Four years ago, when I first came to Abu Dhabi, I was surprised at how society was segregated in binaries between nationals and non-nationals, migrants and expatriates, males and females, families and single adults. There weren’t any explicit barriers or signs but invisible lines that dug deep into the desert soil and organized lives. I realized that my sociology reports could only convey a tiny fraction of this reality, hence Beyond the Halal is one of my many attempts to explore the gray spaces of living in the UAE through the story of Aslam, a young Pakistani cosplayer.
It was during my first Comic Con experience in Dubai that I saw those binaries dissolve. There, identities were exhibited through colorful costumes and affiliations with fictional characters from video games, comic books and other science fiction literature, publicly with no limitations. I was lucky to have met Aslam, who constantly challenged the norm with his cosplays as he crossdressed as Poppy from the League of Legends and gender bended Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad during the 2017 Comic Con. After meeting Aslam and his friends at the convention, the scope of my film expanded beyond Comic Con to a bigger commentary on youth subcultures in Dubai and how they negotiated with the norms of society and religion. The experiences of Aslam and his Emirati friends often stays in the confines of snapchat stories that disappear in 24 hours or Instagram posts only available to limited groups of social circles. In this short film, I extend these stories to a larger audience with the intention of showing the heart warming acceptance Aslam receives from friends and family, who support him through all his endeavours.
My personal relationship with Aslam also extended beyond that of director-subject as we became close friends and discussed every stage of the film together. Through this short documentary, I hope to complicate our understanding of the Emirati-diaspora identity and explore how Aslam and his friends in particular find comfort in performing their identities in digital spaces.
Beyond the Halal is a 9 minute short documentary whose narrative unfolds through the storyline of ASLAM, a 22 year old, first-generation Pakistani immigrant who was raised in a family of 6 sisters and 1 brother in Ajman, a small emirate next to Dubai. Aslam lies on the other extreme of society’s conceptions of who a man should be— his voice is high pitched, he is obese and has his hair dyed to a different color every week. A quick glance at him and one could mistake him as a teenage boy. But this does not stop Aslam from living his life out loud.
Instead he uses his deviance to defy society’s norms even more and navigates the world around him skillfully. This initially starts from playing games online and emulating female characters to now cross playing at Comic Con. What makes Comic Con in the UAE, so special is that it is one of the few times in the year when young people can come together and socialize and dress up as they want without being judged. Through the film’s storyline, Aslam becoming more confident with himself as he becomes bolder but sadly, also realize that this only happens within the digital cum real world that Aslam has created himself where conversations revolve around who built what empire last night and how many levels they would have to cross, till they ruled their world. Aslam’s constant need to use snapchat filters and hyper-sexualize his identity make us question if this paves a way for him to come closer to himself or is this all just a performance?