Saturday, August 16, 2008

Rhapsody in Brown

America's cultural myopia tends to hog the spotlight during election season. From now until Election Day, you can expect to hear lots of racial innuendo about whether Barack Obama is black enough (or not) as well as plenty of suggestions that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he might really be a stealth Muslim.

What fascinates me is how, in discussions of race, the American political scene remains obsessively focused on black and brown-skinned people (providing, of course, that the people with brown skins are Mexican). Precious little visibility is given to brown-skinned Americans whose ancestors came from the Middle East, India, or Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, etc.) Or whose families are Muslim or Hindu.

Gay men and women who don't fit the commercialized Judeo-Christian demographic often remain invisible -- even within the gay community. In the Bay area, groups like GAPA and Trikone offer invaluable social support networks. But in other parts of the world, carving out a positive gay identity within a repressive, homophobic culture is fraught with challenges.

Occasionally described as a companion piece to Sandi Dubowski's Trembling Before G-d (2001), Parvez Sharma's A Jihad For Love travels to 12 countries to interview gay Muslims and explore their struggles for freedom. Along the way, it raises interesting questions about Islamic history and interpretation of the Qu'ran. Throughout the film, the "wisdom" offered to gay people is to get married and obey Allah's commands if they want their sexual orientation to go away. Alas, that is not always possible.

Although the film itself suffers because some of the people interviewed felt it necessary to hide their faces, Sharma's documentary delivers a wealth of information about the Islamic world that most Americans would never be able to access. A South African imam who is gay tries to explain that, in describing the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Qu'ran described male rape -- not male love -- as an abomination. Several years after having been exiled from his community for revealing himself to be gay, he is invited back to address a group of South African social workers who, as Muslims, are obviously having problems coping with gay issues.

One of the Egyptian men who was arrested during police raids on Cairo's Queen Boat on May 11, 2001 describes how he survived being raped in prison and eventually managed to flee Egypt and build a new life for himself in Paris. Two Iranian men who fled to Turkey describe how the Iranian police got their hands on a video of their wedding as they struggle to find a copy of the video for documentation in their plea for political asylum (Turkey does not have any laws against homosexuality).

A sobering look into the lifestyles of gay Muslims, Sharma's documentary describes a religious holiday in Pakistan which still celebrates a historic love between two men, (one Muslim and one Hindu). Later in the film, a young gay man looks back and realizes that he was always taught that Allah is a god of fear, rather than a god of love. Jihad for Love also follows the travails of a lesbian couple who must split their time between Paris and Cairo because they cannot be open about their love -- and two Iranian gay men who manage to escape to Turkey and eventually gain asylum in Canada. Upon touching down in Toronto, one of them comments "Today is my new birthday."

As part of the New Works Festival 2008, Theater Rhinoceros recently presented Snehal Desai's one-man show entitled Finding Ways To Prove You're NOT An Al-Queda Terrorist When You're Brown (and other stories of the gIndian). Desai is an Indian-American who grew up in the small town of Surprise, Nebraska (population 44) where he readily confesses that he didn't get beaten up because he was Hindu, but because he was a faggot. Unlike the gay Muslims who are struggling to escape from their culture, Desai's monologue deals with the challenges he faces as he heads to India to meet his extensive family and explain to them why he is not married.

Making his entrance from a "Patel bag" (a beat-up, duct-taped old suitcase) that has been left onstage, Desai warms up his audience with stories of his youth and tales of the pressure put upon young Indians by overzealous parents trying to arrange a successful marriage. Recalling a trip to London where he had his first sexual encounter with another Indian man, he remembers his surprise at being asked if he wanted to join his friend in prayer the following morning. "How am I supposed to pray before a Hindu shrine that's 3-1/2 feet away from where we both enjoyed fellatio an hour ago?"

Photo by Erik Pearson

Describing how he got stopped on BART on his way to the theater, Desai (who founded the Yale Southasian Theater Collective) recites some of the less than brilliant suggestions he has received from friends trying to help him avoid being targeted as a terrorist whenever he boards a plane.

"Always carry a swastika with you."

"Ship yourself via UPS but don’t wear the brown uniform or else you’ll blend in."

"Go to the airport with a Sikh and watch HIM get arrested."

An extremely likeable performer, Desai doesn't just stick to jokes about his family and Hindu culture. In an extremely poignant segment, he describes being introduced to a potential bride who told him the tragic story of her past. As a young girl from a poor family, she had always told people that she carried her honor with her. Her parents had always stressed that while they may be poor, at least they had their honor.

While in high school, the young woman realized she was a lesbian and developed a big gay crush on her best friend. After she had cut her hair short and started to wear pants, her family was so mortified that they held an intervention during which the girl was held down by two of her aunts while a local man raped her. Afterwards, her father told her that at least the family had its honor back. The young woman sadly replied that there was no honor to be had, all they had left was their poverty.

In another segment, Desai describes how he felt his greatest moment of freedom in India, rather than in the United States. Having grown up in a culture where people are constantly being put down, and having traveled to India where people are constantly judged by their wealth and societal status, he found himself standing on the roof of a house during an annual kite festival, sharing the simple joy of flying a kite with hundreds of other participants. At that moment he realized that everyone was looking up at the sky -- not down on each other -- and, for the first time in years, he felt genuinely happy and free.

Desai still needs to iron some of the kinks out of his monologue and get its rhythms down pat. But, in the meantime, his show offers a solid hour of entertainment with material you won't get from mainstream comics. Whether one is Muslim or Hindu, finding the courage to come out to one's family is fraught with prejudices that often transcend cultural boundaries. Just witness this clip from British television:

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