News (World)

This gay Iranian poet fled persecution — only to find himself in Israel

“There are differences, big differences in terms of worldview, values, language and our background, but we connected because of his desire to taste freedom,” Dagan said. He said Feili’s Israeli friends have already come up with a nickname for him: Queen of Israel, a character from his latest book.

Feili said he was surprised by how boisterous Israelis can be and how much they honk their car horns, which reminded him of his Iranians.

Sporting dark shades, a white scarf and a large indigo ring, he appeared to feel at home in Tel Aviv as he confidently walked through the city center, greeting passers-by.

Israel’s economic and cultural hub, Tel Aviv is a popular gay-friendly destination. Israel accepts gays serving openly in its military, but homosexuality is shunned among the country’s conservative ultra-Orthodox community. This year, an extremist ultra-Orthodox Jew stabbed a 15-year-old girl to death at a Jerusalem Pride parade.

Homosexuality is a taboo topic in Iran, where gays and lesbians can face lashings or death sentences if convicted. Human rights groups estimate that over 4,000 gays have been executed since the Islamic Revolution. Famously, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a crowd at New York’s Columbia University in 2007 that “in Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country.”

Feili was reluctant to talk about the threats against him back home, but said they began after the publication in Iran of a heavily censored version of his first book, a collection of poetry titled “The Sun’s Platform,” in 2005. Feili was blacklisted and has been banned from publishing in Iran since.

According to the PEN American Center, a writers’ group advocating for freedom of expression, Feili’s email account was hacked and he was locked out of his online blog.

He was arrested three times over four years, most recently in February 2014 after he agreed to have his work published in Hebrew in Israel, according to PEN. The group said he was held blindfolded in a shipping container at an unknown location for 44 days, without being charged.

Feili declined to discuss the details of the arrests but said his family, in the Iranian city of Karaj, is still being harassed.

Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN, called Feili a “very courageous individual being hounded by his government because of his identity.” She said Iran’s treatment toward the poet was “a core crime against expression.”

But Feili refuses to be cowed.

“I am not going to stop living my life or changing something about my life because the regime threatens me or my family,” he said. “Even when I lived in Iran under an execution order, I continued living my life as I wanted to and nothing will affect that.”

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