Based on the New York Times' Critic Pick documentary
"The first book about the Hajj from a gay perspective, written by a man with a deep knowledge of Islamic history. This pilgrimage is the centerpiece of his book, and he recounts it with courage and fierce emotion."
This is the Islam you’ve never been allowed to see. Daringly reported from its frontlines and forbidden to most of humanity for centuries.
The Hajj pilgrimage is a journey every Muslim is commanded by God to go on at least once in a lifetime if they are able and, like millions, Parvez Sharma believes his spiritual salvation lies at Islam’s ground zero, Mecca. But unlike the journeys of his fellow Muslims, the consequences of his own could be deadly.
In A Sinner in Mecca, author, filmmaker, and 2018 Guggenheim Fellow Parvez chronicles his pilgrimage as a very openly gay Muslim to Saudi Arabia, where Islam’s heart beats . . . and where being true to himself is punishable by death. Risking his life, Parvez embarks on a Jihad of the self—filming his experience along the way. Already under fire for his documentary A Jihad for Love, which looks at the coexistence of Islam and homosexuality, he would undoubtedly face savage punishment if exposed—from being thrown off a cliff to public beheading.
Parvez’s odyssey is at once audacious, global, and remarkable. He meets everyone from extremists to explorers of the spiritual kind and the world they open up is frightening . . . yet breathtaking. In Mecca, Parvez comes out to a pilgrim, who then asks him why he would want to be part of something that wants no part of him. This book is his answer to this question and many more. Parvez provides an unflinching look at our troubling unfolding history, including Hizbullah, ISIS, Trump, the race-wars, an embattled Europe, and more. He offers real solutions, borne of his efforts to get his hands dirty to find them. This is a lived history—and its author is no armchair theorist.
Following the New York Times Critics' Pick hit documentary of the same title, A Sinner in Mecca unflinchingly showcases parts of the dangerous ideology that governs today’s ISIS and how much it has in common with Saudi Arabia’s sacred, yet treacherous dogma, Wahhabi Islam.
A Sinner in Mecca is simultaneously one man’s personal odyssey as well as a groundbreaking, provocative revelation of a clandestine world and its fastest growing and most contested religion.
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|Publisher:||BenBella Books, Inc.|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
You have no idea how many rich Saudi fuckers come here," Babak said. "We Beirutis fuck well. The Saudis? They walk around like they are so butch, but once naked they are all bottoms." I laughed.
Babak was the twenty-something founder of Arabian Bears, who organized "Bear" tours of Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan for Western gay men keen to sample the delights of the region. Bears, for those not initiated into the ghettoization of Western homosexuality, are the gay men who do not conform to "body fascist" stereotypes and flaunt the hair on their bodies and the ample meat on their bones. Or, as a friend said, "They are just gay men who have given up."
It was Ramadan 2010, almost the end of Islamic year 1431. The year 1432 would be momentous, but I didn't know it then. I was in Beirut to talk to the Lebanese about God and sex. My film, A Jihad for Love, was two years into its run. Our calculations, based on theatrical release in the US and Canada, a huge number of film festivals, good television ratings in countries like India, and thousands of DVD sales, added up to the film's reaching hundreds of thousands of people. I was traveling fast and furiously through twenty countries. Was this my fifteen minutes? The flood of journalists seeking interviews never seemed to cease. The highs had been many. And the fatwas came fast, as did the online hate. Our publicist had taught me well in the school of "there is no such thing as bad publicity."
Beirut was a city finding its feet after years of civil war. A month earlier an Egyptian feminist organization had organized a screening of the film in my beloved Cairo, but I had been unable to attend. So this was the first time I had shown up with my producer in an Arab capital. It was a big deal for me, like a major milestone had been crossed. Getting to Beirut as a servant-class Indian was quite the story.
It had taken months for the Middle East offices of a German nonprofit foundation affiliated with the German Green Party to get me a visa. A proud, green card–carrying nonresident alien in the US, I still held an Indian passport. The women at the foundation were even asked by the Lebanese authorities to sign a guarantee that I would not marry a Lebanese woman in an effort to become a citizen. It was typical Lebanese racism toward people from my part of the world, who form a substantial chunk of the indentured-labor class for wealthy Beirutis. But they finally did stamp my passport. Getting to any other Arab country had never been a problem. I had innumerable Egyptian visas. But Egypt was a poor country that did not import its toilet cleaners from the Indian subcontinent. They were abundant in its own majority, living in wretched poverty. Egypt was the poorest of all Arab countries, but it had remained the cultural heart of the Arab world for centuries. Here in tiny Lebanon, there had always been a wealthy upper class composed of Christians and Muslims alike. The former, with many sub-sects, were almost the majority. The latter were equally sectarian, split between different schools of Sunni and Shia Islam.
Religion was always a complicated issue here. A perilous democratic structure had been formed after two decades of civil war. It was designed to placate all groups. Constitutionally, the president had to be a Christian and the prime minister had to be Sunni Muslim. The speaker of Parliament was always Shia. And then there was Hizbullah ("The Party of God or Allah") that wove into the power structure in complicated ways. For many of the Shia Lebanese, Hassan Nasrallah was a revered sheikh and freedom fighter. For the West, Nasrallah was a terrorist. I understood both sides of the argument, which put me in a tight spot with my Western colleagues.
In Beirut, I was joined by my Jewish producer, David. Like me, he encountered Lebanese border officials surprisingly examining passports at the boarding gate of the Beirut-bound flight while we were still in Frankfurt. Like mine, his passport needed to prove he'd never been to Israel. He'd been to Israel more times than anyone I knew. In any case, to me it was clear: I was entering a police state. I am sure the Iranian visa on my Indian passport did not go unnoticed and was probably a positive. Fortunately, David had always been smart enough to get his numerous Israeli entry and exit visas on separate pieces of paper — a luxury the equally paranoid Israelis offered at their equally aggressively policed borders. I would not know either way because Israel was never on my map of countries to visit. At the time, I was a proud supporter of the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) movement against Israel — a panoply of boycotts that were intended to combat what many of my Facebook friends called "Israeli apartheid." David was excited to be in Beirut. I told him he was a masochist but respected his curiosity.
Within my first twenty hours in the country, I had walked past Beiruti graffiti featuring a Star of David with blood oozing from it. Equally without nuance was the hurriedly scrawled "Fuck the Jews" on a nearby wall. I prayed David missed it. Both of us were gay and proud of our Jewish-Muslim partnership.
We'd split up to do different things, as usual. David and I mostly met at screenings and our joint interviews. I had a Grindr date that night. Grindr, the gay hookup app, was blazing a trail on smartphones worldwide. Everyone seemed to know about it, and for the ultra-fashionable gay Beiruti men it was a must-have. The other popular hookup site, called Manjam, had not yet developed an app like Grindr that told you, right down to the number of feet, where a potential hookup waited. Its heterosexual equivalent, Tinder, was a while away.
Standing in the small lobby of our hotel, the Mayflower, I wondered if David had noticed the map on display. We didn't have an opportunity to discuss it. Perhaps neither of us wanted to. There it was: what I had often seen on many maps of the world in Islamic textbooks when growing up. Lebanon's neighboring country on this map was labeled Palestine and most of its newer Jewish cities, such as Tel Aviv, had been obliterated. Jerusalem was in bold with its Arabic name, Al Quds. There was Lebanon, there was Syria, even Jordan and Egypt, but the entire nation of Israel had been wiped off the face of this version of earth.
My Grindr hookup was getting closer. At 600 feet I told him I was coming down to receive him. Only hotel guests with room keys could ride the elevator.
He was a beautiful and muscular manimal with a perfectly groomed black beard and mustache. The sex was unbelievably good, and predictably he was a bottom, as all Arab men I had ever bedded were. We discussed Beirut, smoking our post-coital cigarettes. He said he would be happy to take me for a walk on the fabled Beirut corniche. I remembered it from a '60s Bollywood thriller called Ankhen ("Eyes"), which was set entirely in Beirut — a city that at the time was cinematically living up to its reputation as the "Paris of the East." The film had built a world of intrigue and glamor. I asked him if he had ever been to Dahieh.
I had spent time studying the geography of the ancient capital of this sliver of a country. Achrafieh, Hamra, and Dahieh were neighborhoods of this divided city, where the fault-lines of religious conflict ran deep. The first was a majority Christian district, the second a mix of all religions, and the last was Hizbullah-land. There was even a Beiruti West Village in Achrafieh's Sassine Square. That's where the artsy crowd hung about.
Four and a half million people of eighteen different sects sharing about 6,000 square miles would be a recipe for trouble anywhere. Did fifteen years of civil war change that?
"Can you take me there?" I asked.
He took several moments before replying, "Why? Are you curious about Hizbullah? Are you a journalist? Or some kind of spy?"
I assured him I was not and told him about the screenings of my film. I told him I hoped he could come.
"I am married with two children. I can't go to a film like this in public," he said. And then he dropped the bombshell: "I should tell you, because you seem like an honest guy. I actually go to Dahieh every day. I work for Sheikh Nasrallah. I help them with their Facebook and tweets and all that, because I am very good with computer stuff."
I had just hooked up with a member of Hizbullah. This was a first.
We continued talking. I told him how I had studied the extent of the support the organization had in Lebanon.
"A lot," he said.
I told him how I knew that even people in the government supported it as a legitimate resistance movement that had stood up to the Israeli army. He said he was proud and that it was a good fight. I asked him if they paid him well. He said it was enough to support his family of four. Like many anonymous tricks gay men hook up with, I had not even bothered to ask this trick his name.
"Rafik," he told me anyway. "Just like Hariri, our Sunni prime minister the Syrians killed in 2005."
I questioned him about the extent of Rafik's popularity.
"It was nothing compared to Nasrallah," he said.
I asked him if he knew that Hariri was once employed by the Saudis.
"Those Saudis, always fucking things up. You should see them in the summer here. Fucking everything in sight in the fancy hotels. Yes, I know Hariri made millions in Saudi. Everyone in Lebanon knows this."
I repeated my maxim to him: "One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter."
"Nowhere is it truer than it is here, Parvez," he said. "Look back at your own history in India. I am sure the British would have called the Indian freedom fighters, like even Gandhi, terrorists."
I could not disagree with that kind of logic. I liked Rafik and agreed to walk the corniche with him.
"So you are not Muslim?" he asked.
On Grindr Rafik had lamented the only way to get "uncut men" was by hooking up with an "Achrafieh Christian."
"I am Muslim. But Sunni," I replied.
"An uncut Muslim? How is this possible?"
"We Muslims come in all colors, shapes, and sizes, don't we, my friend?" I gingerly put my arm on his shoulder. Lighting a cigarette, he gently removed it. We walked some more. He was clear that he would not take me to Dahieh, because it would be too dangerous. He urged me to "maybe find a journalist type" who could take me. After the balmy Mediterranean breezes of our corniche walk-and-talk, Rafik and I exchanged emails and promised to stay in touch.
Later in the trip, I befriended a man called Mo, named after the Prophet like hundreds of thousands of Muslims. He was one of the few who fashionably shortened it this way. Western journalists covering this volatile region often used Mo as a fixer and he was a good one. I learned he was planning to marry his British Jewish girlfriend in Cyprus, a favored practice amongst many young wanting civil marriage. Interfaith marriage was like inviting trouble in this sectarian state. Thus many young couples ended up in Cyprus and the government looked the other way.
"We inherited this religious system — we didn't choose it," said Mo.
So much here seemed oddly familiar to notions I had grown up with. One of the young pro-Palestine activists who organized the film screenings introduced me to her buff gym-trainer friend, Bassam. He commuted to Hamra daily from the Bekaa Valley. Distance didn't mean much in such a tiny country. He told me he kept a secret apartment in downtown Beirut for weekend sexual trysts, "with girls so beautiful you cannot even imagine it!" This suggested money. Almost sensing my thought, he said his family was one of the richest contractors in the region. He told me that the only halal ("permissible") form of intercourse was anal, because the hymen remained intact. And the hymen has always remained that most-prized virtue amongst the believers, both Christian and Muslim.
He told me about his girlfriend studying in Cairo. "I promise you I have never touched her," he said. "She is the woman I am going to marry." This was Arab hypocrisy on full display.
"You can butt-fuck all the women who are available," said Bassam. "But you only marry a virgin." I remember being offended by his poor word choice.
As a woman, if you had made the mistake of allowing a man to deflower you vaginally, there was a solution. Vaginal reconstructive surgery thrived in the region. Traditional Arab women got most respectability when they were married into a "good family" and hopefully reproduced. The Arab matriarch is an all-powerful ruler of the household. To her, the son will always present a virgin. My mother would have expected nothing less.
It was 1 a.m. When I left India a decade ago, I thought I had left the polytheism of the Hindus with their 10 million gods behind me. But as I walked into the cavernous confines of the "only gay" nightclub in the Arab Middle East, the Hindu form of the God Shiva doing his tantric dance to shake up the universe seemed to have followed me. Beirut was expensive. I paid $20 (US dollars are circulated as a parallel currency in Lebanon) to get in. The club was inexplicably called Acid. I saw the Nataraj statue immediately. He loomed behind an impossibly long bar. Right below him a sign proclaimed, "Open Bar till 5 a.m."
I looked around. There was erotic-looking, Khajuraho-like kitsch — probably plastic sculptures — on an enormous wall. I wondered why this bar's design was so influenced by Hindu iconography from the erotic temples of Madhya Pradesh. Everyone said it was just the way it had always been.
"It is Ramadan and that is why it is not so crowded," Babak said. He leaned in to be heard over the blaring techno remix of the popular Egyptian song, "Habibi Nour el-Ain."
"If it was not for all the fasting and no-sex rules at this time, otherwise you could not move here at this hour." Babak said he had recently invited an "opportunistic" New York Times reporter to this bar to take pictures for what he called a "horrible and lying article." The piece claimed Beirut was "the Provincetown of the Middle East." Local gay activists I met were unanimously furious about the piece. In truth this police state and Beirut had a long way to go in all possible realms of civil rights.
Babak told me he was half-Armenian and half-Palestinian. "Therefore, I am fucked from both sides," he said. This was true. The Lebanese, it was said, gave equal hate time to both those ethnicities.
Later we stood outside Acid, sharing a cigarette, and Babak looked at what closely resembled a Hummer pulling up.
"That's a gay Saudi prince," he informed me. I had no way of confirming this, but the tags on the car did have the Saudi flag. "He comes here sometimes to pick up boys. Everyone knows." Babak stated this like well-established fact.
A short, pot-bellied man got out of the car, surrounded by a posse of either security guards or sexual conquests. They walked confidently to the entrance and the bouncer bowed obsequiously, allowing them in for free. It looked like they'd been here before. I stared. I thought of my favorites, the Kardashians, filmed entering nightclubs. "Fag time," said one boy loudly, lighting a cigarette. He had already been introduced to me at a gay bar called Bardo we had visited earlier that night, where he seemed to be the belle of the ball. He flashed his many bracelets at me, including one that read, "I Heart Beirut," stylized like the "I Heart New York" shirts.
"Barbie!" I hugged him. This magical creature of the night could be anything; more Barbie-like than Ken or perhaps a combo of both, in the shortest shorts I'd ever seen and a thick layer of mascara. He posed flamboyantly for my phone and stuck his ass out right in the street. A passing driver whistled.
Babak pointed at the hills that rose above Acid. "There's the Haftoor Grand Hotel. All the journalists were staying there as Israel was bombing us in 2006." With a flourish he swiped his arm down to point at the shimmering valley of lights below. "And that is Dahieh." Babak didn't know how keen I was to go there, to Hizbullah-land. I didn't bring it up since he was a Christian. He told me how Israel bombed Dahieh to rubble. The journalists at the Haftoor had front-row seats.
"The gays did not stop dancing even one night here at Acid during the entire war," said Babak. "Israel's drones soared across the sky and cluster bombs fell right down there in Dahieh. These guys were dancing to techno trance through the whole fucking mess."
"Bless the un-bombable gays," I said. We both laughed.
I considered titles for future op-eds I never wrote. I landed on "Love in the Time of Ramadan." I took notes on my phone as I'd always done in my travels with A Jihad for Love. It had only been a few hours since I was in bed with Rafik, and here, outside Acid, I was discovering the unsettling geography of this contested capital.
"Did you ever see Men of Israel?" asked Babak as he drove me on another gay bar–hopping night.
"No, what is it?" I replied. "Sounds suspicious."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Sinner In Mecca"
Copyright © 2017 Parvez Sharma.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Map of the Middle East,
Map of the Indian Subcontinent,
Chapter 1: Li Beirut,
Chapter 2: An Alien with Extraordinary Ability,
Chapter 3: Pube Face, Towelhead, Camel Fucker, Cave Nigger,
Chapter 4: The Garden of Paradise,
Chapter 5: Shoot Me in Here,
Chapter 6: The Naked Believer,
Chapter 7: The Satanic Verses,
Chapter 8: Mecca Vegas,
Chapter 9: Muslim Boot Camp,
Chapter 10: Mecca's Many Muhammads,
Chapter 11: My Passage to India,
Chapter 12: Islam 3.0,
About the Author,
What People are Saying About This
"The first book about the Hajj from a gay perspective, written by a man with a deep knowledge of Islamic history. This pilgrimage is the centerpiece of his book, and he recounts it with courage and fierce emotion."
"You will never think the same way about Saudi Arabia and Islam after reading this beautifully written book."
—Washington Book Review
“Sharma’s spiritual search is intimate and careful, and ultimately one of understanding.”
"Sharma’s . . . book uses that trip not only to gain perspective on extremists and religion, but as a glass to view the world here in the United States, the challenges felt by the Muslim community, and the oppressive weight of the Trump admisistration." —Towerload
"Parvez's heroism is rare and his courage well-documented. Putting his own life at risk, he takes us on a surprising and compelling journey through the frontlines of his much contested faith. A brilliant follow up to his films, A Jihad for Love and A Sinner in Mecca." —Reza Aslan, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Zealot
"In our lives, we face a choice of whether to live with judgment or reach deep within ourselves to find an inner moral compass that leads us to a metaphorical Mecca of unconditional love. With his powerful, brave book, A Sinner in Mecca, Parvez Sharma takes us on his hero’s pilgrimage, teaching us of an ethereal truth: the qibla, or direction of Mecca, resides within each one of our hearts."
—Asra Q. Nomani, author of Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam
“Parvez Sharma's Hajj pilgrimage is not only a journey to Mecca but to his deepest self. Both a Muslim and an out gay man, Sharma writes bravely and brilliantly. His religion is ancient. His story is timeless.”
—Kevin Sessums, New York Times bestselling author of Mississippi Sissy and I Left It On the Mountain
“Sharma's gripping journey unfolds with cinematic splendor, giving those of us who will never experience the hajj firsthand the next best thing. This book examines modern Islam's beauty and its ugliness with an unflinching gaze and a hopeful vision for its future.”
—Cole Stryker, author of Hacking the Future and Epic Win for Anonymous
"As a gay man and a Muslim, Parvez Sharma's unique personal journey is reflected in this powerful examination of faith, sexuality, and gender. In a divided world, Sharma fearlessly crosses the boundaries and barriers that separate us from each other and finds common ground in the search for love and truth." —Cleve Jones, author of When We Rise