A controversial Hot Docs film sheds light on local efforts by queer, Muslim Torontonians to build community.
Filmmaker Parvez Sharma is nervous.
His film, A Sinner in Mecca, is making its sold-out North American premiere at the Hot Docs Festival.
There are the usual worries a filmmaker has: how the film will be received and what it will look like on a big screen. However, Sharma has the added stress of having received death threats because of the content of his film and the Hot Docs festival has provided Sharma with his own body guard for the evening. Even the Iranian government’s state media, Jahan News referred to the film as a “Western Conspiracy” that seeks to legitimize “the despicable sin of homosexuality.”
A Sinner in Mecca documents Sharma, an openly gay and devout Muslim, as he makes his Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. It is a highly personal film that depicts Sharma’s struggle to come to terms with his religion and with his mother’s rejection of his homosexuality.
“It’s a kick in the balls to the Saudi regime, which is corrupt, which is destructive, which is dangerous,” Sharma says. His film opens with grainy footage of a public beheading in Medina in Saudi Arabia. The man beheaded was apparently gay; homosexuality is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.
When asked about the support he has received from the Muslim community, Sharma credits himself and his films with providing a space for dialogue about an often-contentious subject. Many queer Muslim Torontonians have also mined the issue to organize, chronicle and create their own spaces to practice their religion.
The el-Tawhid Juma Circle began in Toronto with the creation of the Toronto Unity Mosque in May 2009. It is the brain child of Toronto resident and queer Muslim, el-Farouk Khaki.
“There was a need for an open and inclusive space where we could come together and declare our Muslimness as a community and not feel that we had to sacrifice anything in the process,” Khaki said.
The Juma Circle gathers every Friday for congregational prayers, in addition to celebrations and various rituals. Khaki also presides over and provides burial and ceremonial rites for congregants.
Khaki’s scope for the group has moved beyond Toronto. They currently have seven communities across North America and six in Canada. They have also helped others create their own inclusive Muslim communities in England, South Africa and Malaysia.
“We are a diverse community and it is important to reflect that because often the media and everyone else likes to paint us all with the same brush,” Khaki says.
The Juma Circle is getting ready for their sixth anniversary on May 15 with a celebratory dinner to be held at the 519 Community Centre in the heart of Toronto’s LGBTQ community.
Although Khaki’s advocacy is centred on providing a space where there is no need for reconciling one’s sexuality with one’s religion, other queer Muslim residents of Toronto, have taken to documenting the queer Muslim community in Toronto and beyond.
Toronto resident and queer Muslim artist and photographer, Samra Habib, gained international notoriety last year with her photo exhibition, ”Just Me and Allah,” a portraiture of queer Canadian Muslims (DISCLOSURE: the writer of this article was featured in the project).
From Brooklyn to Berlin, Habib has shown her work which captures the diversity of the community that she is so passionate about.
Habib has an intended audience with a specific goal.
“I want to reach kids and queer youth,” Habib says. “There is a need and sense of urgency for this, people need to see themselves, they need to see their own communities thriving,”
Unlike, Sharma, Habib did not come up against and blowback or death threats with her project.
“I was apprehensive and bracing myself but I did not receive anything but words of support and encouragement from both queer Muslims and conservative Muslims who thanked me for exposing them to communities that they may not have known,” Habib says.
The emphasis on the Muslim community’s diversity is something both Khaki and Habib stressed.
“Let the community speak for themselves. This is about us and it is time for us to speak to the public and we all have different experiences,” Habib adds.
A Sinner in Mecca has its third and final Hot Docs screening on Saturday, May 2nd.