No Man's Land

5.31.2009

By Tim Murphy

'In Iran, we don't have homosexuals, like in your country...we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have it.'
-- Remarks by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a speech at Columbia University, September 24, 2007

Nima, a lanky 29-year-old artisan from Tehran, doesn't exist. Neither does his shaggy hair or scruffy beard nor his brown eyes, anxiously tracking the February snow falling onto the lunar landscape. Sitting on this night bus heading to Ankara, the only thing next to me is a big, fuzzy sweater, a faded pair of jeans, and sneakers. Although they retain the shape of a man, in the eyes of Iran, there is no man there. Even here, in Turkey, where Nima and other gay Iranians have fled, they are refugees, caught in perpetual dawn. Passing through or, at any rate, not really there. The only thing that is clear is the sound of Nima's voice as he tells his story.

Nima and I talk frankly about being gay, since our fellow passengers are all Turkish and seem unlikely to share Nima's facility for English. But we still say 'g' for gay just in case. Nima's stories are stretched as taut as a bowstring between the past and the future. They exist as memories and as hope, but few of them are in the present tense. In Turkey, Nima is in a holding pattern. He hasn't had sex in a year and a half, longer than he's been in Turkey. 'Just a lot of jerking off,' he chuckles. Nima likes bears. For the past few years, he's been chatting with a guy in New Hampshire, and when he pictures where he'd like to end up, he thinks maybe Boston. Like any exile, he misses his family, though he's terrified of his father, a retired bank manager. He tells a story of bringing his father tea in a vessel he'd made, only for his father to turn on him, shouting, 'Don't bring me tea in that fucking thing!' We laugh at the story -- it's so awful it's funny -- like two schoolboys telling horror stories late into the night. But this one's true. If Nima's dad knew he was gay he'd try to kill him.

Around 10 p.m., we pull into Ankara's bus depot. It's still snowing, and Nima is nervous about his appointment in the morning. As an asylum seeker, he must convince investigators for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that his homosexuality and his government's persecution entitle him to refugee status. It's an audition for salvation. 'My friends told me to shape my eyebrows to look more 'g,' ' he says, 'but that's not me.' He pauses and asks me anxiously, 'Do you think I should?' I tell him he should just be himself and tell the truth.

Over the past several years, hundreds of LGBT people have escaped the repressive autocratic regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran, forming a small but colorful jetty in the stream of fleeing religious minorities and political dissidents. Many are resettled in Kayseri, a religious, dull, flat city in the middle of Turkey, sort of the Turkish equivalent of Topeka. The town, overlooked by snow-capped Mount Erciyes, is an expanse of mostly new blocky buildings whose pastel colors barely relieve their monotony. It's a prosperous city, religious and frumpy -- far from the sexy, nightclubby flash of Istanbul. Thousands of refugees live in dingy flats behind the pastel facades, hoping to find a permanent home in this or another country. Among them, there are a few dozen LGBT asylum seekers who, even among these exiles, are exiled.

Life in Turkey is better, but not good. The state -- though blessed with a secular government -- is almost entirely Muslim. Outside the main metropolises of Istanbul and Ankara, the country is, in some places, more conservative than parts of Iran. In Kayseri, though head scarves aren't mandatory, many women wear them anyway. If everything goes smoothly, refugees will spend two or three years in this semi-existence before moving on to the United States, Canada, Australia, or Europe. It's an interminable wait. Leery of an influx of foreign labor, Turkey won't give refugees work papers or financial or social assistance, even while making them pay taxes. Refugees are corralled into smaller cities where, perhaps, they are easier to monitor. LGBT refugees are doubly vulnerable. They are discriminated against by merchants, landlords, and employers not only for being Iranian, but for being gay. Yet, in comparison to Iran, Turkey is a square deal.

To most Americans, Iran is a Saturday Night Live punch line of Muslim backwardness. Since 1979, it's been ruled by clerics with beards and gowns who enforce the draconian strictures of Sharia, or Islamic law. But for Iranians, especially gay Iranians, there is little to be laughed at. Being busted having gay sex or simply being at a gay party is punishable by arrest, flogging, or death, depending on the whims of the basijis, the country's loathed paramilitary morality police, and of the Islamic courts. Some human rights groups estimate that more than 4,000 LGBT people have been executed in Iran since the late 1970s. In 2005, international outrage flared when two teenage boys were hanged in the Iranian city of Mashad; the state claimed it was for raping a younger boy, but it was widely believed to be because they were gay. (Similar horror stories have emerged out of Shiite enclaves in Iraq, such as Sadr City in Baghdad, where two dozen men or boys believed to be gay have been murdered by death squads or family members enacting 'honor killings.')

But for Nima and the other refugees here, Iran is still home. It's not just a place of persecution and fear, it's the land of their friends and families and of the rich Persian culture of poetry and art that predates the ayatollahs by millennia. Nostalgia and memories for the texture and fabric of the lives they left behind make life in Turkey even more difficult. 'We're in a twilight zone,' Nima says. 'We're not in our home, and we're not where we want to be. It's so hard.'

'O you who've gone on pilgrimage --

where are you, where, oh where?

Here, here is the Beloved!

Oh come now, come, oh come!

Your friend, he is your neighbor,

he is next to your wall --
You, erring in the desert --

what air of love is this?
-- The 13th century Persian poet Rumi,
I Am Wind, You Are Fire

On Valentine's night in Kayseri in an apartment filled with secondhand furniture, cigarette smoke, and house music, a dozen gay refugees drink beer and smoke a hookah. There are five gay men -- Nima, Babak, Arad, Payam, and Parsa -- five lesbians -- Sahar, Diba, Sara, Setarah, and Elnaz -- and two trans women, Sheyda and Artin. They are all in their 20s and 30s, and have been in Turkey anywhere from a few days to well over a year. Artin -- who calls herself trans and wears long, dark hair and a five o'clock shadow -- entertains us with her tale of the 'straight' Turkish boyfriend she met on the street here, not such an unusual occurrence despite Kayseri's overall chilliness toward LGBT people and refugees. Artin's sexcapade is hilarious. 'I've realized I'm a transsexual who's a top,' she concludes. Everybody laughs. For most of these refugees, primarily middle-class and from the big cities of Tehran and Shiraz, Turkey is their first time outside Iran -- and their first time publicly socializing with the opposite sex, something forbidden in Iran. Still, even at this private gathering of friends, the men and women sit apart. There is something still clandestine and uneasy about the party. Despite the 180-bpm music and the chatter in their native language of Farsi, there are long spells of silence. Displacement hangs like hookah smoke in the air. It could be because I'm there and any attention could bring danger to the families of these men and women. I can't even say Nima's real name without endangering him. They remain as nameless as they are homeless.

According to its website, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, based in Geneva, helps 'people restart their lives. Today, a staff of around 6,500 people in more than 116 countries continues to help 31.7 million persons.' Among the 31.7 million refugees are victims from Darfur and Iraq whose plights make the Iranian LGBT community's situation look tame by comparison. So here they sit, in limbo in Kayseri, for who knows how long.

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