“Allah Hu Akbar…. Allah Hu Akbar…. Allah Hu Akbar”
This triple triad chord was the first sound I heard: the sound of the azan, as per Islamic ritual. More like a baptism of the ears at birth. To cleanse the child of “unholy” sounds. And the unholiest of all sounds is poetry.
I wasn’t the first unholy child born in the family. The older Alvis were malang fakirs of Hala, my hometown – a bunch of hippie flower-children who smoked weed in the backyards of Sufi shrines, sang Sindhi poetry, drank wine, and organized underground orgies. As I forayed into the homoerotic literature of Sindh, of Bhittai and Sachal, who were known for dressing up in ghungrus, and dancing to their own songs, I became drawn to the poetic expression that pacified my own sexual anxieties as a closeted queer man in urban-day Pakistan.
I resolved to make a journey. I was Scarlet O’ Hara, eyes aflame, shalwar (a kind of skirt in this case) blowing against the Karachi wind, declaring: Hala, home. I’ll go home! Although Tara didn’t rhyme with Hala, I settled for it. Sultry summer afternoons in Hala, dozing on charpoys underneath banyan trees, dreaming of poets in ghungrus dancing in monsoon courtyards – such are my teenage memories.
In 2014, my first publication came. The spoken-word poet and LGBT activist, Andrea Gibson, had called upon queer poets across the world to submit poems to an anthology she was putting together titled, ‘We Will be Shelter: Poems for Survival’. Little did I know that a long poem I had written about my road trip to Hala, Crossroads, would be selected. The poem describes a poet’s encounters with many beautiful men along the highway, particularly one at a gas station. Marketed as a ‘gutsy poetry anthology for LGBT expression’, my promised copy arrived in the mailbox one Sunday morning. Aya, our nurse-turned housemaid, opened the mail to retrieve the book. She browsed through it until she stumbled upon my poem. Then showed it to Ma.
All hell broke loose.
“Allah! Haye!” Ma started screaming.
“What the fuck has happened?” I asked.
“So that was what you doing in Hala, eh?” said Aya. “Sleeping with highway men and then writing gaanay on them!”
When I tried reasoning with them, she pushed me aside, darting for the computer. I panicked. “What are you doing?!” I asked.
“I’m going to google Andrea Gibson.” And then there was Aya’s voice in the background blowing like a referee whistle: “han kaar google, kaar!” By this time, I had thrown my body on the laptop, attempting to shield the screen, but all in vain.
Gibson’s face appeared on the screen: an androgynous face to a stout body, a pixie cut loose, and piercings.
“So that’s what it’s come too.” Said Ma. “Hanging around with the homosexuals? You’ve ruined my next life! I’ll never enter heaven because I gave birth to a homosexual! Haye!”
Things calmed down though. A poet friend called Ma and explained that poetry is an imaginative act and the premise of the poem was not real but purely a result of ‘teenage curiosity’. A year later, the Clayman Institute of Gender Research at Stanford University was putting together a book of essays, art, and poems by emerging LGBT writers. I sent a short piece titled “Gynocomastia and a Siren Song on a Rainy Night”, a metaphorical dialogue between a mother who mistakes in a Kafkaesque vein her son’s homosexuality for a serious disorder, and drags him to a clinic to have surgery performed on him. The poem got accepted. Another copy arrived.
“You have a disease? Nahi!” said Ma. “I asked you what it was and you said its nothing and now you write this piece and say you have got gynecomastia! And then you mention my name in it and ruin my reputation? Did you get a test? Where are the reports!”
“Ma! Ma, it’s metaphorical!”
“I tell you Aaaaapaa.” Aya jumped right in, seizing the moment. “He getting his boobs sucked. I see all the men coming in house every time. He says they do studies in room. This is studies? Getting boobs sucked? Look how large they are! Now he has this gynecomastia disease and maybe also AIDS! Is it for this day that I raised you? Did all that mehnat so you could get your boobs sucked? I say, let’s raid the room, Aaapa, and find the reports. He’s probably hidden them!”
Then, Bangalore happened. In September 2016, I was invited to perform Gynecomastia at the National Youth Poetry Slam. A dozen gay men, mostly writers and artists from an advocacy group called Gay Running and Breakfast (GRAB), poured in to watch, bringing idlis, vadas and coffee. After my performance at the Lotus Convention Centre, we all cried and hugged and I learnt that as gay writers, we have no country: our country is our body.
This was my first, very emotional, experience of LGBT writers’ solidarity. At the Wagah Border security, an officer discovered in my luggage a GRAB flyer for AIDS prevention for gays. When I told him that it must have fallen into my luggage, as most flyers do, he let me go. But Ma would receive a call.
“You went to India to get a treatment for AIDS! This means you had gynocomastia in the first place! Where are the reports, Asad?”
Aya: “Allah Hu Akbar…. Allah Hu Akbar…. Allah Hu Akbar.”
And so, the triple-triad chord has never ceased for our kind. When I broke the news to my family of an Indian agent representing my first book – English translations of the life words of Sara Shagufta, the feminist Urdu poet – the response from my family was cold. Aya refused to believe that my relationship with the agent was a professional one. She used a word which sounds rather funny in Sindhi and is almost non-translatable. But let me tell you. The closest translation would be this: sugar-daddy.
Oh, well. It doesn’t matter. Bring on the sugar.
Asad Alvi’s first book, The Rebel Poetess: Life and Works of Sara Shagufta, translations of the feminist Urdu poet Sara Shagufta, is forthcoming by Speaking Tiger in 2017. His poetry has appeared elsewhere in an anthology of emerging Pakistani writers by the Oxford University Press (OUP), Columbia University’s Journal of Art and Literature, The International Gallerie, The Express Tribune, Umang, Uprooted: An Anthology on Gender and Illness’, and in a collection of contemporary feminist poetry titled, We Will Be Shelter. In 2016, he became the youngest recipient of the Nasreen Anjum Bhatti Poetry Prize.