The Iranian Writer Who Gives Israelis the Self-love They Need

Payam Feili, the poet and novelist with an ardor for Israel, concentrates on the writing despite the politics all around him.

Iranian poet and novelist Payam Feili in Tel Aviv, December 10, 2015.
AP

Payam Feili is late for our interview. It’s obvious he’s barely awake. Stylishly and meticulously dressed but bleary-eyed, he lumbers to the chair and drops into it exhausted.

It’s no wonder. After all, a gay, Israel-loving writer like Feili is a big attraction here. Gaunt, fragile and with a delicate expression, he’s like a circus bear dancing to the tune of his publicity agents from one event to the next. He’s presumably giving the same answers to the same questions in order to give Israelis their fix of self-love.

During his time here, he met with artists, public figures and representatives of Tel Aviv’s gay community, and visited Jerusalem and Haifa. “I’ve been very busy on a very tight schedule, but I can say Israel is much more beautiful than I imagined,” he says.

Will he love Israel as much when his exhausting visit is over? Not necessarily. But after a few hours of uninterrupted sleep, maybe he’ll wake up with renewed Zionist zeal that gives new meaning to the small Star of David tattooed on his neck.

“I simply loved the Star of David, that’s why I had the tattoo,” he says. As he puts it, he got to know Israel from watching World War II movies while growing up in Iran. Israel interested him, so he learned more about its history and grew closer to it.

Feili, who was born in 1985, answers questions through Adi Liberman, an interpreter who organized his stay in Israel with Ido Dagan and the help of Culture Minister Miri Regev and the Arcadia hotel chain, which is housing him.

Iranian poet and writer Payam Feili looks out at the Tel Aviv cityscape, December 10, 2015.
AP

Feili’s novella “I Will Grow, I Will Bear Fruit ... Figs” has been translated into Hebrew by Orly Noy. Feili came to Israel at the invitation of the Tzavta Tel Aviv theater, where “Three Reasons,” a mixed-media performance based in part on the work, is being staged.

A Zionist orgy

Noy was in contact with Feili while the writer was still in Iran, but Noy and Dagan clashed badly over Feili’s visit to Israel. In an article on the NRG Hebrew news site, Dagan said Noy tried, because of her “extreme left-wing views,” to block Feili’s arrival and fix him up with a woman to arrange a Turkish residency permit for him. Noy wrote on Facebook that Dagan put Feili in danger by bringing him to Israel out of personal interests.

“The fact that a very strange bunch with interests turned this visit into a Zionist orgy and stripped his (wonderful) book of all political significance in the local context saddens me, and infuriates and outrages me even more,” Noy wrote.

As she put it, “Instead of getting the stage he certainly deserves as a gifted writer, he has become a display-window mannequin for the political agendas that made common cause to bring him here.”

Putting politics and PR aside, Feili’s novella, which depicts an unrequited love of a gay man during the Iran-Iraq War, is based on Feili’s experience as a gay man in Iran but also offers a surrealistic literary journey out of place and time. Based on the book’s language, it’s clear Feili is a poet.

The cover Feili’s novella “I Will Grow, I Will Bear Fruit ... Figs.”

“I am twenty-one. I am a homosexual. I like the afternoon sun .... Poker. That is what I call him. He is my only friend. We met during military training. He is twenty-one. He likes the afternoon sun, and he is not a homosexual,” Feili writes in an English translation.

He says he was a teenager when he discovered his sexual orientation.

“There were many fears surrounding it. Iranian society doesn’t accept people like me,” he says. “The gay community can live in Iran, but always in secret and always in fear; it’s never visible. Luckily, my family is very supportive of me.”

Feili has two brothers and two sisters. His mother is a poet, and he describes his father as a fan of literature. His family isn’t religious at all and never forced anything on him.

Still, there’s no doubt his situation in Iran affected his mental state, and he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital more than once. He eventually fled his country and has spent the last year and a half in Turkey.

“Writing this book brought me closer to myself and to love myself more,” he says. “It helped me see the dreams I dreamed and the things I imagined more clearly. It got me to know myself better. I no longer felt alone; before I was very lonely.”

Iranian poet and novelist Payam Feili.

Writing for writing’s sake

No doubt in this respect literature saved Feili. He turned from an isolated, persecuted gay man in Iran into a writer people were interested in and took care of. He says writing isn’t a mission for him and doesn’t have a political or social purpose.

“The sole purpose is to write, and everyone can do their own interpretation when they read my book,” he says. “I have no preplanned goal besides the writing itself.”

The only work of Feili’s to be released in his homeland is his first book of poetry, “The Sun’s Platform,” published in 2005 only after the censor deleted certain poems. After three editions were printed, the print license was revoked. None of his writings have been approved by Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Guidance, and he began working with foreign publishers.

His first novel was published in the United States, after which foreign publishers brought out two novels, a collection of short stories and two song cycles.

“Like every writer of course I expect my books to be published in my native language and in the place where I was born,” he says sadly. “But for me it hasn’t happened.”

So are there Iranian writers who influenced him?

“I don’t assign any importance to Persian literature; I read Western literature more,” he says. “But even in Western literature there’s no one who has influenced me.”

Feili seems to be in despair over events in his country and sees no reason for hope in the near term. “Iranian literature, to my great regret, could never be a part of world literature. It lags far behind,” he says.

“Before the revolution, the level of writing and writers’ situation was much better. Now, as a result of the heavy censorship, there has been a drastic decline in both the quantity and quality of the writing.”