In Search of Intimacy: Reflections on Abu
On immigration, desi families, and being queer
Arshad Khan’s autobiographical film, Abu (“Father”) (2017) chronicles his family’s story as they migrate to Canada from Pakistan, and as Arshad realizes he is gay.
In response to the myriad conversations sparked by the film, Jamhoor convened a roundtable of four Muslim youth — all of immigrant backgrounds, and two of whom identify as queer. We wanted to take the film as a platform to explore the diverse experiences and perspectives of Muslim queer youth from South Asia, especially in the context of immigration.
This discussion includes spoilers.
What are your first impressions of Abu and what resonated with you?
SS: I really enjoyed the fact that Arshad used films of random everyday moments. It felt like a very important conversation on camera. It was definitely hard to watch and brought stuff back for me, especially around my own parents getting older and becoming more religious. The Farhat Hashmi clips were especially triggering, because that is the path my mom has gone down [similar to Arshad’s].
He felt like he lost his mother — there was a sense of grief — and I felt that too from my own experience. My mom used to like dancing when we were younger; she loved Elton John, she was into music. And now, my brothers beg her to go to an Elton John concert, but she says no. It has come in the way of my relationship with my mom, for sure. So I liked that the film sort of slammed Farhat Hashmi. I perhaps would have been even harsher on her! [laughs].
NA: I was excited about the idea of a brown queer film, but during the screening I had mixed feelings. There were moments where I furrowed my brow or felt uncomfortable. One of them, actually, being the way that he described his mother's journey to becoming religious. It’s interesting that you say he wasn’t harsh enough with Farhat Hashmi. I understand where you’re coming from — you relate it to your own family’s experience. But I felt some of the language that described religiosity versus liberalism sounded like language that liberals may use.
I didn't expect the film to really speak to my experiences of being a queer Muslim, because everyone is different, and in fact I don't feel many of the things he was feeling over his journey. But I thought it was very well done using autobiographical footage. The footage of his father was really jarring, and I could see and feel the intensity of the emotions. I also grapple with the idea of my parents getting older, but not the way he was feeling the pressure to come out to them. Overall, the film was quite a roller coaster. I was happy, sad, confused, hurt, which I think was his aim. So he did a good job.
KK: What I enjoyed about the movie was that even though I don't identify as queer, there were so many themes running through it that you could pick up on — being South Asian and growing up in a place like Canada, having complicated relationships with your parents, being part of the diaspora, coming to terms with all [of it]. At the same time, it was creating or facilitating conversations about queerness which are really important.
What I also liked was the way nostalgia ran through the film’s exploration of family, love, sadness with such fluidity. But there were moments, especially watching it a second time, when I was struck by some binaries. Like where his mom was shown dancing, and then suddenly as religious, without offering enough nuance that her specific form of religiosity has very much to do with being an immigrant woman and facing difficulties finding community. But it was still a really important film that started these conversations.
NS: There is so much in the film that resonates with my own experiences as someone who came to Canada in 2009. My dad didn't get a full-time job, and living in the suburbs where there is a lot of alienation, these experiences are very real. I thought the film did a very good job of telling a difficult and complex story in an entertaining way; this could easily have been a sob story, but it was entertaining, funny, and he did a great job with the music.
When it was re-screened in my city, I sent my parents to watch it too. I feel like a lot more people need to watch this movie in immigrant communities, especially South Asian communities in the suburbs. Because I feel like it speaks to that audience much more than it speaks to a yuppie, “progressive”, downtown-living desi.
On that note, would the rest of you take your parents to see it, and what would they think?
SS: I wish my parents would see it…I don't know what comes of these things because realistically they are going to read the description and be like “No. This is haraam.” [laughs]
NA: Even the thought of broaching the topic of a film that deals with queerness, I can't—I mean, part of me is scared to be associated with it…just to be careful because obviously I am not out to my family.
KK: In our Q&A after a screening, the director suggested that those who are not queer are doing a disservice by not forcing people to watch the film. And I think that's not necessarily fair, because there are so many dynamics that need to be considered for people's safety. I don't think I can trick anyone into watching this and not get kicked out [of my house]. It wouldn't go down well, it won't make them say "oh yeah, that really made us think".
NA: It would be like, “Why are you showing me this?”
KK: Yes, like why are you watching it, what does this say about you? And it would turn into something completely different, that would be full of a lot more hate than love.
NA: It would reinforce the feelings they have.
KK: Yeah, and I think that's where the director’s anger stems from, which is understandable. But we have to think about where our communities are, the diverse natures of our parents, their life experiences, in how they relate to these things.
SS: I agree. I do understand where he is coming from, that we need allies to make our parents watch this stuff. From my experience, family friends, cousins, [and other] people that are supportive of me are actually too afraid to talk to my parents about this. Even though in some ways my dad is receptive. If I wasn't trans he'd be fine; if I was just queer he could shove that in a corner somewhere like, you know, ‘my daughter is focusing on her career, she doesn't live at home’.
NA: That's going to be my family in 5 years, thank you!
SS: But I am trans. It does get frustrating. I have a couple of family friends that get along with my mom and are seen as the ‘right kind of kids’: they’re hijabi, they go halaal. Sometimes I do think, “you have the power to talk to my parents”.
So I get the frustration around allies — needing people who, when it’s safe to do so, get the older generation to watch and talk about these things to make it easier for us. It’s not going to be some white person, it’s going to be our own siblings [and] cousins.
As an example from my family, some distant relatives that I haven't met in a million years saw on Facebook that I'm trans and sat down with my grandparents to have really difficult conversations on my behalf. Its freakin’ amazing that they did all this work. I could never have had that conversation myself because I was told: if your grandparents ever see you with a full grown beard, they will die of a heart attack, and that's it.
What's your take on how the director presented his experience as a queer Pakistani?
NA: Well the film is autobiographical. It’s about his life, his experiences, using personal footage and home videos. It shows a very personal, intimate story of someone's life. But I think it doesn’t help to show this to my family because it would reinforce their ideas of queer rights as a Western ideal.
SS: It’s not a one-story-fits-all kind of thing. It doesn't speak to gender and also to people who are trying to reconcile being religious with being queer. I pray 5 times a day and I'm queer, and it doesn't seem to marry those two at all.
Does it help you reflect on the kinds of conversations you want to have with your desi family?
SS: I feel like it makes it hard, like NA was saying. The film was from his perspective and if I were to use it as a way to talk to my family, they might feel they were being portrayed negatively. They might say, “what's wrong with becoming religious when you're older?”
KK: Something that I really appreciate about the film was the intimacy it portrayed. I think when you take it for itself, Arshad's story with his family, specifically his dad, is a very moving story.
NA: Yeah, I found that too.
KK: Right, all of us cried, multiple times and that's what was compelling about the film — how much love and care is put into families and what ruins them. Even when his mother isn't agreeing with him and she says he's wrong, she's still talking, still engaging, you can see that he still comes to all the family parties.
His dad is on his deathbed and he says, "I'm sorry if I hurt you" and [later] says "I love my children." These things are so real, and we should think about how those feelings can be places to start from when we are trying to have difficult conversations with our families.
SS: But it’s also incredibly difficult for a queer person who’s out to have these conversations with their parents and families. I struggle to talk to my family about anything. We've had to talk about my experience of having medically transitioned as that’s an obvious thing that they can't really hide from.
That's the only reason I've had to have conversations with them and if that had not happened, we would have had a lot less conversation. We never talk about things ever, we never talk about their experiences and their personal lives either, or even mine. Being out makes it even harder.
NA: Yeah, why are our parents so bad at opening up emotionally, like brown fathers are usually bad at showing affection and love. Why do our families find it so hard to have deep conversations? Is it because it’s ingrained to keep your head down, do the work, make it, go to school, get a job and be successful like you don't have time for anything else?
SS: Especially attitudes like: “You are not supposed to talk about how hard things are, we're lucky, we have come here, we had the opportunity. There are people who aren't so lucky”. There is also that pressure, like “How can you be unhappy, we are not in Pakistan anymore, we brought you to this place, I have separated from my spouse for so many years for you guys to have a better life and you are telling me that you are depressed?” So there is a lot of pressure not to express how things might be difficult.
KK: I feel that despite not having those conversations, and despite the silences and shoving of things under the rug, there are still moments of intimacy that arise from the memory of relationships. Like when the director and his dad are not really talking about him being gay, but his dad finds out accidentally, and they have that really stressful conversation where his dad asks him to go and get fixed up, essentially. But years later, on his deathbed, he is still expressing a sense of love.
I’m not saying that's going to be all parents. Nobody can guarantee that someone will come around, but there is that potential of love I feel, which was portrayed in the film and which I really appreciated. There is this hope and yes, it doesn't solve all the hurt, or repair the pain of loss, but it is still something we can't ignore.
SS: Even that part when he is younger, going through a tough time and coming into his queerness, when there was a family party and all the relatives had come over, they were all tense but at some point they spoke about expressing love, intimacy, and closeness and family through food. These were scenes where he really captured those subtle emotions.
KK: Was there a scene that was particularly moving for you guys?
NA: By virtue of my relationship with my father, I guess, the tumultuousness of that dynamic in the film was really painful for me and I keep coming back to it. What really stuck with me was his father's final moments when he couldn't speak and he wrote down, “I love my children”.
NA: Yeah that fucked me up. [laughs] That was really impactful and powerful.
SS: I feel the same way. The moment where he is in the bed and dying. I remember the part where he writes the note, and despite their differences you know he still loves his kid and that's such an important thing that the western notion of coming out just removes. It’s a binary — if you come out your parents are going to disown you and that's it.
But the film showed a different side, which is how I think my parents feel about me as well. They do love me, and I know that, but they are never going to agree with my life. “I don't support this, but I love you regardless and we are just never going to talk about it.” That moment resonated a lot with me. Brown dads love without a lot of words, I guess.
KK: When he was saying parents are like the setting sun, that really fucked with me. There were two scenes that really humanized his parents in my eyes. When they went to Palestine as people who had changed over their life so that something else was giving them a sense of fulfilment, and also when they went back to India and had such an emotional experience of finding their parents’ graves and their house almost in ruins but also being welcomed there. That was really moving for me.
NS: It’s not a specific moment but the whole theme around shame — we don't talk about stuff in our families, we have all these secrets and lies and…he talks about how his sister was abused.
KK: That reminds me of another moving scene when he reflects on his mom crossing out her face in all the pictures, and he thought maybe she is also trying to hide something, something similar that had happened. So like this intergenerational trauma and abuse that carries on and yeah, shame. That was intense.
NS: For me that was very striking, and I think that's a big reason I want people to watch this movie because maybe we will reflect on how toxic it is that we can't talk about stuff that's really toxic.
And as SS said, maybe it wouldn't be the case if we weren't immigrants, because you have to hustle to make it in Canada, and if my family didn't have to go through this traumatic experience of moving to a new country, trying to build a life from scratch and learning a new language, maybe if the only life my parents had known was always living in the same place with the same network [and] social relations, it would have been different. Maybe they would have been a little more secure in talking about stuff.
NA: Absolutely, I think about that all the time. Especially, so many conversations I have with my siblings now, [we] try to think about our parents and how to deal with our relationships with them. I'm always reminded to consider the circumstances of them getting here, literally everything they knew was ripped apart from underneath them.
And would I be the person I am now if I experienced what they went through? So definitely, that is something this film is a good reminder of. There is a point in the film when he talks about coming to Canada, something like “we are in the land of freedom and opportunity, how could this happen, we are in Canada”.
That made me really upset because this is how every immigrant is supposed to think and that's also an ideological tool that Canada uses to lure immigrants to the country — we are multicultural, we are inclusive… but [they don’t say] it’s also racist as hell, and you are going to struggle, and we need your cheap labour to run the fucking country, but we still want you to come. So yeah, he highlights a lot of those contradictions.
KK: I think it takes a lot to put your story out there. It’s very important to recognize that it obviously took a lot out of Arshad, the director, to be so vulnerable on screen in front of people he doesn't know. In his defense, he did put a lot into it and I think it was well done, especially in the format of a 90 minute film, telling a story in this way, it’s not easy at all. If it had been a book or series, we might have gotten a lot of the nuance we are asking for. So that's why it’s important to continue these conversations and to recognize that this film is important, but not the last word.
NA: Yeah, I will also add that as a queer Muslim person I'm already trying to navigate this just by virtue of who I am. Watching the film always helps me get a better sense of what I believe in and what I don't, and raises questions that I might not have an answer for.
And I guess what it left me questioning and longing for, something that I’m still trying to figure out for myself, is what does it look like to hold on to your religion and still be a queer person?
This is one person's way of reconciling that journey. I think he considers himself a humanist, culturally Muslim, but how can we tell these stories while still doing justice to religion or other questions of culture in a way that doesn't end up reinforcing stereotypes.
Nabeel Ahmed is a member of Jamhoor. The participants of this roundtable have been anonymized at their request.