You Can Go Home Again, but Should You?
A Naptown Tale by Altimexis
It was late on a Saturday night and ammi was at work, as usual. She is the nursing supervisor for a pediatrics unit at St. Vincent’s Hospital and, as a good faith gesture to her fellow nurses, always working the PM shift on Saturdays to set an example for others. The reality is that she was doing it as much for me as for her. Randy often spent the night on weekends, and she knew we liked to have our privacy. By the time she arrived home, Randy and I would be fast asleep, and sated.
It was really cool that ammi was so accepting of Randy’s and my relationship. Most mothers have a hard enough time dealing with having a gay son, but for a Muslim woman, it is particularly difficult. I still find it hard to believe what she went through, turning her back on her religion and on my father and my sister to help me escape. Sometimes I wonder if it was out of a sense of guilt - after all, she was the one who discovered Fareed and me in bed. She was the one who went to the Imam and it was because of her that Fareed and I were both sentenced to death by stoning.
God, as much as I love Randy, and I love him with all my heart, I still miss Fareed. I still cannot believe how he must have suffered during his final moments, and then the indignity of being cremated. At least his parents had the good sense to ship his ashes to me, so that I was able to give him a decent burial with a meaningful service.
Even though ammi betrayed us, she came through in the end, helping her only son to escape the fatwa the Imam had placed on my head. Then with devious determination, she helped us get asylum in America.
I miss my home in Pakistan, but I am happy living here in the American Midwest. Who would have ever thought I would fall in love with a Jewish boy? Randy is so sweet, kind, and loving. He is truly my soul mate.
We both just started our senior year of high school. We are straight A students and both plan to be doctors. Someday, we hope to go into practice together. Once we can afford it, we plan to adopt gay teenagers whose parents have abandoned them. No one should be unloved.
Tears came to my eyes as I thought of how we could one day be in a position to intervene in situations such as the one I faced when I was discovered. We could have even saved Fareed, had we been aware of his plight if we had been around back then.
“What’s wrong?” My lover asked as he gently stroked the sparse hairs that had recently sprouted around the nipples on my chest. We were lying on my bed and cuddling, having just finished making love for the second time this evening. Before I could even answer, he asked, “You thinking about Fareed?”
Randy knew me so well. “Yes,” I answered. “I am sorry, Randy. I love you no less, just because I miss him. Sometimes I just cannot help myself.”
“I know, baby,” Randy said. “It’s OK. I understand. I know you’ll always love Fareed, and that only endears you to me more. I love you, Altaf. You’re everything to me.”
Randy gently stroked my hair and then pulled me into a wonderful, passionate kiss.
We were startled when the telephone rang. It was after eleven PM, so I immediately knew something had to be wrong.
“Hello?” I answered.
“Altaf?” a female voice asked. She sounded tentative, and distant. “Altaf, is that you?” she asked a bit more loudly.
“Who is this?” I asked.
“It is Zara,” the female voice said.
“Zara,” I practically shouted back into the phone as my heart nearly pounded its way out of my chest. Randy sat up suddenly in bed. I had talked to him enough times about my family, that now he knew my sister was on the line.
“Altaf, I am calling at this hour because I know ammi is at work.” It had been so long since I had heard anyone speak in my native dialect of Urdu that it took me a minute to process what she was saying. She continued, “This message is only for you, because ammi cannot come back. It is about abbu. He is very sick, Altaf. He is dying.”
“No!” I cried out.
“It is true,” she said. “He has pancreatic cancer, and will not live more than a month or two. He has made a final request. He wants to see you one last time. I know it will be difficult for you to travel here, but the Imam will honor the wishes of a dying man. You will be safe. It is also a chance for you to make amends. It is, after all, Ramadan.”
“I . . . I do not know what to say,” I responded in my native tongue.
“Say you will come. I will send you a ticket. You do not need to do anything else.”
“I will need to talk to ammi.”
“Of course you do. Our telephone number has not changed. Call me when you have made up your mind, one way or the other. Promise me that, OK?”
“I will, Zara.”
I felt like I was in a daze as I hung up the phone. Randy gently squeezed my shoulder and drew me into a hug as I sat there, motionless. I knew I should probably be crying, but the tears would not come. I was in shock.
“What is it, Altaf?” my boyfriend asked.
“My father,” I said as I tried to form the words. “My father has pancreatic cancer.”
“I’m so sorry, Altaf,” Randy gently whispered in my ear. “I know he abandoned you in your time of greatest need, but he’s still your father, and I know you must still love him. I know how this must hurt you, deep inside.”
“He wants me to come,” I said. “He wants to see me one last time.”
“Of course you can’t,” Randy stated simply as if it were obvious.
“I wish it were that simple, Randy, but I am a Muslim. Where I come from, it is not a question. When a parent is in need, you go without question. To forsake the request of a dying parent would be a horrible sin. Abbu . . . that is the Urdu word we use for ‘my father’ . . . is at the doorstep of Allah, as they say. It is an obligation for me to help him on his journey.”
“But there’s a fatwa on you. If you go back, they’ll kill you!”
“If I do not go back, I might as well be dead,” I tried to explain. “Yes, there is a risk, but they will not hurt me so long as abbu wishes me to be alive. Also, it is Ramadan, and they will not do anything during the holiday. At least I do not think they will.”
“But your father turned his back on you before. How do you know he won’t do so again?” Randy asked with sincere worry in his voice.
“Abbu would not ask to see me if he did not want me to be alive,” I answered.
“You’ll miss school,” Randy warned me.
“You know very well I can make it up, and I know you will help me,” I answered.
“I’m going with you. I’m not letting you go alone,” Randy said suddenly.
“Randy, I love you, but Pakistan is no place for a Jewish boy. Your life would be in such danger. Believe me, I would rather have you with me, but I know you will be with me in spirit,” I reassured him.
“Altaf, I’m gonna worry so much the whole time you’re gone,” Randy added. “Not just for your safety, but you’ll be dredging up so many ghosts from the past. It’ll be hard on you . . . your past life will haunt you. I know you’re strong, but I’ll still worry.”
“Do not worry, Randy,” I replied. “Your love helps make me strong.”
Just then, we heard the distinct sounds of my mother entering the townhouse we rented.
“We should get dressed and go talk to my mother,” I suggested.
We greeted ammi downstairs in the kitchen a short while later, as she was sipping a glass of mint tea.
“Well, boys, it is not often I catch you up on a Saturday night,” my mother remarked.
“It’s always a pleasure, ammi,” Randy said, calling my mother by the traditional Urdu word as if she was his mother, too. I liked that - he truly thought of her as his mother-in-law, even though we were still only seventeen.
Turning to me, Randy asked, “Would you like me to go?”
Thinking about it for a second, I answered, “Perhaps it would be best.”
“Call me tomorrow, please?” he asked as he implored me with his eyes.
“You know I will,” I answered, and then I gave him a gentle peck on the lips, right in front of ammi. She was totally accepting of our relationship.
After Randy had left, ammi asked, “Is something wrong?”
Finally, the tears started to flow as I spoke. “I got a call from Zara. It was about abba-jaan. He has pancreatic cancer. He only has one . . . maybe two months . . .”
“NO!” my ammi screamed out in anguish as tears streamed from her eyes. I grabbed her in a tight embrace and we both cried for several minutes.
After a while, when ammi’s tears had subsided somewhat, she started to speak to me.
“Altaf, when we left Pakistan, I could not tell you the whole truth about why we left. If the Imam had found out, or even the authorities, it could have been dangerous for abbu, and perhaps for Zara. We could not take a chance.
“I made a terrible mistake, Altaf. When I found you with Fareed, my first thought was to get you help. I thought that by going to the Imam, I could make things right . . . that he would remove your sins and tell me how to make you attracted to girls. I did not know how heartless he would be. I was stunned when he said you must die for your sin. It was a nightmare.
“When we got home, I am sure you must have heard abbu and me arguing. Being a physician, he explained to me that homosexuality is not a choice. You were born that way and it must be part of Allah’s plan for you. Neither one of us wanted you to die, but what your father told me to do was very hard. It was he who said I must leave Pakistan . . . that you and I must leave Pakistan alone. He argued that we could never leave as a family, but that two of us might be able to escape.
“I did not want to leave my shauhar. I loved him. I still do, but it was the only way to save your life, Altaf. Abbu and I both sacrificed our love to save your life. I know you think abbu turned his back on you, but he did not. He is every bit as responsible for your being here today as am I.”
By the time my ammi had finished, the tears were flowing from my eyes like geysers. I did not even know this wonderful man, my father, and I was about to lose him forever.
“Ammi,” I said, “Zara told me abbu wants to see me before he dies. I have to go. I know it is dangerous, but I have to do this.”
“Of course you do, Altaf. You know I cannot go with you. I would be arrested and executed for the crime of leaving my husband. It will be safe for you, but only while abbu is alive. You must also have the proper visa to return to the U.S. Leaving is not a problem . . . you are still considered a Pakistani citizen, but you might not be able to return without the proper visa. You should contact Immigration and Naturalization before you leave.”
“I had not thought of that, but you are right,” I said.
When I had first left Pakistan, we first flew to London and lived there for some time while we tried to arrange for a visa to immigrate to America. Finally, after several months, we were able to get a visa by seeking asylum. There was a precedent for gay men who could prove they were under a fatwa, and my aunt, who lived outside of Detroit, was willing to sponsor us. When she discovered the real reason we left Pakistan, however, she threw us out of her house, which is how we came to live several hundred kilometers away.
Now I was going back to Pakistan, and things were so much more complicated than I ever dreamed they would be. Although I had asylum, I was not yet an American citizen, and would not be eligible for citizenship for another three years. I was still a Pakistani and subject to the same rules and regulations that all immigrants faced, and unless my visa was up-to-date, I would not be allowed to return to America if I left the country.
Therein lay a huge problem. When we immigrated, my aunt agreed to sponsor us, but now she would not give us the time of day. Ammi, however, had her own green card and a job, and was sponsored by the hospital. With a critical shortage of nurses in America, she did not have to worry. As a minor and her dependent, there was no problem with changing my visa status, but such things take time. We did not have time. My father might not live long enough for the wheels of bureaucracy to turn at the INS. We had no choice but to hire a lawyer and pay for a rush application, citing a family emergency. All told, it cost us more than a thousand dollars to change my visa status. It was money we did not really have, but I only had one father, and I would never have a chance to see him again.
After a tearful send-off with ammi and Randy at the airport, my flights to Pakistan seemed to take forever. This time, I flew out of Cincinnati to Lahore via Rome and Quatar. The trip took nearly an entire day. My sister was kind enough to purchase a business class ticket for me, which made all the difference in the world. I could have never afforded to fly business class on my own. I could have never afforded to fly back to Pakistan on my own, period. I could not believe how much she paid - it was more than ten thousand dollars! But instead of being packed in like sardines, we actually had room to spread out in seats that nearly lay flat enough to sleep. And instead of having only one movie to watch at a time, there was a whole entertainment system built into each seat, and we could pick from a whole list of movies and watch any of them whenever we wanted. The food was great, too, and they did not even ask for I.D. to serve me wine.
After my plane touched down in Lahore at the crack of dawn, I still had to take an overnight train ride to reach our remote village up in the mountains of northwest Pakistan. Again, my sister paid for a first class compartment that I had to myself, so I traveled in style.
By the time my train left Lahore in the late morning, I was exhausted and feeling the full effects of jetlag. After settling into my compartment, I lay down for what I’d intended to be a short nap, but ended up sleeping through lunch. By the time I made my way to the dining car at dinnertime, I was famished. I was seated with a young man who appeared to be about my age, or maybe a year or two older. Perhaps he was a university student, I thought to myself as I took my seat. He looked up at me and smiled, but I saw something else in his eyes in that moment . . . a hunger, perhaps . . . that made me feel almost violated.
He introduced himself as Farooq, and asked me how far I was going. I told him the name of my village, and he told me he was going only slightly more than half as far. It turned out that he was in his first year at Oxford when his father was injured in a car accident. As the oldest son, he was obligated to return home to care for him and to help with the family business. I knew all too well the sense of duty he felt. There was no question where his responsibilities lay. His life’s ambitions were crushed - his family came first.
I sensed that for Farooq, it was even more than that, however. “Is there someone special you had to leave behind?” I asked.
“You mean like a girlfriend?” Farooq responded.
“A girlfriend . . . or a boyfriend,” I corrected.
“Is it that obvious?” he asked.
“Only to someone who has been there,” I answered.
Farooq’s eyes widened in shock as his mind registered what I had just said. “You mean you are . . .”
“Yes, but I have to be very careful while I am here. There is still a fatwa hanging over my head. I was only fifteen when I was caught with my best friend . . . well, I do not think you want the details. My ammi and I managed to escape. My best friend did not. Now it is only because my abbu is dying that I am being permitted to return. Still, I fear for my safety. I must not overstay my welcome.”
“My greatest fear is being found out,” Farooq stated. “My parents would never understand. They would throw the first stones. I know they expect me to get married and give them grandchildren, but how can I? I am just not interested. Sometimes, I feel so much lust around men, I cannot stand it.” Lowering his voice, he continued, “I masturbate all the time to fantasies of men I see in the tube station and in the park. Oxford was heaven, as I could finally live some of those fantasies. I do not know what I am going to do.”
“You know there are other gay men in Pakistan,” I said, “even in your own town. Ten percent of all men are gay, even here, and if you are careful, you will find someone who shares your interests and your passion.”
“Or die trying,” Farooq laughed. “It will just be so hard, you know? Living in the closet, sneaking around behind my parents’ backs and eventually behind our wives’ backs. And I still do not know how I will ever be able to get it up for my wife.”
“Fortunately in our culture, there is little she can do to complain,” I noted.
“And that is supposed to make me feel better?” Farooq asked.
“A man with a conscience,” I sighed. “You belong in the West, but your family needs you.”
As our desserts were served, Farooq asked, “So would you like to get together after dinner?” Somehow, I knew he was not just interested in a friendly game of cards.
“Farooq, you are a nice guy, but I have a boyfriend. Actually, he is even more than that. We have been together for a year now, and we have even decided to get married the week after our high school graduation. I am still not used to calling him that, but I guess that makes him my fiancé.”
“Wow, that is fantastic. Where do you live that allows gay men to marry?” Farooq asked.
“Well, where I live in the American Midwest, gay marriage is not legal any more than it is here, but gay marriage is legal in the United States in California and Massachusetts, and it is legal in Canada. Some states like New York do not allow gay marriage, but recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere. What Randy and I hope to do is at least go to a university in a state that recognizes gay marriage, if not in California or Massachusetts, so we can live as a married couple.”
“That is so cool,” Farooq said. “I envy you guys.”
“Thank you, Farooq. Seriously, I wish you the best of luck.”
I turned in for the night and before I knew it, the conductor was waking me up for breakfast.
“Over here, Altaf!” my sister shouted from the end of the platform as I disembarked from the train.
“Zara!” I shouted out as I dropped my bags and ran to her, embracing her in a bear hug when I reached her.
Letting go, I stood back and looked at her smiling face. She looked positively radiant. Glowing, in fact. I stood back a little further and noticed that she was with child!
“When did this happen?” I asked.
“I am about five months along,” she said.
“Why did you not tell me before?” I asked.
“I wanted it to be a surprise. . . . You are not the best at writing, you know.”
“I know,” I admitted with a guilty look on my face, “but I do have to be careful. I did not want to bring grief to you and Saleem, lest the authorities open the mail. Speaking of which, where is Saleem?”
“He is right over there, with your bags,” my sister answered. Sure enough, standing with my bags where I had dropped them, was a handsome young man with black hair, dark eyes, and a warm smile. I had not had a chance to say goodbye to my sister or her husband when I had left Pakistan two years earlier, so I had no idea how Saleem felt about me. I knew from the few letters Zara had sent me, that she still loved me and missed me terribly, but Saleem’s feelings were a mystery to me. Homosexuality was such a taboo in Muslim society that I feared he would hate me, but there he was, smiling at me as if I were his long lost, best friend.
As I approached Saleem, he reached out to me and grasped my hand firmly, but then grabbed me and hugged me tightly to his chest.
“You are still my brother, Altaf, no matter what,” he said. “Mohamed, the prophet, would have never turned his back on you, and neither will I.”
Tears sprang from my eyes. I could not help it. It filled my heart with joy to know that my family still loved me, and that not all Muslims felt as the Imam did.
As we separated, Saleem said, “We must get you home. Abbu is anxious to see you.”
I tried to reach for my bags, but Saleem would not let me, as he grabbed them leaving me to walk with my sister. They had brought our family’s Mercedes station wagon that I remembered from years before. It was getting old, but was still in excellent condition, and had plenty of room for all of us and my luggage.
As we drove through the countryside, I reflected aloud, “I never thought I would come back here.”
“Since Bhutto’s assassination, things have only got worse, Altaf,” my sister told me. “The Taliban are everywhere. If you thought it was bad before, at least Musharraf kept things in check to some degree, but the new regime is bending over backwards to appease the Taliban and avoid civil war. I dare not go out in public without a head scarf . . . not that I would anyway, but to do so now would be suicide. How long, I wonder, before I must wear a burka?
“Once abbu is . . . once he is gone, I do not think we can stay here. Perhaps we will go to Lahore, or maybe even India . . . even that would be safer.”
“If you had a nursing degree, you could come to America,” I pointed out.
“I had not thought of that,” she said, “but with a little one on the way, now is not a good time to go back to school.”
Soon, we arrived at the home where I grew up. It was very large by the standards of our village, and quite modern. My father’s office, where he saw his patients, was in front, and the servant’s quarters were at the back. The main family living area was upstairs. Noticing something missing, I asked my sister, “What happened to the satellite dish?”
“It is too dangerous to be seen with one, now,” she explained. “The Imam has called them the tool of the devil.”
“But how else can you get Al Jazeera?” I asked. “Surely the Imam would not want to restrict access to that.”
“Actually, the Taliban are calling Al Jazeera the tool of the West, now,” Zara explained. “The programs are not extreme enough.”
“Unbelievable,” was all I could say, recalling how biased against the West Al Jazeera seemed to me, now that I had been living in the States.
“Let us go inside and see Father,” my sister suggested.
I readily agreed, and we moved inside, out of the hot sun. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for what awaited me inside. It was bad enough seeing abbu as he was, a mere shadow of the man I knew, but sitting next to him at his bedside was the Imam who had sentenced me to die.
The look in the Imam’s eyes as he glanced up at me when I entered the room was one I will never forget. It was not one of disgust or even pity. It was not a look of hatred or loathing. It was not even what I would call a look of contempt. It was a look that a man would give the condemned.
Turning back toward my father, the Imam said, “I will leave you two alone,” and he left the room.
“As-Salaam-Ailaikum abbu, I came as soon as I could.”
“Walaikum Salaam, beta. I know you did, and I am glad for that. I wanted to see you one last time. You look well. You have become quite a young man.”
“Try telling that to the Imam,” I said in a whisper.
“The Imam is a fool. He believes his view of the Quran is the only way, and that he is the messenger of Allah himself! Understand Altaf . . . I greatly respect the man . . . but it was not up to him to decide the fate of two boys and as a physician, I have known others like you. I know enough about genetics to understand that it is not a moral weakness or a choice. It is as much a part of you as is your shoe size.
“Of course, the Imam would have never listened. Ammi and I argued about what to do into the night, and in the end, I had to make a very painful decision. We could have never escaped together as a family, and you were far too young at the time to make it on your own. Ammi could have never survived here in Pakistan on her own; I did not want to saddle Zara and Saleem with taking care of her. As difficult as it would be, I felt if she could just get the two of you safely to her sister in America, all would be OK.”
“I never knew, abbu,” I said. “I thought you did not care, and that it was ammi who left you and rescued me.”
“I know, son, and I am sorry, but we thought it would be better if you thought that. If anything had happened and you were stopped, if the truth came out, we all might have been executed, including your sister and Saleem. We could not take a chance on that.”
“I understand,” I said, “but why did you not try to save Fareed?”
My father grasped my hand and squeezed it gently as he said, “We did, son. I called Fareed’s father and told him that ammi was leaving me and taking you with her, and that you would be stopping by first thing in the morning to say goodbye to Fareed. I asked him to please not tell anyone, and I suggested that if he let Fareed go with you, no one would have to know. His response was that while he would not try to stop you, he could not bring himself to go against the Imam when it came to his own son. At least I was able to talk him into sending you his ashes. Otherwise Fareed’s body would have been dumped in the countryside.”
My eyes widened in shock. “That was you who did that? I went through Hell when I opened that box and realized what was inside, but I am grateful that you did it. My boyfriend helped me deal with Fareed’s death and with everything. He got me to start going to the local mosque . . . we have both been going . . . and we even buried Fareed’s remains in a traditional Muslim ceremony.”
“I knew you would know what to do. I had faith in you,” my father said as he again squeezed my hand. “So how is ammi doing?” he asked.
“She is well,” I answered. “After my aunt asked us to leave when she discovered I am gay, we moved to a city about five hours away by automobile. It is a very nice city in the American Midwest. It is very flat where we live, and the city is surrounded by farmland, but the city itself is quite built up and surrounded by suburbs. We live in one of the nicer suburbs, on the north side.
“We live in an older townhouse . . . well, it is old by American standards, meaning it was built about forty years ago . . . and ammi works in a Catholic hospital about two kilometers away. She is the head nurse on a pediatric floor. She likes the work very much. In many ways, I think she feels it is more fulfilling than it was working here in your office, although sometimes I see her crying, and I am sure it is because she misses her home, and she misses you. However, she has a lot of responsibility in her job at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Nurses are in heavy demand in America and she is a very good nurse.”
“She is an outstanding nurse,” my father added.
“Yes, that is true. She was promoted very quickly in her first job in Detroit, because she was so good at it, and then when we had to move, she had no trouble getting her current job. It pays very well, too, and it is very convenient . . . she can even walk there in nice weather, but there is a bus that goes right there, and of course we both have cars.”
“You have a car?” My father asked, seemingly stunned.
“Abbu, this is America we are talking about. Everyone has a car if they can afford one. I had to work many long hours at Borders Bookstore to save up enough money to buy an old one, but it is very difficult to get around without a car. OK, I admit it, I have become spoiled like most American teenagers. I could easily get around by bicycle or bus, just as I would if I were here, but Americans are lazy. That may be a bad thing, but I live peacefully with people of all religions and races, and that is priceless. Yes, America needs to lose its arrogance and self-righteous attitude, but there is a reason Americans have that attitude, and the rest of the world could learn a lot on how to get along with each other from America.”
“You are not the same young man who left here two years ago,” abbu noted.
“I suppose I am not,” I said. “I know I think more like an American, but I still have most of the same values I had as a Pakistani, and I am still very much a Muslim. I may not attend prayers every day, mainly because the mosque is so far from our home, but Randy and I do go to the Mosque every week.”
“Randy is your boyfriend?” my father asked, and I simply nodded. “That is not a Muslim name.”
“When I first met him, I thought he was a Muslim because he had Arabic features, but it turned out he is Jewish.”
“Your boyfriend is a Jew!” my father practically shouted, although in his weakened state, it was still barely audible.
“Not everything you hear about people is true, abbu,” I replied. “In America, we talk about discrimination that results from prejudice. Prejudice literally means to pre-judge. America is made up of many different peoples and so we are always forced to confront our prejudices and to challenge them. Jews and Muslims are in constant contact in America. In Dearborn Heights, outside of Detroit, where we lived with my aunt, their elected representative to Congress is a Jew, even though the majority of people that live in his district are Muslims. They elect him time and time again because he is a moderate who votes for their interests.
“I have met Jews who hate us just because we are Muslim, and fortunately they are in the minority in America. Randy is wonderful. He supports Palestinian statehood. He supports removal of the West Bank settlements. The only thing we disagree on is the right of return, and on that issue we agree to disagree, and we both understand each other’s point of view.
“We have been together for a year now, and we love each other very much. Abbu, Randy is my soul mate. We both intend to go to medical school together. We hope to go to school in a state where gay marriage is legal or at least recognized. We plan to marry after we graduate from high school and before we enter university. I guess that makes Randy my fiancé.”
Shaking his head, my father said, “I do not approve of marrying outside of the faith, but then I am not sure how I feel about gay marriage, either. Marrying a Jew?” He continued to shake his head slowly trying to contemplate the vision I had described.
“He goes with me every week to the Mosque, and I go with him every week to his synagogue. Abbu, you have to remember that it was our Imam who sentenced me to die . . . not just to die, but to be stoned to death. There is still a fatwa that hangs over my head. If it were not for Randy, I would have entirely lost my faith in Allah. It was Randy who brought me back to our religion. It was Randy who brought me back to the Mosque and it was Randy who helped me to make arrangements for Fareed’s burial. If you could have only met Randy, you would know that he is one of the finest human beings you will ever meet. I love him with all my being.”
“Altaf, I am a dying man. It is not for me to judge you or to tell you whom you can marry. If this young man Randy, makes you happy and if he is everything you say he is, then of course you have my blessing if that is what you want. I just want you to be happy, and be at peace with Allah.”
“Of course, abbu.”
“Altaf, I need to rest,” my father said, “and I am sure you must be tired from your long journey. Go and put your things away, and get some food to eat, and then take a nap. We can talk some more in the afternoon.”
“Thank you, abbu. I will do that,” I answered.
Actually, the servants had already moved my bags into my old bedroom, so checking to see that everything was there, I went down to the kitchen. Unfortunately, the Imam was seated at the kitchen table - a most unwelcome sight. Set out on the table was a very nice lunch of assorted cheeses, fried spicy dumplings, and other traditional foods.
“Well, it is nice to see that even the sinner can honor the wishes of a dying man,” the Imam said as I sat down at the table.
“The only sin I committed was not saving the life of my best friend,” I answered with a quiet boldness that shocked even me.
“SILENCE!” the Imam shouted. “I did not ask you what you thought. The Quran is very clear about what you and Fareed did and what your punishment must be, and the only reason you are here right now is because your father wanted to see you before he died. I am obligated to honor his wishes, as detestable as they may be. Do not challenge my authority on these matters, Altaf. You have no idea what you are talking about.”
“On the contrary, Imam,” I retorted. I could not help myself . . . I have lived in America too long. “I have read the Quran in depth, and I pray in the Mosque every week with my boyfriend. Even he is welcome there. It is a much more progressive mosque. Although they still may not condone homosexuality, the Imam at our mosque believes the admonition against the man who lies down with another man refers to the practice of male rape that was once practiced by victors against the vanquished in battle. He welcomes us to the Mosque with open arms, and we are far from the only gay couple to pray there.”
“Another example of why America is evil, and why it will perish in a great ball of fire,” the Imam answered me back with a cold, icy stare. “Even the Muslims in America have succumb to the evil.
“You still have not learned, even after the fatwa, you continue to practice your perversion, and not only that, but you do so with a Jew.”
My eyes widened in shock.
“Do not look so surprised, Altaf,” the Imam continued. “You said even he was accepted in the mosque. Who would be more reviled in a mosque than a Jew?”
“But that is just it, Imam. Our mosque is accepting. They do not turn anyone away, and my boyfriend is accepting. He does not have a prejudicial bone in his body. He accepts me, a Muslim, without question.
“He is so different than what I was taught to believe about the Jews. He does not hate Muslims. He is a moderate. He gives generously to an organization that supports moderate views in the Middle East. He supports complete dismantling of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He fully supports Palestinian statehood. Of course he supports Israel’s right to exist behind secure borders, but he believes those borders should be set at the peace table . . . not by the military. He does not accept the right of return, and we have argued about that, but he rightly points out that the right of return could be applied to a lot of places, including India and Pakistan.”
“Do you not see, Altaf,” the Imam said in response and quietly for the first time since I had entered the kitchen, “your boyfriend’s views are far more dangerous than those of the most militant ultraorthodox Jew? The Jew who has hatred burning in his chest . . . I can fight him . . . I can kill him. I cannot fight against the moderate Jew. I cannot win against reason.”
“Why must you win?” I asked innocently enough.
“Because there can be no peace without justice!” the Imam shouted as he slammed his fist into the table.
“But how do you know what is just?” I asked maintaining my even tone although I was very nervous.
“Allah does,” he answered, “and Allah is on our side.”
“Just as I am sure there is a rabbi somewhere who is telling his student right now that Adonai is on their side. The problem with that is that Allah and Adonai are one and the same. What I fear is, if the extremists like you win, the Middle East will be left a barren nuclear wasteland, as perhaps will the rest of the earth. That is why I know you do not speak for Allah. You may think you know the true meaning of the Quran and that you speak for Allah, but your words are words of hatred, and your actions and values bring . . . have even brought . . . death.”
“VALUES!” the Iman shouted. “YOU . . . A SINNER? Do not talk to me about values . . .”
As the Imam arose abruptly from his chair, I held up my hands and concluded by calmly saying, “I will not say any more, Imam. I respect your opinions, as I hope you will respect mine. You are a man of God and I know you mean well, even if I feel your interpretation of the Quran is misguided, as I know you find mine to be. In a few days, I will leave here and you will never have to be confronted by my ideas again.”
“And for that, I am grateful,” the Imam said, ending our conversation.
After a brief nap, I spent the rest of the afternoon at abbu’s bedside, catching up on what had been going on in both our lives since I had left Pakistan. He was shocked by what ammi and I had gone through in London, and how difficult it had been to get a visa to immigrate to America. He was amused when I told him how the immigration lawyer said about the only way we could get one was if I was a gay man seeking asylum because I was under a fatwa. Although he tired easily and had to frequently close his eyes, I sensed it was the most fun my father had had since he became seriously ill. It was also a chance for me to reconnect with the man I had loved for most of my life.
Later, I sat down with my sister and brother-in-law for a wonderful dinner. It was more of a feast! Fortunately, the Imam was not invited. Although ammi served traditional Pakistani dishes at home, her access to natural ingredients was limited and, as a result, her cooking suffered. Not only that, but as a typical American teenager with after school activities, a job, and plans with Randy and our friends, I often found myself eating out. Thus, it had truly been a long time since I had eaten anything remotely like the food I was enjoying this night, although it did take a little getting used to food this spicy, again.
More than the food, I enjoyed the conversation and the chance to really get to know my sister and her husband. When I had left, I was only fifteen and still a growing child. Now I was seventeen and nearly an adult. I could not believe the difference it made. I was much more able to relate to them and to talk to them as an equal. I asked them about their hopes and their ambitions, and they asked me about my plans for the future. I spoke to them about how Randy and I planned to go into medical practice together, and how we one day planned to adopt gay teens whose parents had rejected them. All-in-all, it was a most enjoyable evening.
That night as I lay in bed, hovering between wakefulness and sleep, I wondered about what the future might bring. I was glad I had come back to Pakistan, yet very nervous about being here.
The Imam had downright petrified me, and I had no doubt that he would waste no time in finishing what he had started some two years earlier if given the chance. He was an evil and dangerous man of the worst kind - he believed he was doing the will of Allah. Fundamentalists, be they Muslims, Christians, or Jews, all shared this common belief, yet I thought that if anything, it was they who had been seduced by Satan. Power and lust are what these people crave - they are no better than those they seek to destroy.
After a time, I do not know how long it was, I was no longer in my bedroom. I found myself sitting in a bright, green, sunny place. As the scene came into focus, I realized I was on a hillside in an almost park-like setting. I was seated among many people. I was wearing a suit, and next to me, Randy was wearing some sort of white uniform. He was much older, and his hair was graying at the temples. He had a series of stars on his shoulders. As I looked at him, he looked back at me with a solemn, but reassuring look on his face. He reached for my hand, and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
Looking forward again, I noticed that the ground was covered with tombstones as far as the eye could see. In the distance, I could see the rising spire of the Washington Monument. I had never seen it in person, and yet I was seeing it now as clearly as if I had always known what it would look like.
Nearby was my good friend, Jeremy Kimball - he looked to be about 45 and his hair was cut short, rather than the shoulder length of today - but I would recognize his ruggedly handsome features anywhere. Seated on one side of him was a teenage boy and on the other side was a slightly older teenage girl, who was crying. Finally, my eyes focused on the foreground, where I saw a flag-draped casket. When my eyes saw the casket, the image faded away and I woke up with a start.
I sat bolt-upright in bed, my eyes open wide. What had I just seen? Was it a dream? Was it a premonition? Was it just my wild imagination?
Then I realized I was not alone.
“Do not be frightened, Altaf,” my long-dead lover said to me. Was I still asleep? Was I dreaming?
“You are not dreaming. It really is I, Altaf. I cannot appear for long, but I am here to warn you.
“It is not safe for you to stay. The Imam is not honest, and he has no intention of letting you leave Pakistan alive. He will not harm you so long as your father is alive, but he is not above poisoning your father to ensure that he does not live beyond your stay here. It is already too late for you to save your father. He will not live nearly as long as he thought he would. He will not regain consciousness, and if you attempt to say goodbye to him, you will pay with your life. You must leave this morning, just as you did two years ago.
“I am sorry, Altaf. I wish I could have warned you sooner, but everyone has free will. I had hoped my warnings to the Imam would have been sufficient to stop him, but he chose to ignore them. Not many would ignore warnings from a ghost.
“Everything will be fine. Your father will be fine in his passing and in the next life, and you will have a wonderful, long life with Randy in this one, but only if you leave immediately.”
“How?” I started to ask. “What was that dream?”
“In communicating with you, the boundaries between this life and the next become blurred. Sometimes, visions or events in the past or the future may intrude into the message that is given you. I do not know exactly what you saw, but there are events in the future that will be pivotal events in history. There is one in particular in about thirty years that will change the way the entire world feels about us. We will gain true acceptance. It is rare that an event can be seen this far in advance, but that one has sent particularly powerful shockwaves through time. In fact, my martyrdom was critical in placing you where you will need to be to make that history happen.
“Do not try to interpret what you saw. Just know that what happens is meant to be, and that you will be an important part of it. Above all else, however, you need to get on the first train out of here this morning.”
With that, Fareed’s image faded from in front of my eyes. I was truly alone, in the dark, sitting up in my bed.
I looked at the clock and it was just after three AM. If I was going to make the train, I needed to get up and get going. Fareed, if it was Fareed, was right about the timing.
Cautiously, I went to my father’s bedroom and entered it. I gently shook abbu to try to wake him, but he did not awaken, no matter how forcefully I shook him. His breathing was irregular, alternating between fast and deep, and slow and shallow. I tried squeezing on one of his fingernails with the edge of my thumbnail to inflict pain as I had seen done on a medical program on TV once, and he did not even flinch. It was then that I knew that Fareed had indeed visited me in my bedroom, and that he was telling me the truth.
I then went to my sister and brother-in-law’s bedroom and woke them, and told them that abbu was unconscious. I then told them I had had a vision in my sleep from Fareed. I thought it was safer to tell them that than to say I had seen his ghost. I told them the vision said I had to take the first train out this morning.
“I do not know, but something does not seem right,” Saleem said. “Abbu was fine last night, and now he is unconscious. I think this could be a trap. They could be expecting you to try to escape.”
Continuing, he said, “Here is what we will do. I will take you to the station by myself, in my truck, not the car. We must hide you in case we are stopped, and in case we are inspected. We will hide you under sacks of rice, and under a tarp. It will not be very comfortable, but no matter what, you will have to remain still. We will keep you on the truck until the last possible second, so there is little opportunity for anyone to stop you before you board the train.”
Outside, the early morning air was freezing, but entombed under what felt like twenty tons of rice sacks, it was stiflingly hot. I could barely breathe, even though there was more than enough air. The ride had been bumpy and I felt every rut in the road ten times over as the sacks of rice were first thrown off me, only to come crashing down on top of me a fraction of a second later with explosive force. We had been stopped for what seemed like an hour, however. I knew it was probably only a matter of minutes, but time was of the essence - I could not miss this train!
I could hear the muffled sound of voices. Saleem was talking to at least one person, and probably more. He had been stopped . . . that much was obvious . . . and each passing second spelled disaster. Something was desperately wrong and the longer we were stopped, the more likely it was I would be discovered. Suddenly, I heard the sound of the tarp being pulled off the sacks of rice. Now I felt it was only a matter of time.
I felt, more than heard, sacks of rice being lifted off the top of the pile. I was grateful that Saleem had insisted on burying me under a pile five sacks deep, but would it be enough? Then I felt myself being poked with something sharp - not a sward, or they would have pierced my lung, and I would be dead - but perhaps a thin steel rod or something similar. I am sure it did break the skin of my thigh, however, and I could only hope that the overlying bags of rice wiped off any traces of blood before they noticed it. The pain was instantly severe and intense, but I dared not make a sound.
Finally, the sacks of rice were replaced and the tarp was put back. I heard the door to the truck slam shut and we started moving again. We started out slowly, but were soon moving at breakneck speed. We had no time to spare, and I was feeling every bump, 100 times over. We screeched to a stop and Saleem ran out of the truck and pulled me out from under the rice faster than I would have thought possible.
“Altaf, are you OK?” He asked.
“I think so.”
“The bastards did a number on your left thigh,” he said as he gave me a quick going over. “Did they stab you any place else?”
“I do not think so,” I answered.
“That is good. There is no time to do anything about your thigh. Try wrapping something around it when you get on the train. . . . Shit!” I had never heard Saleem curse like that in English before, but then he continued in Urdu, “we have less than a minute to get you on board!”
Gathering up my bags from under the rice sacks, we ran as fast as we could, directly toward the tracks. I would have to exchange my ticket on board - at this point, I did not care if I ended up in a third class seat.
As we ran, I heard the sounds of footsteps from someone running after us. And then there were even more footsteps.
“STOP!” I heard someone shout.
The train was already starting to pull away and I made a flying leap on board. Saleem threw my luggage at me and I caught each piece as he tossed them to me.
“Wait!” I cried out. “What about you and Zara?” I asked as realization started to dawn on me, just as the men who had been chasing us caught up to Saleem. As they grabbed him, he said, “It does not matter, Altaf. Whatever they do to us, they would have done, whether you stayed, or left.”
By now the train was too far out of the station for me to continue talking to Saleem, and the men who had grabbed him were already leading him away. I am sure they would have stopped the train if they could have, but trains in Pakistan stop for no one. The transportation ministry does its best to ensure that the trains run on time.
I shook with fear, and with tears, thinking of what would happen to Zara and Saleem, and could only hope that the Taliban would take pity on the young couple and their unborn child. Still, an Imam who was willing to hasten the death of a dying man so that he could proceed with my own execution was the pure embodiment of evil.
I was not sure if I believed in ghosts, but if the entity that came to visit me in my bedroom that morning was not Fareed’s spirit, what was it? Silently, I said a prayer to Allah to watch over Saleem and Zara and their child, and then I added a prayer to Fareed, if he is indeed still around, to watch over them, too.
Finding myself in a smoke-filled second class car, I went in search of an unoccupied seat in a non-smoking first class compartment. I had a long journey ahead of me and I did not relish the thought of doing so breathing all that nicotine into my lungs.
Fifteen minutes later, I was settled into a much more comfortable seat, and I had made a makeshift bandage using one of my T-shirts. I knew I would have to have a doctor look at it when I got home, and I might need a course of antibiotics, but I was very lucky. A little higher, and the rod or whatever it was, could have punctured my abdomen. A little to the right and it could have punctured my femoral artery, or one of my balls. Yes, I was very lucky.
For the next few hours, I feared the worst each time the train pulled into a station, suspecting the Imam had sent the Taliban’s minions after me. I would not go willingly, but he need only use Zara and Saleem as hostages to try and force me off the train. Maybe Fareed was watching over me, as the threat never materialized. Perhaps the Taliban never managed to find me behind my closed and locked compartment door, or perhaps they were preoccupied with their Ramadan observances. Whatever the reason, I was grateful for my escape, and prayed for my sister and brother-in-law’s safety.
Eventually, I dozed off, but it was a fitful sleep. I could not help but worry about my sister and her family, and for some reason, the vivid image that came to me early that morning kept pushing its way into my consciousness. Fareed, or whatever he was, told me not to try to interpret the vision, but I could not help but examine it - it had seemed so real!
There was no doubt in my mind that I was witnessing a funeral, and an important one at that. Judging from everything I saw, and from something I felt, I instinctively knew, the funeral was for my good friend, David Reynolds - President David Reynolds, and he had been assassinated. I just knew that was what this was all about. I was there because I was the Secretary of Health and Human Services . . . No . . . it was just Health. Human Services had been combined with Housing and Urban Development some ten years prior, but how did I know that? Randy was there not only as my husband, but as the Surgeon General.
Fareed said I was there because I would play a vital role - that his ‘martyrdom’ was critical to placing me there. He also said that David’s assassination would finally bring true acceptance for gays throughout the world, but why should David have to be a martyr for that to happen? Obviously, things had to be a lot better in the future for a gay man to be elected president. There was so much I just could not understand.
‘Do not even try, Altaf,’ I heard Fareed say in my head. ‘In his 50 years, David Reynolds will live far more and do far more than most of us could ever dream of doing in 150 years. Do not fear for him, or for Jeremy, as they will have thirty-six wonderful years together, which is still more than most couples can dream of. And Jeremy will do great things in his own right that would never happen were it not for that sad event you saw. You and Randy will have a lot to do with that.
‘Rest safely, my love. Go home to your loving boyfriend . . . your fiancé. By the time you return to America, much of the vision will have been forgotten, but you will always remember that something special happened as you were leaving Pakistan, and know this . . . I will always be with you . . .”
I drifted back into a deep sleep and did not awaken again until we reached Lahore. I did not even awaken to eat, and had to quickly grab some food at the train station to eat in the taxi. I ate again at the airport, once I had switched my flight. One huge advantage of flying business class is that making a last-minute change is easy and there are no penalties, so with little time to spare before my flight, I ate dinner, and then attempted to call my sister. I was amazed when she answered the phone.
“Altaf, I have some very sad news,” she said after we exchanged pleasantries. “Abbu passed away this afternoon. The one good thing is that I do not think he suffered. Saleem is here with me. The Taliban let him go because we had to plan abbu’s funeral. He will be buried tomorrow, of course, as is dictated by Islamic law.”
“Of course,” I said as my heart felt dead inside. “I wish I could be there.”
“I know you do,” Zara said, “but you cannot, and you should not even try. Abbu would understand. I am sure he does understand, and I know he is proud of you, and of the wonderful man you have become.
“Saleem and I have plans after the funeral, but I cannot tell you anything more at the moment. Have a safe flight, Altaf. I will phone ammi to let her know of your arrival time.”
“Good luck, Zara,” I said, knowing full well what she meant. She and Saleem would try to leave their village after the funeral - perhaps even to leave Pakistan, but she dared not say so over the telephone, as one could never be sure someone was not listening in on the conversation. I would have to wait to hear from her.
My flight home took me east, with stops in Bangkok, L.A. and Chicago. I spent a long time going through customs in L.A., and I am sure the fact that I am a Muslim and was returning from Pakistan had a lot to do with it. They could say all they wanted that they did not do racial profiling, but I am sure they did. You know what, however . . . it made me feel safer. I had seen firsthand what the Taliban were capable of and was more than willing to be inconvenienced if it meant a real terrorist might be stopped some day.
After I stepped off the flight from Chicago, it dawned on me that I had actually flown around the world. That was so cool! Randy and ammi were both waiting for me on the other side of Security. I know I must have looked pretty pathetic, having last shaved some sixty hours earlier, but they did not seem to care as they both ran toward me. I grabbed them both in a bear hug and would not let go as my tears flowed.
I kissed ammi on the forehead and then turned toward Randy, my handsome fiancé. The more I thought about it, the more enchanted I was with the word. Yes, the idea was definitely growing on me. There were people all around us and this was the American Midwest, which was firmly in the Bible Belt, but I did not care. Compared to the northwestern hills of Pakistan, this was paradise. I grabbed Randy in my arms and passionately kissed him on the lips, right in the middle of the airport.
As we separated, he had the goofiest grin on his face as he looked adoringly into my eyes. Silently, he mouthed, “I love you,” to me, and I mouthed, “I love you, too,” in return.
Later that night, as we lay together in my bed, I told Randy how I had some sort of premonition about the future. I knew it had been quite vivid at the time, but now, I could hardly remember it at all, except that it involved a major historic event and that we were a part of it. The only other thing I remembered is that Fareed came to me. I did not remember much, but I distinctly remembered him telling me that I was in danger and had to leave Pakistan immediately.
“I don’t know if I believe in an afterlife or ghosts,” Randy said, “but the fact that your dad passed away right after you left is spooky. If you’d stayed another day, the Imam would’ve arrested you for sure and . . .” he started to tear up “. . . and he’d have executed you.”
“That’s why I think it must have been him, Randy. It is just too much to have been a coincidence,” I said.
“Yeah, I guess it is,” Randy said.
“Randy, there is one other thing I remember Fareed said,” I added. “He said we would have very long lives together.”
“Aww, that’s very sweet. Oh, and that reminds me,” Randy said as he went to retrieve something from his bags, and pulled out a small gift-wrapped box, and handed it to me. I stared at it in wonderment. Why would Randy give me a gift for coming home? “Well, aren’t you going to open it?” he asked.
With a nervous smile, I cautiously removed the wrapping paper to reveal a small cardboard box, and inside of that was a small jewelry box. I literally gasped when I opened the box to find that inside were two beautiful gold rings, each with a small diamond mounted in the center.
“They’re promise rings,” Randy explained. “They’re like engagement rings, but for guys. I hope you don’t mind my paying for both of them. I know money is much tighter for you and, besides, I really wanted to do this. We didn’t really get a chance to talk about it before you left, but I’ve been thinking of you as my fiancé since our first anniversary, and I’ve even started referring to you that way when talking about you to friends . . .”
“I have been doing exactly the same thing, Randy,” I interrupted.
“So I just thought it’d be appropriate that we should wear these rings as a formal declaration of the love we share, and the fact that we’re promised to each other,” he continued.
“Randy,” I said with tears in my eyes, “they are so beautiful. You have made me the luckiest boy . . . no, scratch that. . . . you have made me the luckiest man in the world. We are not boys any more. Soon we will be off to university, but first we will get married . . . legally, and we will live in a state where our marriage is recognized, if it still is not by this one. We will go to school together. We will apply to medical school as a couple, and we will enter the couple’s match for residency training. We will start our practice together and we will adopt many, many gay kids and help them have what we have had.
“Someday, we will do great things together. We will make great discoveries. We will make medical history together. Someday, I will be the Secretary of Health and you will be the Surgeon General.”
“Where did that come from?”
“I have no idea,” I admitted. “It just suddenly popped into my head from nowhere. It is like something out of a dream, but it could happen.”
“Hey, anything’s possible,” Randy agreed. “In the meantime, let’s wear our rings.”
“Absolutely,” I agreed as I slipped Randy’s ring onto his finger, and he slipped mine onto mine. “I will never take it off.”
I kissed Randy passionately, and when the kissing was not enough, we undressed each other, and spent the night making love. I was still exhausted from my travels, but it did not matter. I was with the man I loved, my fiancé.
Yet somehow, I knew there was a third entity in the room - Fareed was there, too, and he was smiling.