Khamr: The Makings of a Waterslams is a true story that maps the author’s experience of living with an alcoholic father and the direct conflict of having to perform a Muslim life that taught him that nearly everything he called home was forbidden. A detailed account from his childhood to early adulthood, Jamil F. Khan lays bare the experience of living in a so-called middle-class Coloured home in a neighbourhood called Bernadino Heights in Kraaifontein, a suburb to the north of Cape Town. His memories are overwhelmed by the constant discord that was created by the chaos and dysfunction of his alcoholic home and a co-dependent relationship with his mother, while trying to manage the daily routine of his parents’ keeping up appearances and him maintaining scholastic excellence. Khan’s memories are clear and detailed, which in turn is complemented by his scholarly thinking and analysis of those memories. He interrogates the intersections of Islam, Colouredness and the hypocrisy of respectability as well as the effect perceived class status has on these social realities in simple yet incisive language, giving the reader more than just a memoir of pain and suffering. Khan says about his debut book: ‘This is not a story for the romanticisation of pain and perseverance, although it tells of overcoming many difficulties. It is a critique of secret violence in faith communities and families, and the hypocrisy that has damaged so many people still looking for a place and way to voice their trauma. This is a critique of the value placed on ritual and culture at the expense of human life and well-being, and the far-reaching consequences of systems of oppression dressed up as tradition.’
There was a part of my world my mother would never experience and, to live in it, I had to escape her supervision. I had been in a psychological prison for as long as I could remember. Nobody around me could relate, nor would they ever learn to. I was a gay, questioning Coloured Muslim boy navigating one of the most notorious institutions of white supremacy in South Africa. I was locked out of desire for as long as I could remember. Reckoning with my sexuality had been a treacherous journey of shame and guilt long before the subtle rippling of my budding desires interrupted my childhood. Even before then, my access to the performance of desire was violently regulated by the stranglehold of heteronormativity. I have only known sexuality and desire as yearning. I have only wanted whatever lack was not. I wanted the opposite of fear – whatever that was. As a queer person, I never knew what I wanted, because what I was allowed to desire didn’t fit me. What I saw around me was everything that was designed to kill me. It was less not knowing what I wanted and more imagining what I could want. Nobody around me could ever understand the world I was stumbling through – least of all my mother. No amount of support and guidance she had for me could help me navigate that part of my life. It was my burden and mine alone to bear.
I thought about it many times growing up. My mind was regularly consumed by a sad, miserable future. I could not imagine anything possibly joyous alongside a truthful existence as a queer person. My teen years were made up of ruminating over a shameful, lonely and despairing future. Growing up around the disdain for queer people I saw around me, not only in my family but also in the neighbourhood, at school and in popular culture, I resigned myself to an unhappy adulthood. I had been navigating and calculating my prospective life like someone vying for a prize in trigonometry. The lives of queer people are a calculation, if we are to survive. For those who don’t care for survival, walking straight onto the train tracks and taking whatever may come becomes a life of endless sacrifice.
By my calculations, I had three options: to declare myself unattracted to anyone, sexually and romantically; to marry a woman and live in insufferable unhappiness while hoping death would visit sooner rather than later; or to spare myself the trouble and kill myself. None of the options I had considered had me anywhere near to the centre of consideration. All possibilities for living with my queerness put me at the mercy of other people’s preferences. Except for death. That was about me.
Suicide is a complex entanglement of subversive, radical self-care and submission to society. We choose ourselves in the moment we decide to end lives of suffering and constant provocation. As queer people, we make ourselves unavailable for the constant disrespect and slow dying inflicted on us through sustained forms of gentle violence that leave us questioning our own sanity. We take back a power that we have been barred from exercising: the power over our bodies. We commit to a final act of love and the choice to love ourselves above the prescriptions of a world that teaches us an obligation to stay and be perpetually abused.
At the same time, taking our own queer lives pleases the system that is committed to annihilating us every day. Though the system would prefer to abuse and debase us on a daily basis, the goal is always to kill us. We are destined for death and erasure, and so taking our own queer lives is a service to the system too. Surviving motivates the system to try harder to kill us, while dying takes the job off its hands.
We do also exist beyond the constant violence of the system. We do also choose, in spite of the erosion of our agency. I was raised to understand that death by suicide is wrong by a god whose jealousy won’t see him upstaged by the free will he created. Having lived under the power of the free will of other people, I see suicide as just another way that people die. There are many reasons why people choose to live, but very few can ever truly say they have reaped the rewards for it. Suicide is brave and honest in its message. It says that although everything, physically and socially, is set up to make me stay alive, I choose to die.
The bodily reflexes that pull us towards life, the societal shame attached to suicide, the guilt for leaving people who never cared enough behind in pain, the fear of eternal damnation for using a conditional free will – all of these structures that are set up to keep us alive were not enough for the person who died by suicide. Surely that is a grievous indictment on us as a society? People can and will choose when to end their lives and, for some, like queer people, it is the only choice they can ever truly make. Loving yourself does not always mean staying alive. Love does not always mean comfort and ease. Love is not what we think it is. Love does hurt us, maim us and – in its final form – kill us. When we truly reckon with the full spectrum of how love can be expressed, we may stop absolving it of its ugly faces. Perhaps it is for us to realise that death is not always, or perhaps ever, a bad thing.
Though I had unsubscribed from the formal structures of Islam, I still struggled to reconcile my queerness with my god, who was a Muslim, male god who hated queers. I had resolved to praise him on my own, but even outside of the structures I believed constrained me, god is still a homophobe. He is created in a book that endorses violence against me and he declares that endorsement to be his word. He is a proud homophobe. There is no power that constrains him to reconsider his hatred of me. He is free at my expense. It seemed foolish to believe in a god who created me to hate me.
I was trying to avoid a hell that was designed just for me. Even if I did everything I was supposed to do, I was still going to hell just for being who I am. This must be the height of psychosis. We are taught not to question god, but what happens when we are the contradictions that prove his questionable nature? Surely the Abrahamic, male god is the most chaotic, disorganised and error prone of them all. There was no way to reconcile myself with Islam, save for denying myself and my desires. I had to let it go too.