"I am 21. I am a homosexual. I like the afternoon sun." It is words like these that forced Payam Feili, an openly-gay Iranian poet and author, to flee his home country for Israel; a place he had always dreamed of living in and a sworn enemy of the Iranian regime.
An author of nine books, 30-year-old Feili began his literary career writing classic love poems as a teenager. His first collection was published when he was just 19 years old, but when he turned his pen to themes of homosexuality, Judaism, and Israel, he quickly found himself blacklisted by Iran's conservative religious regime and unable to publish his work.
"Writing is a refuge for me," he told reporters this week, speaking in Farsi via a translator. "[But] the Iranian regime grants you identity only as a Shia person, Iran cannot tolerate that you talk about gender minorities or the Holocaust… If you start to talk about your personhood, that in itself is viewed as a revolutionary act."
Between 2011 and 2014, Feili was reportedly arrested three times by Iranian security forces. On one occasion he was held in a shipping container for 44 days. His captors stripped him naked, photographed him, and threatened to kill him.
When government loyalists published articles accusing Feili of being immoral and a traitor, friends began to avoid him. "I was afraid," he said of his decision to leave Iran. "In the last year there I was isolated…The regime was pressing me to leave… I was warned these articles could be a harbinger of worse things to come."
(Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News)
Every year, hundreds of gay, lesbian, and bisexual Iranians flee their homeland, where the brand of Islamic law enforced punishes homosexual acts with imprisonment, lashing, or even execution.
Most claim asylum in North America or Europe, and Feili's plan to build a new life in Israel is possibly a first for an Iranian non-Jew. Israel has not had any diplomatic relations with Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the Iranian regime has called Israel a "Little Satan." Both countries prohibit their citizens from visiting the other.
Sporting a navy cardigan, blue nail varnish, and an elaborate turquoise ring, Feili explains how his unusual interest in Israel first began as a teenager when he watched Hollywood movies about the Holocaust. Later he decided to learn more by reading the Torah and, despite having no plans to convert to Judaism, Feili sports a Star of David tattoo on his neck as a symbol of his "special relationship" with Israel. His latest novel 'I Will Grow, I Will Bear Fruit… Figs' also has the Jewish emblem emblazoned across a fig leaf on its front cover.
"It's something that reminds me of the things I like. It's a shape that reminds me of the country I like," he explained. "Long before I left Iran, I always thought the only other place in the world I could live is Israel. The atmosphere in this country is the atmosphere I imagined in my stories."
(Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News)
Yet despite his love for Israel, where Feili arrived last year after spending 18 months in Turkey, he admits life in the country may not always be easy. While Tel Aviv has a vibrant LGBT scene with several gay bars and an annual pride festival attracting more than 100,000 people from across the world, in Israel's religious communities there is less tolerance of homosexuality.
Last year an Ultra-Orthodox man carried out a stabbing attack at Jerusalem Gay Pride, killing Shira Banki, a 16-year-old female participant in the march. Israel has also been accused of "pinkwashing" — using its progressive stance on LGBT rights to draw attention away from some of its more controversial activity, such as occupation of parts of the West Bank, or mistreatment of Palestinian and Israeli Arab communities.
And while Feili's asylum claim is so far progressing smoothly — his initial temporary visa granted for the Tel Aviv premiere of a theater production featuring his work was recently extended through October — Israel's overall record on refugee rights is poor, with one of the lowest acceptance rates for asylum claims in the world.
In the last two years, only 0.01 percent of asylum requests by Eritrean and Sudanese — Israel's two largest group of asylum seekers — have been accepted, compared to an international average of 83 and 67 percent.
Nonetheless, Feili, whose initial application to visit Israel was supported by a letter of recommendation from Israel's Culture Minister, is optimistic about the future. "[My] process of asylum has not concluded yet, but I'm almost sure about the outcome. I'm planning my life like I'm staying here for a long time," he told reporters. "I want to inspire other people and prove you can be yourself regardless of what kind of country you live in and what kind of restrictions are imposed on you."
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