Ifti Nasim knew he was a writer at the age of ten when he wrote a love poem dedicated to a lost pet cat. Nasim knew something else about himself from an early age: he was a homosexual. That was an especially difficult realization for a Muslim boy growing up in Lyallpur, Pakistan, where his family had moved following the partition of India in 1947, soon after Nasim was born. “I could not tell anyone that I could not be with girls, that I liked them so much I wanted to be one,” he says. “In Islam you can never be a homosexual. You might as well be a dead person.”
So when Hasim developed a crush on a male teacher, he wrote poems to him, substituting a girl’s name. “I’d show them to my friends, and everyone thought I was Don Juan.” Nasim’s first kiss was with a male classmate when he was 14. “My brother found out and gave me a big lecture about homosexuality and kissing a guy and said I was a sinner and to wash my mouth out 101 times. He told me never to touch a guy again. I swore I wouldn’t. Then I went over to my friend’s home and kissed him again.”
He learned to keep his homosexuality under wraps, but not his growing political activism, which was fueled in part by frustration with his friends and family. “I had a lot of pent-up emotion and anger inside. I found other ways to rebel. I was always for the underdog.”
His lifelong career as an activist began at a rally in Lyallpur while he was still a teenager. He was at a protest reading a poem against martial law when the doors of the auditorium burst open. Nasim was shot in the leg by a soldier; someone pulled him out of the way before he caught another bullet. “I put a cloth on my leg and went home. I didn’t tell anyone. The next day my sister came into my room and saw blood all over.” His aunt took him to the doctor, but the wound became infected and kept him in bed for six months. It also ruined a promising career in classical Kathak dance, which relies on intricate footwork. “I was devastated,” he says. “Eventually my parents found out why my leg was infected. They were very upset. They said, ‘Don’t you dare demonstrate for this shit–save your life.’ Of course I didn’t listen to them.”
In 1971 he convinced his father to bankroll a three-month visit to the United States, from which he did not return. “They were going to arrange a marriage for me,” he says. “I did not want to live a double life. I did not want to leave a wife at home and go out and pick up guys. I thought that was a dishonest way of living.”
During his first years here Nasim studied law in Detroit at his father’s request, but he switched to liberal arts after his father’s death in 1974. He continued to write while he worked to bring the rest of his family over, a process that took years. Soon after his father died he moved to Chicago, in time for the disco era. But after his experiences in Pakistan, he was hesitant to hit the gay scene. “At first I was afraid to go into a gay bar,” he says. “But I went in. They were the nicest people on the planet earth. I said, ‘What the fuck, why haven’t I been here before?'” The gay community gave him a confidence in his sexuality he’d never before experienced. “I did not know what the word gay meant until I came here,” he says. “To me it meant happy, but I was not happy. I thought I was the only homosexual in the world before I came to this country.”
Those early experiences motivated him to cofound Sangat/Chicago, a south Asian gay and lesbian organization and support group. The 11-year-old association (which takes its name from the Sanskrit word for “togetherness”) sees a lot of fallout from south Asians trapped in marriages–battered wives, AIDS, alcoholism–as well as gays and lesbians who are looking for a community.
The ostracism of homosexual people in third-world countries is a recurring theme in Nasim’s writing. His book Narman (which means hermaphrodite in Persian) is the best-known of the three he has written in Urdu. Controversial because of its direct treatment of homosexuality, it has been distributed around the world, including India and Pakistan, where it has sparked a movement known variously as honest or narmani poetry. It has also spawned an awareness of gay rights and caused some south Asians to question their cultural duty to marry. Last year Nasim was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. His family still doesn’t get it.
The family members he helped bring over from Pakistan severed ties with him when it was no longer possible to ignore the fact that he was gay. His sisters, who also live in Chicago, stopped talking to him last year after he discussed his homosexuality at a poetry reading. “They had the crazy notion that everyone did not know. But everyone knew. It’s like ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,'” he says. “It’s what you expect from an anal retentive society that is closed and completely confused and fucked up. These people have lived here three or four decades and still bring their block of home with them, and they still live in that block. They bring their prejudices with them. I’m not saying this country is very open about everything. You may not like what I have to say but at least you’ll listen–at least we can work on it. In India they don’t even want to listen. It’s like everybody looks at you and says, ‘Get married, it’ll be OK.’ Like it’s a disease.”
Nasim has created a new family that includes his lover of 15 years and an international group of artists, activists, actors, and writers that included the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and actress Shabana Azmi, who stars in Fire, a film about two Indian women who fall in love. Last year he quit a lucrative job as a salesman at Loeber Motors to pursue writing full-time. He is working on a novel about a boy who discovers the history of gay people around the world, and he continues to write poetry that tackles marriage, politics, and everyday life, as well as his feelings about his upbringing and his sexuality. As he writes in “The Ant Hill of My Mind,” “You can come one more / Time in my mouth and I shall swallow my children / To save them from predators.”
Later this month Nasim will travel to Delhi to present a paper on gay and lesbian poetry in contemporary American literature at a conference on gay and lesbian rights at Jawaharlal Nehru University. The last time he was on the subcontinent, in 1992, he was forced to cut his trip short because of death threats from religious groups. As for his reception on this outing, “They will be waiting for me with either guns or garlands.”
Still, Nasim says things have improved in his homeland. “When I was growing up, it was worse,” he says. “People who were homosexuals were morbidly afraid someone would find out and they’d be persecuted. And they were. Their wife would leave, society would boycott them. It was a nightmare. I used to know a doctor who was a homosexual, so everybody was afraid to go to him.
“That’s exactly how it happens,” says Nasim. “It’s like us against the whole world.”
Nasim will read from his work Saturday at 7:30 at Gerber/Hart Library, 3352 N. Paulina. It’s free; call 773-883-3003. He’ll also read on LesBiGay Radio, WNDZ 750 AM, Friday at 8:30 AM. –Cara Jepsen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ifti Nasim photo by J.B. Spector.