JERUSALEM — Iranian nationals are not even allowed to visit their country’s greatest foe, Israel, but an Iranian poet, who fled from there two years ago after facing harassment and arrest for being gay, is now seeking asylum in the Jewish state.
Payam Feili, who has been living in Turkey since 2014, arrived in Israel in December to see his novella, "I Will Grow, I Will Bear Fruit … Figs," staged as a play in Hebrew in Tel Aviv, a city known for its openness toward gays.
Now Feili, who is not Jewish, says he wants to stay.
He told The Washington Post recently that after three months here, what he feels for the country is something “more than love.”
In an interview with the Associated Press in December, Feili, 30, said he became fascinated with Israel as a child after watching films about the Holocaust. He has a Star of David tattooed on his neck.
Israel and Iran once had close political and cultural ties but since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, hostilities between the two have grown. It is now illegal for citizens of each country to visit the other.
Although it is still unclear whether Israel will grant Feili asylum, his attorney, Hagai Kalai, said he is hopeful that because his client's case is so unusual, he will be allowed to stay.
Although, Kalai said, Israel is not known for taking in asylum-seekers. Gay Palestinians who prefer the openness of Tel Aviv to the stricter confines of traditional Muslim society in the West Bank often have to wait years before their cases are heard, he said.
Additionally, the Israeli government has faced mounting criticism for its treatment of thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean nationals who arrived in Israel illegally over the past decade and fear returning to their countries.
If Feili does stay, however, he will join about 140,000 Jews of Iranian descent living in Israel.
Feili, who writes openly about being gay in his poetry, cannot return to Iran. If he does, he might be putting his own life at risk. Homosexuality is illegal in the Islamic Republic and those found guilty of the “crime” face tough punishments, including death.
According to the PEN American Center, a writers' group advocating freedom of expression, Feili was forced into exile after mounting threats against himself and his family. In an article on the group’s website, the poet describes how he was arrested outside his home and held for 44 days without charge after agreeing to publish his work in Hebrew.
Feili also said that his openness about his homosexuality has left him unable to publish in Iran following the release of his first book, a collection of poetry titled "Sakooye Aftab" ("The Sun’s Platform").
Tel Aviv, where Feili is currently residing, is known for its flourishing LGBT community and holds the Middle East's largest gay pride parades each year along its beachfront.
Elsewhere in Israel, homosexuality is not so acceptable. During last year's gay pride parade in Jerusalem, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed several people in the crowd in protest, killing a teenage girl.