Assif: Full Interview
Interviewed by Jordan Small
28 June 2019
JS: Hello, my name’s Jordan Small and I’m a representative for West Yorkshire Queer Stories. Today we will be talking to Assif […] so yes, I’ll let him introduce himself.
A: Hi, I’m Assif, I was born in Leeds and I am currently living and working in Manchester.
JS: Brilliant, okay, so we’ve done the intro and I’d just like to say before we start the interview properly that Assif wrote a wonderful piece for the Leeds LGBT Literature Festival in 2018 and we’ll be referring to that. So when I say ‘you’ve mentioned’ etc, etc, that’s what I’m referencing.
JS: Okay, so our first question is: tell me what being British, Asian and of Pakistani heritage means to you?
A: That’s a really good question. I don’t really like labels, but I think that for me, not that I don’t see myself as Asian. I’m from Yorkshire and I was born in England. So I see myself as British; obviously I’m of Asian Heritage but for me I guess I feel more British than Asian. I guess when someone asks me that, what does that mean to you? It means the best of two different cultures.
When I’m thinking I think in English, I don’t think in Urdu or Punjabi. At the same time I’ll speak Urdu at home and Punjabi with my family meaning I’m bilingual, yes, and being the best of two different cultures really.
JS: So, have your family been able to accept and embrace you being part of the LGBTQ family?
A: Yes, my family know but it’s not something we really talk about, but they’ve always known. I’m 37 now and I live my own life. It’s just one of those weird topics that we don’t really talk about. For example, if I were straight and if I had a girlfriend we wouldn’t be able to talk about it because I come from a very conservative Muslim background. It’s a very conservative culture so you’re not allowed to have relationships, never mind saying, ‘Oh I’m gay and I’ve got a boyfriend’ or something. You just don’t talk about these things. Probably because my parents weren’t born in this country. If they were born here maybe they’d be a bit more relaxed about dating and going out and drinking or whatever. But, because they weren’t born here and they’re a lot older – they’re in their 80s – they are of a different generation. Not that age is an excuse but they’re from a different culture. So yeah, they’ve embraced it in their own little way. I mean, I’m their son, they still love me, so you know, and it’s fine. It’s just that awkward, kind of, topic I suppose, maybe because I’m a bit shy about it, I don’t know, or maybe it’s a mixture of both.
JS: Great, thank you. On the topic of identity, you’ve mentioned when on holiday people have asked you where are you from, and your accent too? Does this offend you?
A: No not at all [laughing]. I lived in Spain for a while and I used to get a lot of people ask me, oh where are you from? Obviously my skin is brown and Spanish people are quite tanned as well, but they knew when I spoke English that I obviously wasn’t Spanish. Because sometimes people would think I was Moroccan, some people thought I was from Greece. Then I’d say, no, I’m from England, I’m from Leeds. They’d say, oh you don’t look English; I’m assuming due to the fact that I’m not white. I said no, no, I am English; I was born in England. I remember going on a Press trip and this man asked me where I was from. I said I’m from Leeds, I’m from England. He was like no, where are you really from? I was like what do you mean?!
[Laughter between A and JS.]
A: I was like, I was born Leeds!
JS: Outer space!
[JS and A both laugh again.]
A: He was like no, no, where are you really from? I’ve had a couple of people ask me this in the past few years. Yet the event I’m talking about was in Hong Kong actually. I said do you mean what’s my ethnicity? Is that what you’re asking me? He said yeah but where are you from? I was like, I’m from England I was born in England, but my parents weren’t born in England they’re from Pakistan, but my Grandparents were from Kashmir. He’s like, but you’re not English, you’re not British!
It was one of those weird topics. It’s happened a few times, I remember a gay guy even asked me that at a house party a few months ago. He was like, where are you from? I was like, I’m from Leeds, and my friends were like, he’s from Leeds?! I think it’s just ignorance that people don’t really understand.
JS: Yes, I agree. So… You’ve suffered racism, islamophobia and homophobia, have you experienced this growing up? We kind of touched on this previously or within a cities scene, out socialising, clubbing etc?
A: Yeah [with some exasperation]… I mean it’s like it’s happened in Leeds and Manchester and on dating Apps as well. I’ve not experienced it in London. Within my previous job, I used to be a Travel Blogger, I’ve been all over the world and mainly it’s happened in Leeds and Manchester. In Manchester I was with someone at the time and someone opened their car door and they said the P word. Then they threw a can of drink at me, but it didn’t hit me, it hit my boyfriend at the time. It winded him, it hit him in the chest.
JS: Oh my goodness.
A: That must have been before 2007, maybe 2005, I can’t remember the exact year. Then another incident happened in Leeds near the market again on a night out a girl in a taxi shouted ‘Oi’ and the P word. I wasn’t even talking to them I was just minding my own, I was going home. It’s happened…
JS: Blatant racism
A: Yeah and it’s happened on dating Apps where people have blocked you when you say that I’m Muslim. Or that you don’t look Asian in your picture or I thought that you were mixed race, or I thought you were Turkish or something else. But when you say no, I’m Pakistani of origin... It’s sad really but it does happen.
JS: Yes, it is sad. Thank you. Then leading on from what we’ve just answered in a post-EU Referendum climate do you feel that any increased negativity has been directed at you? You’ve kind of answered it already. Or do you feel that things have stayed the same or have issues been reduced?
A: I mean not for me personally since the Brexit vote or anything like that, but obviously yeah, I’ve heard of stories and people have told me. Obviously working in the media myself I have read these stories; I haven’t personally been affected since Brexit. I haven’t faced anymore racism or anything like that.
JS: That’s a positive
A: But I know people that have, so obviously it is on the increase and you read about it all the time in the news and through your family and friends; you hear about women wearing head scarfs have been attacked. The fact that the police are recording more of these types of crimes as well. Islamophobia is on the rise, but touch wood I have not experienced it recently, but I have in the past. Obviously it is on the increase and you read about it all the time.
JS: On a more positive note. As a proud Yorkshire Muslim Kashmir Pakistani Gay man what are the best qualities that your unique identity have given you?
[A and JS laugh.]
A: That’s a really good question. I’m always proud to be from Yorkshire, I love our countryside, I love our cities, I love our accents.
A: I find Leeds especially a very friendly place and I just think that we’ve got so much history from Yorkshire, for example the BBC is doing the new programme Gentleman Jack about Shibden Hall in Halifax. So there’s just so much history from Yorkshire, from the Industrial Revolution to right now. For me Yorkshire is the biggest county in the UK, and if you put all the counties together they’re all different. I’ve got such nice memories of going to Scarborough, places like that. My dad used to take us to places in Bradford, Bolling Hall and also the fact that my grandparents are from Kashmir, so you know as a kid my mum and dad have taken us on holiday there. So I’ve got amazing memories of like the mountains, like the Hindu Kush, the Himalayas in Kashmir, the snow there… The food, the smells, you know it’s like an amalgamation of all these different cultures. So I feel like I’m a unique person. I don’t really like that word, I’m not unique as a boast.
JS: You are!
A: I’m a mixture of these cultures which is unique in a way. I’m not just White and born here. Or I’m not just Asian. Yes, I’m a mixture of these two things, like a citizen of the world I suppose. For me, I guess, a unique quality for me would be the fact that I’m open-minded maybe but I’m not saying that’s unique because I’m from two different cultures.
JS: But it helps.
A: The fact that I can understand different languages, I can communicate with different people, I can speak four languages. That is because of the fact that my parents are from a different culture and I’m born here. So that’s probably my unique quality I suppose.
JS: And the next question, leading on from that great answer. Do you feel that mainstream culture has always been influenced by LGBTQ culture?
A: Sometimes, I mean it depends doesn’t it? When you say culture, what do you mean?
JS: Like music, style, whatever you deem that would fit into LGBTQ culture to mainstream culture.
A: Yeah, when you look at magazines or music videos or people on the TV, people are influenced from all kinds of different things, aren’t they. For example the Queer Eye programme on Netflix, you know that’s a huge programme. People are influenced from all sorts of different things.
JS: Helps to progress us a bit?
A: Yes. Then you’ve got Drag SOS on Channel 4, you know there’s just so many different influences, I think the two kind of like mix. You might be gay or lesbian but you’re still part of a culture. You might be gay but you’re still living in a straight world.
So for me, just because I’m gay doesn’t mean that I’m just an LGBT person. I’m still living in this world, I’m still in Leeds, I’m still in Yorkshire. So you’re still part of that other culture which is not gay as well. So it’s nice not to see yourself as being labelled in that sense. For me you’re just part of the culture which could be anything. I don’t want it to be… just because I’m Asian I have to hang out with Asian people. Or because I’m Muslim I must go to this place; I can’t interact with these people. I don’t see myself like that, as that black and white. I feel I should be able to go anywhere and do anything. I’m just me, you know. I’m not just, oh I’m Asian and I’m gay, so I have to only go to this place or have these types of friends. For me culture, I’m from here, I interact with everyone and anyone.
JS: Thank you, and leading on from that question. As a journalist do you feel that our culture, LGBTQ Culture, has been boosted even more in the past few years or not? You’ve sort of touched on it already.
A: I think it’s getting more and more awareness. Where I work at the BBC there is a lot of gay and lesbian people there. If you look at Pride for example, the amount of companies, when we were just walking down here we looked at Nando’s and they had the Pride logo. So I think more and more companies are becoming aware of the Pink Pound [laughs] if you want to call it. Yes, especially in news, magazines, TV programmes, not just here. When I watch stuff on YouTube or even Hollywood and Bollywood, films they’re having more Queer characters. Sometimes stereotypical but, you know, the fact that they’re there now…
JS: Pushing forward a bit.
A: I think that the fact we’ve got for example social media, like Instagram and Facebook, the world is becoming more and more connected. So back in the day something might have been a culture in Leeds, but now you can post that, you can talk about something and it’s on Instagram and anyone in the world can see it. Cultures are becoming a bit smaller in a sense; everybody can see anything at any time now can’t they?
JS: I agree. Thank you. The next question is… What aspects of celebrating Eid and observing Ramadan do you love the most?
A: I love Ramadan. For me it’s a sacred month. It’s quite a spiritual month. It’s not just about giving up food and drink… obviously food and drink is a big part of Ramadan. But for me it’s a whole month. I don’t know if It’s a detox but it’s about taking a step back. Personally I always give up social media during Ramadan as well as eating and drinking during the day.
I don’t tend to go out in the evenings to restaurants or partying. I spend a lot of time with my family, we have dinners together. Which we do anyway but in Ramadan it brings you closer. Obviously you go to the Mosque, you’re praying a lot more. You’re thinking about others. I got ill a bit this year and didn’t fast for the full four weeks, so normally I do the full four weeks. Usually we try to do some sort of charity work, feed the homeless, I normally buy meals.
It’s like a practice-run of how to behave for the rest of the year. I’m not saying you should just be good at Ramadan and bad for the next eleven months! It’s more like… an endurance test as well. So it’s like a self, mind and body test. How you can control, your hunger, you’re not meant to swear, you’re not meant to think negative thoughts, you do charity work. I like that aspect of it.
Then when it comes to Eid, obviously it’s a bit like Christmas. It’s traditional to wear new or clean clothes in the olden days. But now it’s become traditional to buy something new, wear something nice. You have a big dinner with your family, having a nice meal together. For me it’s about family, it’s not about getting drunk or getting high or partying. It’s really about the simple things and just spending time with your family and friends really. That’s what I like about Eid and it’s the fact that being in England you’ve got family overseas, and just being able to interact with them as well. Obviously being of a different heritage I’m eating different kinds of foods and things like that. So it’s that whole kind of family atmosphere and you know just being together.
JS: Brilliant, thank you and we’re just going to end on a couple of fun questions. What are your favourite Hindi films?
A: Oh my god why didn’t I think of this! [Both laugh] I don’t really watch that many to be honest! When I was younger… or I watched a recent film with one of my friends in Manchester probably a few months ago. It’s was called, umm I’ve forgotten the name of the film [laugh].
JS: It’s alright!
A: I can’t think of the name of what it was!
JS: Did it have a standout song?
A: I think it’s called ‘Deewani Mastani’, the song, and I’ve forgotten the name of the film. Bajirao Mastani, I think it’s called.
JS: Ahh that will do.
A: It’s like a biopic type of film, so that’s quite nice. But I’m more of 80s person obviously being born in the 80s. There are quite a few films that I like, there’s one called Coolie which is about a man who works at a train station who carries your luggage basically, that’s a really good film. Then there’s another film from the 90s that’s called Rang which stands for colour; it’s like a love story, it’s got really nice songs. So that’s two or three of my favourites.
JS: What is your favourite Asian food to cook and eat?
A: My favourite… That’s a good question. When I was a student I was a vegetarian and I’m not a vegetarian anymore, but I still love cooking this dish my mum used to make. It’s split pea lentils with courgettes. It’s a really nice dish.
A: That’s probably my favourite but I also love chicken and spinach as well! [Both laugh] They’re my two favourites, one veggie, one chicken.
JS: Perfect. Then, very lastly, as you said, being British and Asian is fascinating, not just in terms of being a culture clash but also in creating a whole new space in the UK. How do you think this space will change in the next decade for you and the wider community… if possible?!
A: I just hope that it gets better. The fact that… I was listening to a blog post; it was in a podcast the other day and hopefully in the future it’s not going to matter that I’m gay. It shouldn’t even be a question.
A: You’re just yourself… it’s irrelevant [to ask] are you black, are you white, are you Asian are you gay, are you straight, fat or thin? You’re just you. We don’t need to have all these labels and I really don’t like them. It’s like when you’re on dating Apps, are you top, are you bottom, are you mixed race, what are you? It’s just irrelevant. It just makes me uncomfortable. Hopefully in the future we can just all… I know it’s a bit optimistic. When you watch the news you think the world is going to end tomorrow but hopefully we can live in a world where we can just be ourselves; it shouldn’t really matter who we are. Be optimistic.
JM: Yes, and we can end on that optimistic note, thank you very much. That’s the end of the West Yorkshire Queer Stories with Assif […].
A: Thank you, bye-bye.