Copyright © 2006, 2007 by Altimexis.
DISCLAIMER: The following story is a fictional account of a teenage boy who is dealing with both being gay and learning how to live in a new culture as an immigrant. There are references to and descriptions of gay sex in this story, and anyone who is uncomfortable with this should obviously not be reading it. Portions of the story may also seem morbid to some readers, although this is not the intent at all. All characters are fictional and any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental. The author takes full responsibility for all events described and these are not in any way meant to reflect the activities or attitudes of real individuals, establishments or religions. The opinions expressed by the characters in this story are not necessarily the opinions of the author nor of the hosting websites. The author retains full copyright of this story, and of stories based on these characters.
Please note that this story is the seventh in a series of short stories known collectively as Naptown Tales. The first, Broad Ripple Blues, was originally written for the Gay Authors Summer Anthology. The series of stories can be found on my Gay Authors Page and on the Naptown Tales Page at Awesome Dude. Slightly modified versions of these stories that are suitable for younger teens can also be found on the Altimexis Page at Codey’s World.
Seeing things through the eyes of my boyfriend, Altaf, has been a real experience. I’m Randy Bernstein and I was born and raised in the American Midwest, in an affluent and marginally liberal area of what is otherwise a very conservative, Bible Belt city. Being gay and out was not something that had been in my plans, but the fact of the matter was that I am gay, and for better or worse, my boyfriend and I are out. We came out together, just after the Thanksgiving holiday.
The risk of being out in the Bible Belt, however, was nothing compared to what my boyfriend had experienced back in Pakistan, where he grew up. Although he was the son of an affluent physician, just as I was, his family was extremely conservative and Altaf was raised in a traditional Muslim school with strict religious beliefs. When he and his best friend, Fareed, were caught in a compromising position, the judgment of Islamic law was strict and unforgiving. The Imam issued a fatwa sentencing both boys to be stoned to death the following day.
Rather than lose her only son, Altaf’s mother, at great risk to herself, turned her back on her husband, her daughter and her religion, by immigrating to America. At first they lived with his aunt just outside of Detroit, but when she discovered why they’d left Pakistan, they were informed in no uncertain terms that they were not welcome.
Here, however, things are different. Although it is very conservative where we live, our high school has a very active GSA and, for the most part, our friends and classmates are accepting, or at least tolerant of our orientation. Altaf’s mother has a high-level nursing job at St. Vincent’s Hospital and she seems to like me as her son’s boyfriend, even though I’m Jewish.
Yeah, there have been some fireworks because Altaf is a Muslim and I’m a Jew, but primarily within my extended family and not between the two of us. Altaf and I get along just fine. Better than fine.
Altaf’s “outsider’s view” of America, however, has been a constant source of amusement for me. Take Christmas, for example. The whole celebration of Christmas has always been a curious affair to me as a non-Christian, but I grew up in the culture of commercialization and Christmas carols and a nativity scene on Monument Circle, right in the center of downtown. Forget about the separation of church and state. To me, all of this was normal.
To Altaf, however, Christmas was more than just an oddity. I didn’t know this before meeting Altaf, but unlike the Jews, Muslims do celebrate Jesus’ birth, but not in the way Christians do. To them Jesus was one of the three great prophets, the others being Moses and of course, Mohammed. Muslims do not recognize Christmas as his legitimate birthday, however, and consider Christmas to be a pagan ritual, further corrupted by Western values... at least that’s what Altaf was taught.
Altaf was completely unprepared for the concept of Christmas gift-giving and the sheer energy of the Christmas shopping season, which in America begins right after Halloween. He couldn’t fathom people spending so much on buying gifts people would never use. In Judaism, we give gifts on Chanukah, but they’re usually small gifts. In Altaf’s culture, the gift giving season occurs at the end of Ramadan, which was in the middle of October this year - the fourteenth to be precise.
It was extremely strange, then, when he received an insured package from his aunt in Detroit - the very aunt who threw him and his mother out of her house because he was gay.
“What do you think’s in it?” I asked him when he told me about it in school one day.
“I do not know,” he replied.
“Do you think your aunt may have had a change of heart?” I asked.
“Even if she did, I don’t know why she would send me a gift this time of year. Ramadan is past, and my birthday is not until the summer.”
“Yeah, but this is still America, Altaf. Maybe she’s used to giving gifts this time of the year. Maybe she has a lot of Christian friends.”
“I understand what you are saying, Randy,” he replied, “but most of her friends are Muslim. She lives in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood and I do not believe she would observe a Christian holiday.”
“Well be that as it may, she sent you something,” I said.
“I know, but I don’t know why.”
“When do you plan to open it? Are you going to wait until Christmas?”
“Why should I wait until Christmas?” my boyfriend asked.
“Because that’s what most Christians do... well a lot of them try to, anyway.”
“Since I am not a Christian, I see no reason to wait. Besides, I am too curious to wait that long.”
“Would you mind if I’m with you when you open it?”
“Why should I mind? I would like having you there.”
“But what if it’s something embarrassing?”
“Randy, you have seen all of me. What could you possibly see that you have not already seen?” That much was true. Although we’d yet to go beyond giving each other hand jobs, our make-out sessions were becoming more and more intimate. Altaf promised me ‘special treatment’ for my birthday later in the month and I couldn’t wait to find out what kind of special treatment he had in mind.
“I don’t know.... Maybe your cousin’s first diaper or something.”
“That is not embarrassing.... That is just plain gross.” Although very proper, Altaf’s English was becoming more and more Americanized by the day.
“Well whatever it is, I’m dying to see it.”
Later that day, we were sitting on his bed, with the package from his aunt resting on the floor in front of us. It was a large package, measuring about 2½ feet on each side. As big as it was, it didn’t weigh very much at all. When I attempted to lift it off the floor, it felt as light as a feather. I estimated the weight at only around ten pounds, or less than five kilograms, as Altaf said.
When I shook it, nothing rattled inside. In short, I had no idea what it was. “So, are you going to open it?” I asked.
Altaf sighed, and then got up and grabbed a pair of scissors from his desk drawer. He carefully cut the brown plastic tape that held the box closed, allowing him to open the four cardboard flaps on the top of the box. Inside we found it to be filled with Styrofoam peanuts.
Altaf reached into the mess of Styrofoam, finding another box inside that was perhaps 1½ feet on a side. He pulled the box up and out of the larger box, sending Styrofoam spilling all over his bedroom floor.
Looking carefully at the box, it was evident that it had been on a longer journey. It looked like it had been opened - probably by customs - and then taped back shut. It was more beat up, and had a number of stamps on it written in languages I didn’t recognize. The return address was in Pakistan!
I looked up at the face of my boyfriend to find him crying.
“What is it, Altaf?”
“It is... It is from Fareed’s parents.”
“What could they be sending you?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied with one of his rare, but increasingly more frequent contractions. “I have not had any contact with them since we left Pakistan. I don’t know what they could be sending me, or why they would send something to me when I am the reason their son is dead.”
“You’re not the reason.... You know that,” I reassured him.
“Yes, I do know that, but I am pretty sure Fareed’s parents do not see it that way. I do not know what they could possibly want to send me, and why they would send it to me now.”
“Perhaps it’s some of Fareed’s personal effects. Perhaps they don’t want a reminder of him, and they sent it to you. Perhaps it’s a belated gift for Ramadan,” I suggested
“I doubt they would be so thoughtful, under the circumstances,” he said.
“You never know,” I replied.
With apparent trepidation, Altaf grabbed the scissors and started to gingerly cut the paper tape that held the cardboard box closed. Inside he found a lot of crumpled up newspapers, surrounding yet another cardboard box. He opened the third box and found inside of it a plain wooden box that was latched closed. The box appeared to be made of something like sandalwood.
“Is that box something of Fareed’s?” I asked.
“Not that I can recollect. I do not remember ever seeing this box before. It is not the sort of thing he would have had.”
“Why did they send it to you?” I asked.
“I have no idea. They did not even attach a letter or a card.”
“Is there anything inside of it?”
“Let’s see,” Altaf said as he gently undid the latch and lifted the lid. When he saw what was inside, he almost dropped the box to the floor, but caught it and latched the lid before the contents spilled out.
“NO!” he shouted out loud. “NOOOOO!” he wailed even louder as his voice broke.
Silently, I reached out and took the box from Altaf, and carried it over to his dresser, where I set it down. I returned to my boyfriend’s side and hugged him tightly, allowing him to cry on my shoulder.
He cried and cried. It seemed his tears would never stop. Finally, it slowed to more of a sobbing and I took the opportunity to ask, “Is that what I think it is?”
“What else could it be?” Altaf answered. “Since I left Pakistan, I have secretly hoped that Fareed might still be alive. I thought that maybe the Imam stayed his sentence at the last minute, and that he was OK. Now, I know he is dead. Seeing this... it is so final, and so demeaning of him. He should not have ended up like this.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “In America, cremation is becoming more and more popular as space for burials is becoming harder to find. In the Jewish cemetery on the south side, space is so limited that they’ve added rows between the old ones.... You can’t even walk to my Grandpa Rosen’s grave without walking on top of other graves.”
“You do not understand,” Altaf answered. “Muslims do not cremate their dead.... It is an abomination. The body must not be defiled. We bury our dead in a burial shroud or in a plain wooden box that cannot contain any metal, and we bury our dead within twenty-four hours. That is God’s law.”
“We do exactly the same thing,” I mentioned, “including using caskets without screws or nails. We also bury our dead within one or at most two days, and cremation is forbidden. It seems like the Muslims follow Jewish law.”
“Islam is, of course, based on Judaism, even if some of our people do not admit it.”
“Sometimes, people who are the most alike are the ones who fight the most.”
“But better still, people who are the most alike are the ones who love each other the most,” Altaf said as he nuzzled his tear-stained cheek against mine.
“So why did Fareed’s parents have him cremated?”
“That is something I think I understand, although it grieves me terribly that his own parents and the community treated him so. You see, the one situation in which a person may be turned away from burial is if they commit suicide. Suicide is the ultimate sin against Allah.
“By the strictures of Islamic law, if a man lays down with another man as with a woman, they shall both die, and their death will be on their own hands.”
“That’s from Leviticus,” I added. “The meaning has been hotly debated in the Jewish community. Only the ultra-orthodox Jews still believe that God intended that gays should be put to death, however.”
“Most Muslims do not believe that Allah is so unforgiving, either, but the Taliban are very powerful in my region. They take a very literal approach to Islamic laws, and they not only put homosexuals to death, but adulterers as well. Our Imam accepted the ways of the Taliban.
“In a literal interpretation of Islamic law, Fareed committed suicide by having sex with me,” he elaborated further. “Because he committed suicide, no cemetery in our community would permit him to be buried there. Even though his parents went along with the Imam, not even they would have resorted to cremation unless they had to.
“What I imagine must have happened is that they took his body home after he was stoned to death, because the mortician would not accept him for a traditional burial. They probably tried to have him buried elsewhere, but no one would take him and the deadline for burial passed.
“In cases like this, bodies are often taken out of town and simply dumped into a canyon, or a river, but even Fareed’s parents could not bring themselves to do that. That would have been ever worse than cremation. I believe they went to the Hindus in our community and arranged for a ceremony of some kind, and cremation. I’m sure even for them, this was truly a last resort.”
“So they sent his ashes to you?” I asked.
“I’m disappointed they did not at least enclose a note.... Perhaps they’re still angry at me and could not bring themselves to communicate with me in any way. Still, in a small way, I am honored that they thought to do this. At least I will honor his remains and see to it that they are cared for appropriately.”
“I’m so sorry, Altaf,” I said as I hugged him anew. “I know how much he meant to you, and how much you loved him.”
“I love you no less, Randy, but I still love Fareed. He was my best friend for as long as I can remember, and he was also my first true love.
“I haven’t told anyone about this before, although my mother probably knew about it,” Altaf continued, “but when we discovered we were both gay, at the age of thirteen, I stopped being his friend for a while. For two years I did not speak to him, or play with him, or spend any time with him at all. I did not want to be gay, and I tried to deny it by not associating with him.”
Altaf broke down and started crying again. Between sobs, he continued, “I feel so guilty for doing that to him. He did not deserve that. At a time when he needed a friend the most, I was not there for him. It took me until the day before he died to make peace with myself, and by then it was too late. Just one time... we had together as lovers. One fucking time!”
Ever since I’ve known Altaf, that was the very first time I ever heard him swear.
“It is so unfair,” he continued. “My mother sacrificed everything so I might live. Here I am in America, living the life Fareed and I used to dream about, and all that is left of him is a box of ashes.”
“You know that’s not really him, don’t you?”
“I do not know what I know any more. I have not set foot in a mosque since leaving Pakistan, and I’m not sure I even believe in God now. How could Allah allow this to happen? Fareed was only fifteen! He was a wonderful, caring friend. If something so terrible could be done in Allah’s name, then I do not want to have anything to do with Him.”
“That’s a bit harsh, don’t you think?” I asked. “How can you blame God for the fallacies of man? A great many evil things have been done in His name, but that doesn’t mean He’s responsible for them.
“But when there is no God . . . when mankind acts as if there is no higher being and there are no consequences for the evil perpetrated, that is when evil beyond compare reigns free. It is when God’s will is displaced by humankind’s that someone like Hitler or Stalin can rise up and kill millions, all in the name of perfecting the world.”
“The Holocaust is just a myth anyway, created by Israel to justify its existence. God, or the lack thereof, had nothing to do with it.”
I couldn’t believe what Altaf had said. Did he really say that the Holocaust never happened?
“Altaf,” I said, choosing my words very carefully, “my great grandmother, whom you met, immigrated from Poland with her parents when she was a little girl. They left behind her older brother, who didn’t want to leave. Even though they were an ocean apart, they kept in touch. That is, until the start of the War, when Germany invaded Poland.
“After the war was over, my grandmother tried to contact her brother to be sure he was alright. It was very difficult once the Communists took over, but she even went to Poland to try to find her brother.
“The Germans were very meticulous and kept detailed records of everyone they rounded up, branded and ultimately killed. In the case of my grandmother’s brother, the trail ended at Auschwitz. We’ve since all been there. We toured the facilities, saw the ‘shower rooms’ where my great uncle died, saw the ovens where his body was cremated.
“And it wasn’t just my great uncle. My grandmother had grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. For a school project once, I made a chart of the genealogy of the European branch of our family. They’re all gone, Altaf. Our entire family, with the exception of those that immigrated to America, was wiped out in the Holocaust. This was no myth.... It was real. This is something that happened to people who might still be alive today. It’s not out of the distant past,” I ended.
“Yes, but that’s just a handful of people you’re talking about. There is no way Hitler could have murdered six million people. Short of using an atom bomb, it is just not physically possible,” he stated.
“Boy, have you been brainwashed,” I countered. “It wasn’t just six million people. Hitler murdered six million Jews, but the Jews were not his only target. He killed Gypsies, he killed Ukrainians, he killed those with mental disabilities and he also killed homosexuals. All told, Hitler systematically rounded up and killed several times that number, and that doesn’t even include the soldiers and civilians killed in the fighting of the war.”
“You are the one who has been brainwashed,” he shot back at me. “You only know what you have been taught. Sure, Hitler may have killed some of your family at Auschwitz, but everything you were told about the Holocaust was exaggerated to justify taking land from the Palestinians to give to the Jews.”
“But the Jews didn’t take their land. Most of the land inside of Israel’s pre-1967 borders was already owned by the Jews before the state of Israel even existed. When the UN partitioned the Holy Land into Israel and Palestine, they partitioned it based on where Jews and Arabs were in the majority, much as was done in partitioning Pakistan and India. There were people who lost their homes on both sides of the dividing line,” I argued. “Yes, there was a war and the Palestinians lost it, and they lost again in 1967. You know I don’t approve of what the Israeli government has done in recent years in the occupied territories, but that doesn’t change the fact that Israel has as much right as any other country to exist.”
Rather than counter me, Altaf just sat there, on his bed, staring off into space. When he finally spoke, he spoke in a very soft, low voice, “I think you better go.”
“What?” I asked.
“I think you’d better leave, Randall. I cannot have this conversation with you right now. Please, leave.”
“But what about...”
“I’m sorry, but I just cannot be with you right now. I have a lot to think about. Perhaps it was naïve to think we could be boyfriends.”
“But I love you.” I said.
“I love you, too, Randy. I really do, but right now I just do not like you very much, and receiving Fareed’s remains has really upset me. I need some time to myself.”
“Will I see you in school tomorrow?” I asked.
“Maybe, but I do not know for sure. Goodbye, Randy. Now please go.”
I practically cried the whole way home. I loved Altaf, but what he said had really hurt. It hurt me to the core, and I didn’t honestly know if our relationship would ever be the same. Even if he came running back to me, apologizing for everything he’d said, could I ever forgive him?
I knew that some Islamic extremists claimed the Holocaust never happened - that the whole thing was a ruse designed to generate sympathy for Israel - but hearing this from Altaf’s own mouth had taken me completely by surprise. It pushed all thoughts about what he was going through with the receipt of Fareed’s ashes to the very back of my mind.
When I got home, I just sat in my car for a while, feeling too weak to get out. My parents had bought me a Lexus RX hybrid for my sixteenth birthday, but today it felt more like a tomb than a luxury SUV. I leaned my forehead against the steering wheel and cried until there were no more tears to cry.
It was my mother knocking on my window that finally brought me out of my reverie. I’d apparently been sitting there longer than I’d realized and she was already home from work.
When I got out of the car, she pulled me into a hug and asked, “Do you want to tell me about it?”
I didn’t, but somehow I found myself telling her about what Altaf had said. She seemed as shocked by it as I’d been, but then she asked, “Is there anything that prompted him to say that?”
“He received a package from his aunt,” I answered. “It actually had been forwarded from Pakistan. It turned out to be the ashes of his boyfriend from Pakistan.”
“Oh my God! That poor boy.”
“How can you say that after what he said to me?” I asked my mother.
“Think about it, Randy. Imagine if you lost contact with Altaf for months, and then one day out of the blue, you received his ashes in the mail.”
What she said hit me like a ton of bricks. I’d felt sorry for Altaf, all right, but when she put it that way, it really struck home. “If it were me, I’d have probably lashed out at everyone and everything around me,” I said.
“So it’s understandable why he might have said that to you.... He wanted to make you hurt as much as he was hurting.”
“Shit, I never thought of it that way.”
“I can’t control what you say when I’m not around, honey, but please try to watch what you say around us. It may be inevitable, but I don’t want your younger brother using language like that until he’s a little older... if even then.”
I laughed as I said, “Too late, Mom. His language is even worse than mine when you and Dad aren’t around.” Mom shook her head as she chuckled to herself.
“So what do I do now,” I asked her.
“Give it a little time, but Altaf needs you more than ever. Give him a day or two, and then let him know that you forgive him, and want to be there for him. By then he’ll probably be ready to apologize, and to let your love back in. The hardest part will be the waiting.”
I did wait. Mom was right - waiting was tough. Chanukah started that night - it was early this year - but I didn’t feel much like celebrating. I didn’t see Altaf at school the next day, and the day after that, he seemed to be deliberately avoiding me. By Friday, he looked miserable.
I cautiously came up to him and said, “Altaf, I know you’re hurting right now, and we both probably said things we didn’t mean. I forgive you for what you said to me, and hope you’ll forgive me for my part.
“More than anything, I want you to know that I love you, and I want to be there for you during your time of grief. I know I can’t feel what you felt for Fareed, nor can I ever replace him, even though I hope you love me every bit as much, but in a different, unique way.
“If you still want me to leave you alone, I will, but I hope you’ll let me in.”
Before I knew what was happening, Altaf was tightly hugging me and crying on my shoulder. Through his tears, I heard him say, “I am sorry, Randy... so, so sorry. I know the Holocaust was real. My great grandfather even helped fight the Germans during the war. I did not mean to hurt you... it... it. just happened. Please forgive me.”
“Of course I forgive you, Altaf. I should have been more sensitive and I hope you’ll forgive me, too.”
Altaf just looked at me with his big, beautiful eyes and my heart melted. Drawn together like magnets, our lips met as we kissed each other passionately, right in front of the main entrance to the school as kids walked right by us.
Someone shouting “faggots” brought us out of our kiss. I couldn’t see who said it, and I decided to let it go. I knew we’d be hearing that a lot as more kids saw us together.
“Will I see you tonight?” I asked my boyfriend.
“Randy, I am not ready to have fun yet. Like you said, I am grieving.”
“I know you’re probably not up to a movie or anything, but I’d still love to spend my time with you,” I said.
“If you do not mind being around a depressed, crying teenage boy, I would love to be with you, too.”
“There’s no place I’d rather be,” I said.
When I saw Altaf that evening, he took me to his room and grabbed a small, gift-wrapped box from his dresser. I couldn’t help but notice that Fareed’s ashes were still on his dresser, too.
“I got this for you before we had our disagreement. I had intended to give it to you on Tuesday, in time for Chanukah, but, well, here it is, now.”
“Altaf, you didn’t have to get me anything,” I said. “Just being with you is enough.”
“Go ahead, open it,” he commanded. I gingerly removed the bow and the wrapping paper from the small box, and opened it to find a small velvet-covered jewelry box inside. It contained a gold ID bracelet, engraved with Altaf’s name. I was touched to say the least.
I had Altaf put it on my right wrist, and then thanked him the best way I knew how - by kissing him deeply. He eagerly opened his mouth for me and moaned as my tongue met his.
Our kissing became more and more intense until I could feel his hardness pushing tightly against mine. Altaf reached down with his hand and lovingly rubbed me through my jeans, sending feelings of joy throughout my body.
Slowly and lovingly, we helped each other undress and lay down together on his bed. We resumed our making out as we simultaneously ground our pelvises into each other.
Until now, we had done nothing more than giving each other hand jobs. When Altaf playfully licked my neck, this time I knew things would go further. A few minutes later, after I came down from my high, I looked lovingly into Altaf’s eyes, and kissed him deeply. “I’m sorry I didn’t last very long,” I told him.
“That is quite alright,” he replied. “We have our lifetimes to learn together. Our passion will grow, right along with our love, and it will get better each time.”
Flipping him on his back, I repaid him the favor. When we came up for air, we kissed again, and again, sharing our love with each other. How I loved this boy!
In the days that followed, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to see Altaf, as he had signed up for extra hours working at the Seattle’s Best Café in Borders Bookstore at Castleton Square Mall. He said they needed extra help for the holidays and he wanted to save money for a car, but somehow I knew that there was more to it than that. It wasn’t that he was avoiding me, but the extra hours took him away... away from having to think about the box that contained Fareed’s ashes, the box that was still sitting on his dresser.
Day by day, I could see it was eating him up inside. He needed to work through his grief, just as Grandma Rosen did when Grandpa died, but he was keeping it bottled up inside.
For one thing, he needed to find some sort of closure. Keeping a box of his boyfriend’s ashes on his dresser was not helping things. He needed to find a respectful way to dispose of the ashes and a proper way to remember Fareed. For another, he needed some sort of outlet for his grief.
In Judaism, we mourn by praying two or three times a day for a year. By praying in the company of people who are also grieving and of those who volunteer their support, the sense of loneliness isn’t so overwhelming. The year of prayer is meant to symbolize the ascent of the loved one into the Kingdom of Heaven, but it’s much more significant as a way for the living to slowly let go.
I needed to find something similar for Altaf, but I didn’t know where to begin. I knew that he wasn’t too keen on Islam, since it was the Imam in his village who killed his boyfriend and who also tried to kill him. Still, religion is one of the most powerful ways to approach the unapproachable, and that, to me, seemed the best way to approach my boyfriend’s sorrow.
I set up an appointment with one of the rabbis at the synagogue where my family belonged. It was thus that I came to find myself sitting in the rabbi’s study one afternoon after school - a place I hadn’t been since my Bar Mitzvah nearly four years ago.
“Randy, it’s so good to see you after all these years,” the rabbi said as he shook my hand warmly. “You know, it probably wouldn’t hurt to come to services now and then.” Talk about laying on the guilt!... I guess I should have expected it.
“I know, rabbi, but I’ve been busy with a lot of other things at school. I know it’s not a good excuse but, I promise, I’ll try harder in the future.”
“So what can I do for you today, Randy?”
“Well, rabbi, I’m not sure where to start. I guess I should tell you that one of the reasons I haven’t been back is I wasn’t sure how the temple feels about homosexuality.”
“Ah, I see,” said the rabbi, as he rubbed his hands together. “Let me start by asking you how you feel about homosexuality.”
“Well, when I first realized I was... gay, I wasn’t too happy about it, but I came out to my parents not long after my Bar Mitzvah and they were very supportive of me. My father, being a surgeon and all, told me it was perfectly natural and that he would always be there for me. I’ve come to accept it, and I’m comfortable with who I am.
“Someday I hope that the rest of the country will recognize that being gay is a part of us and not a choice, and will allow us to marry and live our lives the same as straight couples do. I know Judaism doesn’t recognize gay marriage or anything, but how does Reconstructionist Judaism feel about its gay members?” I asked him.
“That’s a very good question, Randy. First of all, I want you to know that Beth El is supportive of our gay congregants and that we welcome them with open arms. Similarly to our Reform Jewish friends, we do accept that being gay is not a choice, and we accept gay relationships as a natural part of being gay. We’ve been ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis since the mid-1980s.
“You’ll be interested to know that a treatise recently came out from one of our Conservative brethren that attempted to reconcile the sections of the Torah, specifically Leviticus, that deal with homosexuality, and our modern understanding of its nature. The premise is that, contrary to popular belief, Leviticus does not prohibit homosexuality... that the admonition of laying down with another man as with a woman is only a prohibition against anal intercourse.
“As such, gay relationships are seen as being perfectly natural and anal intercourse, for those who practice it, is equivalent to eating pork or shellfish, or mixing meat and dairy products. It is therefore not the horrible sin our Orthodox brothers and the fundamentalist Christians or Muslims make it out to be, but the equivalent of a misdemeanor. Even as traditional as the Conservatives are, they voted to allow the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis at the 2006 Congress last December.
“The Reconstructionist movement is generally very liberal when it comes to social values, but there are many in our leadership who still find conflict between homosexuality and the traditions we embrace. You might be interested in reading an article by Toba Spitzer on love and marriage. I think the values expressed in that article are very much in line with the majority in the movement.
“I’m not going to tell you that a gay couple will be welcome by all members of Beth El... this is the Midwest, after all, but you’ll find that most congregants are very accepting of gay relationships. I have performed many commitment ceremonies myself, and would welcome the opportunity to marry gay couples, should the laws here ever allow it,” he finished.
“That’ll be the day,” I chuckled, “but it’s a relief to know that I’m welcome here... not that I would give up my sexual orientation if you’d said otherwise.
“The main reason I’m here, however, has to do with my boyfriend. His name is... Altaf.”
“He came to America from Pakistan with his mother, last year, after he and his best friend... his boyfriend... were caught having sex. The local Imam sentenced both of them to death by stoning, and his mother chose to turn her back on her family and her religion rather than see her only son die.”
“That was a very courageous thing of her to do, and I can imagine the guilt your boyfriend must feel over that.”
“Rabbi, that’s something I honestly hadn’t thought about,” I said. “Unfortunately, his boyfriend wasn’t so lucky. Last week, Altaf received a package in the mail from Pakistan. It turned out to be a box containing his boyfriend’s ashes.”
“Oh my God!” the rabbi exclaimed with much pain evident in his voice. “I can’t imagine the grief your boyfriend must be going through, and the guilt. It must be terrible for him. And his boyfriend was cremated? That just isn’t done in Islam, any more than it is in Judaism. Cremation is the ultimate way to defile a human body, so I can imagine the effect it must be having on Altaf.”
“There was no enclosed note or letter,” I relayed to the rabbi. “Altaf thinks that the local cemeteries considered their homosexual act as a suicide and refused to bury him. The only way for his parents to dispose of the body was to go to the local Hindus and have him cremated... they basically had no choice.”
“I see....” said the rabbi. He continued, “You know, Randy, in spite of the rise of militant and fundamentalist Islam worldwide, very few Muslims believe in death as the punishment for homosexuality any more than Jews do. In fact, at least in this country, most Muslims would consider what was done to your boyfriend’s boyfriend to be barbaric. They might not be accepting of homosexuality, but they wouldn’t turn their backs on you... at least not like that....
“There’s someone else I think you should talk to about this... you and Altaf.” Picking up the telephone, he said, “Let me see if he’d be willing to meet with you first.”
The rabbi dialed a number he obviously knew by heart and after exchanging pleasantries, said, “I have here in front of me one of our congregants... a teenage boy who is in love with a Muslim... a Muslim boy....” After a brief silence, he said, “That’s what I thought, but there’s more, his boyfriend came to America after he was caught having sex with another boy in Pakistan. The other boy was stoned to death for their sin....
“Yes, I know, I couldn’t agree more....” and then he said, “Yes, but there’s even more. Last week, his boyfriend received the other boy’s ashes in the mail.” At that point I could hear the man on the other end of the conversation shouting into the phone. I couldn’t hear what he said, but it was clear that he was angry.
I listened to the rabbi talk to the other gentleman for a while longer, until he turned his attention back to me and asked, “Do you have the time to meet with an Imam right now?”
“Sure,” I answered somewhat nervously.
The rabbi turned back to the telephone and said, “Fine, I’ll send him right over.” After exchanging more pleasantries and hanging up the phone, he turned back to me and said, “The Imam of the Islamic Center would like to meet with you. He’s a fine man and I think he could help you and your boyfriend to get through this.”
The rabbi wrote down the address and directions on how to get there, although the directions were superfluous to me. The mosque was located in the southernmost part of Broad Ripple, on 46th Street, just off Keystone. Getting to it was a cinch, and of course the building wasn’t hard to miss, with its four minarets.
I’d never been inside a mosque before and was surprised by what I saw. I entered the building through a small, but beautiful courtyard on the west side of the building. A lovely fountain in the center of the courtyard lent a feeling of tranquility to the place. Between the courtyard and the mosque itself was a small anteroom - little more than a foyer with some shelves on which to place one’s shoes and a sink to use for washing one’s hands. A sign instructed me to remove my shoes, wash my hands and cover my head before I entered.
As a Jew, covering my head as I entered the sanctuary was nothing new to me, but as I exited the anteroom, all similarities ended. I found myself in a large room with what I could only surmise were religious artifacts positioned about the periphery. Rather than seeing a sanctuary filled with pews or seats of any kind, the main hall of the mosque was simply a large open room, devoid of any furnishings. The walls were ornately painted, but the floor was bare with the exception of oriental rugs that covered virtually every available inch. A few men stood in the center of the room, quietly praying as they faced east. Although the setting was different, I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarity to traditional Judaism at the sight of men lost in prayer, their lips almost silently mouthing words as their bodies moved imperceptibly.
Looking around, I noticed a sign pointing to the Imam’s study, and I followed it to a set of ornate doors, off to the side that led to a small alcove off the main structure. I gently knocked on the door and heard a deep voice from inside say, “Come in.”
When I entered, the man who greeted me was not at all what I’d expected. He was very large, and tall, and he was black. I knew there were Muslims in Africa, just as I knew there were Ethiopian Jews, and I knew that many African Americans such as Mohamed Ali had converted to Islam, but I never really thought about the possibility of the Imam being other than someone of Middle Eastern descent.
I paused for a moment before I took the Imam’s hand in mine and shook it warmly. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me, Imam,” I said. He walked around to sit behind his desk and I took a moment to admire the ornate head covering and the robe he wore.
“I’m always willing to help a fellow human being through times of stress.
“I have to admit that I’ve officiated at the weddings of a number of Muslims to Christians, I’ve married black men and white women, and vice versa, and I’ve even officiated with a rabbi in marrying a Muslim and a Jew, but you’re the first person to approach me who’s in a gay interfaith relationship.”
“Imam, I have to confess that neither Altaf nor I are very religious. My meeting with the rabbi today was the first time I’ve set foot in a synagogue since my Bar Mitzvah. Honestly, if Altaf has been to a mosque since he fled Pakistan for his life, he hasn’t mentioned it to me. I think it’s safe to say that we have different cultural backgrounds, and we’re both a long way from accepting religion back into our lives.”
“Tell me, Randy, do you believe in God?”
That question took me off guard. I knew I had believed in God at one time, but even as I went to Hebrew School in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah, I didn’t really feel a connection between what I was learning, and God. I went to Hebrew School because my parents sent me there, and because it was expected of me. At the same time I was wrestling with the feelings I was developing for boys.
But did I believe in God? Did Altaf?
“Imam, I’m not sure,” I said. “If you’d have asked me a few years ago, I’d have probably said ‘no’. I think I confused society’s view on homosexuality with God’s, and when I came to realize I was gay, I was angry at Him.
“Now, I’m at peace with who I am, and I’ve found love. I may not know for sure if I believe in God... at least not the God of the Bible... but the one thing I do know is that I believe in miracles, and in love.”
“Thank you for an honest and thoughtful answer,” the Imam said. “I think you’ve done something very important... you’ve separated the concept of God from that of organized religion.
“When you go to the Temple, your shule, you pray to Adonai. In our mosque, we pray to Allah. Jehovah’s witnesses pray to Jehovah, and the majority of Christians pray to Jehovah, or whatever they believe God’s name to be, through His son, Jesus. The Buddhists and Hindus pray to many deities.
“What I’m getting at is that there truly is one God, and I’d be a fool to believe that he would create only one true and just path to seek his good graces.
“God is all-powerful.... We may not understand why He created the Universe or to what purpose, but each and every creature alive knows or at least hopes that there is a purpose in this life that goes well beyond mere existence.
“Religion is a tool that humankind uses to reach an understanding of God and through which we all can seek to find a communion with him. Some may pray, some may meditate and some may only hope for what they know in their heart is right and just.
“I believe it doesn’t matter how you pray, but that you find your own path to righteousness. It’s only when we seek righteousness, truth and virtue that we give purpose to life.”
I just sat there, dumbfounded. The Imam had put the concept of God in a whole new light for me. I’d always seen God as aloof and removed from humankind. What the Imam said was that it’s not important what God is or why we are here - what matters is that we seek to give life a purpose.
When I failed to say anything, the Imam asked, “Pretty powerful words, huh?”
“Yeah... I think that what you’re saying is that religion is a tool by which we can hope to understand God, but what’s really important is giving life a purpose and we alone can do that.... That is God’s true will.”
“Excellent. You’ve stated it very well. The next question is, can we use that tool to help Altaf through his grief?”
“I wish I knew,” I simply stated.
“Son, Altaf was raised in the most conservative of Islamic traditions. Although those traditions might remind him of why he is here in this strange land, and why his friend is dead, they could also be a source of comfort to him. When you go to shule to say Kaddish three times a day for a year, the ritualistic act helps you to connect to the one you’ve lost. When you can’t see, hear or touch your loved one, religion helps you to reach out to them and to gradually let go.”
“Even if I can get Altaf to come here,” I asked, “would he be welcome?”
The Imam rubbed his hands together as he seemed to mull over what to say. “It would not be fair of me to say he would be welcome here with open arms. Although I personally believe that being gay is something personal between a man and Allah, the official position of this mosque is that homosexual acts are prohibited by the Quran and those that practice them are under the influence of Satan.
“That said, I have counseled a number of gay youth in my time, and I can honestly say that I have never turned anyone away who wished to pray here, even when they continued to practice their homosexuality. A few of our members are openly gay, and they find acceptance here, if not understanding.
“There are those in Islam who believe the Quran’s prohibition against homosexuality is an admonition against male rape, which was commonly practiced by victors against the vanquished, back in the time when the Quran was written. As the scientific evidence has mounted for homosexuality being an inherited trait, I think that most modern Muslims accept that it may be the will of Allah, and not Satan, for people to be gay. I am of that opinion, but were I to express it openly in the mosque, I would soon be unemployed.
“Someday, I hope it will be different, but for the time being, it’s best to be discrete when inside the mosque.”
“So what’s next?” I asked.
“Well, you cannot force Altaf to come here, but you can help him find his way here. The one thing I can offer which might help him find his way, is a fitting end for his friend. The cemeteries in his village in Pakistan may not have allowed him a proper burial, but we will. If he will bring his friend’s ashes here, I will arrange for a traditional Muslim burial... a burial with dignity.”
“I think he would like that,” I said to the Imam. “Thank you, but Altaf and his mother don’t have much money....”
“Don’t worry about the money, he said. After what happened to his friend at the hands of those who were supposed to uphold God’s law, but instead abused it, I think the Islamic community owes him at least that much.”
Although speaking to the Imam didn’t offer the answers I’d hoped it would, it did open up a way for Altaf’s first love to have a dignified end and, hopefully, for Altaf to grieve, as I knew he must.
That Friday, I asked Altaf out on a different kind of date - I asked him to go to services at my synagogue with me. He was a bit amused at first, but when he saw I was serious, he asked me why.
“Well, a very dear friend of mine has recently experienced a loss. Since he’s as close to me as anyone in my family, I feel the pain of that loss, too. I thought that one way I could help to deal with that loss might be to reconnect with God.”
“I think you are crazy,” Altaf responded, “and do not think I do not know what you are doing, but I accept your invitation to go on a date to your synagogue.”
When we walked into the sanctuary, he said, “It is so different. You sit upright in seats, rather than sitting on the floor or standing, to pray?”
“Our most important prayers are said standing, but the service, and particularly the sermon, is lengthy, and of course we sit for those. It might help us to stay awake during the sermon if we sat on the floor, but it would be very embarrassing if we started to lean over on our neighbors when we did fall asleep.”
“I see...” he said as we took our seats. Altaf looked so cute in a yarmulke, the traditional Jewish skullcap.
Altaf didn’t know any of the Hebrew prayers and couldn’t read the Hebrew text in the prayer book, so I could only hope he was getting something out of the service. When it came time for the first recital of the Mourner’s Kaddish, only a few of us stood. After Altaf and I sat back down, he whispered a question to me.
“Why did you stand to recite the Kaddish?” he asked. “I thought only Mourners stand.”
Rather than answering, I said, “I’m surprised you know about our traditions.”
“Some things are not all that different, he said, and I’ve seen enough American movies to know some of your traditions.”
“We stood because you’re in mourning, and I’m your boyfriend, and as far as I’m concerned, that makes me a relative.”
“Thank you,” was all he said in return.
When it came time for the rabbi’s sermon, I settled into my seat as the rabbi stood up on the bimah. “This week,” he began, “I had an interesting conversation with one of our congregants, a young man who had not set foot in our temple since his Bar Mitzvah nearly four years ago.”
I had a sinking feeling as the rabbi continued, “This young man came to talk to me because his boyfriend, a Muslim, had suffered a terrible and tragic loss.” As the rabbi spoke, I felt Altaf grab my hand and squeeze it gently, and a feeling of relief washed over me. At least, he wasn’t angry with me for speaking to the rabbi behind his back.
“I would like to say that I helped the boy come to terms with what his boyfriend was going through, but it was not I who did this. You see, just as doctors often discuss their mutual patients with each other, members of the clergy often do the same when their congregants overlap, as we did in this case.” Now I was really getting nervous.
“After reassuring the boy that Reconstructionist Judaism welcomes its gay members, I sent him to meet the Imam of a local mosque. I felt that the Imam could help him to understand better what his boyfriend was going through, and could perhaps offer solutions to help his boyfriend deal with his grief.
“What I wasn’t expecting, was for the Imam to call me after they had met and to commend me on teaching him the true meaning of God. This really took me by surprise, because other than for Sunday School and for his Bar Mitzvah, he had barely set foot in this building. No, what this young man told the Imam was something he learned from the Imam... not from me... and he even improved upon it. I thought I would share that with you tonight....”
I couldn’t believe the rabbi was going to divulge my private conversations in his sermon. How could he do this? But as he proceeded, he did not divulge anything more private than he already had. The principal point of the sermon was that what God expected of us was to seek truth, virtue and justice in all things - that that is what gives life purpose. It was kind of funny to hear the same message coming from our rabbi, but I think the message had particular meaning to Altaf, as he held my hand throughout the sermon, and never let go.
“So let us all give thanks for what we have, but never lose sight of the real meaning of life. It is only when we give life purpose, through the seeking of truth, virtue and justice, that we are doing God’s will. Amen,” the rabbi said in conclusion.
The rabbi sat down and the president of the congregation stood up to make the usual announcements. “Shabbat Shalom, happy Chanukah and Merry Christmas to all of you,” he said as the congregants laughed at him for mentioning Christmas. “I hope you all have your Christmas shopping done, and that your Chanukah bushes are all up, trimmed and decorated for the holidays,” he said, continuing his faux Christmas theme.
After the service was over and Altaf and I were walking to my car, he asked me, “What’s a Chanukah bush?”
I nearly doubled over in hysterics as I answered, “You would have to pick up on that out of all the things that were said.... There are some Jews, particularly Reform Jews, but Reconstructionists, too, who cave in to the pressure of their children asking why all their friends have Christmas trees and they don’t. They put up Christmas trees, but refer to them as Chanukah bushes, pretending that they don’t have any real religious significance. It’d be a bit like a Christian putting up a menorah for Christmas and claiming it’s just a pretty source of light.”
“It is all so silly,” Altaf said. “Christmas, I mean. It is all so fake. It is like all there is, is this big build-up to one day. There is all the buying of presents and all the holiday decorations and all the ‘good will to men’ sort of thing. If all of this is so special, why not do it all year long?”
I laughed and answered him, “Even most Christians think it’s all overdone. Christmas has become very commercial. There’s so much emphasis on money and buying the perfect gifts and outdoing each other in decorating their houses that the real meaning of the holiday gets lost.
“What’s really sad is that every year, people steal from each other, just so they’ll have gifts to give at Christmas. How pathetic is it that someone would feel so compelled to be able to put the latest, greatest toy under their Christmas tree for their kids, that they’d totally miss the meaning of Christmas and steal that toy from some other guy’s kids. How sick is that?”
“Well, I guarantee you that no Muslim would ever steal from another Muslim to give a gift at the end of Ramadan,” my boyfriend said.
“So then Jews are fair game?” I asked him teasingly.
“You silly oaf,” he said as he lunged at me. I ran from his clutches and he chased me all the way back to the car. When he caught me at last, I surrendered to the ‘torture’ of his kiss.
As he pulled away, I said, “If I knew that was what you intended to do, I’d have let you catch me right away.” That, of course, led to another, even longer and more passionate kiss.
Once we were seated in my Lexus, I got up the courage to ask, “Altaf, what did you think about my going behind your back and meeting with an Imam?”
“It wasn’t really behind my back, was it? You went to your rabbi, which was the natural thing to do, and he sent you to the Imam. I must say, however, that I’m really impressed by what the Imam said to you. My Imam in Pakistan would have never said such a thing. There, it was all about what’s in the Quran, and how we must do everything it says. There was absolutely no room for argument... what the Imam said was the law, and not the other way round.”
“The Imam I met with... he suggested I bring you to the mosque... that although not all congregants would welcome you with open arms, that no one would ever turn you away, and that you would find acceptance, even if you continued to, well, be gay.
“The other thing he said is that he’d like to offer Fareed a proper, dignified burial. He said he’d do it for free... considering what was done to you in Pakistan in the name of Islam, he feels it’s the least he could do.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what I could do with Fareed’s remains. I’m really touched that you took the time to do this for me,” he said, the emotion evident in his speech.
“Me? I want this for the both of us,” I answered truthfully.
“I know you do, but it’s just another indication of how much you love me. Coming to America is the best thing that ever happened to me. I wish I could have brought Fareed with me, but I thank Allah every day that He brought me to you.”
I leaned over towards Altaf and what started as an innocent peck on the lips soon became a passionate, deep kiss.
When we came up for air, I couldn’t help but marvel at the strength of our love. Altaf considered himself lucky, but I was the lucky one.
“Can you stay the night?” I asked him. This was a big deal - we’d done a lot of making out and fooling around, but we’d never slept together before.
“Can’t you wait until your birthday? I promised you a special night for your birthday, remember?”
“We can still do something special for my birthday, and we don’t have to do everything tonight, but to answer your question, no, I can’t wait.”
“Don’t you need to ask your parents?” Altaf asked me.
“Actually, they already told me they approve of our relationship, and that I have their permission... that they’d rather we do things at my house than go behind their backs.”
“Well, unlike you, I need to ask my mother, but I doubt she will say no.”
When we got to my house, Altaf called his mom and, indeed, she gave him her permission.
I gave Altaf a new toothbrush and we both got ready for bed. We’d both seen each other naked many times now, but tonight we were especially nervous. We laughed as we realized how nervous we were.
Any hint of it disappeared when Altaf’s lips met mine. The sensations that coursed through my body were electric as our tongues wrestled with one another’s. We separated just long enough for me to unbutton Altaf’s shirt, and he did the same with mine. We removed each other’s shirts and I admired the beauty of the boy in front of me.
We hugged each other tightly as we resumed making out. Our kisses became more urgent as our passion grew. We had a lot of fun that night as we brought each other pleasure more times than I can remember.
We awoke in each other’s arms the next day at noon. My sister acted like we weren’t even there, but my ten-year-old brother, Danny, teased us unmercifully.
“Just wait until it’s your turn, pipsqueak,” I told him after it started to get old.
“At least in my case, it’ll be with a girl,” he retorted.
“You sure about that, bro?” I asked him.
“You forget, next year I’ll be in middle school. I’m not that little any more.... I’m nearly eleven and, yeah, I’m 100% sure. At least I won’t be getting shit on my dick,” he said.
“Hey, we didn’t go that far last night,” I replied. “Nothing beyond a little VI-IX.”
“V... I... I... X?” he asked out loud. “Ohhh... TMI, dude.” We all ended up laughing as I ruffled his curly hair.
Unfortunately, that was the last time Altaf and I had any real time together before the Christmas holiday. He put in as many hours at Borders as he could, which left very little time for anything else. Even after school let out for winter break, he continued to work, racking up the hours in the frenzied countdown toward Christmas.
Finally, it was Christmas day. While children all over the world were waking up to see what Santa had left them under their Christmas trees, Altaf and I each woke up in our own homes to what was just another day. Almost forgetting, I turned on the radio and flipped through station after station, giving up when all I could get was Christmas music.
I called up Altaf and asked him, “Would you like to celebrate a typical Jewish Christmas?”
“What’s a typical Jewish Christmas?” he asked.
“Chinese food, and a movie.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes, I’m serious. Chinese restaurants are just about the only ones to stay open on Christmas, and the movie theaters are just about the only businesses that are open. It’s very traditional,” I said in mock seriousness.
“Well, we would not want to break with tradition, now, would we?”
“Of course not,” I replied.
Altaf and I had a great time. It turned out he’d never had Chinese food before, so I took him to an upscale Chinese buffet, so he could try a little of everything. He absolutely loved it, as he went back for seconds, and thirds and then fourths. Thin as he was, I didn’t know where in the world he put it all. I was surprised he was still able to stand when he finished.
We ended up seeing two movies that afternoon. Truth be told, I don’t honestly even remember what it was we saw. Neither of us paid any attention to the movies.
Everywhere we went that day, people wished us a merry Christmas. Even the Chinese waiters at the restaurant wished us a merry Christmas. It was so funny! I almost got up the nerve to wish people back a happy Chanukah, but I didn’t. After all, saying ‘Merry Christmas’ is a lot like saying, ‘How ya doin’... no one really means anything by it, and heaven forbid you should answer them, ‘I feel like shit.’
No, this was their holiday, so let them enjoy it, such as it is, and get caught up in the frenzy and the materialism, and then rush to the stores to exchange their Christmas gifts. I didn’t begrudge them their holiday one bit.
Shortly after Christmas, Fareed’s remains were properly laid to rest in a fitting ceremony that left us all in tears. Altaf played a haunting melody on an intricately painted, wooden flute - I had no idea he knew how to play a musical instrument - and then he sang deep, slow song, which almost sounded like chanting. He later told me it was a kind of hymn called a Qaseeda.
After that, Altaf and I started going to services on a weekly basis, first at his mosque, then at my synagogue. It helped him to get through his period of mourning, and to bring us closer to God as we learned more about each other’s religion.
And then there was my seventeenth birthday celebration, but that’s another story....
The author gratefully acknowledges the invaluable assistance of David of Hope in editing this story, with special thanks to Fun Tails and BeaStKid for their advice and editing with respect to Islamic and Pakistani aspects of the story. The author also thanks Gay Authors, Awesome Dude and Codey’s World for hosting My First Thanksgiving and The Un-Christmas.