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Flights that end at the edge of nothingness

Updated May 23, 2012 10:04am


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I am in Chicago. Iftikhar Nasim is not. He died.

“Let’s not fear death, death is not the end of a dove's flight,” says Sohrab Sepehri (1928-1980), Iran’s Faiz Ahmed Faiz. “Death does not reverse a moth's journey. Death is dawn's footsteps in a town enveloped in darkness … it sits, staring at us with frowning eyes and we fill our lungs with its grey breath.”

Yes, death is not the end but it does abruptly end a dove’s flight. It is sudden. So it leaves many things incomplete, undone.

Little things you plan to do together: walking in the snow, sitting beside a window and reciting poetry, swimming in a lake or just going to your favourite restaurant.

And then you repent why you kept postponing all these until it was too late.

Ifti was not a close friend but we all loved his poetry and short stories. He was also the most controversial among our friends. He was an open gay in a community that still kills its daughters for wanting a love marriage.

People of his background – semi-urban, middle class – do not discuss their grievances in public, definitely not their sexual inclinations. Ifti did and fought for it all his life.

I told him I wanted to do a long interview with him on South Asian gays in America and write a piece about them. He agreed but died last summer before we could do this interview.

His death closed a window, the only window I had to understand a community that we South Asians, particularly Muslims, refuse to acknowledge.

“Mother, I know you take my brothers to the soccer field every Sunday. So I come, park my car near the house where I lived once. And wait. When you come, I follow you, always maintaining a distance. I know you do not like seeing me anymore, mother, but I cannot stop loving you.”

This was a young Indian I met at a South Asian literary group in Washington, DC. He too was gay, so his mother abandoned him. He lived with his partner and could not visit his family.

And there was a Pakistani, in mid his 20s. I invited him to my children’s birthday – I have triplets so we have one birthday for all.

“Are you sure you want me to come?” he asked. “Pakistanis do not like inviting me to their family gatherings.”

“Oh, but why not?” I asked. He was well-mannered. Had a degree from the George Washington University, was smartly dressed and knew poetry and politics, two essentials for a South Asian gathering. So I thought he must be popular among Pakistanis.

“I am gay,” he replied. I still invited him. He came and sang Faiz’s “we will see, we must see the day that has been promised” and everybody loved it.

And I once again thought of the story I heard from that young Indian.

“You have a smile on your face as my brothers kick the ball around. I watch you passing around bottles of cold water. Wiping their faces with a towel, putting them back in the car and taking them to the McDonald’s as you took me to,” he read his story.

“Mother, I always watch you from a distance because I know you do not want me near you. But mom, I cannot stop loving you,” said he as a largely heterosexual crowd wiped tears off their faces. “Mom, I want to hug you.”

I thought of this young man as I was walking down Chicago’s Devon Avenue, the largest desi bazaar in North America. This is where Iftikhar Nasim’s guests preferred to meet him, not at his apartment where he lived with his partner.

It was also convenient for Ifti. Devon has dozens of desi restaurants and Ifti ate there almost every night. He would tell the visitors where to go and while the restaurant manager entertained “Ifti Saheb’s guests,” he would walk in with a big grin on his face.

“Hi ladies and gents,” Ifti would say loudly while taking off his trademark, large black overcoat, put his hat on the table and ask, always in Punjabi, “So, what are we eating today?”

And before the guest responded, he would tell them the first joke of the evening. As his laughter ringed across the room, people from other tables would get up and join him. And he would soon have a small crowd around his table.

After one such evening, which ended close to midnight, Ifti said to me, “I will drop you to your hotel.” I said I could take a cab but he insisted.

He was very quiet as we drove to the hotel. “What’s wrong Ifti Saheb?” I asked.

“I am tired,” he said. “Tired of pretending that I am happy, I am popular.”

“But you are,” I insisted.

“My foot,” he replied. “I know they love to laugh with me because I am funny but they also despise me because I am gay.”

Now I was quiet. “Even my brothers do not want me to visit them,” he said.

“Mom, I know you do not want me to come over to your place. And you do not want to visit my apartment. But come to me once, just once and kiss me on the forehead, as you always did,” said the young Indian.

“Yes, we will see. We must see the day that has been promised,” my Pakistani gay friend recited Faiz in Washington.

And I remembered one of Ifti’s non-gay friends telling me when he heard of his death:

“The massive heart attack that killed Ifti Saheb did him a favor. It ended his pain.”

“Bigger than life she was, modern she was, she knew by name all open horizons,” wrote Sohrab Sepehri when a close friend Forogh Farrokhzad (1935-1967) died.

Farrokhzad, who was only 32 when killed in a car accident, was arguably one of Iran's most influential female poets of the 20th century. She was a controversial modernist and an iconoclast who broke many taboos. And like all rebels, she too annoyed many.

Farrokhzad's poetry was banned for more than a decade after the Islamic revolution.

“Water and earth spoke to her; she sang the sad song of the real. Her form was her solitude. And she confided only to a mirror,” mourned Sohrab.

“Like rain drops she was filled with unsullied repetition. And like a tree she spread out the prism of light … and she flew reaching the edge of nothingness.”

The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.


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Anwar Iqbal is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.

Comments (19) Closed

Syed Ali Raza Shah May 20, 2012 03:44pm
There are fellows who want to find a purpose in every piece of writing even when the abstractness conveys its meaning in a direct manner. Those are the people wanting to be spoon-fed with opinions so as to follow those or to abhore them. What many forget is the fact, that literature -any piece of writing- animates us to see the artifact before us with our eyes, our judgement provoking us to comtemplate about it on our own. Much said, no worth! :-) I did have some watery eyes while reading this masterpiece. Thanks for writing it.
M K May 19, 2012 01:23pm
Aslam May 20, 2012 06:29pm
If reading this did not bring tears to your eyes then don't bother asking the purpose cuz the purpose was for your heart to feel the pain of ifti with the help of couple of live characters.
waqar May 20, 2012 01:18pm
What does writer want us to do? respect gays????
Busaif May 19, 2012 08:19pm
So what is the point of pointing this out.....please educate more...
TXDTTT May 20, 2012 12:56pm
To be really straightforward, the writer wants to tell you that our society is too narrow minded and needs to open up to the fact that people aren't gay by choice. I'm not giving you my opinions (because freedom of speech isn't appreciated in our country anyways) but just for the sake of explanation.
shafiq May 19, 2012 10:34pm
the poetry could have been written in urdu for its poetic value. the rest of the discussion leads to no where.....
abdal May 20, 2012 01:59am
i cannot understand the purpose of this article, what does it really mean and what does it share??? Are you trying to promote something or anything????
amy May 20, 2012 08:22pm
I guess the writer is wrongly trying to win the readers sympathies for a homosexual person which is not something that should be allowed . homosexuality is not an approved practice in Pakistan as Our country is an Islamic country after all . homosexuality is a perversion and if gays are given their rights then why not paedophiles and those preferring necrophilia and lots of others with perversions . even if they have such sexual disorders people should not promote it as an alternative life style and the societys attitude is right in disliking them as they cross the natural boundaries and fall prey to deadly illnesses like AIDS besides defying their creator .
BushraS May 20, 2012 06:50am
Beautifully written. Painful to read. laazim hai kay hum bhi dekhai'n gay... hum dekhai'n gay..
annas May 21, 2012 04:39am
the writer must read the Chronicles of "Qaum-e-Lut" and remember that the Almighty Allah is still the same however the faces have changed and it is not difficult for him to repeat the history.
Usman May 21, 2012 06:00am
May be that poor guy needed some help :( who could not never know what he was doing and by the way what is the meaning of this article and what are you trying to promote?
lovelybug May 21, 2012 07:46am
I am not sure what the writer is trying to show here. Is he trying to say that Gays and Lesbians are humans? Everybody knows that. But is it right to be Gay or Lesbian? This is another question. The problem with us is that we have not decided we are Muslims or only Pakistanis. If we are Muslims then definitely religiously it is not acceptable to have sex with the same gender. No question about this. But if we are secular then everything should be allowed as in the western countries. Make your own choice :)
Airborne May 21, 2012 08:22am
I just dont understand something; we call ourselves muslims, we name ourselves muslims but when it comes to our day to day life we just forget that there exists something called Quran and there was a messenger sent to us for the sole purpose of reference. A beacon to guide us when we are just about to be lost in the darkness of the world of our selfish desires. Lack of Islamic knowledge and practice leads to promotion of such habitudes... which are not normal only in humans but are also detested amoung the animals. "Flights that end at the edge of nothingness", my brother I think you really missed out something here. You really think that the flight ENDS here? I would add just one more thing, instead of mere sitting in the company of such people and enjoying there funny jokes, I think its our duty towards our brothers, being muslims, to discourage any practice that definitely leads to hell-fire... before its too late and "their flight ends at the edge of.... " Allah Knows better. This would be a lot better than mourning their deaths instead of doing anything for their better hereafter.
Deepen May 21, 2012 09:25am
Extremely beautiful piece!
Sumaira Hussain May 21, 2012 09:50am
Thank you for writing it..
BuSaif May 21, 2012 10:40am
Yes it is very painful to feel the limitation of one who fails to comprehend of what Allah az zougal wants s and instead following the steps of shaiteens. Nothing good can be said for someone already dead without recovering from act of Kufr as per the story… However it is a good lesson to be reasonable and to follow the commandments of Allah az zougal so one should have a life to get at least the mother’s love and the death of a righteous person. One can only hope that the person in discussion may have realised his sin and recovered and repented sincerely to Allah. On this possible action, May Allah be Merciful to his soul.
Airborne May 22, 2012 08:06am
Its very sad that the Admins did not allow my last post, though there was nothing offensive in it at all. It just had a reference to Quran and Hadith.
Airborne May 22, 2012 08:08am
Absoluteley correct. Its so unfortunate that the Admins blocked my previous post though it was not at all offensive, just had a reference to Quran.