects the pressure to condemn his religion and ethnicity in order to be accepted in the supposedly “tolerant” West.
Samra Habib is familiar with the contradictions of being a gay Muslim refugee in Canada. Growing up in Pakistan as an Ahmadi Muslim, she and her family regularly experienced hostility and death threats, ultimately deciding to leave the country in 1991. However, Habib observes in her memoir, We Have Always Been Here, that they “traded one set of anxieties for another,” losing the familiar sights and sounds of home for a “safe” country that would never fully accept their otherness.
Faced with poverty and the need for security, Habib allowed herself to be talked into an arranged marriage, just as she was becoming aware of her queer sexuality. Yet to defy her family would be to court a second exile, and to throw herself into a a white Canadian LGBTQ society that bragged of its enlightenment, while turning a blind eye to its racism and Islamophobia:
“I often found people back home in Toronto to be apathetic and apolitical, perhaps a result of the comfort and ambivalence that advanced queer rights can breed. Many Canadians who enjoyed the fruits of decades of activism did not see any need to advocate for the rights of queer and trans people of colour.”
Habib eventually found the strength to leave her marriage and live as a gay woman, who now documents the lives of other queer Muslims through her photography.
For more on the authors:
Negar Djavadi: A Persian turned Parisian insists: I’m not an immigrant, I’m an exile
Mohammed Abdulkarim Ali: Exile, addiction and racism: what it means to be a gay, Muslim immigrant
Why Samra Habib wrote a memoir about growing up as a queer Muslim woman
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