All I wanted was to make my family happy, until I found what made me happy 

PERSONAL ESSAY: An epic love story between an Iraqi Arab and a Punjabi Sikh

My family and I immigrated to Canada in 1998 from Baghdad, Iraq. I was 11 years old at the time. We lived in Coquitlam, British Columbia. Throughout my life, I navigated through Arabic, my mother tongue language, and English, one of the official languages of Canada. As I was trying to reconcile between those languages, I was going through another war, battling between my sexual orientation, culture and religion.

In 2009, I was 22 years old, and I hated myself. I hated that I was attracted to men. In my family’s eyes, I was a sinner, and God wasn’t happy with me. I wanted to make my parents, my aunts, uncles, cousins and family friends happy. I knew that as a Muslim Iraqi, being gay was one of the major sins. I had to change. I turned to religion to help me atone for these sins. My hope was that Islam would help me change and become heterosexual. I didn’t want to deal with the trauma and loss that I knew would come with being gay; I didn’t want to lose my family and loved ones.

I asked my parents if I could go to the mosque with them. They were overjoyed. At our mosque, men were on the ground floor and women prayed on the upper floor. Before our imam’s sermon began, I stood with the other men and boys, shoulder to shoulder, next to my father, and I prayed, my heart racing. I prayed that Allah would give me the light and help me change. I looked down and I could see the turbah that was on the large carpet, facing me, inspiring me to pray and seek Allah for guidance. The turbah is a small piece of clay tablet used during prayers to symbolize the earth. As I knelt, my head touching the turbah, I could vividly smell other men’s feet. I prayed to Allah that he would absolve me from my sinful thoughts. I was submitting myself to Allah and I had hoped to be purified from my deviations.

“I knew that as a Muslim Iraqi, being gay was one of the major sins. I had to change.”

I came home from the mosque feeling rejuvenated. My relationship with Allah led to an inner peace that healed my turmoil. I felt that I could go to sleep, shut my eyes and not have to worry about anything anymore. I had been attending the mosque for several weeks. In my mind, marrying a woman was what would save me from my own queerness. My fate was sealed. My purpose in life was to marry a woman and have children so our family name could be passed on. That day, after I had left the mosque, all I could think about was marriage. The first thing I asked my parents when we arrived home was, “When am I going to get married?” I thought that if I married a woman, I would live a life just like any other straight Muslim Iraqi person. 


My baba reminded me of our upcoming family trip to Amman, Jordan. The trip was for our family to reunite with our aunts, uncles and cousins. But my parents were hoping that I’d meet women, including family friends, there and hopefully fall in love with my future bride. A part of me reminded myself that I had chosen the path of religion, and therefore I couldn’t sin. That same part of my brain was telling me to let my fate guide me, let me marry a woman and be eternally happy. Another part of me was conflicted. I knew that I’d be living a double life, and that even though I’d be making my parents happy, I could never be happy. My parents didn’t know that I was gay. I was always afraid of being transparent with them. We were all living in denial. I reminded myself that the Shaitan (Satan) was the one who was whispering into my ears, pushing me from the straight path. My mom would tell me to say, “Astaghfirullah,” which literally means “I seek forgiveness from Allah.” 

When my family and I arrived in Amman, I was feeling guilty and ashamed of myself. I was going on Manhunt and other gay hookup sites, looking for men to sleep with. I thought that Islam would change me, but it didn’t. I just wanted to meet Arab men to kiss and have sex with. I met a different one each day. I was only sexually interested in men, and not women, and that was becoming more evident. The sight of a hairy-chested man led me down a rabbit hole where I wanted to go, and never leave. I was broken into two conflicting parts: one part thought that marrying a woman was the right thing to do, the other part just had me sleeping with men and doing what I wanted to do, even if I was fighting against it. I would take taxis from one hotel room to an apartment to another. I would sleep with one man after another; half of the time, I didn’t even know what their names were. 

“When my family and I arrived in Amman, I was feeling guilty and ashamed of myself. I was going on Manhunt and other gay hookup sites, looking for men to sleep with.”

After I hooked up with a guy in a hotel room, my baba called me and asked me to meet my family at a restaurant. They wanted me to meet someone. I knew immediately that person could be my future wife. In the taxi, I was feeling grossed out with myself because my body had smears of semen all over it; I hadn’t even taken a shower yet. I asked the taxi driver if he had a cologne in the car, and to my luck, he did. I sprayed some on and thanked him. I got out of the car and slowly walked into the restaurant. I didn’t want to show anyone there that I was having a panic attack, but I was. Inside, I tried to take deep breaths. The first person my eyes gazed at was her: she was the daughter of our family friend. The last time I saw her was back in Iraq, when we were little kids in the ’90s. 

She looked beautiful. I felt sweetened by her honey eyes; her face beamed with this calming energy, her hair was perfectly straight and hanging over her back. I couldn’t keep a straight face, feeling shy around her. I really wanted her to just say that she wanted to marry me so I could move on. Then I wouldn’t have to worry about anything. I noticed she was being polite with me, but I didn’t see any signs that she was attracted to me. I asked her if I could get her info and if she would be interested in chatting again. She said, “Hasan, of course, but just so you know, you’re like my bro.” The moment I heard this word, I knew immediately she didn’t see me the way I wanted her to. I didn’t push. I had too much pride in myself. 

The family trip ended. My family and I returned to Canada. When I came back, I didn’t have any desire to turn to Islam anymore. I felt that there was no point in me trying to change myself when I should just be listening to my heart. All I wanted to do was kiss a man and end up in bed with him. The thought of doing so ignited an energy from within me. I wanted to escape from the reality that I was living at home, because I wasn’t happy there. Inside my room, I felt trapped in the dilemma of wanting to please the two most important people in my life: my parents.

I started going to gay nightclubs and bars in Vancouver. I would drink, party and do substances because I didn’t want to go back home. I wanted this temporary happiness to last forever. I wanted to live in this phase of ecstasy, being in the arms of a man, feeling safe in their arms. At one of the clubs, I ran into a friend whom I had met online and I hadn’t seen in years. He invited me to his birthday that he was sharing with a friend of his. That friend was Tarn. 

When I saw Tarn for the first time, I swear I saw a halo form over his head. In my heart, I knew this was God’s message that Tarn was the one. His tanned skin was glistening, his eyes were inviting, his smile was mesmerizing. He shook my hand. I felt a magnetic wave rush through my body. He was so breathtakingly handsome that I couldn’t keep my eyes off of him. During dinner, with every bite I took, I would glance at Tarn thinking, was there another man this handsome?

“When I saw Tarn for the first time, I swear I saw a halo form over his head.”

After dinner, we went to FIVESIXTY nightclub in downtown Vancouver. Every Saturday night, the club had queer parties filled with hot, sweaty, shirtless men. I was fantasizing about Tarn taking his shirt off in front of me. I imagined he would have a furry chest as I could see the hair sticking out of his shirt. We danced to Lady Gaga’s “Judas” that night. I wanted to fall in his arms … I wanted to smell his scent. Although he kept smiling at me, he was reserved. We drank, partied together and then ended up at an after-hours club. When we stepped foot outside the club in the morning, the sun was blinding me. He asked if I needed a ride home. I immediately accepted the offer. We drove all the way to Coquitlam, where I lived with my family. 

On the way home, I was tempted to hold his hand. I gave in my temptation. I felt his thick, strong arm. I felt safe. As we stopped outside my house, we sat in the car for a few minutes. I was hoping he would reach over and kiss me. I even closed my eyes, waiting for that moment to happen. It didn’t. Instead, he just said, “I will see you later.” 

Sitting on my bed in my room, I kept texting Tarn nonstop, one message after the other. I opened up about my feelings for him:

Hey babe, I had such an amazing night with you. I’m so happy that I met someone like you. You are so amazing and sexy. I want to be with you.

Hey babe, it’s Hasan, not sure if you have my number saved. I was just messaging to see if you got my text. 

Hey Tarn, it’s me, Hasan. Did you get my other text? You never replied. Is everything okay? Can you please just reply to me, tell me you made it home okay. Why aren’t you answering my texts?

Tarn? You there? Look, I love you. I just want to be with you. Okay? Is that wrong? Hello?

I was waiting for his response, but to my disappointment, he never replied. Not even the following week. I was worried, and I started feeling regretful that I had been so open. I sent him another text:

Hey dude, I know I might’ve come off as too strong but can you at least have the decency to reply to me? Just say something.

Finally, he replied. Hey, Hasan, sorry for my late reply. Look you’re cool and all but I’m not looking for anything right now. 

What do you mean?

I just broke up with my ex, Bryan. We were together for five years. I’m not ready for another one.

Okay, I get it. Can we be friends at least?

Sure, yeah.

For the next few months, I had to tell myself repeatedly that Tarn was just my friend. I had to control my emotions. Tarn and I hung out a lot. We partied together a lot. One evening, I went with Tarn to his family home for the first time. Tarn’s mom, Harjeet, was home, making chicken curry with rice. Her smile radiated warmth. She wore a kara, a bangle made out of steel, on her left arm. Tarn explained to me that she wore it as a reminder that a Sikh should not do anything that the Guru, the teacher, wouldn’t approve of. I saw a strong woman, who was a devout Sikh, rooted in her Punjabi culture. She insisted I stay over for dinner. I was hoping she would offer, as the chicken curry looked so delicious. We ate together. Harjeet opened up to me right away, talking about Tarn’s childhood and how she raised her kids as a single mom. I learned that his parents were separated. Harjeet spoke highly of Tarn and how he was independent at a young age. It made me really appreciate him and his wonderful family. After dinner, Tarn and I went to his room. I asked him if his mother and sister knew that he was gay. He said that his mom had caught him having sex with his ex many times. She eventually accepted him. As for his sister, she had always known and was always accepting too. Tarn told me that he never came out to his father. 

As I got to know Tarn and his family, I felt a sentimental thread that was pulling me closer to him. My heart was palpitating when I asked him on a date. At first he seemed unsure about it, but somehow I convinced him. We watched the silent movie The Artist. I was pretending to watch the movie, but my mind was in the gutter. I was imagining him reaching over, our lips, tongues interlocked. I wanted him to be passionate with me, and to take my clothes off. I saw ourselves being the only ones in the theatre, though there were a few people sitting ahead of us. We were sitting in the back row. I whispered, “Can I kiss you?”

“Go for it.”

I felt my blood rushing toward my lips, racing away from my heart, as I couldn’t feel my heartbeat anymore. I closed my eyes, and gave him a peck on his lips. 

“Is that the best you can do?”

“No, I’m a good kisser, I promise.”

I kissed him again, his lips embedded into mine. That moment felt like it could last forever. 

“I was going to ask you; would you be my date for my birthday?” I asked him.

“Yes, I will.”

“The closer that I became with Tarn, the more I knew I had to face my family. My love for Tarn gave me the courage to come out to them.” 

My birthday, September 9, 2011, fell on a Friday. I planned my birthday just like his, dinner at Moxies and then FIVESIXTY to dance. This time, it felt special because Tarn wasn’t a reserved stranger—he was officially my date. I was so happy to hold his hand, and be open about it to the world around me. As we drank and partied, in the back of my mind, I worried about my family. The closer that I became with Tarn, the more I knew I had to face my family. My love for Tarn gave me the courage to come out to them. 

After the party ended in the morning, I became anxious, knowing that I had to go home and face my family. Tarn gave me a ride home. When I stepped inside my house, my mother approached me, asked me where I had been, what I was doing and why I was so late. Her eyes showed her disappointment. She dreamed of a son that I couldn’t be. 

“Mama, there’s something I need to tell you.”

“What?” She spoke to me in Arabic. “Maybe I don’t want to know.”

“But you need to know the truth, Mama. I’m gay.”

“What? No!” She started crying. “Who are you? You’re not my son. You can’t be …”

“Mama, I’m sorry.”

My baba was at his shop when this all happened. Mama called him, crying hysterically. I knew I couldn’t stay at the house anymore. I called Tarn and asked if I could stay with him for a few days. He said, “Not sure—I’ll check with Mom and call you back.” Minutes later, he called me back and said, “She said for sure you can stay with us!” I managed to pack some clothes, other items from my room in a garbage bag and left, tears glistening in my eyes.

When I saw Tarn’s mom Harjeet again, I felt her kindness and motherly love. She treated me like her son from day one. She prayed every evening, reading path from a gutka, which is a prayer book of the Sikh religion. Tarn had said that they never really talked about his queerness. At times, I felt out of place when they spoke in Punjabi. Other times, I was missing my family, missing my mom’s cooking. My love for Tarn kept me going. We slept together in his room. After we had sex, I would cry, missing my parents. I wished that they would accept me. I wished that they would love Tarn the way I did. 

My father wanted to see me, as he wanted to try to save me. He would send text messages, expressing that he still loved me and he needed to talk to me. We went out for dinner, and Baba kept telling me that he and my mother loved me, that they were okay with Tarn being my boyfriend. They just didn’t want anyone from our extended family to know. They wanted me to keep it all a secret. He also reminded me that if I ever changed my mind and married a woman, he would fully support me financially, and would have let me have the apartment he owned in Vancouver all to myself. I appreciated the offer, but for me, it was never about the money or materialistic things. It was about love and living as my authentic self. I didn’t want to live a double life. I wasn’t ashamed of my queer love. 

As my love for Tarn kept growing, and our relationship flourished, I finally met his cousins and extended family. They were all so kind and welcoming. I became more involved in his family and culture. One day, I asked if I could join them and go to a Gurdwara. I sat down on the floor, listening to the raga, a religious musical melody around which the Sikh holy scripture, Guru Granth Sahib Ji, is composed. As I was listening, I was reminiscing of the Islamic yearning, how similar our religions were. 

One night, while we were sitting on bed together, after being together for six months, Tarn asked me if I wanted to be with him forever. I said yes without any hesitation. Tarn and I held each other’s hands, the tears falling from our eyes. We reassured ourselves of how much we loved each other. I reminded him how I saw my whole life through him when I first met him. We wondered about our families—would they accept us? Tarn gave me the harsh truth that we shouldn’t care about what others think, and we shouldn’t sacrifice our own happiness to make our families happy. We fantasized about having our own child one day and how we would raise them with all the love in the world,  Inshallah-Waheguru, which means “God willing” in both of our religions. 

“Yes, we will teach them Arajabi.” We both laughed. “Arajabi” is a term we coined for a mix of the Arabic and Punjabi languages. 

We told Tarn’s mom about our engagement. At first, she was against the idea. She said that she would never accept it. I was heartbroken. 

Tarn and I got engaged. We had a small gathering to celebrate our love. Sixty of our friends, and our sisters joined us. He wore a tuxedo with a pink dress shirt and tie. I wore purple. As we exchanged rings, I knew that listening to my heart had been the right thing to do. At the engagement party, my sister-in-law Kiran offered to be our surrogate when we were ready to start a family. It was such a beautiful gift to offer. 

My father found out about the engagement photos. He was rattled. My parents and my extended family all disowned me once again, officially, via text message. 

Tarn and I got married on July 9, 2016. My in-laws and most of Tarn’s extended family came to the wedding and supported us. My sisters and some of my extended family and family friends attended the wedding too. It was a blue-and-silver wedding. Most importantly, the wedding fulfilled my dream of marrying my soulmate, Tarn. There, Kiran offered once again to be our surrogate if we wanted a child that would have both of our genes. 

When we were ready to have a family, Kiran stepped up. She gave us the greatest gift anyone could give: the gift of life. Tarn and I are now blessed with our beautiful son, Malek, who is going to turn three years old in October. 

Tarn and I are teaching Malek Arajabi.

Iraqi-Canadian author Hasan Namir graduated from Simon Fraser University with a BA in English and received the Ying Chen Creative Writing Student Award. He is the author of God in Pink (2015), which won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Fiction and was chosen as one of the Top 100 Books of 2015 by the Globe and Mail. His work has also been featured on Huffington Post, Shaw TV, Airbnb, in the film God in Pink: A Documentary, Breakfast Television Toronto, CTV Morning Live Saskatoon. He was recently named a writer to watch by CBC Books. He is also the author of poetry book War/Torn (2019, Book*hug Press), the children's book The Name I Call Myself (2020, Arsenal Pulp Press) and Umbilical Cord (Book*hug Press). Hasan was the 2021 LGBTQ2s+ guest curator for Word Vancouver. He lives on the unceded territories of the Kwantlen, Katzie, Semiahmoo and Tsawwassen First Nations. with his husband and their child. He speaks English and Arabic. 

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