A gay Iranian in Tel Aviv

Poet Payam Feili seeks asylum in the Jewish state.

March 26, 2016 07:29
Payam Feili

WHEN FEILI was a teenager, he watched Holocaust movies and spent his time learning about this ‘shocking tragedy.’. (photo credit: Courtesy)

"I always thought that the only place in the world where I can live is Israel,” says Payam Feili, 30, a gay Iranian poet seeking asylum in this country.

He has been living in Turkey for over a year, having been forced into exile after numerous arrests, threats, heavy censorship of his work and run-ins with Iran’s conservative Revolutionary Guards.

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His book I Will Grow, I Will Bear Fruit … Figs, a love story about two Iranian soldiers during the Iran-Iraq War, is popular in Israel and has been adapted for the stage at Tel Aviv’s Tzavta Theater.

He initially came to Israel to launch a Hebrew version of the book and to attend a premier of the play.

In an event on February 29 in its Jerusalem offices, The Israel Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group, hosted Feili to tell all about his life with the help of a Persian translator.

“It wasn’t a hard thing to leave Iran; it would have been much harder to stay. Recently, the Army of [the Guardians of the] Islamic Revolution started publishing a series of articles against me. It created a very difficult situation for me. They were warning me about detention, and warning me that these articles could lead to worse things,” Feili said.

He noted that the Iranian government did not recognize homosexuality or refer to it by name, describing it as a “sexual deviation,” just as it refused to recognize or name Israel, naming it the “Zionist regime.”

Even though it was incredibly dangerous and, as many of his friends and family thought, crazy to be so vocal about his sexuality and love of Israel, he said he did it because he wanted to inspire others to be openly themselves.

“I believe it is even more dangerous when people live in hiding, behind false identities,” he said. “Through time you start lying to yourself and you become isolated in your loneliness.”

When Feili was a teenager, he watched Holocaust movies and spent his time learning about this shocking tragedy. “After that, I was curious to know more about Jewish history and culture. I read the Bible and about the history of Israel. In many ways it’s a very sad story, but it’s also very beautiful. The Torah, a legendary story that tells how it was, is a legend that will enchant every poet,” he tells the Magazine.

He remains in very close contact with his whole family, especially his two brothers and two sisters. He was raised in a traditional Iranian and Islam-practicing household, and the rest of his family still lives in Iran.

Although he grew up as a Muslim, Feili has no religion and has no intention of converting to Judaism, although he says he loves the Torah specifically for its “literary and cultural value.”

He started writing at a young age. His first book, The Sun’s Platform, a collection of love poems, was published in 2005 when he was just 19. It was censored by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and after that he was no longer allowed to publish in Iran.

I Will Grow, I Will Bear Fruit … Figs, which took him nine months to write, was published in Germany in 2010 by Gardoon Publishers in Persian.

“Following the publication of my book, it became harder to live in Iran,” recalls Feili. He was fired from his job as an editor at a publishing house, and his sister was fired shortly afterward. Any publisher or translator he was working with was threatened and blackmailed, until they finally stopped working with Feili.

“I became even more isolated because the people that were my friends would hesitate to contact me, because it would jeopardize their safety,” he remembers.

Luckily for him, Ido Dagan, an Israeli writer and director, took an interest in Feili, after interviewing him for NRG, an Israeli news site. Dagan was directing a show called Three Reasons, which he describes as “a kind of cabaret” based in part on Feili’s work, which Dagan discovered in 2015 when a Hebrew version of his book was published.

Dagan asked Feili if he would like to visit Israel, and decided to try to bring him over for the premiere at the Tzavta Theater in Tel Aviv.

“He asked me if I’d like to visit Israel, and I said, ‘Of course, but I doubt it’ll happen soon,’” recalls Feili regarding his conversation with Dagan after his book was published in Hebrew in 2015.

“A couple of days later, I had messages saying the Israeli Interior Ministry had granted me permission to enter Israel, and that my visa was accepted. It resulted in me taking a detour in life, coming to Israel, and wanting to stay here,” he explained.

With the help of the Culture and Sport Ministry, Feili was granted a temporary visa as a visiting artist.

“Now that I have applied for asylum, it goes through the normal channels,” he says.

In going through the asylum-seeking process, he has received treatment no different from that accorded to any other asylum-seeker, according to Hagai Kalai, a Tel Aviv lawyer representing Feili.

Upon arrival, he fell in love with Israel and realized it was where he wanted to live, even though he was invited to live on American soil as well.

“An organization called ICORN invited me to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was ready to go to America and my case had been finalized. However... I came to Israel and I have no regrets. It was always a dream of mine to be here, and I had decided that I would do it in two or three years. But everything happened sooner than I thought,” Feili says.

An article published by The Daily Beast in 2014 described Feili as having recently emerged from his third and longest stint in captivity, and said he was captured and blindfolded by plainclothes cops on February 2, 2014, and held at an unknown location in a shipping container for 44 days, after signing a contract to publish a Hebrew translation of his book in Israel.

“Feeling unsafe was one of the reasons I left the country,” he said. “But that’s not the only reason I left. It wasn’t just because of safety issues.”

Currently living in the Florentin neighborhood of Tel Aviv, a liberal community full of young artists and creative thinkers, dotted with bar scenes, live music, and political and provocative graffiti, Feili says, “It is better and more beautiful than I could ever imagine. I didn’t have any previous experience with Israelis, but I feel like I’ve gone back to my family.”

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