Interview: Alp Haydar
Award winning performer Alp Haydar’s one man stage shows and videos have become notorious on the London cabaret circuit. Alongside his disapproving mother, Sharia Law, and a host of other zany characters he offers a brave, uncompromising critique of Islam and gay muslim identity. Alex Hopkins caught up with him ahead of his upcoming run at the RVT.
Tell me about your background.
I had a conflicted upbringing. While dad is very anglicised and reasonably liberal, my mother on the other hand is extremely conservative and has a small town mentality.
Were you brought up a practicing muslim? If so, how did this affect you?
Very much so, but my dad was very proudly secular and the Turks, as a whole, are. My mum has always been very religious and whether it’s Mohammed or the Bogeyman, she has always used these kind of superstitions to control. Most of my exposure to Islam was through my mum and she is sadly what I call a ‘diet muslim’ – she has never read the Qur’an, but will quite happily wear a headscarf.
I attended the equivalent of Sunday school classes at the mosque and was brought up believing that ‘Jinn’, which is like a small devil or spirit, was everywhere. As a child I was spending time with people who believed this existed and that if someone had mental health problems then it wasn’t labelled a medical issue, but a possession by a demon. I really believe that Islam can be quite backward and that not being able to question something is very dangerous. I was led to believe that my problems were down to demons, which is incredibly unhealthy.
When did you start questioning Islam and distancing yourself from it?
I don’t know really. I think I’m actually still in some sort of moral quandary really, especially as I’m now in my thirties and thinking about life. That’s not to say I’m closeted, but I think I’m still in a conflict and that I use my shows and the audience as medication to understand and wrestle with stuff.
I think there’s something undocumented and unquestioned with the immigration experience when you’re a second generation immigrant, like me. People in this country give you a huge amount of leeway. They leave you alone a lot and I don’t think we should be left alone to such an extent. I don’t think we should be policed or that social services should be in every immigrant’s house, that’s ridiculous, but I would have liked to have been exposed to more forward thinking and modernity as a child. Whereas my other gay friends were allowed out, or could sneak out of home on a night bus and get to Soho and meet people like themselves, I was under quarantine and couldn’t get out. I just wish someone could have broken through into my world and helped. That didn’t happen.
Are you out to your family? If so, how has this been received?
Yes, I am. It’s awful. Terrible. I came out when I was 17 and left home and have repeatedly come out since then in the hope of achieving that lovely relationship with parents that you see on TV. I know now that that will never happen. The more applause I get at my shows, the more awards I win, the bigger my head gets and I think I’m more of a man and more able to go and negotiate with my mum. The last time I did this fruitless excercise she just screamed at me ‘were you raped?’ I thought it was really funny, although maybe I’m crying inside and not aware of it, but her bizarre outbursts have certainly fuelled my comedy and my comedy makes me feel better, so whether or not my mum’s made me feel better she’s helped me by being so absurd. It think it was this last outburst that sparked the character of Sharia Law really.
It’s no boo-hoo story, but it would just be nice to have a bigger family. I think that’s possibly what I’m trying to do with my shows – to get people to like me all the time – on Facebook, by pulling my butt out and just trying to get attention, whether it’s gay, straight, whatever. It’s a lonely existence when you’re estranged from your family and don’t have brothers or sisters, no cousins, no boyfirned, or a close circle of friends.
You seem to be very honest. Has this always been the case or do you think your shows have made you braver?
Yes, I think so. In the beginning I was doing the same thing with my shows, but I wasn’t quite sure why I was doing it. I had a gay muslim group come up to me after a show and they started to debate with me, shouting at me, with one guy pushing past me. They were really perturbed by it. I found the experience really upsetting, but it only made me feel more convicted about what I was doing. Once I was a bit timid about it, but now after years of criticism, it’s hard not to have formulated some arguments so, yes to answer your question, I think it’s something that’s developed over time.
You say that a gay muslim group objected to your show…
Yes and they even invited me to a coffee a week later and I went, tail between my legs, and thought that may be we could all be friends. They were even worse and started coming out with all this anti-semitic bullshit and stuff. I felt really uncomfortable, but I also felt very empowered because I thought ‘Jesus, these guys are as fucked as I am.’ They were still wearing that veil and I’d moved on and was doing my shows. Yeah, I’m taking my clothes off and making a fool of myself, but I’m free. I think if you can laugh at yourself and have a dialogue with yourself and your faith then that helps. There’s hope within that. But when you bring judgement into it and eternal sin and damnation then how is that constructive to our time on this earth? How are we making things good for one another while we are here? Where is the compassion in that?
You’ve mentioned one support group, but in reality just how much support is there out there for gay muslims?
Other than that one interaction with that particular group and reading a through some personal blogs online I haven’t had any contact or support.
What are some of your personal experiences and insights into gay muslim men?
I think the condition of middle eastern men is really interesting. It’s such a macho society and women are completely sidelined. In that society you can have the act of man on man and it will be celebrated because it’s about status and a power dymanic. You almost wear it with a swagger. So, if I’m a straight muslim man and I’ve been sucked off by my younger cousin then to negotiate with myself that I might be gay is a bit of a leap.
I think Grindr has complicated things. It makes everything so immediate. Whereas in the past you had the old gay muslim guy who used to meet men behind the toilets and then go back to his wife, now it’s easier to lead a double life online. I know a really handsome Turkish guy who goes on Grindr and is more active on the gay scene than I am. He can have his pick and he’s taking it in little bits and then going home to a girl who has been shipped over from Turkey.
What specific things have people criticised in your act?
When I do my suicide bomber striptease I think I shout out ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great). In Turkish culture there’s a traditional of shouting this and it’s done a lot, even if you’d see a woman doing a belly dance. Turkey is a secular culture. All the Turks I meet tend to be more liberal than, for example, Lebanese and Egyptian people. A man from the gay muslim group said that I shouldn’t use god’s name on stage while taking my clothes off. But I know my limits – I’d never shout Mohammed because I’m scared of the reaction. My face is all I have, if I lose that to an acid attack I’m fucked. I’m a pussy – I was arguing with this guy about why I shouldn’t shout ‘Allahu Akbar’, but I also know my limits but at the same time I don’t agree with my limits. We laugh about the pope and priests fucking little boys and the audience is up for that, but I can’t call one of my characters mohammed. It makes people uncomfortable, even English people.
Is the situation really that delicate?
Yes. The RVT don’t put my posters up outside because they get bomb threats. For this run they have said they won’t put the posters up unless I censor the Sharia Law character from the image. I have a poster with eight characters on it and I’ve got my butt out on it, but you can’t have a woman in a headscarf with a papier mache mask on. That’s how sensitive it all is.
I find that many people are worried about criticising any aspect of Islam for fear of being called racist. Back in 2011 a gay group consistently refused to believe that homophobic muslims were responsible for placing anti-gay stickers in east London. It was later proved that a muslim youth was responsible. What’s you take on this situation?
I am nodding and smiling in agreement. It increasingly seems that it’s all about adding another intial to the LGBT-XYZ…We are saying love is the key, but the problem is that you can never really call something out. We are basking everything in a white light, but sadly there’s a little muslim boy out there being beaten by his mum and dad because he has an effeminate walk or he used the wrong term of praise at a family gathering so he is being punished. This shit is going down.
There are people out there who are suffering the cost of our indifference and our wet approach to things. For those stickers to be plastered in east London and for a group to say it was another group causing trouble is ridiculous. You only have to walk through Bethnal Green holding hands with your partner to get something thrown at you or something shouted behind your back. I don’t feel comfortable in east London. I don’t feel comfortable in north London.
Do you think your work has made you more accepting of who you are, calmer in someway?
Yes, I think so. I think the characters I’ve created have given me the ability the purge anything I want and that’s made me a healthier man outside of my work.
It’s strange, but since I’ve introduced Sharia Law into my act my relationship with my mum has also become less volatile. We can sit and talk now and even raise a smile sometimes. She certainly says I’m calmer.
Alp Haydar is at the RVT on 22 March, 4, 11, 18 and 25 April.
He will be showing every show he’s created across the 5 week run and ending with his new show Alp Haydar’s Dirty Demographic.
Words: Alex Hopkins
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