Queer, Arab, and Muslim are phrases you don’t commonly see together, but, for writer Mohammad Awad, his identity and poetry are based on these phrases and experiences.
“When I came out at 19, I did a really big queer poem, and that’s when I truly felt my poetry lined up with who I was,” Awad says as we sit in his room, one reflecting his outgoing personality with several paintings and mirrors lining the walls.
“People really connected with it, and I only took that risk because my mum threw me out.”
The 22-year-old has been a finalist in the Bankstown Poetry Grand Slam and is now striving to destigmatise mental health issues and being a queer Muslim through his spoken words.
“It’s an important voice,” he adds. “Having queer, POC voices- and queer, Muslim voices talk about things like mental health is such a specific experience.”
He vigorously scrolls through his notes app on his phone to show me glimpses of his poetry.
“Eleven was the moment I realised I was gay because I was on the onset of this great depression.” He laughs, before explaining how researching Islam instead of just accepting what he was told at school had renewed his faith.
Awad says it is ironic almost all the verses in the Qur’an are not taken literally, except references to being queer.
At 11, I was like, ‘I’m not gay’. At 12, I accepted I was gay and going to hell. 13, ‘yeah, I am gay. I am going to hell, but I have to prepare financially’. And at 14, I said, ‘I am gay, who says I’m going to hell?’
“It’s the story of the people of Sodom, the people of Lot,” he says. “Men were raping men. It was sexual assault and violation, and it was not consensual.
“Another thing is that it was sex out of marriage. So, it was a transgression against God because it was violating people.”
For four years Awad struggled with balancing his identities of being queer, a Muslim, and an Arab.
“At 11, I was like, ‘I’m not gay’. At 12, I accepted I was gay and going to hell. 13, ‘yeah, I am gay. I am going to hell, but I have to prepare financially,” we both start laughing at the absurdness of the situation. “And at 14, I said, ‘I am gay, who says I’m going to hell?”
It led Awad to unlearn and relearn all he knew about Islam.
He says he became more mindful and wanted a humble and quaint life filled with love, happiness, and family. All his life people had told him he couldn’t get married or have kids, and this motivated him to do precisely that.
“I lost my religion, but I came back to it,” he says.
“I don’t care what job I have; I want to have a loving husband and some kids. I don’t care about the house; I’m happy with a granny flat somewhere with a little tiny car, a little Hyundai.”
As a young boy he feared his mum would kick him out, however, it still came as a shock to him when aged 19 she did.
“It was a shock. It was a really scary, emotional time, and I wasn’t well at that time too with bipolar and PTSD,” he says. His words hang in the air for a moment as the sounds of Newtown fill the brief silence. “It caused a lot of bumps for me, and I had to find peace in all of it.”
Despite this, he doesn’t blame his mum and forgives her.
“I’m always happy to have a relationship with her, but I don’t think she can do it with me,” he says. “I remind her too much of what happened, and what she did, of the realities of me being gay.”
The poet tearfully tells me it has been months since they’ve spoken. He periodically sees his younger sister, but there’s an air of tension between them.
Awad lived in Saudi Arabia until his mid-teens and moved to Sydney when his parents had divorced. His mother and younger sister moved to the western suburbs, whereas his dad and older sister decided to stay in Saudi.
“My [older] sister knows, and our relationship broke apart before, but we’re okay now,” he says.
Awad starts laughing as he remembers his dad: “He recently found out actually. And he’s in denial. He did confront me about it, but he didn’t want to talk about it. Then he called me a couple of weeks later, telling me everything is fine.”
When asking about his mum and the poem he wrote, he smiles sadly.
“I feel guilty when I talk about someone in my poetry, like my mum,” he says. “I know she doesn’t want to be mentioned in my poetry, but I can’t stop writing about her.”
Although he’s written many poems about his mum, he has only performed three publicly. Awad recalls how he has met many people who have told him they would never accept having a queer son, but after seeing his performance would come up to him, crying and apologising.
“It’s comforting in a way to see that change,” he wipes away a stray tear. “Being like okay. Maybe I am making a difference for a future queer kid or a queer kid who’s watching now. It feels like I should be doing this.”
Awad had come out to a few of his close friends in high school back in 2016. Hebah Ali being one of them.
“Going to a conservative school, I was already quite staunchly kind of left-wing in my politics,” the filmmaker tells me over a phone call. “When he came out to me, I remember having the hugest admiration for him, for his lived experience and who he is despite all these tribulations he has gone through.
“He’s one of the strongest people I know. His identities of being a queer, Arab, Muslim don’t intersect with each other, and it’s tough to be accepted in all three environments.”
One of Ali’s favourite poems was the one Awad had performed in remembrance of the victims of the Christchurch terrorist attack. It struck a chord in her and many who were listening, and she realised how powerful his words are and can be.
Both Ali and Awad have collaborated many times for their projects. One of the more recent ones being Angreze (Urdu word meaning ‘English’), where Awad edited and helped with the script.
In honour of International Women’s Day, Awad released a short film on his Instagram called The Flower.
Ayla Yuyucuoglu, who worked on the project as a part of the production team, says: “Mohammad was so supportive of everyone, and he was constantly checking up and making sure we were comfortable.”
A fan of his work and identity, Yuyucuoglu adds: “He is so true to himself and embraces his sexuality in conjunction with his culture and religion. He’s doing all at once, which I feel like is a brave thing to do because it’s so taboo in ethnic cultures.”
I see how many kids are hiding in the west. I don’t want that community to be left out.
Awad now wants to do a run for a play he’s writing and write for the big screen. Another plan is a mini-series with Ali.
“I’m working on a manuscript; I want to release a book,” he says, listing his plans with a smile.
“I want to create a mental health service in western Sydney. That is mostly POC, mostly queer, to help support kids from the environment I come from.
“I see how many kids are hiding in the west. I don’t want that community to be left out. All the work I do will be tailored to the people in our minority.”
Main image of Mohammad as a little boy with his sister. Photo: supplied.