Exile, addiction and racism: what it means to be a gay, Muslim immigrant
Mohammed Abdulkarim Ali, 34, survived a civil war, a shattered family, dislocations and myriad abuse. Born in 1985 in Mogadishu, Somalia, he was kidnapped by his father on the eve of his country's civil war, taken first to the Netherlands by his stepmother, and then on to Canada. In Toronto, he found himself homeless and moved in and out of shelters, struggling with drug addiction and alcoholism.
And then he began to write, pouring his life into the pages of a memoir. He wrote on park benches, in dining halls of shelters and in the library. His book, entitled Angry, Queer, Somali Boy, A Complicated Memoir, is a compelling, raw and often deeply unsettling account of a life as a migrant boy who is gay and Muslim.
The Sunday Edition's guest host Peter Armstrong recently chatted with Ali about his memoir. Here are some highlights from their conversation, edited for clarity and condensed.
Most people need a quiet, well-lit place to sit and write. You wrote through the chaos.
When I started writing it, I was still housed. I had roommates and they were kind enough to let me stay with them, even after I couldn't pay rent anymore. But I couldn't see how so much of my misfortune was brought on by my addiction. By the time I did end up on the street, writing was the only way to feel wanted by the world. I'm creating this thing so that other people can one day have it in their hands, even though I was surrounded by all this chaos. Writing was always just a source of comfort for me. So, regardless of what was happening in my life, writing was a very pleasurable thing.
Your father sent you off with your stepmother when the civil war was breaking in Somalia, presumably hoping that it would be a better life. Was it a better life, going to the Netherlands and ending up in Canada?
I was plopped into a situation without explanation. My father took me from the only family that I'd known, and then introduced himself as an extension of that family. And then, within a year, he also vanished. That's a lot to process by age five.
I have to be kind with myself in understanding that I wasn't told what was going on. I was expected to be obedient and I suffered from this notion that anything outside the window was better than where I was. There was a disconnect within my own thinking and the reality around me because, as a five-year-old, I am longing for my mother. However I can't comprehend that there is a political vacuum in the country where I was born and that there are roving bands of militias targeting everybody. I couldn't comprehend that. All I thought was, "Where's my mommy?" But today I think my dad did the right thing.
All this performance was just draining my spirit. And if I could sashay down the street wearing tight pants and flowing shirts, I was going to do that.- Mohammed Abdulkarim Ali
When you were nine, you fell in love with your best friend Yusuf. You were a little boy, but you knew then that you were gay?
My stepmom, she used to have — I guess in Canada they had the Eaton's catalogues. So in Holland they had something similar. And at least 40 pages were dedicated to underwear. So I looked at the men's underwear, not really caring for the style of the underwear. It was just like, "Oh my god, a male body."
Yusuf was just a very affectionate boy. He, too, came from a Somali family. His family had gone through a lot more than my family in regards to the war. But it didn't stop his mom from being loving. I always found that very intriguing because I thought to myself, "Oh we hadn't really seen the war, but we were very cold and distant. And here they were; they had gone through all this stuff and they were very affectionate with each other." So I really enjoyed being around him and his family because they were very welcoming and I mistook that affection for desire.
When you came out as gay in Canada, you wrote in the book that you were determined not to let anything stop your transformation into "a visible homosexual." Why was that important?
Because the world just had to see it. I was tired of hiding underneath these layers of clothes which were ill-fitting and ugly and trying to walk like the boys who got off the Jane or Weston Road bus. I was tired. I wasn't going to do it anymore. All this performance was just draining my spirit. And if I could sashay down the street wearing tight pants and flowing shirts, I was going to do that.
I just imagined that I was a runway model during Paris Fashion Week. I'd blast my music, so I didn't have to hear people saying things to me. I would act like I didn't see their cutting eyes. I would pretend that they didn't just elbow me in the ribs or stand over me very hauntingly. I just was like, "I'm going do this, whether you like it or not." And I stayed doing it.
I would often call Toronto 'tarantula' because it was like a spider that just wants to eat you whole.- Mohammed Abdulkarim Ali
We have this image of ourselves in Canada as this place that is welcoming, an immigrant's dream, a land of plenty. Did you ever feel that way for you?
Rarely. I think Holland was probably closer to that for me. I rarely remember, in Holland, coming into contact with police. But here, there were cops everywhere. It was shocking. Literally, I'd be standing at Jane and Finch waiting for the bus and a cop would pull up and just start hassling people. I felt it in the schools. I just felt it all around. It was like, "What is this? What on earth is going on?" And I quickly became disillusioned with Toronto. I would often call Toronto "tarantula" because it was like a spider that just wants to eat you whole.
Multiculturalism, to a degree, allows for some kind of social cohesion. But for somebody like myself, it's not per se, practised. I think it's something that is much more spoken. A lot of lip service is paid to it. But I think if we truly had that desire to live amongst each other, we really wouldn't have neighbourhoods like Forest Hill, Rosedale or Bloor West Village, where I feel totally monitored and watched.
Do you have a sense of belonging in Canada now?
Oh absolutely. It's crafted by a desire to not want to destroy myself. Inadvertently, that has brought certain people into my life, who I can lean on, who are willing to let me through their front doors, who are willing to just have me sit on their couch. We laugh, cry and watch a movie together and it's great.
You're not a practising Muslim. Yet faith plays a really big role in your story, in the book and in figuring yourself out. How did you connect through that?
Islam is a very beautiful religion. The way my family practised it — it got mixed up with a whole lot of human pain, suffering and displacement. So in my youth, Islam almost felt like it was complicit in the abuse, for me. There was a time when I just didn't interact with it at all. Any opportunity that I got to mock Islam or its practitioners, I took that opportunity readily, without prompting.
Today, I listen to the Qur'an, take time to myself and I start crying because I remember how it touched me, how it enveloped me. And the funny thing is that the first verse as they were revealed to the Prophet Mohammed, they said: Read in the name of the Lord who created you from nothing more than dust.
So I misunderstood Islam. Islam was always telling me, "Read Mohammed. Read." And I bought into the notion of Islam being a threat to Western civilization, which is obviously underpinned by free inquiry and all of that. When in reality, if I just looked closer to home, those tools were always there. Things on the other side of the window aren't always prettier because they make me neglect what I have at home.
Things on the other side of the window aren't always prettier because they make me neglect what I have at home.- Mohammed Abdulkarim Ali
You write quite eloquently about September 11 in the book. What impact did it have on your life?
I just remember feeling numb. I just remember feeling like, "Oh Lord, something is underfoot." I couldn't put my finger on it. But as soon as the invasion of Afghanistan happened, I was like, "Okay, it's open season on us." And it's been that way now for I don't know how long. What is it, 19 years now it's been going on? For me, it wasn't a war on terror. It was a war on Muslims.
What would you hope for somebody who reads the last page and closes the book?
I wouldn't want to impose on the reader like that. I think my job ends long before they have the finished work in their hands. And I have to make peace with that. Once it leaves my hands, I have no control over it. However people choose to take the stories, apply them, look through my eyes for a few days or weeks — is entirely up to them. That's part of the freedom we all enjoy. We can go to a wonderful place like the library and say, "You know what? Let me give this queen a read. Let's see what she's giving." And hopefully they give me a few snaps of the finger when they're done and keep it moving.
Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.