When I was young there were some moments that defined my faith.
The crinkle of a too-thin page as I sat down to read the Quran. The way my jaw ached from relief as I bit into a date at Iftar. The exact pressure on the button that switched off our rickety Azaan clock as its battery drained. The cool feel of henna freshly drawn on soft hands. The comfort of a familiar prayer when I’m anxious, to ground me. These moments of ritual and rites have rooted themselves in me like a second language, one shared not only amongst my family but Muslim communities across the world.
In 13 minutes, Fawzia Mirza uses the building blocks of this unspoken tongue to weave an intimate world of two Muslim characters, Noor (Nicole Nwokolo) and Layla (Sahar Beverly Agustin-Maleki). Yet, unlike my childhood, this fictional world includes something revolutionary. A home in which queer Muslims not only exist but thrive.
Mirza’s short film NOOR & LAYLA (from Frameline Voices), produced by Baby Daal productions, follows the ups and downs of a relationship from its chaotic end to shy beginnings. Over the course of five scenes, one for each time of prayer — Fajr, Duhr, Asr, Maghrib, Isha — we see the effortless blend of intimacy, faith, and devotion in all its manifestations.
But before we delve further into the behind-the-scenes, you can watch the exclusive online debut of NOOR & LAYLA below!
Editors Note: The following video contains brief nudity and some sexually explicit content.
Mirza is a Canadian Pakistani-Muslim creative determined to push boundaries in a narrow industry. In a chat with her, she explains, “My first short film in 2012, The Queen Of My Dreams, publicly asked can I be gay, and Muslim and still love Bollywood romances? I had never seen anybody ask this question or anybody like me”. In the decade since then, they have worked on countless award-winning works exploring this area, and NOOR & LAYLA finds its answer rooted in the call to prayer.
We talked through why she decided to explore time through this lens “I’ve always been impacted by the Azaan, whether you are practicing or not it’s pretty common to have the Azaan whispered into your ear when you’re first born. It’s one of the first things you hear as a baby and in Muslim countries, you hear it five times-a-day ringing out through the neighborhood.”
For both Mirza and myself, the Azaan clock became a timekeeper. “It’s a marker of time that’s existed my whole life that I’ve had a complicated relationship with.” and because “her queerness brought her closer to her Muslimness”, they wanted to use the Azaan to bring these worlds together.
This iteration of NOOR & LAYLA was truly a pandemic-shaped project. A month before the pandemic, Mirza married her wife and the two of them were in Toronto as the world shut down. “As we spent time together, I was inspired by some of the moments my wife and I were experiencing together. Isolated.”
One particular scene where Noor and Layla sit in a bathtub adorning one another’s hands with henna was pulled from this time. “As we were putting henna on each other, I told my wife about one of the marriage rituals that certain South Asian families do, where you hide the groom’s name in the hand via henna.”
For many queer Muslims coming to terms with our queerness sometimes comes with the bittersweet realization that we no longer have a claim to traditional rituals and rites. And yet Mirza doesn’t believe this has to be the case. Noor & Layla is an ode to reclaiming rituals, whether through breaking fast with found family, drawing Henna in queer marriage rituals, or hearing the Azaan in a woman’s voice — in the film it’s recited/sung by Canadian and Pakistani musician, Urvah Khan.
The core of this film is love. “I am alive because of love” they continue, “when the Azaan goes off some people pray, but sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you’re having an argument. Sometimes you might be having sex, or playing video games, or cooking, or on a date. Why not see a queer couple falling in and out of love via the cycle of the Azaan.”
NOOR & LAYLA does not follow a traditional chronology, and in its reversed timeline I found solace. The LGBTQ+ community is all too familiar with the false notions of “coming-of-age”. For myself, my teen years were spent navigating who I was and who I loved. And now, years later I am experiencing a second coming-of-age. My existence is wrapped in endless possibilities of how to live and who I can share my love with, and I have just started to discover its boundlessness.
“When we think of coming-of-age, in many ways it is a white, hetero maybe even Western concept and exists with many caveats. But really, queer people recognize coming-of-age happens at any age and that’s a beautiful thing.” Mirza agreed. “It’s also why I am wary of the term “coming out”. What does “coming out” mean? I wasn’t allowed to drink alcohol, date boys, or eat pork, I wasn’t suddenly going to tell my mother I was having sex with women.”
Mirza wanted NOOR & LAYLA to reflect the fluid nature of queer relationships. “What is the ending? What is the beginning? Sometimes your romantic relationship is over but a friendship begins. Sometimes a tough conversation opens the floodgates to something new.”
Mirza remembers in college she used to watch the sunset, and there would be a moment they asked, “Is the sun setting or is it rising?”. Just as the cycle of the day goes forwards and backward — relationships, love, and time are like that.”
Physical intimacy is another aspect explored in the film, in its more bold sexual strokes and lighter moments of footsie. In my home physical intimacy was a deeply taboo topic. Innocent kisses were skipped over on television and any signs of affection, even as simple as holding hands, came with great anxiety.
“I was raised [in a household] where we didn’t talk about sex or our bodies. I carried a lot of shame, even thinking about sex in a heteronormative context. But as I connected to my queerness and was introduced in many different ways what it can mean to have sex with a woman, I understood the heavy burden of shame I had been living under.” Mirza related.
Their art over the years has been a huge part of the healing process and shedding this shame. “I would say NOOR & LAYLA is a coming-of-age where I feel completely comfortable talking about Islam as a way to have a meet-cute, or the two leads waking up and having sex after the Azaan. That is not where I started. But intimacy can be connected to Islam and our rituals.”
Our two protagonists also reflect the diversity of the Muslim community. Noor is Nigerian, and Layla is Filipinx and Iranian. Showing the myriad of ways in which Muslim communities are deeply connected but also enjoy their own rich histories and lore, was important to Mirza. It’s illustrated in the Maghrib scene where they attribute the broken glass to various cultural beings.
“I really wanted to dig into the racial and cultural background of the two actors. We talked about Nigerian and Iranian and Flilipnx lore”, both cultural and faith-based. “Celebrating the expansiveness of the Muslim community is really queer AF.” Just as in the LGBTQ+ community, the Muslim community is home to infinite ways of identity and expression.
Looking forward, there is still a long way to go for queer Muslim representation, especially for work that holds a beautiful and positive insight rather than stories laced in trauma. In a moment of final reflection during our conversation, she says, “The pressure is on when there’s one story that’s representing an entire community, the more stories, the more nuance.”
And as I wait for the next time I’ll see queer Muslims on my screen, I can’t help but be excited for all its untapped potential.
This short is from Frameline Voices! A curated program of short films and episodic content (celebrating 10 years) representing experiences unique to LGBTQ+ people and communities. Voices fosters career advancement for queer, trans and gender non-binary creators through the exhibition of their work. Voices also aims to improve and equalize mainstream media representations of LGBTQ+ people through content distribution and career development of LGBTQ+ creators.