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Naked States

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS

Naked States

 

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I’m sitting in a Korean restaurant across from my unheterosexual Muslim love object. One of my oldest and dearest girlfriends (Jewish, platonic) sits to my right. It’s a not-unusual configuration in multicultural Toronto. When the conversation veers dangerously into Israeli territory (or Occupied Palestine, depending on whom I’m siding with at the time), Muslim (a Muslim name, just as Christian is a Christian name) gets inordinately riled up. My girlfriend is slightly plucked. I can’t say that I blame her. I’ve been involved with Muslim for three-and-a-half years, and I can count the number of times he’s lost his temper on the hand of a Saudi amputee. But each time, the sheer force of his blow-up made me wonder what a nice agnostic infidel like myself, born into the United Church, the most wishy-washy Presbyterian Christian sect going, was doing in a relationship with a deeply devout Shia Muslim prone to religious ecstasies and charismatic visions.
     For a white agnostic to be emotionally and sexually involved with a devout Muslim from the old world is not made that much more complicated by the fact that it is a homosexual relationship. (“Unheterosexual” is his term; he refuses to be saddled with the reductive “homosexual” epithet, and he rejects the term “boyfriend.”) Homosexuality — which, after all, probably predates all monotheistic religions — is one of the few things we actually have in common. Yet Muslim and I are shockingly compatible in a number of ways, including our senses of humor, our dispositions, even our philosophies. It helps that he is one of the most kind, gentle, compassionate and loving people I’ve ever met. (When he says salaam, which means "peace" in Arabic, he really means it.) Through him, I’ve been able to address and dismiss many of the Western misconceptions about Islam, particularly with regard to sex.
     Coming from the cradle of civilization, as it were, Muslim seems like the personification of ancient culture in mind, body and spirit. He has a compendium of primeval afflictions: color-blindness, left-handedness, asthma, eczema. He grew up speaking ancient languages like Urdu and Arabic (yet he still regularly beats me at Scrabble). He believes in genies and spirits. He was born into a traditional culture that still practices customs such as arranged marriages and exorcisms, both of which he has been subjected to. What I find most astonishing, however, is the nimbleness with which he juggles both old and new worlds.
    Born into a wealthy family, he was schooled in England as a boy and has lived in Canada for the last thirteen years, but his spiritual and mystical beliefs have not been diluted by the Western materialism. More aligned and sympathetic to the beliefs of Native Americans, he sees spirits in cloud formations, harbingers in numerical configurations, ghosts in machines. He’s also an accountant, which proves no contradiction: the Qur’an is predicated on a certain mathematical integrity, and arithmetic itself is largely derived from Islamic philosophy.
     If all this seems a little heady, it is. To complicate matters, Muslim is also a Shia, a sect of Islam that can be considered even more traditionalist and mystical in their beliefs than the majority Sunni faction. Like some fundamentalist Christians, the Shia eschew all earthly and sensual pleasure: drinking alcohol, dancing, even listening to music are all considered taboo. The most austere of the group practice public self-flagellation, wear black, and spend the first two months of their new year in mourning (mostly for the martyrdom of their preferred

For Muslims, sex is arguably managed in less repressive ways than in the West.

prophet, Hussein, grandson of Mohammed). The Imam of Muslim’s mosque recently suggested that everyone in his congregation go out and buy a shroud to remind themselves of their proximity to their Maker. Fortunately, Muslim is more of a Sufi at heart, a mystical sect of Islam that has a deep respect for the sensual gifts that God has bestowed upon us. Those include hashish and, I can only presume, sex.
     One of the common misconceptions about the Muslim world is that its denizens are a sexually repressed lot who hate the West for its sexual freedom. In my experience with Muslim, nothing could be further from the truth. According to him, and based on anecdotal information I’ve gathered from other Muslims with whom I’ve had sexual encounters (we have an open relationship), sex is just as rampant in their realm as it is in ours, if not more. It’s just a matter of how it’s managed, according to custom and social convention.
     Homosexuality, for example, is regarded as haraam (forbidden) in a technical sense. Its overt practice or organized manifestation is severely frowned upon. In countries such as Saudia Arabia, it is occasionally punishable by death. But in real terms, its practice is more widespread and normalized than in the West. Overt affection and physical contact between men is frequent. Buggery, to use a colonialist term, is common. Part of this can be attributed to the segregation of the sexes that is practiced in traditional Islamic culture. But I would speculate that there might be something more behind it, a kind of machismo that transcends heterosexual exclusivity and has more to do with aspects of aggression and dominance.
     If you haven’t figured it out yet, I am a devout bottom. In my relationship with Muslim, dominance and submission plays a significant role. I’ve often joked it might be a kind of sexual role-play involving the true believer versus the infidel, the tables being turned on the symbolic colonial master. But I’m not sure that such a notion can be so easily laughed off. Any sexual act between two people of different races or cultures takes on a whole spectrum of social and political significances — a kind of fetishistic microcosm of a broader historical reality, even if not overt or conscious. It’s naïve to think that these differences can be completely banished from the bedroom.
    For Muslims, sex is arguably managed in much less repressive ways than it is in the West. While the West makes quite a spectacular show of sexual openness in pop culture, in practice it’s somewhat more problematic. Christianity has always tended toward the sexually conservative, and the general schizophrenia that is dividing America along partisan political lines certainly extends to attitudes toward sexual permissiveness. Islamic culture has never attempted to impose vows of celibacy or chastity — it would be considered contrary to the laws of nature.
     Muslim always defends Sharia, the holy laws that derive specifically from the Qur’an and the Hadiths, which are often criticized in the West for their unfair treatment of women. He points out to me that the laws were actually intended to protect women’s rights. Muta, the system of temporary marriages in Islam, allows the married man to have sexual relations with a woman other than his wife, but it provides the "temporary wife" with full rights and protection under the law. (If she gets pregnant, for example, the “husband” is responsible for the child.) As for polygamy, the man must get his spouse’s permission before he takes another wife. Under Sharia, a woman can divorce her husband if he is not sexually satisfying her. Some of these rules may seem outmoded, even brutal, and they are certainly prone to abuse. But in practical terms, the Muslim attitude toward sex is arguably healthier and more realistic.
     It’s this same practicality that allows Muslim to accommodate his homosexual desires so fluidly. Although devout, he interprets the Qur’an in a way that allows him to have a sexual relationship with a man without compromising his religious principles. And although this necessarily entails being discreet (or closeted, as we might have it), our relationship has not been characterized by guilt or shame. It’s always possible that he will go back to a heterosexual existence. But the last four years, at least, have been heavenly.  

©2004 Bruce LaBruce and Nerve.com