A typical day in the life of the Iranian writer Payem Feili involves rising at mid-morning, spending hours on a new novel called Meeting with the Ayatollah, chatting online with publishers, journalists, and other gay colleagues and friends outside Iran, drinking plenty of Persian tea, and smoking up to two packs of cigarettes. He spends most evenings with his new boyfriend, going for walks and talking. Apart from this small circle of activity, much of it online, Payam has virtually no contact with the society in which he lives: Iran.
Payam is openly gay in a totally closed society, where despite loosening social mores in other areas, being homosexual remains one of the greatest taboos. Like many gay men and women in Iran, his story is one of existing at the margins, in retreat from a society that is hostile to homosexuality and under a government that denies its very existence. Such a climate encourages thousands of gay Iranians to seek asylum in the West, and that is precisely the future that Payam's parents would like for him. But he feels his identity lies in his homeland, and that moving away would crush him. “Why should I leave?” he says. “Homophobes should leave the country; those who cannot tolerate others with contrasting viewpoints or lifestyles."
In his adult life, Payam has carved out a space where he can pursue his writing, and he has gained some recognition outside the country, but his memories of adolescence are scarred with the brutal bullying he endured. He was excused from mandatory military service for Iranian men due to his bipolar disorder, and was fired from his job as a proofreader at a small publishing company due to his sexual orientation. He suffers from bipolar disorder, and has attempted suicide a dozen times. Even going out in public with his boyfriend causes him great anxiety. “I get scared but try to overcome my fear and tell myself that it’s all in my head and that nothing bad would happen, says.”Born and raised in Kermanshah, a historic, mountainous city in Western Iran, he now lives in Karaj, a city close to Tehran. A little over four years ago, having struggled to deal with her eldest son's bipolar condition and homosexuality, his mother decided to leave her job as a nurse to nurture Payam and care for him at home. They occasionally spend parts of the day reciting poetry to each other.
Payam's mother tends to become slightly alarmed and anxious when she learns her son is in a relationship. His father has never come to terms with his elder son being gay, and told him that he believes attraction to the same gender is “a certain path to destruction.” It may somehow be a relief that Payam's father only sees his family twice a year, on visits home from his job in Bandar Abbas, a port city in southern Iran.
Karaj is a lively city that flows into Tehran’s suburbia, but Payam has scarcely any interaction with his surroundings, preferring instead to stay at home and focus on writing. He has written three novels and plenty of poetry, including two epic poems, and his works are imbued with a dark melancholy and a thorough touch of nostalgia. They are often subtlely despairing, but also reflect a glimmers of hope as well. “I’m not exagerrating when I say that writing is my life, my world, my everything,” he says.
His first collection of poems was published in Iran in 2004, but only after undregoing heavy censorship. Though he expected this, the experience saddened him and caused him to stop seeking to publish in Iran. The authorities at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which are responsible for vetting all texts before publication, pulled two poems in their entirely from the collection, one due to its anti-religious approach and the other because it presented his a viewpoint critical of the regime.
His first novel, “I Will Grow, I Will Bear Fruit: Figs” has been published by an Iranian publisher in Germany, and a number of his poems are published online. While managing to develop an active and close contact with online Persian outlets overseas and getting one of his novellas translated into English, he seems unfazed by not getting published inside Iran. He says," I seek publication and acknowledgement, inside or outside Iran."
Payam has written about his previous relationship in the epic home Hasaanak, entitled after the name he's chosen for his former boyfriend. He tells me he kissed Hassanak on the street in front of strangers many times without getting caught by the law. But, he says,"I've been served with evil stares, whispers, profanity, and bullying from people, including my peers.”
During his high school years, Payam endured such extreme bullying that at 16 he quit and began home schooling himself to obtain his diploma. He never sought further education, and expresses extreme discomfort in reliving memories of his high school days. He recalls a group of young motorcyclists stalking him on the way to school one day and following him in the schoolyard. He remembers the principal getting angry and yelling at him over what he called Payam's shenanigans. “I think I was always different and this showed,” he says. “My peers were scared of this difference and hated me. I also strongly believe that the fact that I am good-looking attributes to other people’s fear and hatred.
Much of his work embodies a juxtaposition of bitterness and expectation. His first novel, “I Will Grow, I will Bear Fruit; Figs” is a has been translated into English by the prominent New York-based translator Sara Khalili. “I managed to discover myself through and while writing this novella, and become truly honest with myself about my sexual tendency throughout the course of its creation,” he says.
Payam says his suicide attempts were not mere cries for help, but genuine efforts to end his life, had he not been “caught”. One of these attempts resulted in a major operation that ended in the loss of 12 centimeters of his intestine. He suffers from the side-effects of multiple suicide attempts, particularly a weakened digestive system.
In his immediate circle, Payam says his siblings are far more understanding of his sexual orientation and emotional status than his parents. When he came out to his best friend four years ago his friend was deeply shocked and upset. That friend ended up marrying Payam's sister and is still Payam's closest friend, aside from being his brother-in-law.
Though he came out later in life than many homosexuals, he says he had always been aware of his sexual preference and lived as a homosexual without openly acknowledging it. He says he was always aware of STDs, particularly HIV/AIDS, and has always been extremely cautious. Feili says, “All my life, all my parents wanted was for me to be normal. Being straight is, of course, one of the vital elements of normalcy, which I’ve lacked.” He says his parents would rather stay silent about his sexuality.
On seeking treatment for his bipolar disorder, mental breakdown episodes, and history of convulsions, Payam describes a long history of seeking out various psychologists, but eventually giving up therapy and turning instead to medications. Though rates of suicide are especially high among gay men in Iran, Payam views his mental health issues as distinct from his sexuality. “The only connection between my bipolar disorder and my sexual orientation is that being gay while living in Iran has worsened my mental state, because it has isolated me so much,” he says.
Payam says living as a gay man in Iran, having to keep his basic identity a secret, is difficult and saddening. He sums up the social dynamic like this: “The challenge heterosexual people face in Iran is hiding their relationship with their girlfriend or boyfriend from the regime’s security forces through showing a different lifestyle to the outside world. In other words, lying to remain safe. The challenge homosexuals face, however, is hiding their relationship even from the very people who fib to stay safe. It’s like lying to liars.”
Payam considers writing his most serious activity and the only real job he could ever have. He has no desire to work outside his comfort zone; his home, his room, his laptop. He does contemplate moving out and living independently, but needs more money to take a serious step toward that goal. He says he makes some money through publishing his work overseas, almost enough to get by.
This young writer, who has never traveled outside Iran, says if he ever decides to move abroad his choice would be Israel, ironically the regime’s grand enemy. When asked why, he says,” I simply love Israel. I feel close to its people. I love its natural beauty and its mystery. I think I may feel at home there.”