LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Life as a Fugitive - Muhammad X
Date of photography: 21st March 2018
Muhammad X lives in London as a fugitive from his country, Pakistan, a fugitive from his religion, Islam, and a fugitive from his home, his marriage, his family and his friends; having had his refugee claim rejected, he is also a fugitive from the law; and, following several attempts at suicide, he has almost been a fugitive from life. Now 27, this young man deserves a decent life, an end to running and hiding, to being the perpetual fugitive from everything, and always to be living in fear. The last time he attempted suicide, MX wrote poignantly to his family: “Please forgive me for my self-inflicted early death. I understand that a person like me is not acceptable to you or to the society you live in. I am not able to return home, because I no longer have a home and all my family have disowned me. My own country would condemn me if I were to return, my own religion rejects me for what I am, and I am trapped in a country that will not accept me either, the only country where I had some hope of living a normal life. I am leaving the world because the world has rejected me; I was trying to explain to the world who I was, but no-one seemed to hear ….”
At some stage in our lives, many of us feel the need to extricate ourselves from the circumstances we find ourselves in, or from the place that we have arrived at, often as a result of some careless or ill-advised decision that we’ve made along the way. These are the times when running away, escaping and becoming a fugitive appear as the most attractive, the most efficacious options; indeed, escape may well be the only way out, the only way to survive. I should imagine that every human being will be able to relate to this situation and there is no doubt that once one has had to make such a decision, it is never forgotten; it becomes a key component of the psyche, embedded the foundation that the rest of life is built on.
The following story is all about Muhammad X’s (MX) life as a fugitive in London. He is someone I met quite by coincidence, someone who has become a fugitive from his own country, Pakistan, a fugitive from his religion, Islam, and a fugitive from his home, his marriage, his family and his friends. Following his attempts at suicide, he has been close to becoming a fugitive from his own life. This handsome young man of 27, with his bright eyes and sharp intelligence, made the deliberate decision to tell me the story of his life, so that it might be recorded, read and, he hoped, understood by the rest of humanity. MX speaks with an accent but his English is good now and he has a remarkable memory for chronology; this proves to be very helpful because, as you will see, the timeline in this story matters a great deal.
“Milan, I was born in Karachi, Pakistan, into a quite ordinary, middle-class family. I was the second son out of four boys. My father had a small business but also worked as a government employee, while my mum stayed at home, looking after us children and managing the household.”
MX’s family were part of that Muslim commercial community of South Asia, known as Memons, with their own Memon language. A great many Memons migrated to Karachi after the Partition of India, in 1947, and now represent a very important segment of Pakistan’s most prosperous and influential peoples.
MX continues: “My father was a believer but he was not very observant, while my mother came from a deeply religious background - one of her brothers was an imam and she was determined that one of her own sons should follow in his footsteps. From my very early days, everyone noticed that I got treated differently, and it was made quite clear that I was the ‘chosen one’; this was to be my destiny, my prime purpose in life; I was to memorise the Holy Qur’an and to study the interpretation of its teachings.”
I asked if he had had a happy childhood: “Yes, mostly I did, but being the ‘chosen one’ made me always aware that I was treated differently from my brothers; I therefore felt excluded from many of the things that they enjoyed and explored as youngsters. Of course, I had no say in the matter, my destiny was fixed, whether I liked it or not.”
From the age of four, MX attended a religious school in order to learn to read and write Arabic, and from the age of six, he attended a local madrasa, or school for Islamic instruction. The process of memorising the entire Qur’an commenced at the age of eight and it normally took students five years to accomplish this mammoth task. MX’s madrasa followed no modern curriculum at all, as some others did, so while his brothers were at ordinary schools, learning about Mathematics, English, Biology and Geography, MX had no familiarity with any of that and, in consequence, had only a limited grasp of the way the world worked; this often left him feeling rather disconnected from his siblings and his peers. His day consisted of attendance at the madrasa, from 7.00 in the morning to 5.00 in the afternoon, after which his religious tutor was invited to the family home to provide a further two hours’ tuition in the evening. Even in the little spare time there was, MX was not allowed to join his brothers watching TV or listening to music. And while his brothers were usually clad in tee-shirts and jeans, he always had to be attired in the traditional izaar, with his head covered by the customary turban, known as a ‘pagri’.
There is a price to pay for being treated as a chosen one and while there are undoubtedly benefits attaching to such status, these usually come later in life; boys and young men mostly perceive the disadvantages of their lot. MX remained at the madrassa until he was 13 but the celebration of his becoming a Hafiz (someone who has committed to memory the entire Qur’an) almost coincided with his mother’s premature death - she was only 33. Having been very close to his mother, MX was understandably in deep shock when she died.
Now a teenager and on the threshold of becoming a young man, MX experienced a growing sexual awareness yet he knew precious little about human sexuality. Any time he entered the room where his brothers were watching some film or other on the TV that contained romantic scenes, the channel was quickly changed, so he sensed that this must be something bad that was to be hidden from him. After a pause and with some evident unease, MX continued: “Milan, I was to have some inkling of what sex might be about soon after my mother’s death. For three years, I had acted as a prompt to our imam, reciting the Qur’an during Ramadan in our local Mosque. At one point, this imam started to touch me sexually and not having experienced anything like that before, I felt unable to resist. He was an imam, a person of high standing, someone seen to have impeccable character and an example of righteous living to others. I didn’t quite understand what was going on or what were the motives for his attentions towards me. Yes, I definitely felt confused and I did try to resist, but at the same time, what he was doing to me felt good and it gave me pleasure. I sensed that what he was doing was wrong but all I could do was to try to avoid him and make excuses not to work alongside him in the future. I shut the experience deep inside me and told no-one about it. I had always been taught that everything had its time and that intimacy between a man and a woman could only take place after their marriage. Indeed, sexual contact of any kind before marriage was not permitted; it was bad and a mortal sin. Even any discussion about sex was out of question.”
MX’s youngest brother was only three when their mother died, so while their father was away working during the day, the four boys were looked after in the home of their mother’s disabled sister - this kindly, loving aunt lived nearby, together with her brother. However, Father was soon persuaded to marry again, to a somewhat older woman. This was seen as basically a marriage of convenience, so that the boys could return to their own home and share it with father and step-mother. Sad to say, it was never a happy home again: for some reason, legend always characterises step-mothers as wicked and, true to form, the new woman of the house created a rift between her husband and his children: at the tender age of 15, MX was turned out of the family home and returned to live with his kindlier aunt and uncle. There he continued to participate in religious ceremonies, praying at the Mosque and progressing along the trajectory of his becoming an imam.
Now being aware of MX’s sexual inclinations, I was interested to hear what sexual feelings he harboured then, as a teenager. “Milan, I only did what all men do in private, because it felt good and provided a release, but every time I did it, I felt a deep sense of guilt, sometimes lasting for weeks. Do remember, I was spending most of my time in the mosque, taking part in all kinds of religious ceremonies and, of course, praying, and in this context there was no discussion of sex or human desire. There was lots of talk about sin, about the evil things people did, about adultery, about human failings that could not be forgiven and had to be punished and cut out like cancer. But in reality, I still had no proper comprehension of what all these bad thing really were - I knew my Qur’an from cover to cover but I knew previous little about life. Yes, I did perceive the beauty in some women but whenever I felt the need for tenderness or sensed my burgeoning sexual desire, it was only images of men that would come into my mind. The years between 16 and 20 were a time of great turmoil in my life, a struggle with my emotions; I was also in a world that I did not fully understand. At one time, I even went to live back at home, alongside my brothers, but that didn’t last long; my manipulating step-mother ruled the house completely by then, and ruled my father too, and one day after a major domestic bust-up, both my elder brother and I were thrown out of the house. Our father officially, and publicly, disowned both of us.” Thus, MX was first of all a fugitive from his own home.
The good aunt and uncle generously offered MX a loving home once again but his elder brother was sent away to Malaysia, to study and to build his profession there. MX continued his religious work in the Mosque and was even encouraged to start teaching the Qur’an to others. But it was during these turbulent years that MX began to apprehend that the Qur’an was not able to provide him with any answers or to help him with the many things that simply did not make sense, so many internal conflicts started to build up within him. Indeed, MX began to find that the Qur’an contained so many conflicting ideas that he was engaged in a constant struggle trying to reconcile them. Knowing that the path to his becoming an imam had been mapped out for him from childhood, MX felt more trapped than liberated. Having been repudiated by his own father, being in a perpetual state of denial about his most powerful, innermost longings, MX came to the painful realisation that his religion had failed in offering him any effective guidance that he could follow. It could not supply him with any hope of resolving the conundrums that were tearing him apart. So, without any hope for the future, and with a heavy heart, MX gave up his vocation and parted company with the teachings of the Quran - he became a fugitive from his religion.
But MX was not a young man to stand still. Determined to catch up and to acquire something of the modern education he had been denied, he enrolled in a College where he did well and, while still living with his aunt and uncle, he secured a job with the Pepsi Company, initially in logistics but later on as a Sales Advisor, and he earned a respectable salary. This was the time when, as a successful young man of 20, things should have begun to look up for him, but MX knew instinctively that there was no chance for him to be free in Pakistan, where leading any kind of fulfilled life would be almost impossible. His older brother in Malaysia was doing well, but joining him there would hardly be a sensible move, for that too was a very traditional, Muslim society.
With hard work, the 20-year old MX had managed to save sufficient funds to enable him to come to the UK, ostensibly to study Accountancy - the fact that his family had relatives living here, in east London, made this decision all the easier to effect. When he arrived, his relatives happily embraced him as one of their own and made him very welcome. MX had already begun to understand that he was simply not sexually attracted to women, yet he had almost no idea about the lives gay men lived in the UK. MX was still concealing his true feelings and, save for his childhood abuse by the imam, had had no sexual experience of any kind with another adult male. From watching TV, he soon understood that there was a much greater probability of maintaining anonymity in London and that people here seemed to him much more tolerant and openminded about lots of things that could not be discussed back home in Pakistan.
I asked MX how it had felt, arriving from Karachi to London: “Milan, this was my first flight to anywhere, my first time abroad, so my first impression on arriving from Pakistan, which I always associated with restrictions and taboos, into a multi-cultural, multi-racial European metropolis was that no-one seemed to care how you looked or what you did - somehow, everyone seemed to fit in. Well, that was certainly my first impression; I got to see the other side of the coin later on. I attended college in South Harrow, though I struggled initially, partly because my English was not quite good enough and also because the daily journey proved difficult. Luckily, I managed to switch to a more convenient course, the Diploma in Business Management (Level 5) which suited me better. During these two years, I also found some time for myself, even mustering the courage to visit my first gay bar in Soho. Of course, I was both confused and excited: that was the day when I first experienced sex with another man. Not surprisingly, perhaps, feelings of guilt quickly replaced the initial elation I had felt, and a dark shadow fell over me almost immediately afterwards. I knew that having sex with a woman outside marriage was wrong and if I was to get caught having sex before marriage, I would be labelled by my fellow Muslims as a characterless person. It took almost three months before I found the courage to have sex with man again.”
MX is an intelligent man, his English was getting better too and the Diploma in Business Management course was more to his liking. When not studying, he spent his time in the company of his adoptive family and they provided a link back to his own family back in Pakistan. Pakistani communities are strong; trusted networks are seen as important and are maintained and, when they extend abroad, they are often even stronger. Keen to have a little more space for himself, MX got together with two Pakistani friends and agreed to rent a property that was larger than they needed; thus they could establish themselves as landlords, subletting space to others, while living together economically in a shared room on the top floor. Obviously, MX’s inherited Memon business acumen was coming through and this his adopted family very much approved and respected.
Now in the second year of his college course, MX was living rent free, and sharing the profits with the other two who helped him maintain the property. He managed to have the occasional ‘one night stand’ with men in London - obviously kept well hidden from his flatmates - and started to recognise that, basically, he was a homosexual man. Nevertheless, feelings of guilt followed each encounter, as did the fear that he would eventually be discovered by one of his friends or by some member of his adoptive family, and the consequences of this dark secret being exposed would be more than unpleasant. At that time, MX could not have imagined life with the possibility of anything other than casual sex with men, in total secrecy. One must not forget hat he was still relatively new to this city, his experience of life in London was still very limited, and he was greatly influenced by the outlook of his Pakistani compatriots.
In the context, what follows was entirely predictable. An intelligent, presentable, young man with good prospects would inevitably be seen as a highly desirable husband for any eligible bride. His adoptive family in London collaborated with his relatives back home, initiating an intensive search for a suitable wife for him in Pakistan. Their eagerness for him to marry grew partly from the desire to ensure that children were born and thus the family would continue to grow and to prosper, but also partly from the recognition that a young man’s sexual desires needed to have a legitimate release, so that he might be kept away from temptation. This was how their society had managed things for centuries, always working to ensure the survival of the tribe. Of course, MX did his best to resist these family pressures but even his flatmates were encouraging; after all, marrying well was seen as the ultimate goal for every young man and woman. MX refused the young lady found for him in Pakistan but almost as soon as this attempt on his bachelor status had blown over another prospective bride was discovered and lined up for him - this time, a very attractive, London-born Bengali girl.
His bride-to-be was not only well integrated, but she had good looks, came from a prosperous family, worked in the beauty industry and, above all, she was a British Citizen. What more could an eligible young Pakistani man on a Student Visa want? Such plausible defences as MX could muster were now exhausted and eventually he capitulated, reluctantly agreeing to marry this eminently suitable beauty. “Milan, I was confused and I was anxious. I was about to take a path from which there was no return, yet that path seemed inevitable. I was was resigned to it, but in my heart, I continued to cherish the hope that I might somehow manage to live something of the life that I longed for, after I was married. Of course, I was being reassured by everyone that my fears were absolutely normal, that most young men go through a stage of doubt and uncertainty before making what was a lifetime commitment to a woman. It was time to grow up, to face reality, and to embrace it. All that I felt, however, was terrible fear: fear of commitment, fear of my life with a woman, fear of not being able to have sex with a woman, fear of being seen as a failure, and fear that once I was married, I would never be able to experience intimacy with another man again. I feared that I should have to conceal my true nature for ever.”
In order to contend with perhaps the most pressing of this catalogue of fears, the fear that he might not be able to make love to a woman at all, MX resorted to seeking help and reassurance, first from a masseuse and then, as the wedding day itself approached , through the services of an escort. Alas, both experiences proved disastrous; his crushing failure to perform made him feel even more dreadful and inadequate, with the only bearable explanation for his failure being the fact that he was put off by paying for the sex. Admitting the real explanation was not something to be contemplated. MX was 24 and still living with his bachelor flatmates when the big day arrived, that special day when the single life is supposed to be succeeded by marital bliss and eternal happiness.
Both the civil and religious marriage ceremonies passed in a blur for MX, and probably for his young bride too, but when her veil was lifted, he did have to acknowledge that she was certainly a great beauty. Even so, all MX could think about was how to end it all, how to make his awful predicament go away. Instead of being the place designated for the exquisite pleasures and untold ecstasy of authorised intimacy, the marital bed loomed before him like a nightmare, the scene of his impending embarrassment and humiliation, where he would fail as a husband. With this cast of mind, it was almost inevitable that MX would fail to consummate his marriage on the wedding night. After that, every night called for the invention of some new excuse and this ill-fated marriage was confounded by excuses and lies from the very outset. “Milan, I was trapped in a marriage that I had dreaded; I was locked in a relationship where I was unable to play my designated part; I was sharing a bed with a woman I had not wanted and did not desire, knowing that this could only make her feel rejected and unhappy; I was having to pretend to be something I was not and this pretence would somehow need to be sustained for the rest of my life.”
Not surprisingly, the relationship between the newlyweds deteriorated rapidly. MX blamed his lack of sexual desire on his past, on the anger he harboured against the world, and indeed the frustration of husband and wife soon manifested itself in intense verbal conflicts, almost on a daily basis. Their married life became increasingly like a pressure-cooker that was about to explode, and one day it did. During one of these near violent confrontations, the Police were called and MX was taken into custody; he was reprimanded and served with an Order that prohibited him from going anywhere close to his wife or to their flat. What nobody knew was that MX had himself provoked this incident, largely to get away from his wife, away from the pressure on him to do what husbands are expected to do. “To be honest,” MX says, “my wife did not make any sexual demands of me but I knew well enough what was expected and I knew, equally clearly, that not in a million years would I ever be able to make love to her. Once I was away from her and from the marital home, I felt traumatised yet, ironically, I also felt free from that terrible pressure.”
His Student Visa was due to expire in three months’ time but he had had other things on his mind. Now he was married, he thought he might be able to extend his permission to stay in the UK on those grounds. He rejoined his flatmates in the top floor flat, and while they were supportive of their old friend, they couldn’t comprehend exactly what it was that made him behave in such a way. Of course, both sets of families were equally confused, disturbed and disappointed by these recent unexpected developments. No-one could understand why such a nice young man could suddenly behave so irrationally, become violent and destructive at this early stage of his marriage. His wife was a beautiful woman, desired by most men who met her, so in everyone’s eyes, MX was ‘on the run’ without any kind of credible explanation.
Then, both families got together and, using all the charm, ingenuity and pressure they could muster, they managed to get the couple back together again. Of course, the relationship never recovered; intimacy was not possible; and MX’s wife began to suspect that he was in love with another woman, and thus unable to love her. He pretended that he had a gambling addiction, or indeed any other problem he could think of that might render him sexually dysfunctional. But the wife was not a fool, nor was she ungenerous: she kindly offered to arrange, clandestinely, any professional intervention that would have been necessary to address the worries that he raised. Every justification he came up with, she sought to address - for her, nothing was a problem that could not be dealt with. For himself, MX was still struggling inside himself, trying to acknowledge the person he was and how to face the truth of it, never mind how to share it with anyone else. Then, in a moment of total desperation, MX called the Police and got himself arrested for breaching the terms of his Restriction Order and for falsely claiming that he had stolen his wife’s bank card, and emptied her account of all the money. None of this was true, of course, but the trick certainly worked as envisaged: MX was now taken away from his wife, away from his disastrous marriage, and put in prison for four weeks, a detention which, ironically, must have felt rather more like liberation.
But the two families were determined and did not give up hope. MX’s wife was encouraged to drop any charges against her husband; her family appointed lawyers who worked wonders on the grounds of his ‘diminished responsibility’; and MX was duly released with only a suspended sentence. The Police did notice, however, that by this time, MX had overstayed the date specified on his Student Visa. However, recognising that he had a British wife, they saw this as a technical problem that would be resolved in due course, once he got his application in for a spouse’s UK citizenship. Back at home, during the time he was attending meetings with his Probation Officer, marriage counselling was proposed as a possible means of assisting the seemingly embattled newlyweds, and it was at that point when MX thought that the game was up, when the real truth underlying their marital problems could no longer be hidden. “I decided to tell my wife, in a calm, polite way, that I had, in the past, had sex with men. However, she refused to see me as a characterless person; she refused to accept that the desires I had succumbed to in the past might well re-emerge in the future; she refused to accept that I had failed to understand that she was now my wife and that we were a married couple; and she refused to accept that I did not find her sexually attractive. This was terrible but I could no longer go back, the truth was out now. Once when the reality of our situation had sunk into her mind, she called me a narcissist, a crazy person, a psychopath, and all sorts of other terrible names but, ironically, she never called me a homosexual, that word still remained a taboo.” This was the point when MX became a fugitive from his marriage, a marriage that had never been consummated.
Of course, this was the time when real hostilities commenced. MX knew that his life was now in danger. What are ludicrously called ‘honour killings’ are nothing new amongst South Asian communities; even in the UK, they continue to be seen as an established way for families to retaliate if they perceive their honour to have been besmirched. Every year, many sons and daughters are killed, or seriously injured, by members of their own families or by their in-laws simply for having been discovered to be gay. Thus, the beautiful, young British Bengali woman, whose marriage is now a disgraceful sham, is seen as tainted, disgraced, almost as ‘damaged goods’, and MX’s two families were seen as being responsible for leading the poor woman into a trap. Intense anger and hatred was generated between the families here in the UK and in Pakistan, and MX’s own family, having discovered that one of their sons was a homosexual, disowned him and determined he should be taught a lesson he would never forget. “Her family blamed my family for being part of a conspiracy to entrap their daughter, knowing that I was a pervert, a homosexual. In essence, what they said was: ’You have destroyed our daughter’s life, we will destroy your son’s: deport him to Pakistan and let him face the real punishment he deserves.’ I knew that these threats were real and that my life was in peril, so I ran away - I was homeless for three months.” Almost overnight, MX became a fugitive from his family.
Now, with nowhere to go, with little money, and reduced to practically living on the streets, as far away as possible from that part of London where so many people knew him, MX was beginning to pay a harsh price for daring to tell the truth about himself. He did manage to get a roof over his head, paying £20 a week to share a room with four others and a goodly number of bedbugs too. It was better than sleeping on the street, but only just. He was effectively hiding from his own family, from his adoptive family, and from his in-laws. Once MX was labelled a homosexual, his relatives were determined to hunt him down and repatriate him to Pakistan where the community would no doubt ‘take care of things’. MX took the only option now left to him and applied to the Home Office for asylum, on the grounds that his life was in danger because of his sexuality. He might thus gain official refugee status in Britain and save himself from repatriation to Pakistan.
The Home Office was obliged to provide him with safe housing, which it did, but this was 80 miles from London, in what was to him, the bleak outpost of Swindon. Yes, it was surely a safe distance from the angry families, but it was also a place which was totally unfamiliar and where MX knew no-one at all. There was no organisation there to offer comfort or support to refugees and the solitude he felt was acute. Having to survive on £36 per week, to cover the cost of clothing, food and toiletries, proved virtually impossible and, as an Asylum Seeker, he was not permitted to work either. With his solicitor based in London, communication with her proved difficult; travelling to London to meet her was out of question, simply because of the cost; so, waiting for his Home Office interview felt like a lifetime.
“Milan, on the day of the interview, I was very nervous but I was also determined to tell the truth. I honestly believed that the Home Office staff would be willing to hear me, that they would believe what I said, and that they would offer me protection, granting me the right to live in the UK as a gay man, in safety.” Sadly, he was soon to discover that the Home Office officials whose job it was to interview Asylum Seekers were often very conscious of the strict targets to which their political masters aspired; they were thereby motivated to reject the majority of initial applications. (The statistics are revealing: in 2016, 68% of initial applications were refused, yet 42% of appeals against refusal were successful.)
It was therefore perhaps not surprising that MX’s initial application failed too: he was not believed to be gay because he had agreed to get married, because he had mentioned his use of female sex workers in helping to assess his sexual problems, because, by mistake, he had put down that he was ‘Metrosexual’ instead of ‘Homosexual’, and because they did not believe that he was ignorant about Pakistani law in relation to homosexuality. All this was seen as evidence that he was trying to deceive the authorities. Of course, Home Office officials are there to spot inconsistencies and to see through lies but the interview process is anything but perfect and has been seen by some as deliberately rigged against asylum seekers.
“It was May 2016, my Asylum application had been rejected, but I was granted the right to appeal. I was 26, it was just before my birthday, I was deeply depressed, and I felt totally crushed by events. A new solicitor was keen for me to see a psychiatrist and I felt that, as a result, I might be labelled as having some kind of mental disorder - there is a terrible stigma attached to such things in Pakistan. I was angry with myself; I felt that all through my life I had kept making the wrong decisions about what direction to take; I blamed myself; I also felt ashamed that I might be seen as someone with a mental disorder, which I felt strongly was not the case. There was no doubt, of course, that I was depressed, but I ask you, who wouldn’t have been depressed in my circumstances? Still stuck in this dreadful place in Swindon, without knowing for how long, I felt that I was totally alone, probably forgotten, and that no-one cared.”
“One evening, when it all became too much, I decided to end it. I attempted to cut my wrists but that proved to be harder to do than I expected. Instead, I took all the antidepressants I had plus all the paracetamol I could find, and I drifted off into the oblivion I so very much longed for. But I was discovered and the local hospital brought me back to life. On returning to my miserable Swindon room, the Housing Manager greeted me with aggressive threats to evict me, to send me to detention, and deport me to where I came from, if I tried to kill myself again. I decided that I had had enough and instructed my solicitor to withdraw my asylum appeal. I was still legally married to a British Citizen and I felt that that should be adequate protection from being sent back to Pakistan. Of course, the legal reality was completely different: now that I was no longer listed as an Asylum Seeker, someone seeking refugee status, I had no real right to stay in this country and no entitlement to any state support.” At that point, MX effectively became a fugitive from the law. MX left Swindon and returned to London. Coming back amongst his old friends was out of the question, they had all cut him off long since. A charity provided shelter for him for a few weeks but at other times, the streets became his home. Now without any benefit, he had no money at all; he begged for food and used the night buses for sleeping and for keeping warm. Two emotions dominated his thoughts: an intense anger with himself and the feeling that he had to suffer for the mistakes he had made in his life.
“Having plenty of time on my hands, for the first time in my life, I sought help from gay organisations and charities. I went first to the Praxis Community Projects - they are committed to working with vulnerable migrants with limited or no recourse to public funds - as I’d heard they were good to homosexual asylum seekers, and they referred me to London Friend where I started attending groups; that proved to be most helpful. For the first time too, I started to observe gay men in London leading lives that were more than just a series of one night stands. Many gay couples obviously lived settled lives, worked in respectable professions, enjoyed life, and created a vibrant, supportive and sharing community. In the past, all I had expected and hoped for was physical sex, to satisfy my desire, then to go off and hide away again. I also started to see that gay men in London came from lots of different backgrounds, and some of them came from distant lands where they too had had to escape from families that rejected them and from authorities that sought to persecute them. Just like straight men, gay men lived varied lives too, but even with such diverse aspirations, most of them seemed to feel that they belonged. I began to realise that I needed to ditch the stereotypes in my head and to see every gay man as an individual. Suddenly, I understood that if I managed to connect with this community, I might be able to accept myself for who I am. I might be accepted by others too. I was 26 and had never had the chance to live a normal life, just to be myself.”
MX is now in legal limbo: since the time he left Swindon, having dropped his asylum appeal, he has no right to live in the UK. Not knowing what to do next, or where to turn to, or who to trust, he gave up any hope for a better future and suffered periods of terrible depression. He has made two more attempts at suicide. One could see these almost as his wish for a final act that would make him a fugitive from life itself. Following the suicide attempts, MX was even detained in a mental hospital for four weeks but, as we all know, psychiatry and psychiatric medication are no use to someone who is trapped in limbo, with no hope of any resolution, and with no faith that life is likely to get any better.
On the last occasion of trying to kill himself, MX wrote to his family: “Please forgive me for my self-inflicted early death. I understand that a person like me is not acceptable to you or to the society you live in. I am not able to return home, because I no longer have a home and all my family have disowned me. My own country would condemn me if I were to return, my own religion rejects me for what I am, and I am trapped in a country that will not accept me either, the only country where I had some hope of living a normal life. I am leaving the world because the world has rejected me; I was trying to explain to the world who I was, but no-one seemed to hear me ….”
Thankfully, a few people did hear him, and they have extended their hands to him. MX is no longer on the streets, no longer hungry, and he has started to realise that while his own people see him as a pariah, he now has people near him who look upon him quite differently, people who are willing to listen, and to support him during those days when the darkness descends. And yes, the days full of torment continue; life continues to be very hard; and the uncertainty of what will happen to himalso continues. No-one knows whether another application for asylum will be accepted by the Home Office and if, this time, it will be believed that he is indeed a gay man and that his life would truly be in danger were he to return to Pakistan. Now aged 27, this young man deserves to be given the right to some sort of decent life, to be allowed to leave his demons behind, to stop running and hiding, to stop being the perpetual fugitive, the fugitive from everything, to stop living in fear. Fear eats the soul, and without his soul is not man but an empty shell?
Text edited: 31st March 2018
Update (January 2019)
We are immensly pleased to report that, in January 2019, after so many years 'on the run', Muhammad X was finally granted 'indefinite leave to remain' in the UK. His nightmare has come to an end at last and he can start his life afresh. His situation may have changed but his story remains just as relevent, for it describes the situation of hundreds of undocumented or stateless people who struggle to survive as fugitives in this vast metropolis of ours.
Page modified: 17th March 2019