Parvez Sharma's documentary, A Jihad for Love, traces heartening, harrowing stories of Muslim gay men and lesbians.
Why do they think the sky has to be the same color for everyone?
"I was virtually born in a mosque," says Muhsin Hendricks says. The son of an Imam, he adds, "It was only at the age of about 16 that I decided there was something wrong with me, that I'm not like other boys." When he was 20, Mushin recalls, he went to Pakistan to study Islam, read about Sodom and Gomorrah, and began feeling guilty. "At that time," Mushin says, "I thought, 'Okay, this is it. This is what God thinks of me, so why am I still adhering to Islam when there's no space for me?'"
Muhsin's search for some space within Islam is one of several such stories in Parvez Sharma's A Jihad for Love. A gay man living in South Africa, he faces all manner of resistance, prejudice, and oppression. And yet he has hope: by film's end he is asked to return to the Muslim community that has rejected him, in order to help them understand him -- to bridge gaps between straight and gay individuals, to reconcile his faith with his desire. Muhsin's example is heartening and also disturbing When he visits with his children (he and his wife have long since split), they spend sweet time together, laughing at penguins and obviously comfortable with each other.
When, however, Muhsin poses a hypothetical question -- what would you do if the police dragged daddy off and threatened to stone him to death? -- one child (his face blurred into protective anonymity) has a chilling answer: "I would look them in the eye and say, 'Oh don't let my daddy feel this. And just let him die one time with the first stone." Muhsin protests, half-laughing, until another child assures him that she would save him.
As sweet as this exchange becomes, the moment also reveals a tension particular to being Muslim and being gay. Though the adherence to laws and assumptions varies -- not every Muslim believes, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asserts, that homosexuals do not exist in his world -- acknowledgment and tolerance are hard won. "I think my personal story is a love jihad," says Muhsin, "It's a struggle and that's what the word jihad is about."
The documentary illustrates with diverse experiences. Four Iranian refugees spend long weeks and months in Turkey, having left their homes in fear, having applied for asylum with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Their lives in Turkey, a secular Muslim state, are less dangerous per se (Istanbul, the film notes, "has no laws against same sex intercourse"), but also unmoored.
Ashram describes his previous life poetically and acutely: "It's hard to be homosexual in Iran," he says sadly. "It's like a person who wants to speak, but when he opens his mouth, the words are caught in his throat. His cry has been suppressed. It's a heavy silence." While he and his friends allow Sharma to film them in their one-room apartment, on the sidewalk, and in a local park, two of them are afraid to show their faces, worried for their families back in Iran ("My life is in Iran," mourns Mojtada, the camera so close on his eyes that he's unrecognizable. "I miss everything, I left to save my life"). When Payam's call to his mother brings tears to his eyes, Ashram pats him reassuringly. "I'll be your mother," he smiles. Payam watches kids playing soccer. "Islam and homosexuality do not merge very well," he sighs, "It will take a jihad and probably longer than my own lifetime."
Other figures in the film have found a way to live with less pain and more pleasure. Ferda and her girlfriend Kiymet share an apartment, a cat, and a life. Ferda remembers a difficult earlier existence, when she was forced to marry and become pregnant, despite a doctor's warning against it. "Pain, pain, constant pain," she says. "Women like us are captives in another life. We are prisoners." Now, however, she feels connected, safe, and freed. She and Kiymet visit with Ferda's mother, the women's faces warm with smiles and shared energies. The couple also brings the film crew along to a thrilling demonstration of Sufi ritual dancing. "Islam is a religion of peace," reminds Ferda, "But we can only understand this by understanding Sufism, not by how some people interpret Islam."
Mazen’s interpretation is at once courageous and inspiring. Imprisoned in Egypt for three years, he now lives in Paris, where the film watches him watching video footage of himself in a cage, his face covered by a white mask. "I was raped in prison," he remembers, "It was extremely traumatic, it hurts even to talk about it."
Now, however, he shows his face (the camera pans from the TV screen to his profile, his determination to survive and thrive visible. "I'm sure God has a reason for all that has happened to me. He is always with me, says Mazen. "I was able to get away. As we say in English, 'Enough is enough.'" Now, he has his own apartment, a number of good friends, and a chance to belly-dance in a local restaurant. Where images of his face reflected in metro windows indicate the pain in Mazen's memories, his new life reveals his resilience and strength.
Though each is briefly noted, the sagas in A Jihad for Love all insist on the links between endurance and change. Outlasting their oppressions, these survivors are building alternatives and inviting their communities -- gay and straight, passionate and traditional -- to share in their self-affirmations.