SFU alum, Hasan Namir, on Islam and intimacy

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]earlessly and unapologetically, SFU alumnus Hasan Namir tackles homophobia, religion, and coming-of-age in his award-winning debut novel, God in Pink. The novel is set in Iraq in 2003 and tells the story of Ramy, an orphaned homosexual university student who seeks guidance from Ammar, a sheikh at his local mosque, as he struggles to reconcile his culture and religion with his identity.

On the second anniversary of Namir signing the publishing contract for his novel, The Peak sat down with him to talk about his personal story of coming out as queer, his journey with religion and spirituality, and his SFU experience all which served as inspiration for the bold novel.

Talking with Namir was an incredibly warm and easy-going experience; he overflows with excitement about how well his novel has done it has won a 2016 Lambda Literary Award and been named a Globe 100 Best Book of the Year as well as gratitude and a deep appreciation for life in general. Namir describes himself as a social butterfly, and, between the easy and endless conversation he holds as well as his accounts of his friends and husband, the description seems to fit. Namir is so at ease with himself, it’s hard to imagine there was a time when he hid, and tried to change, who he was.

Coming out

Until the age of 10, Namir lived with his family in Iraq before moving to Canada. In a YouTube documentary based on his book, Namir talks about how he’d always known he was attracted to men. When he came out to his older sister at the age of fourteen, he remembers she laughed and replied, “Yes, Hasan. I know. I’ve always known.”

Through his childhood, Namir tried to hide or mitigate his sexuality in front of his parents, but when the family went on a trip to Europe in 2010 and his father became aware of his sleeping with men, their relationship fell apart. “He just couldn’t accept the fact that I was gay,” Hasan recalls, “So he said ‘you have two weeks, and I’m going to kick you out of the house. You’re not my son anymore.’”

After the fallout with his family, Namir entered a period of depression and experienced suicidal thoughts. The pain Namir feels over his estrangement from his family shows clearly on his face when he speaks about his parents: “My mom was the closest thing to me and sometimes I just wish I could see her.”

Moving on from discussing his rocky familial ties, Namir’s face lights up when he starts to talk about his husband, Tarn. Namir met Tarn in 2011, and he can still perfectly recall the moment he first met him: “When I first saw him, my heart just skipped a beat. And for a moment, I just saw my entire life through him.” Namir’s sister speaks of Tarn’s entrance into Namir’s life as “the push he needed [. . .] to stand up for what he believed in, put family aside, and follow his heart.”

“Well, I’ve read the books, too, and I’ve come up with my own interpretation.”

However, following his heart has come at a price to Namir. Nothing has since been the same for the torn family. No happy occasions or milestones pass without tears. While he’s received overwhelmingly positive feedback from his sisters, cousins, and husband, Namir’s parents haven’t read the book.

It’s been six years since Namir last spoke with his father, but he hopes that someday his parents will read the book dedicated to them and understand where he’s coming from.

Conflicting identities: religion and homosexuality

Namir admits that he still grapples with his faith, and this journey of his, as well as the polarizing portrayals of religion in the media, is what emboldened him to tackle the sticky topics of religion and homophobia in his own novel.

“Religion is not black and white,” he adds, “there are complexities that really fascinate me.” While Namir’s family was never very religious he only went to a mosque in Iraq once he personally testifies to being a very spiritual person, having studied various religions including Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Islam. Reading religion from different perspectives and analyzing different interpretations especially interests Namir. “People’s ideologies and thoughts lead them to come up with their interpretation,” Namir explains.

“Well, I’ve read the books, too, and I’ve come up with my own interpretation.”

Despite his openness to faith, it’s unclear for Namir whether his faith is open to him as he is still trying to reconcile his religion with his identity as a homosexual. “I’ve lived my whole life trying to find answers by reading the Qur’an. In some ways, I think religion accepts me,” Namir affirms, “but in other ways, it doesn’t. It’s conflicting and I still haven’t found full answers.” For Namir, penning his characters’ struggles with their religion brings him one step closer to untangling his own.

In God in Pink, not only does Ramy struggle with his faith, but so does the sheikh of the local mosque, showing a discrepancy between the sometimes rigid way religion is taught versus how flexible Namir truly believes it to be. Namir wants to bring this feeling of tolerance and inclusivity to eastern religions, which can sometimes seem mysterious or foreign to western interpreters. “I don’t ever want to force thoughts,” Namir made sure to clarify. “I just want readers to come up with their own interpretation. Religion is all about interpretation, and my book is the same.”

For a multitude of reasons both personal and political Namir has decided on religion playing an important role in all his works. Despite his rocky relationship with his faith, today Namir still firmly stands by his faith: “I believe in God it’s what kept me strong through all these years.”

Growing at SFU

When I asked Namir about his experiences at SFU, I was expecting perhaps a courteous nod towards the institution which provided him with his BA in English, but what I got was an outpouring of love for the university.

“I owe so much to SFU,” Namir declares.

He recalls his most valued and educational experience at the institution as being the workshop sessions in his English creative writing classes, where he actually got to work in a peer group setting and get feedback on excerpts from God in Pink. The process of sitting down in a group of like-minded aspiring authors, going through each person’s work, and constructively critiquing it shaped Namir as a writer “I’m very indebted to that experience,” he says.

Namir honed his skills and gained confidence as a writer during his years at SFU. He was awarded the Won Ying Chen Creative Writing Student Award from SFU, and spoke fondly of Jordan Scott and Jacqueline Turner as his influential mentors during his development as a writer.

“I’m very happy with my experience at SFU,” Namir gushes. “I met a lot of amazing people, writers, and peers.”

Moving forward

While he enjoys the acclaim his first novel has been receiving, and goes on book readings and talks, Namir is also planning for future publications. Currently, he’s looking to get his book of poems published. Some of the poems were also workshopped during his time at SFU, and he hopes the poetry collection will show his versatility as an author.

He predicts that his second novel, still in its early stages, will deal more heavily with themes of religious extremism, but with the same touch of tolerance and empathy for character ideologies and actions as displayed in God in Pink. Namir’s favorite critiques from his first novel were protests from readers that it wasn’t long enough, so he anticipates his second story to be longer, more complex, and to continue to develop the ideas of cultural appropriation, religion, and gender identities that he introduced in his first novel.

Namir’s most ambitious goal as an author is to become a bestselling author: not for the fame or profits, but rather to expand his reach as an author. God in Pink has already been translated into Turkish, and he hopes it will be also translated into Arabic and other languages as well.

“I want to give the silent a voice, to inspire others out there,” Namir says of his motivation for his writing. “The ones who feel lost, who are in the closet and fall in love with someone, and can’t be who they are. The ones in the parts of the world where they can’t be who they are.”

Namir writes from experience, and from the heart.