We Fear Society Will Crucify Us: Zaher Saleh Between Islam and Homosexuality

Sunday 29 November 202002:03 pm
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"نخاف أن يصلبنا المجتمع لاختلافنا"... الفنان زاهر صالح بين الدين والمثلية الجنسية

It is more complicated than what some would imagine.

To be born homosexual often means that a person will struggle throughout his life, whether with himself, his family, society, surroundings, or with them all. Some are forced to live a “lie”; since it could perhaps save them, or maybe even allow them to live “each day at a time” and “in peace”. However, some discover that peace holds no meaning here. How does one deal with inner conflict or psychological struggle? Is it easy for someone to live a double life in order to please others or to merely preserve his soul?

Numerous questions and sentiments have been brought forth by filmmaker and Palestinian-American singer who started out from the Star Academy TV program, Zaher Saleh, in his latest work “Kezbeh” (or Lie). It tells the personal story of a gay Muslim young man struggling to reconcile his personal liberties, sexuality, and love life, with his faith, family, and personal beliefs.



Before the release of “Kezbeh”, which is considered a sequel to the same story, the artist had released a short film under the title “War Within”. The 4-minute-long film combines Quranic verses with sexual visuals and scenes. A Muslim mother can be seen weeping for her gay son as he prays in an attempt to “get closer to his Lord”. But all throughout his prayer, he never forgets who he is, what he is made of, and what his desires are, despite his pleading, “O Lord, help me; Keep me away from sin; O Lord bring me closer and closer to you; Keep me away from sin; O Lord change me”.

The prayer ends as the man spits at his mirror reflection in disgust with himself; for the heart is heavy but powerless, though love in all its forms triumphs in the end.

Zaher considers the film he wrote and directed 3 years ago a validation of his homosexuality, and complementary to the project, he released the video clip “Kezbeh” on November 26th of this year. In it, he addressed his family, clarifying that living alone is better than living a lie and playing a role not meant for him.

“Why would I lie to myself and say
For them, all will be okay
They worry about my wellbeing and my peace of mind, & not be alone
I'd rather be on my own and not live a lie

If they were to ask; Open your heart, speak your mind
I would tell them I want to be able to be me
They worry about my wellbeing and my peace of mind, & not be alone
I'd rather be on my own and not live a lie.”

Directed by Jude Bourdoukan. Music & Lyrics by Zaher Saleh .Composed & Mixed by Michael Banks at uefo Studios. Mastering by Heba Kadry

Raseef22 met up with Zaher Saleh who spoke of intensely personal experiences and emotions that may match those of many Arab and non-Arab queers living in societies that reject differences. Here are some highlights from our interview.

You said “Kezbeh” is a personal project, but through it, you speak for a wider category - the LGBTQ community… If you wanted to summarize the project with a short message, what would it be?

I was visiting Istanbul at the time when I got a call from my dad expressing how disappointed he was with my life choices. No car, no house, and not married. Even though my dad is the most loving and sensitive father out there, those 3 words were his indicators to rating my success and well-being according to “our society’s standards”.

Later that night I was with my two female cousins enjoying a beautiful breeze on our hotel’s rooftop when they started sharing their own disappointing experiences with cultural and parental expectations. Right then and there "Kezbeh" was born. Out of my own frustrations and personal experiences but also a collective yearning for wanting to live a life free of any sort of expectations and a life not our own.

I’m a proud member of the queer community but I genuinely hope for this song to reach as many people as possible inspiring them to stand their ground and live their truth regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.

Would you recount to us your experience however briefly? What is the “war” that was “within”? What does someone - who has to hide his sexual orientation and display a fake persona - feel like?

I think when I was about 11 or so, I felt that I was different. At first, it wasn’t easy, I fought it with all that I could. I felt dirty and impure for thinking of such tendencies. I remember crying at night asking God for forgiveness but also at times resenting him for creating me the way that he did.

I lived behind closed doors suppressing my truth from the people I loved most simply for the fear of being rejected! But not long ago, I took the decision to finally look inwards to face my demons and accept myself to live a more authentic life. It wasn’t easy but it was the only way for a fulfilled and meaningful life. I first came out to my cousin and later to my brothers, their support was heart-warming. After my first relationship, I felt the need to face my biggest fears so I decided to come out to my parents. That day was nerve-wracking and very dramatic, to say the least, they love and support me but can’t fathom my sexuality and what it stands for.



Denying one’s truth may seem easy and convenient for the short term but its repercussions are heart-breaking and extremely damaging in the long term. We learn to deceive, hide, and even engage in unhealthy habits only to fill a void. A void which will never be healed until we look inwards and start loving and fully accepting every aspect of our being.

When do you think mindsets will become more open? When will we accept each other’s differences?

I think that we tend to focus so much on wanting to see the bigger change in the world or in our societies while missing a key factor and that is the responsibility we hold in that. It all starts with judgment, we naturally judge others as a survival mechanism. We judge what seems good from bad and if we happen to label something or someone as “bad” or different - we become vicious. We become cruel because we want to protect our egos. We want to defend the ideas and beliefs we based our whole existence upon or otherwise we would be held accountable! And that would require being vulnerable which tends to be scary. The only way to fight intolerance is with love but first it starts with self-love. If we learn to love and accept who we are, we will for sure be able to foster tolerance and respect for diversity in every aspect of life.

What are the groups that scare you? Or what are you afraid of? Did your stay in New York cause your sexual orientation?

I think people that are unwilling to question their cultural and religious conditionings.

I’m privileged to be living in the United States for many reasons and the most obvious one is the ability to be able to express who I am without worrying much about any repercussions. However, I’m very close to my parents, and no matter where I live, I will always feel responsible about their reaction if they watch my work. Honestly, It’s not easy balancing that. In one hand I’m advancing and working on bettering myself and thus my artistic expression and on the other hand, I worry about my parent’s wellbeing... I’m trying to be as respectful and loving to their choices while I navigate this very tricky path. However, I am committed to never holding back from decisions and opportunities that would potentially benefit my higher purpose in life and that is to inspire positive change.

“I felt dirty and impure. I remember crying at night, asking Allah for forgiveness. Sometimes I was angry at him for creating me the way he did”: Star Academy’s Zaher Saleh, between homosexuality and Islam

What is the “tax” of a homosexual revealing his sexual orientation within our societies?

I think for all minorities, the most concerning worry is being rejected and ostracized. Unfortunately, in some places around the world, that worry becomes a matter of life or death. That’s why we need to spread awareness, do our part in being accepting and less judgmental which would ultimately influence in shaping our society’s reactions and views. I was beyond happy about a recent incident in which a famous Egyptian actor (Hesham Salim) shared a touching story of being a proud father to his transitioning child. I feel the more we hear of such stories the more open and accepting we can become.



Can we talk a little about “War Within”? What pushed you to mix Quranic verses with sex scenes?

The film revolves around a Gay Muslim man who gets lost in his own thoughts during his prayer. We watch him go through a myriad of feelings from pure joy to shame and guilt. And as we watch these different scenes play out, we start to question whether what we are watching is actually real or it’s all in the character’s head.

It’s important to discuss how religion influences us especially in our early development phases. In Adulthood, some Queer people start living a conflicting life between their religion and sexual identity. In War Within, the lead was trying to reconcile his faith with his sexuality, searching for his truth amidst feelings of shame, internalized hate and guilt.



We need to discuss this more often. If young children don’t have a hard time developing a healthy relation towards their sexual identity, then their self-loathing created by cultural and religious value system may bring a future full of internalized homophobia such as marrying an opposite-sex partner to feel better or please others, feeling a sense of worthlessness leading to engaging in unhealthy habits or in some cases feelings of severe depression leading up to suicide.

You said you did not show your true self in Star Academy, what were you afraid of? And when did you feel you needed to reveal the truth?

I was only 19 years old then, I thought that the idea of coming out was never going to be something I should consider. Being in the closet didn’t seem to matter much but more so, I didn’t want to disappoint my family, society and even my fans! But little did I know that I was not the only person in the closet afraid of the same damn thing. Afraid to own our truth because of a society and a culture that would crucify us just for being different. But the idea of living a lie for the rest of my life didn’t sit well with me. Keeping an important part of my being from the people I love most didn’t make sense. And little by little I started looking inwards fighting my own demons until it became inevitable that I need to speak the truth and stand my ground and liberate myself from all the shame and guilt I’ve lived with for most of my life.

"Denying who a person really is might seem easy, but its impact breaks the heart and destroys us. We learn deception and acquire unhealthy habits just to fill a void that will never close until we look into ourselves and love and accept what we find"

What is the message you would like to send to anyone hiding their sexual identity, whether in fear of religion, family. or society; and a message to any fanatic that commits violence towards members of the LGBTQ community?

I understand that situations could vary and some people may not have the privilege of speaking or standing up for themselves. But that said the least you can do is to be okay with who you are and be loving to yourself. Accept yourself for who you are. You matter because you are a beautiful creation and you deserve a respectful and dignified life.

As for the second message, it is the same as the first.

Love yourself, be okay with who you are and most importantly don’t let the fear of what’s different paralyze you and blind you from seeing the truth that we are all humans, with flaws, differences and advantages. We all came from the same place and we all will end up in the same place. Liberate yourself from what’s causing you to hate or judge. Live and let live.



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