The following is an excerpt from The Tulip Asylum, a fiction piece by Tehmina Kazi.
The bus from Tehran to Esfahan leaves the average traveller forty thousand rial lighter in pocket, and adds six hours to one’s exhaustion quotient. Not so for Peyvand, who has loved long train journeys since he was a boy. Thumbing through a copy of Topics in Iranian Linguistics, he gets through an entire box of saffron and raisin cookies. Disembarking from the bus at 7pm, he spots Dariush – Mehdi’s long-time friend and old university classmate – immediately. No one else in the station sports a buzzcut, a cheesy grin, skinny jeans and discreet symbol tattoo on the back of the neck.
“Long time no see, Peyvand! How’s it hanging?” Dariush escorts his buddy into a Pride Sedan that must have been white at some point.
“Not bad. Reading, studying, working. No time for anything else, really.”
“There’s always time! You never see Mehdi on his own, do you?”
“That’s part of the problem.”
They drive up to Mehdi’s place in silence.
Mehdi lives in a cool beige brick apartment, behind deceptively stern black gates. Spindly silver bark trees line the veranda. As soon as Peyvand and Dariush enter, they are ambushed by a row of jivers in fluorescent t-shirts. Peyvand loses count of the number of times he is hugged and dragged into the living room, where someone is preparing sugar-dipped glasses of punch (alcoholic, of course) and cantaloupe juice. Electronica turns into dub-step over the industrial sound system, punctuated by boom-mikes. Abbas and Kamran, everyone’s favourite couple, are draped over each other and looking sharp in tight blue jumpers, natty blazers and matching navy slacks. Pouya, the resident drag “artiste,” is living it large in a clingy black dress, shimmering silver make-up and purple fishnet tights. A rail-thin lesbian with bleached hair charges up to the kitchen and pours herself some vodka. Peyvand is slightly overwhelmed by the sheer number of people here; Mehdi’s last party was a more intimate affair. This is no good for security purposes, he ruminates. He is immediately accosted by Mehdi himself, a wiry, black-jacketed character of 5′ 8” with Hollywood teeth.
“Peyvand! So glad you could make it, darling! Why so serious? Have a vodka and orange!” He already happens to be holding one, and shoves it in Peyvand’s hand. Even though Peyvand has been drinking alcohol for some years now, he still feels a twinge of guilt every time it is offered to him. Unlike many of the other party-goers, he still considers himself to be a Muslim, albeit one who has a complicated relationship with his faith. He is well aware that many people don’t think it is possible to be sexually active, homosexual and true to one’s faith all at once. He respects this view, although he doesn’t think there is much evidence for it, particularly with the numerous interpretations he has read of the story of Lot, and the weak Hadiths on the negative treatment of gay people. The overall Qu’ranic message of compassion appeals to him. How is it possible to be anything but compassionate towards someone who had felt same-sex attraction since the age of seven, and had only committed sexual activity as a consenting adult with other consenting adults? Unlike many straight people he knows (married and unmarried), Peyvand has not messed other people around, made lavish promises of commitment only to back out of them, or cheated on anyone.
The mistake that many religious conservatives made was assuming that gayness subsumes all other parts of an individual’s identity (or, concomitantly, that Islam should subsume all other parts of an individual’s identity). Even if one were to adhere to the belief that active homosexuality was a ‘sin’, anyone judging this would have to peddle themselves to an island near Guam in order to surround themselves with life-forms who didn’t sin. Peyvand doesn’t need external approval to validate the fact that he is the sort of person who remembers birthdays, turns up to events on time (as opposed to Iranian time), and is unfailingly polite (even to Jack at the coffee shop, who displays an unhealthy interest in his private conversations). That said, one would never catch a fraudster or con artist making “penance” by talking about the number of birthday cakes they had baked, or surprise parties they had hosted for acquaintances. Funny how such people were not on the “back foot” about their behavior in the same way that homosexuals were often made to be.
He decides to make conversation with Ghazaleh, a reserved 22-year-old woman whose parents have arranged a marriage for her, completely oblivious to her relationship with beautician Sadaf. Grabbing another drink – a cantaloupe juice this time – he settles into a chair at the back of the large white room.
She is happy for the company, as her farcical engagement is looming.
“So, Karim’s parents are making a khaastegaari next month. I assume they will discuss my dowry and so on.”
“You seem very matter-of-fact about the whole thing. I would run away somewhere!” Peyvand has to shout to make his voice heard above the music, which was getting louder.
“I will keep on seeing Sadaf, of course. The wedding won’t take place for another year, and my parents think she is just a close friend.”
“But what happens then? You can’t live a double life! That’s not fair to anyone: you, Sadaf or Karim, much as I’m not his biggest fan.”
“We will cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Peyvand is not satisfied by this answer, but doesn’t have time to respond. He is pulled up to the dancefloor by Mehdi just as the song changes to a faster form of dub-step.
“No cheesy pop here,” he chuckles to himself. It is all too easy to get lost in the music, and dance one’s stresses away.
He grabs another vodka from the kitchen counter. The drink hurtles down his gullet like a string of sea pebbles. It is not an unpleasant sensation.
The entire living room area is now a sea of dancers, with very few people making effortless conversation at the sides. The fluorescent T-shirts are still leading the way, impervious to the demands that three hours of dancing have made on their energy reserves. Despite the secrecy of the situation and the lives of many of the individuals within it, the atmosphere is less contrived than that of most Western nightclubs. The dancers know in the back of their minds that if they were to collapse, a dozen hands will catch them. They know that if they have broken the unwritten rules and drunk too much, a soft white bed – or at least, a sleeping bag – is available for them upstairs. They know that if they miss a bus, they are welcome to walk back to Mehdi’s flat, rather than risk an encounter with any of the night operators and their quick-fire questions. They know that despite any internal squabbles, they come together like knitting needles when faced with the harshness of the authorities.
Peyvand isn’t sure whether it’s the alcohol, but the warm acknowledgement of this situation washes over him. It leaves him in a much better mood than the mild flickers of angst that circled him a few hours ago. The drag artiste, hurtling into the centre of the room, kicks his right leg upwards so violently that it looks like an airborne splitz. Peyvand embraces Pouya and his long brunette wig.
“Let’s hear some comedy. You’re good with that, are you?”
“No, I’m more of a dancer than a story-teller.” Pouya adjusts her padded bra within the mini-dress.
“Oh go on! I need some humour!”
“OK, a young Persian man excitedly tells his mother he’s fallen in love and that he is going to get married. He says, ‘Just for fun, Mom, I’m going to bring over three women and you try and guess which one I’m going to marry. The mother agrees.
The next day, he brings three beautiful women into the house and sits them down on the couch and they chat for a while.
He then says, ‘Okay, Mom, guess which one I’m going to marry.’
She immediately replies, “The one on the right.’
‘That’s amazing, Mom. You’re right. How did you know?’
The Persian mother replies, ‘I don’t like her.’
“Love it! I suppose that applies to gays as well!” Peyvand’s mood has lifted considerably.
He would always remember this point, particularly due to the contrast of what was to follow, and the poignant reminder that he should always trust his instincts.
“BANG! BANG! BANG!”
The door of Mehdi’s apartment was broken down with the kind of strength you’d expect from ten Canadian lumberjacks and a battering ram. The dancers came to an abrupt standstill, and the sea of fluorescent T-shirts was overwhelmed by black police uniforms, like a giant pot of Indian ink being spilt on a collage of color photographs.
People do what they can to prepare themselves for various crises – both mentally and emotionally – but in the moment, all defense strategies and rational thoughts evaporate. A panic-driven inertia descended upon all the party-goers, who didn’t have the wherewithal to hit back with any kind of clarity. Except Mehdi, that is, who took the pitcher of punch and flung the liquid – lemon slices and all – in the direction of the forces coming their way. Not that this made much of a difference. Two police officers grabbed him and pressed him against the wall, knocking a white-framed picture of Mehdi and his family off the mantelpiece.
There was something faintly comical about a police officer yelling “Don’t move!” while dripping with fruit punch, but this dissipated as soon as Peyvand felt his wrists being twisted into a spaghetti junction-type arrangement. The pain made his eyes water, but it was nothing compared to the indignity of a life spent looking over one’s shoulder, even most of the time in Tehran, liberal in comparison to Isfahan.
The drag artiste had his arms forcefully tied behind his back and his padded bra groped, although the police decided he was a “tease” and let him go. He scampered through the back door, which someone had forgotten to lock, escaping the loud screams inside.
The others – Dariush, Kamran and Abbas, Ghazaleh, the other dancers – were all arrested, blindfolded with head-bags, and bundled into four police vans. In the split second before the bag was pushed onto his head, Peyvand caught a glimpse of Abbas and saw that his blazer was covered in blood. His partner Kamran’s face had been mangled, with a cut lip and blood and snot streaming from his nose. Peyvand’s own hands were extremely sore and tender to the touch. No-one spoke a word – how could they? – but the smell of fear in the car tinged every single breath, every single drop of perspiration, and every single suppressed bowel function.
Half an hour or so later, the car came to a grinding halt. Peyvand could feel another pair of hands frogmarching him into a building. This continued, down a corridor that seemed to go on for hours.
“I’ve got him.”
Peyvand’s blindfold was finally removed, and the officer spat in his face as a parting shot. The last thing he heard was the jangle of keys, and the clink of a heavy jail door. With nothing but a chamber pot inside the cell, he curled himself up into a ball. And wept. Oh, how he wept.
He was suddenly interrupted by a voice from the next cell. “Will you shut up? I’m trying to sleep. Harum zadeh!”