In his memoir, A Sinner in Mecca, author and filmmaker Parvez Sharma chronicles his pilgrimage as a very openly gay Muslim to Saudi Arabia, where Islam’s heart beats, and where being true to oneself is punishable by death. In preparation for the Hajj, Sharma undergoes adult circumcision.
The platform of the 125th Street station on the 1 train is one of my favorite places in Manhattan. It is above ground, and in winter, as the snow softly falls, I sometimes get off there for no reason at all. The snow creates an effect such that the surrounding apartments seem to float in the air and almost touch the platform. Through the windows, warm young Columbia University undergrads are unaware that I can stare at them staring at their laptops.
But that’s winter. I was headed downtown on a super-hot August 2011 morning to obediently submit myself to Islam in the harshest manner possible. I had carefully planned the date to coincide with Eid.
New York was the fabled Mecca of freedom. Her trains roared underground through the world’s greatest example of diversity. Their routes marked a geography, which often on ground level easily changed into different realities, even nations. On the subway, just like Muhammad’s Ummah, everyone was equal.
On the downtown 1, the spectacle of New York was always visible. Sometimes there would be perfect parents bringing their perfect children to and from school. They had fulfilled their mandated roles. Ordinary people, whose children would be their only legacies. Would they leave a mark on history or would it be people like me, I thought arrogantly.
As the Quran droned in my headphones, I sneaked a few longing stares at the white boys who had just boarded exposing their youthful, superior skin color, in thrall of the last days of summer. Were they unaware of their youthful beauty?
At the end of every day I sat and Islamicized my new iPhone. It was coming with me as my primary hope and tool for filming with some ease. Sadly, the screensaver picture of Keith had already been replaced (though I did keep several in my photos app) by the green (Islam’s color) Saudi flag—sword, testament, and all. Why would this nation choose to put an instrument of absolute violence on its primary national symbol? Allegedly it was visual evidence of how strictly the country enforced Wahhabi sharia. To be safe, my iPhone’s playlist was fast filling with recitations of various Quranic Surahs instead of hip-hop that used the C- and D-words.
As I turned my worldly possessions halal, I was constantly aware that Islam’s scalpel of disciplining sexuality had missed me by a hair’s breadth when I was a child. I was spared the blade owing to some “medical problems” that remain unexplained. My research terrorized me. Google reliably threw up strangeness. One website claimed the Prophet had said, “Prophet Ibrahim circumcised himself at the age of eighty, using a hatchet.” And then there was a more obscure Sunni hadith that says that one should not pray for a dead Muslim who is uncircumcised.
As a Sunni, my decision to go on Hajj with Shias instead was unusual. For the Wahhabis, the Shia are worse than Islam’s bastard children— infidels, as much as I was, but for different reasons. The hatred is mutual. But even they, my fellow infidels, agreed with their Sunni oppressors on this one thing: The uncircumcised Muslim male was damned. Thus, the religious opinion that terrorized my soul the most came via Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s highest Shia authority. The year before my Hajj he had allegedly pronounced the death penalty for all gays in US-occupied Iraq, leading to a pogrom that lasted for years. And unfortunately I had publicly dared to investigate and write about the ayatollah’s call for the killing of gay men.
About circumcision, this ayatollah opined: “If an uncircumcised pilgrim in ihram, be he adult or discerning child, performs a tawaf, it is invalid. Unless he repeats it, after being circumcised, he will, as a matter of precaution, be regarded as a person who has abandoned tawaf.” The tawaf is the obligatory counterclockwise circumambulation of the Kaaba, performed several times during Hajj. For my fellow Shia pilgrims, al-Sistani’s word is usually like God’s word. It is al-Sistani who is also credited with a famous fatwa about depicting Muhammad:
“If due deference and respect is observed, and the scene does not contain anything that would detract from their holy pictures in the minds [of the viewers], there is no problem.” No Sunni would dare say this.
An uncut penis could be a dangerous thing in the small Indian town I grew up in. The fractures of intolerance rarely surfaced amongst the Hindu and Muslim communities coexisting mostly peaceably as they had for generations. But several times there were riots. During such mayhem, we barricaded ourselves. The adults whispered about how the mobs of either religion identified whom to kill by stripping them to identify genitalia, just like they had done during the death trains of India and Pakistan’s bloody partition. These particular clashes were brought on by a Hindu mob that had dumped the carcass of a pig in a mosque. The Muslims retaliated by slaughtering a cow outside a temple. As for the human casualties: stripping pre-slaughtering still remained the norm. It forever put fear in my heart.
As the train screeched to a halt at the 86th Street station, I was rudely reminded of the purpose of my journey. A fully veiled woman boarded the train with her festively dressed little girl. It was Eid, after all. I got up immediately to offer them a seat. I would never know if she smiled in gratitude; there was no face to be seen. But the mind of a sinner always wanders. As the imam musically intoned the Quran in my headphones, I stared sexually at yet another cute hipster boy.
My urologist, Dr. Stein, said I was a “brave man.” In that moment of trauma, as he began the procedure, I felt safe telling him what I had told no one but Keith. During my pilgrimage, I would be wearing the ihram, two seamless pieces of white cloth with no underwear. In my many nightmares, my ihram would fall off in Mecca, subjecting unsuspecting pilgrims to my un-Muslim penis.
Dr. Stein laughed and said, “The two Valium and Percocet you took should be kicking in now. Does this hurt?” as he jabbed at what must have been my penis. I yelped in pain. But soon I seemed to be in some kind of waking dream.
In Arabic, the word Islam means “submission.” For its obedient followers, this is a religion of meticulous discipline. Osama bin Laden’s jihadis feel superior to all other Muslims in their belief that only they know how to live by the harshest strictures of our religion. A distant uncle in my family refused to even swallow his own saliva during Ramadan. He used to lecture us as children, “We are superior to all other people.”
This uncle was the only unmarried adult relative I knew, and now I wonder if his doctrinal adherence to some of Islam’s harshest strictures masked the shame of his own sexuality, which I imagine he never acted upon. The morality of sex is tightly controlled in Islam, as in all patriarchies, and women’s bodies are primary targets. But penises and male dress (modest—no sleeves rolled up) are also technically controlled. I was leaving for the holy land as a fearful pilgrim. If my sexuality was my primary sin, then surely its most visible marker was my penis, which I had failed to discipline. This, perhaps, was my chance to undo some of the sin that marked my penis, by irreversibly altering it.
“You have a new penis, Parvez,” said Dr. Stein. “This looks perfect. But you don’t have to see it quite yet.”
I was taking all of the dissonance of my twenty-first-century life into an almost seventh-century Saudi Arabia. Siri and my new penis were coming along. All that remained on my i (for Islamic) Phone was a hidden picture of Keith.
“It will take eight weeks to look normal,” said Dr. Stein.
Friends said my circumcision proved I was “crazy” and they would never take such an irreversible, life-altering decision. I had no choice.
Parvez Sharma’s A Sinner In Mecca ($16.95, BenBella Books) is out now.