It was the first year my younger brother would join us at the mosque. He was 3 and wanted to feel included. It was the last year my older brother would join us. He was 18, about to leave Pakistan for college. My mother stood by the front door in her nightgown as her husband and three sons drove away in matching salwar kameezes. Only men go to the mosque.
I remember the roads were littered with cars full of men on their way to Eid prayers. Eid is Islam’s most celebrated holiday, marking the conclusion of Ramadan — the month of fasting, of patience, of physical and mental restraint. I stood barefoot in the mosque, echoing the gestures of men in the congregation, trying not to laugh at the imam’s mid-sermon burp. It was the first year that I had kept all 30 fasts. I was 12 and had developed a newfound religiousness as an apology to God for being queer. As I sat with my legs crossed and my palms before my lips, I began my invocation for Him to change me.
Eleven years later, I was on the streets of London, as a 23-year-old Pakistani Muslim, for my first Pride parade. Men with glittered eyelids were holding hands and marching. The scene was flooded with color — in the clothes and the makeup and the art. But not in the people; most everyone was white. It was two weeks after the Orlando massacre, when a Muslim man shot and killed 49 people in a gay nightclub.
Some men on the street smiled at me forgivingly. Others stared, perhaps uneasy at my brown skin. Underneath my shirt I wear a black string wrapped around my neck. Hanging from it, a rusted pendant with an engraved verse from the Koran, the Ayat al-Kursi. I had never felt so acutely aware of my foreignness, so apologetic for how my presence might evoke fear. I stood with my head hanging and my arms crossed.
This year, Eid falls during Pride, and I belong at neither. A time when queer people revel in their agency and Muslims mark the closure of fasting in the holiest month. As these two facets of my identity confront one another, I recall how 24 years of silence in my queerness has been the longest fast.
I try to minimize myself to protect myself. As a child, when my prayers to be straight went unanswered, I emailed a conversion therapist in New York, saying “I want to be normal.” Every time there is a terrorist attack, my mother pleas for me to shave. “You look just like the attacker,” she’ll say. But it’s the same beard that the men on Grindr compliment; the one I wear on a face that aches for a mask. On Eid and on Pride, I wear black in a sea of color, to exude masculinity at festivals that are flooded with color.
There’s an eternal yearning, a thirst in my silence and patience, for approval. This month, millions of queer people celebrate inclusion while some refuse to add black and brown stripes to their rainbow flags.
During these three days of Eid, almost 2 billion Muslims celebrate the end of self-inflicted hunger in the name of piety. My queerness and my faith are beginning to coexist. During Pride in London, where I live, there was a second-annual Big Gay Iftaar to break the final fast in Ramadan. The next day, the Inclusive Mosque Initiative held an Eid prayer that welcomed queer people. As these dimensions coalesce, I no longer restrain myself from a love that is carnal, a love that is spiritual, and a love for myself. As I gain visibility in the spaces that once sought to erase me, I find that the longest fast is no longer.
Azam Mahmood grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, and now lives in London. Follow him on Twitter: @_sahibzada_.