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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 29, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 30
Gay Pakistani Muslim poet dies
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Gay Pakistani Muslim poet dies

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

'Gay' and 'poet' are words that often go together, but add 'Pakistani' and 'Muslim' and you're beginning to describe someone unusual.

Ifti Nasim - Gay activist, Muslim, poet, radio talk show host, and Chicago celebrity - was definitely unusual.

Friends remembered him attending Pakistani Muslim community events decked out in leather and wearing a pimp hat with a feather, then getting clamorous applause by reading poems about being Muslim in a post-911 world.

He lived as an openly Gay and openly Muslim man in Chicago's South Asian enclave, while earning the respect of conservative Muslims with his poetry, humor, and advocacy for both Gays and Muslims.

Nasim died at a Chicago hospital late on July 22 following a heart attack, his sister Ajaz Nasreen said in a statement to The Associated Press. He was 64.

'It is a big loss for the community,' said his friend and business partner Rana Javed.

Javed and Nasim produced 'Sargam Radio,' a Chicago-area radio program aimed at the South Asian community, and a local newspaper.

In spite of his flamboyant style and outspoken Gayness, Nasim was respected in the Chicago Pakistani community. Hundreds packed into the mosque for his funeral on July 23.

A religious memorial service was scheduled for July 24, and community leaders said public memorials with poetry readings would follow in the coming weeks.

Nasim said he always knew he was Gay, but living as an out Gay man in his native Pakistan wasn't an option.

He often recounted how he first read magazine articles about being Gay in America. He developed his sense of fashion by flipping through Vogue, he added.

'In Islamic society, Gays have no place,' he told WBEZ-FM radio in Chicago. 'America sold the Gay culture to me back home. They're living happily ever after in America. That's my place, I've got to go to America. I was sold. Completely sold.'

Nasim said he waited to come out to his family until he emigrated to the U.S. and was financially stable.

'They thought `Gay' [was] a passing state,' he told WBEZ. 'They said, 'Go get married. You'll be fine. A good woman will do a lot of good to you.' Excuse me, like it's some kind of disease? Take two aspirin, you get up in the morning and you'll be OK? Honey, it doesn't work that way.'

Nasim eventually became a U.S. citizen, but in his poetry he often grappled with the seeming contradiction between his Gay and Muslim identities.

Nasim's book of poetry titled 'Narman' - a word for hermaphrodite - is believed to be the first book of Gay-themed poetry to be published in the Urdu language.

He also founded SANGAT/Chicago, a South Asian LGBT organization.

In 1996, Nasim was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame for 'his courage as an international ambassador of tolerance' and his leadership in the city.

His sister, owner of a bookstore in the city's South Asian neighborhood, said her brother drew people to him with his generosity. Even in their own family, he was instrumental in bringing siblings and family members to the U.S.

'He was our Columbus,' she told AP reporters in Urdu. 'He brought us all to this country.'

Nasim liked to hang out in the tea shops and kabob restaurants along Devon Avenue, a stretch of South Asian businesses on Chicago's North Side.

'People would find him just to joke around,' Javed said, but Nasim used the opportunity to talk to community members about his projects. Most recently, he was working on earthquake and flood relief for his native country.

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