Impossible Desires: the Novels and Films of Shamim Sarif

As part of my Queer Diasporas project, I’ve been researching the work of the still not too widely known British novelist and filmmaker Shamim Sarif, whose existence I’ve been alerted to by my kind colleague at the University of Leicester, Emma Parker.

A British citizen of Indian Muslim heritage, Sarif’s family migrated first to South Africa and then to Britain, where she was born in 1969 and where she studied English literature at university level. As her creative writing talents developed, and inspired by her grandmother’s stories of life in South Africa, she found herself gradually drawn to her family history, which formed the basis of her first novel, The World Unseen (2001), winner of the Pendleton May First Novel Award and the Betty Task Award. As I suggest in my study, from the very start, Sarif’s work is clearly intersectional: although her narratives are highly interested in cases of sexual dissidence (The World Unseen deals most centrally with the burgeoning intimate relationship between Amina and Miriam, two women of South Asian origin living in South Africa), it’s palpable that she’s also invested in themes of race, ethnicity and, to a much lesser extent, of class. Sarif’s second effort as a novelist, Despite the Falling Snow (2004), is a retrospective Cold-War thriller and therefore far less infused by her diasporic background.

However, for her first film and third novel, I Can’t Think Straight (2008) (the novel’s first draft was used as inspiration for the film script, and the finished film script for a final revision of the novel), Sarif revisits her own past, undertaking a fictionalised exploration of her own relationship with her civil partner and regular film producer, Hanan Kattan, a Jordanian woman of Palestinian Christian heritage with a foothold in Britain. The film version of The World Unseen followed soon after the wrapping of I Can’t Think Straight, but both films were released in quick succession due to unforeseen financing problems with the production of I Can’t Think Straight. To date, I Can’t Think Straight and The World Unseen remain Sarif’s main novels and films dealing with female homosexuality in South Africa, Britain and Jordan. Sarif and Kattan have also produced a documentary on collaborative activism between Israeli and Palestinian women, entitled The House of Tomorrow (2011), and her adaptation of Despite the Falling Snow, featuring a distinguished cast, has just been released this year (2015). Sarif also keeps a blog and, with her company shared with Kattan, Enlightenment Productions, a YouTube channel containing ‘making of’ and behind-the-scenes videos about their films and documentaries, as well as some gratifying glimpses into their ordinary lives as a same-sex intercultural couple living in Britain with their two children.

Lately, I’ve been writing an article for a special issue of The Journal of Commonwealth Literature on the literary and film versions of I Can’t Think Straight, which is the first scholarly commentary ever undertaken on these works. As Sarif herself confesses in one of her videos, this is clearly a first film, and her directing abilities are visibly more polished in her later work. However, due to its tackling of homosexuality in diasporic and cosmopolitan British Muslim and Christian Arab contexts, and of female homosexuality at that, her work is of great sociological importance. Indeed, I Can’t Think Straight may contribute to the mainstream genre of the romantic comedy (Sarif being clearly interested in creating accessible films that can appeal to a wide audience), yet the issues it explores are serious ones, and far from the mainstream. In her trailblazing book entitled Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures (2005), Gayatri Gopinath argues that queer female desire is often an ‘unthinkability’ (15) in discourses of nation and the diaspora, and hence the experiences of sexually dissident migrant women seldom break the surface of collective consciousness. Sarif’s work is important because it’s highly invested in breaking this silence and in bringing stories centred on female same-sex desire to the fore.

As I argue in my forthcoming article, and without wanting to give too much away, Sarif is intent on debating several issues pertaining women of South Asian and Arab heritage, including compulsory heterosexuality and the social and familial expectations placed on women through the institution of marriage, with its religious and ethnic restrictions. I also argue that Sarif also aims to challenge stereotypes about Islamic patriarchy and Middle Eastern conservatism, especially in her depiction of fathers as sympathetic figures, which, despite the fact that, according to their YouTube videos, Sarif and Kattan faced much more opposition in their real families, at least attempts to curb negative perceptions of Muslim and Middle Eastern men.

I also point out that, although Sarif’s exploration of the relationship between British Asian Leyla (Shetal Seth) and Palestinian-Jordanian Tala (Lisa Ray) is meant to ‘break the mould’, her queer cultural archive is blatantly and almost exclusively western, with a range of cultural reference, particularly in the shot of Leyla’s room in the film, encompassing books and CDs by the likes of Virginia Woolf, Martina Navratilova, Jeanette Winterson, Sarah Waters and k.d. lang. Nonetheless, as I also propose, this is no fault of Sarif as a story-teller, but a sign of the historical amnesia enforced upon subjects of South Asian heritage or those living in countries with Islamicate histories: the work of Samar Habib and Scott Kugle suggests most prominently that the contemporary mainstream Islamic vilification of homosexuality has entailed a silencing of a long tradition of debate around same-sex desire, of cultural practices and historical periods in Arab and Islamic history in which homosexual relationships were a matter of everyday life. The nature of same-sex relations was a topic of heated debate amongst Islamic scholars, some of whom, such as the medieval Andalusian scholar Ibn Hazm, didn’t believe to be explicitly punished in Islam’s scriptural traditions. Such debates, now forgotten or wilfully dismissed by Islamic orthodoxy as decadent or incorrect, go a long way towards qualifying the current dogmatic position of many Muslims on homosexuality, which is far too monolithic.

Although Sarif’s work isn’t too involved in religious discussion (her characters opt for secular lifestyles removed from religious expectations), what it does most successfully is to re-inscribe female same-sex desire in diasporic and cosmopolitan communities of Muslim and Arab heritage by bringing women’s experiences to the forefront. Despite the familial hurdles her characters have to overcome in order to be able to embrace their non-normative relationships, the responses they garner from their cultural communities are mostly supportive, which also helps challenge views of diasporic Muslim and cosmopolitan Arab families as uniformly conservative and homophobic.

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Alberto Fernández Carbajal

About Alberto Fernández Carbajal

Alberto is a Leverhulme Fellow at School of English, University of Leicester, where he previously was Teaching Fellow in Postcolonial Literature. He's currently working on a Leverhulme-funded project entitled Queer Diasporas: Islam, Homosexuality and a Micropolitics of Dissent, dealing with representations of queer Muslims in international fiction and film. His research interests include queer, colonial and postcolonial literatures and modernist, cosmopolitan and black British writing. His monograph Compromise and Resistance in Postcolonial Writing: E. M. Forster's Legacy was published by Palgrave Macmillan in early 2014. He is consultant for ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature. His work has been published in ARIEL and in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature.

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2 responses to “Impossible Desires: the Novels and Films of Shamim Sarif”

  1. Grace

    Your attempts at being political correct when mentioning their relationship fail miserably. I find it quite offensive and demeaning on your part that you refer to Sharif’s wife as her “current civil partner”. Would you describe the spouse of someone in a straight relationship in such a manner? I think not.The longevity of their marriage, going on 19 years now, should have been an obvious clue. You may be scientifically interested in gay and lesbian relationships, but you quite obviously have some general acceptance issues towards LGBT folks…

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