The clock has struck seven on a glittering Thursday evening in South Tehran. Peyvand is piling crunchy golden rice onto delicate turquoise plates, and placing these amidst tiny silver pots of smoked aubergine swirled with garlic yoghurt. His father Riaz is spinning large taftoon breads – light as paper and rich with saffron – before they find their home in the large clay oven next to the door. A bone china teapot, decorated with stock images of an ancient Persian king, sits on a warm placemat, providing no indication of the sugary emerald liquid inside. In the kitchen, Peyvand's mother Shirin is stirring a mixture of crushed ice with skinny vermicelli noodles, before flecking it with rosewater droplets and nibbed pistachios. His sister Farzaneh's son rams a foot-long Koohestan truck into the fireplace, prompting one of the wheels to ricochet off and startle the soft cat on the cream chaise longue. The eight-year-old boy – whose determined frown turns into a high-pitched wail – curls up in an un-vacuumed corner of the house, intending to sulk in peace.
"What did Gorbeh do to deserve that?" Farzaneh stubs out a cigarette, too tired to even express full condemnation.
"Leave him to it. I'm hungry!" Peyvand pours from a large jug of frothy yoghurt doogh while the rest of the family sits down to dinner.
Riaz, beaming with pride over the stack of fresh bread, waxes lyrical about his wife's paintings. Death, destruction, passion and anger all find their expression in a flurry of cleverly-arranged birds – not so much painted to the canvas, but thrown at it with smatterings of thick oil. "Guess what? Your mother has been selected to display her last five paintings at the Tehran Art Walk!"
Shirin went blush pink. "I got lucky. But yes, I want to see you all there!" She looks eagerly at her grandson. "There will be doughnuts, Babak! Laid out end to end. Jam ones, iced ones, toffee ones." Babak slowly moves out of his gloomy state and eases himself onto one of the light blue chairs.
"Last five paintings? Does that include 'Swallow Valley?' How the hell did they allow that?" Farzaneh grinned. Swallow Valley was a depiction of two star-crossed swallows, perched between what appeared to be two mounds of flesh and a backdrop black as midnight.
"Nothing too obvious, my dear. Let the smart ones read between the lines. Best way to shake things up, ironically."
Peyvand, retreating into his own mind after a warm mouthful of rice, disagreed with this. How could that be the case when other gay men in Iran had to send each other coded messages? Or pretend to be transsexual to avoid the inevitable punishments? Or, if convicted of homosexuality (often bundled with other offences in an opportunistic fudge), choose their style of death from the following menu: hanging, stoning, being halved by a sword, or dropped from the highest birch? He chillingly recalled the fate of Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari, an 18-year-old and a 16-year-old who had been caught having sex. They were given 228 lashes for their other convictions of theft, disrupting public order and public drinking before they were hanged in Edalat in 2005. Peyvand was convinced that these dreadful outcomes were all exacerbated by a lack of collective courage. Most political or ideological movements were about building a critical mass, after all. So why couldn't more Iranians have the guts to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with people like him, out in the open, rather than sending him private messages of support on Facebook? Googoosh, the Iranian pop queen, had just released a music video called "Behesht," depicting a lesbian couple who both faced discrimination from their families and strangers. If such a wonderful woman – glowing forty-year reputation and all – was willing to take the resultant flak, what is stopping the butcher, the baker and the candlestick-maker?
That said, it was all right for him, in the comparative privilege of the capital. Or at least, semi all right. While he was not "out" to his parents, his sister had awkwardly broached the subject five years ago after noticing some of his Internet search history: "Ali Mafi comedy, the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, "Frat Boys Go Wild II." It had all spilled out: his first clandestine relationship with the neighbour's son when they were both 18, the fact that the twin sisters from round the corner were happy for him to see them with uncovered hair because they sensed that he was gay, his experiences at underground parties with sensible amounts of bootleg vodka (while avoiding secret policemen). Not to mention the political blogs he had anonymously written for, packed with pastoral advice for other young LGBT Iranians. He was keen to stress that his gayness did not mean a radical departure from his sense of self. He was still the same Peyvand: born in 1987, fluent in English and Dutch as well as Farsi, coming to the end of a Masters degree in Linguistics while doing shifts at a well-heeled coffee shop, passionate about food and turfing up huge chunks of earth in his father's back garden to make way for his favourite black tulips. It had gone down reasonably well with Farzaneh – herself an escapee from a marriage where temporary co-wives were bussed in without so much as a "Hello" – although she was concerned about how he would find a stable relationship with all this covert activity.
Peyvand is distracted by a loud buzz from his phone: "Party. Tomorrow night at Mehdi's. 8pm. Bring a friend!" Excusing himself from the table, he curled his top lip. Mehdi Nafisi lived in Isfahan, which was a bit of a pain to get to. He threw a lot of parties, but always forgot to RSVP to other people's. His academic intelligence was sound – he had studied English Literature at the University of Tehran – but his emotional intelligence was lacking. Every time he entered a new relationship, he was "in love" after roughly two weeks. Two weeks after that, he usually ended up being dumped by the paramour in question. Once, he had been dumped by text message just hours after proclaiming total happiness with sound engineer Ali Sattar on his Facebook page (set to Friends Only, of course). Maybe, just maybe, it was because he heard nothing but rabbits and hearts when Mehdi spoke, despite what was actually said. (Or because Mehdi was sending him notes on silver-edged paper in a brown bag every day, slipping in squares of baklava for good measure).
The next few hours were whiled away over annotating Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate" with a cup of fresh mint tea to hand. Peyvand decided he would go to the party after all. He had worked hard this year and was aiming for top grades. It wouldn't do any harm, and he could catch up with a few old-timers.
In bed that night, he reflected on the forthcoming art walk in Tehran. Last year, one of the artists – a thirty-something photographer who specialised in candid shots of bathhouses – had been arrested and detained at her home in a suburb of Tehran. The last he'd heard, she had ended up in some dank prison without access to a lawyer, and the authorities had exhibited their typical mix of excessive control without even the faintest nod to transparency. He didn't want his mother to be sucked into the same gaping democratic vortex. For all her faults – constantly intrusive with her family and playing things a bit too safe with the outside world – she had given Peyvand and Farzaneh relative freedom to be themselves. A semi-closeted gay linguist and a divorced feminist chain-smoking mum-of-one did not exactly constitute a white picket fence vision of what Iranian parents hoped for their children. Peyvand did not think of himself as a particularly family-oriented person – he preferred solitude, reflection and the odd male companion – but there was a comfort in knowing they were there, like the pine trees in Laleh Park that he often sought solace near.
The Firouzeh Coffee House was a handsome stuccoed building with walnut slats on either side of the door. Inside, rich red cushions provided the backdrop to lacy black iron seats. Ancient golden heaters propped up an array of stunning tea and coffee pots. Anyone who walks in is greeted by a table of smiling students: a tall heavy-set woman in a mustard-yellow hijab is talking about fractional differentiation, interspersed with details of a rock concert she will attend that evening. Brazilian, Turkish, Italian coffee – but not Irish or Jamaican – are served with aplomb, dusted with French cocoa through exquisite stencils, and tailored to Iranian tastes. Clear bronze streams of tea are poured from a great height into china cups, decorated with the kind of deep blue hue that is rarely seen on teacups outside of Iran.
Peyvand has been here since 8am, scrubbing the marbled counters and preparing breakfasts of lavash bread with feta cheese and quince jam for the in-and-outers. He loves the morning shift on Fridays, because it means he always gets to see Mrs Hashmi, a 66-year-old widow who lives in north Tehran.
"One tea with rose petals, please. And no cinnamon."
Peyvand clamped the tea diffuser onto a small daisy-print pot. The widow sighed and plumped herself onto one of the stools at the bar. After regaling him with complaints about her bad back and what a poor job her daughter-in-law was doing of disciplining Mrs Hashmi's grandchildren (weren't things difficult for young parents these days?) she started to talk about military service.
"Akbar, my youngest, just finished the draft. It was no different to boot camp, he said. They are all up at 3.30, with a 9.30 bedtime! Twenty minutes to shower and dress, and you make your own bed! Lots of gun training, fitness classes, prayers. It is not as bad as you'd think," she gestured towards Peyvand.
This was a tricky topic for Peyvand, and he sucked in his breath. He had avoided military service because he had been in education all these years, but after completing his Master's degree, he would have no choice but to embark on it. Gay men were exempt from the Iranian military, but you had to be either a "bottom" or "versatile" and willing to subject yourself to the ignominy of physical and mental examinations. A psychiatrist would take it upon themselves to declare you insane. If that wasn't enough, a rectal exam would follow. After all this, many employers would only touch you with the kind of stick that people use to verify the death of harbour rats.
He knew people who had gone through it. There was Bijan with the waxed eyebrows (which did not infer queerness in and of themselves, even with the Iranian authorities), and Habib, who passed the test despite a lack of parental intervention. Parents were sometimes drafted in to confirm the sexual orientation of their 'wayward' offspring, but Habib would rather face any punishment from God than come out to any member of his family. This was particularly the case for his father, whom Peyvand had once met on a cold sports day at school; Sigmund Freud would have had a field day with him.
Peyvand returned to face Mrs Hashmi, his smile not quite reaching his eyes. She had continued to talk while he was lost in thought, pushed into monologue without even realising it. This was something that seemed to happen to him regularly.
"I will start soon after my Masters is over. Anything that builds that level of discipline has to be a good thing!" he opined, convincing nobody (not even Jack, the regular eavesdropper from America who stayed until closing time every day, ostensibly to write a book).
Mrs. Hashmi lifted her plump frame from the stool and tucked salt-and-pepper hairs into a dark grey hijab.
"I have to go now or I will miss my bus. You are a credit to your parents, azizam. Take care."
The bus from Tehran to Isfahan leaves the average traveller 40,000 Rial lighter in pocket, and adds six hours to one's exhaustion quotient. Not so for Peyvand, however, who has loved long train journeys since he was a boy. Thumbing through a copy of "Topics in Iranian Linguistics," he absent-mindedly 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 buzz cut, 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 a tight blue jumper, natty blazer 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 had been drinking alcohol for some years now, he still felt a twinge of guilt every time it was offered to him. Unlike many of the other party-goers, he still considered himself to be a Muslim, albeit one who had a complicated relationship with his faith. He was well aware that many people didn't think it was possible to be sexually active, homosexual and true to one's faith all at once. He respected this view, although he didn't think there was much evidence for it, particularly with the diverse interpretations he had read of the story of Lot, and the weak Hadiths on the negative treatment of gay people. The overall Qur'anic message of compassion appealed to him. How was 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 knew (married and unmarried), Peyvand had 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 subsumed 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 didn't need external approval to validate the fact that he was the sort of person who remembered birthdays, turned up to events on time (as opposed to Iranian time), and was unfailingly polite (even to Jack at the coffee shop, who displayed an unhealthy interest in his private conversations). That said, one would never catch a convicted 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 behaviour 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 had arranged a marriage for her, completely oblivious to her relationship with beautician Sadaf. Grabbing another drink – a cantaloupe juice this time – he settled 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 had 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 chuckled to himself. It was all too easy to get lost in the music, and dance one's stresses away.
He grabbed another glass of vodka from the kitchen counter. The strong drink hurtled down his gullet like a string of sea pebbles. It was 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 "splits." 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 adjusted his 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 as the most ephemeral sort of bliss he had ever experienced at a gay party. 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 colour photographs.
People do what they can to prepare themselves for various crises – both mentally and emotionally – but somehow when in the moment, all defence strategies and rational thoughts evaporate. A kind of 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, sodden with drink in the external sense, grabbed him and pressed him against the wall, knocking a crystal-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, which was 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 scarpered through the back door, which someone had (thankfully) forgotten to lock, escaping the loud screams inside.
The others – Dariush, Kamran and Abbas, Ghazaleh, the other 25 or so 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 mucus 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!"
Farzaneh dials her brother's mobile number for the umpteenth time. After the 30th ring, the loudspeaker gives the same message it has delivered the previous twenty or so times: "You have reached the Voicemail of Peyvand Shahidi. I'm a little busy right now, but drop me a text and I'll get right back to you!"
It is 2am, and she is sitting at the breakfast table with her ashen-faced parents. An ashtray is sitting in front of her, filled to the brim. Babak had woken up an hour or so ago, clearly worried about his uncle, and had to be cajoled back to bed. It wasn't like Peyvand to go off the radar for so many hours at a time, even though he had expressed frustration at his mother trying to get in touch too frequently in the past. He had told his parents he would be attending a party in Isfahan, but didn't specify exactly where or with whom, or the nature of the party.
Riaz tries to put a brave face on things for the sake of the others: "Maybe he decided to spend the night at the host's house. Let's try the coffee shop in the morning to see if he's been in touch there. If he isn't back by tomorrow afternoon, we are calling the police."
This offers little solace to Shirin, who has always had a ridiculously close bond with her son, more so than with her daughter. Peyvand was a breech baby, meaning she had to have a C-section delivery, which took around two months to recover from. He had been a picky eater as a toddler, with allergies to nuts and tomatoes. She had stood up for him as a ten-year-old when he was flecked with paint by school bullies in his art class. Other parents would have written a letter, but she had marched up to the Headteacher's office, somehow passing through school security, and lecturing him on the behaviour problems of the pupils.
Meanwhile, Farzaneh had only received this level of attention when her marriage had broken down, compelling her parents to give her some support in raising her own son. Despite her relatively liberal and feminist upbringing, she had still had the wool pulled over her eyes in her choice of spouse. Before marriage, engineering graduate Ali had claimed she could call the shots: no housework in her Nikkah (marriage) contract, and the right to earn an independent income and keep the fruits of her labours. He was charming and pleasantly rugged, if slightly shorter than her. What was there not to like? As a 21-year-old, she had happily signed the Nikkah papers, and 100 friends and relatives were invited to the wedding. When she looked back on home videos of the ceremony, she could see him stepping on the foot of one of her best friends, with his stacked heel. Instead of apologising, he appeared outraged at the suggestion that he had even made a mistake. Why hadn't she seen this as a red flag at the time? Or was she just grateful for the attention, as someone who didn't believe in her own capacity to attract a high-calibre man?
After 18 months of marriage, Babak was born. As Ali's behaviour towards his wife became more and more controlling, his indifference towards his own poor conduct spiralled. She was only allowed to go out to work two days a week as a clerk at the Central Bank of Iran. All other social contact – including chats with Alisha, the best friend whose foot he had stepped on – had to go. Yet women came tumbling into his life like a troupe of Olympic gymnasts – and not for social reasons. Instead of saying No, he felt compelled to mutah them (take them as temporary wives). This practice was not uncommon among Shia Muslims, although very few women pro-actively chose it. It was 'good practice' to ask the permission of the permanent wife before a new temporary wife was to supplement – or supplant – her place in the marital bed. It was even better practice to stipulate such a right into the original Nikkah contract. However, Ali had done neither. To Farzaneh, who viewed sex as a conduit towards a strong family life, this was reprehensible. She longed for some invisible day when the power dynamics would shift, and she would no longer have to endure these knocks to her self-esteem. Her nails had worn down to the stubs, yellowed by tobacco. She was finding it increasingly hard to juggle all of Babak's tasks as a part-time bank employee who received little support from her husband: making sure his bottom was clean to Islamic standards (long jugs of water rather than baby wipes), giving him good nutritious food, trying to shield him from the tension between his parents.
On one occasion, a giggling student of 19 with glossy cappuccino bangs was seen leaving her threshold. Farzaneh decided she'd had enough. The girl was pushed into the road, satchel and all, with a pissed-off pout on her face.
After four years of marriage, Farzaneh confronted her husband and asked for a divorce. She had been encouraged to do this by her mother, who was finally paying her some real attention. A lot of social scientists say that if one's parents have a rock-solid marriage, this bodes well for the marriages of their offspring. Farzaneh had found the opposite to be true: her father was such a gentleman, so invested in his wife's personal and professional development, that few contemporary men were able to match those lofty standards. Even so, if she had found a man half as good, he would have been a keeper – but Ali did not fall into this category.
He reacted to her request not with anger, but indifference. A curious stalemate followed, which took the best part of two years to resolve. It involved paying her mehrieh, the equivalent of $10,000 (a single 'marriage insurance' payment that they had agreed upon before marriage, in the event of a divorce). They agreed that she would have permanent custody of Babak, unlike most Iranian families where fathers get custody of sons as soon as they turn seven. There is no such thing as an amicable divorce, but this one was less bitter than most. It had become quite clear to Ali that while he entered into new experiences earnestly and fully 'in the moment,' he was not suited to the minutiae of everyday married life. Or fatherhood, for that matter. He was fond of Babak and could happily while away hours on a "Painting by Numbers" kit with him, but needed an existence where he could get lost in his own thoughts and shamelessly put himself first.
And so, Babak came to live with his maternal grandparents in their four-bedroom house in South Tehran. Like his uncle, he was a sensitive and perceptive child, a target for the low-level "Let's steal his pencil case" bullies. The bullying escalated when the kids at school found out that his parents were divorced, turning into scribbled spiteful messages under the lid of his desk. Farzaneh had built strong relationships with his teachers in response. Babak's class teacher had been amazingly sympathetic, but no improvements were recorded. Until a cold day in November, when his Citizenship teacher spoke to the class about her own experiences as a divorcee. She stated that aside from the initial monetary boost that everyone goes on about, exiting a situation where she was emotionally abused and belittled had left her with considerable peace of mind. She brought into sharp relief for these seven-year-olds that such decisions are usually made after years of painful deliberation, and that they shouldn't look to celebrities – Iranian or otherwise – as some sort of marital benchmark.
The changes to the students' behaviour were not radical – Babak was still picked last in school sports teams, for example – but the other bullying eased off for a while. Farzaneh was pleased to see her only child enthuse about Persian history again. She felt like less of a single parent than she did when she was married, with her mother looking after Babak while she worked two days a week. Uncle Peyvand was happy to help with child-minding duties as well, when he wasn't busy reading Linguistics textbooks, socialising or doing shifts at the coffee shop. The two of them would play Scrabble for hours, with Babak sometimes getting a triple word score, prompting his uncle to give him a box of cinnamon buns from the coffee shop as a reward. At the same time, Peyvand instinctively knew not to indulge his nephew's occasional tantrums, a skill which his mother was still learning.
She was also the only member of the family to have confirmation about the other side of Peyvand's life, which placed her in a difficult yet uniquely effective position. It was now 4am, the others had all gone to bed and she wasn't even in the mood to pretend to be asleep. Farzaneh sat at the family desktop and logged onto her Facebook account. After entering the usual litany of passwords, she noticed this on her newsfeed from one of the offbeat news blogs she subscribed to:
"A gay party has been raided in Isfahan, with 28 party-goers arrested and detained in Isfahan Jail."
Someone called Pouya Kavezian had written a comment underneath the news item:
"I was there. They groped me and tied my hands behind my back, but I was lucky enough to be able to escape. God help the others; I hope they are released soon."
Reeling with shock, Farzaneh started working on adrenalin. Battering the keyboard, she typed a message to Pouya:
"I am the sister of Peyvand Shahidi, who told me he was going to a party in Isfahan tonight. Did you see him there? What happened to him afterwards?"
She attached a recent photograph of her brother to the Inbox message, and tagged Pouya in her response on the public page, so that he would see the message even if it went into his 'Other' folder.
She puffed on two cigarettes in what seemed like the most painful ten minutes of her life. It was even worse than the wait to be granted a divorce.
Pouya finally responded:
"I know your brother. I danced with him at the party tonight, and have seen him before at other parties. All I know is that he was bundled away by the police. I am assuming they have held him in the Jail in Isfahan."
The computer chair was knocked down, and all the desk papers went flying with it.
A new day dawns, although to sleep-deprived Farzaneh it is just an extension of the previous day. She is sitting in a waiting room at Isfahan Jail, surrounded by breeze blocks and a solitary poker-faced guard. No other friends or family members seem to be in existence. She had hastily scribbled a note for her parents to say that she had located Peyvand and was going to meet him, asking Shirin to take Babak to school. It was time for the whole family to be told the truth.
Three hours pass and Farzaneh is still in the dark. She walks up to the Reception Desk, asking again and again when she will be allowed to see her brother. The receptionist, a bald, pallid-faced man in his fifties, sighs.
"Sorry Madam, you will have to wait another hour."
Farzaneh looks blankly at the Receptionist, but doesn't want to say or do anything that will make her brother's situation worse, so returns to her chair. Her mind whirrs with complex plots and plans. She recalled the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees organisation from Peyvand's Internet search history. Surely they had a network of people around the world, who could put pressure on the authorities to release Peyvand and his acquaintances from the party?
She is lost in her thoughts for the rest of the hour, until a prison warder finally escorts her to see her brother. She is accompanied into a bleached grey room with what appears to be artificial chip-shop lighting, and lets out an inaudible gasp.
The harsh lighting highlights her brother's hollow appearance from behind his glass pane: the prominent bags under his eyes where there was, until recently, fresh skin; a suspicious-looking gash on his forehead; blackcurrant-coloured bruising to his left cheek. His thick raven hair was covered in dust, and he smelt of rags and faintly of urine.
"What do they want?"
"They are expecting you to stump up bail money. That's why they allowed you to see me in the first place. I will most likely be charged with consumption of alcohol and h-h-h-omosexual conduct." He could barely get the words out, which was no good for a linguist.
"You know what the consequence of this will be at home, don't you?"
Peyvand suddenly developed an unnatural fascination with the table in front of him. After a long pause, he nodded.
The prison warder sniffed; the kind of long, loud sniff that reminds everyone around the sniffer of their continued presence.
Farzaneh was acutely aware that her time with Peyvand was coming to a close. She gently placed her left hand on his, eager not to worsen his injuries, and whispered "Khoda hafez."
Stepping out of the prison into the mild March weather, she choked back tears and hurriedly dialled the taxi firm. "Nazi Abad, South Tehran, please."
As soon as she got back into the house, her parents and Babak were waiting at the door, desperate to know everything. Her father, a Humanities lecturer at the Shahid Rajaee Teacher Training University, had left work early.
She insisted that Babak go and play on the computer in the other room. For once, he was less than enthusiastic, but trudged out, leaving a trail of dirty school footprints in his wake.
Farzaneh took a deep breath, calling on every last reserve of her mental and emotional energy. The entire back story came out. Just as she expected, her mother burst into tears. Her father said nothing and walked into the hallway.
Attempts to console her mother proved fruitless. Shirin ran upstairs and into the master bedroom.
Staring expectantly at her father, Farzaneh lit a cigarette.
A cloud of shock, confusion and tumultuousness hung over the Shahidi family home for the next 24 hours. Farzaneh didn't really believe in Jinn (spirits), but she was anxious to see these soul-sapping energies replaced with real action.
The computer desk represented the flurry of activity Farzaneh had instigated since the morning. Chunky mugs of strong Iranian coffee were whammed onto freshly-printed Amnesty International brochures. Her little boy had hurriedly prepared sour cherry jam on toast, and balanced it atop the hard drive. She had contacted every single gay rights organisation in Iran that had some sort of online presence, as well as several international campaigning organisations. Someone from the International Lesbian and Gay Association in Brussels was going to call her back this afternoon. An Excel spreadsheet of key contacts was being updated every 15 minutes, with a Word document outlining the facts of similar cases. There were promises of a joint press release between a number of different organisations, and she was making lots of mini duas in her head, despite not being a particularly religious person.
Her mobile phone rang, somewhere from underneath all the paperwork. It was Ehsan, an LGBT blogger and community organizer based in Shiraz.
"We are happy to run with this story, Farzaneh. I have alerted our progressive Muslim associates in Canada, the USA and the UK. One of them is starting a petition on change.org."
This was like tubular bells to Farzaneh's ears. International pressure was the best way to get her brother and his acquaintances out of jail, short of everyone's relatives having to cough up thousands in bail money. It went without saying that she was still prepared to do this if necessary, but it would send out the wrong message to the authorities: that people were willing to bend over like wilted flowers at their beck and call. International pressure, on the other hand, could prevent similar situations from happening in the future.
"Thank you, Ehsan! You are a lifesaver."
She then had a brainwave. Her cousin Mohsen lived in London. He was an upmarket tea merchant, pretty liberal in his outlook on life. She rang him straightaway and explained the grisly details of the situation. At first, he was more interested in her parents' reaction and kept questioning why Peyvand had taken such a huge risk, but eventually agreed to help out in any way possible.
Eighteen down; the most difficult ones to go.
Farzaneh had not seen her mother since breaking yesterday's news, and only got to say a stilted "Khoda Hafez" to her father as he left for work that morning. Exhausted, she had a brief period of shut-eye in the tatty beige armchair next door, keeping an ear out for phone calls. She was stirred by the cat, Ghorbeh, hitting its tiny nose against her dangling hand, anxious for a stroke. She stared into those glassy blue eyes, and the creamy fur which lent itself well to leggings, tights and upholstery.
This was her only real experience of activism, but she instinctively knew to make the most of moments like these. Ghorbeh got more than the single stroke she was after, and spent a long time cuddling in Farzaneh's lap.
Eventually, the International Lesbian and Gay Association called back, and said they would broadcast the cases as action alerts on their Facebook page and Twitter feed.
"This is not just for my brother, but for all the others, both past and present." Farzaneh rooted for them all.
She had forgotten to have lunch, so prepared an early dinner of a simple herb frittata, serving it with shop-bought flatbread. Her mother and Babak would be hungry too. While he was busy putting a Lego kit together, her mother's door was slightly ajar. She was sitting in front of the ancient bedroom mirror, wearing a broderie-anglais nightgown and brushing the knots out of her dark hair. Her lips – youthful-looking as ever – were pursed into a sullen pout. Ponds cold cream was plastered all over the bedroom table, nestled in hundreds of crumpled-up tissues. A half-zipped make-up bag, spilling over with Nineties blusher and dried-up mascara, had been flung onto the carpet. Snarky black tendrils of eyeliner had been drawn onto the mirror. Cloaks, pantaloons and headscarves had been deliberately ripped out of the cupboard and competed with each other for floor space. A larger proportion of the duvet covered the floor than the bed, and clumsily fell between old velveteen gift boxes that used to hold toiletries. Only one object remained on the wall, and that was an old painting that Peyvand had done in his teens, of a large field of tulips.
Farzaneh gingerly walked over and sat on the mattress next to her mother, tiptoeing in her slippers.
"I've made an omelette for all of us. I thought you would be hungry."
Farzaneh shrugged her shoulders and got up to stand in the doorway.
Shirin swivelled round from the mirror and cleared her throat. Farzaneh spotted red weals under her eyes.
"Why didn't either of you think to tell me sooner? Or your father, for that matter?"
"It was Peyvand's decision. I respected it then and I respect it now."
The decibels in Shirin's voice increased by the second. "And NOW, who is picking up the pieces? You tell me!"
Farzaneh hit back. "Actually, it's me. I have been on the phone and the Internet all day, trying to. . . "
The door was slammed in her face.
So many people like to make out they are enlightened, liberal-minded beings. But when it comes to births, marriages, deaths and the sexual orientation of their children, only a handful truly are. Farzaneh didn't think her mother's angst was due to finding out that Peyvand was gay (surely she'd had an inkling all along?), but more a lack of control over the situation he now found himself in. Chowing down the stone-cold frittata with her son and putting him to bed, Farzaneh sought to tackle her father next.
Riaz got back from work later than usual, to a jug of ice-cold water and a wedge of reheated omelette. He had his "Trying to make it all better by not doing or saying anything controversial" demeanour on. This could be really sweet sometimes, but in circumstances like these, it was very trying. She realised she wasn't going to get anywhere tonight, and didn't protest when he made his excuses and went to bed.
She logged back into Facebook and realised that Ehsan's American contact had already e-mailed them the text for the petition. Result! It was aimed at Iranian embassies around the world, and the Iranian Government. Clicking on "Reply all," she approved it, made sure the cat was fast asleep and away from the kitchen counters, and headed to bed herself.
Peyvand had taken to swallowing his spittle, and timing it exactly right. He had honed this skill from the many Ramadan fasts he had observed over the years. His lips had become sore and cracked, due to only receiving one glass of water per day. Still, it meant that he had to use the chamber pot less often. As someone for whom lota usage was non-negotiable, having to use the pot was the worst aspect of his incarceration so far. Even worse than the interrogations, which had started off in a surprisingly respectful manner. A couple of dour men had grilled him on his political blogs, with the same no-nonsense manner one would expect from a panel of academic interviewers.
"I wanted to help others who had no-one to turn to. I assure you that my interest in writing those blogs was pastoral, nothing else. I saw myself in a teacher-type role."
He surprised himself with how eloquent he still was, after being beaten and starved.
The older interviewer looked incredulous.
"Teacher-type role? But those boys already have teachers. Teachers who teach them the importance of good morals, virtue and respect. Are you really laying claim to that?"
"I don't see the problem with expanding their sources of advice. Teachers are a big part of that; I am not taking from them in any way. I am just trying to help young people who have specific emotional concerns, and big questions about who they are."
"Have you seen a psychologist yourself?"
"And do your family know that you are a gay?"
"My sister does."
"Yet you still think you are in an ideal position to help others? Like a gay Mother Teresa?"
He let out a derisory snort, while his colleague smirked.
"I think we should do something about that. Your parents have a right to know that they won't be having any grandchildren."
"They already have one grandchild, Sir."
"ENOUGH OF THIS INSOLENCE! Or do you want to be beaten again?"
Peyvand was returned to his cell, and didn't receive any food that night.
At the entrance to Saadi's tomb, Shiraz, sits a man with a bird on his finger. For about 50 cents, the bird can pluck a poem from a pile written by Iran's most famous poet, Hafez, to grant people their fortune. If Peyvand had ever indulged in such touristy activities (which was unlikely), Farzaneh predicted he would get the first stanza of Ode 487:
"With last night's wine still singing in my head,
I sought the tavern at the break of day,
Though half the world was still asleep in bed;
The harp and flute were up and in full swing,
And a most pleasant morning sound made they;
Already was the wine-cup on the wing.
'Reason,' said I, ''t is past the time to start,
If you would reach your daily destination,
The holy city of intoxication.'
So did I pack him off, and he depart
With a stout flask for fellow-traveller." – Hafez
It was becoming horribly clear to Farzaneh that her brother's destiny involved having to flee Iran. Despite her successes with the petition and the growing international interest, Peyvand and his friends had now been incarcerated in the jail for three days. At this stage, she must have read the goings-on of just about every gay Iranian party that was ever reported. Bashes had taken place in villas in Shiraz, mansions in Tehran and smaller houses on the border with Kurdistan. The expected outcome: revellers usually got away with hosting such parties by offering bribes to the would-be arresters. Unexpected outcome One: a particular attendee's parents thought that "gay" was a form of heavy metal. Unexpected outcome Two: if the feast stayed dry, it was less likely to attract attention as a "gay" party, bringing to mind former President Ahmadinejad's oft-reported quote: "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals."
Multi-coloured foil chocolate wrappers flew into the Shahidi living room dustbin, one by one. Her mind started going down the track of what Mehdi and the others should have done, but she stopped herself straightaway. This thought was replaced with a flashback of her mother hunched over in bed at three o'clock in the afternoon, just before Farzaneh had gone to pick Babak up from school. Ever since the news of Peyvand's arrest had broken, Shirin had refused to even countenance the yellow ochre, vermillion and Prussian Blue that had made her one of the starlets of Tehran's art world. To add to the pressure, Babak had continued to ask what was going on, and was told by his mother that Uncle had been "put away for a while" but "it was all a huge mistake and he will be back soon." Babak could see through this, of course, but then "Harrumphed" this game of conversational squash and decided his chess book was more interesting.
Farzaneh was poring over asylum case law on the Internet, to add to her database. She had no formal legal training, but titbits like this one held her attention:
"To illustrate the point with trivial stereotypical examples from British society: just as male heterosexuals are free to enjoy themselves playing rugby, drinking beer and talking about girls with their mates, so male homosexuals are to be free to enjoy themselves going to Kylie concerts, drinking exotically coloured cocktails and talking about boys with their straight female mates. Mutatis mutandis – and in many cases the adaptations would obviously be great – the same must apply to other societies. In other words, gay man are to be as free as their straight equivalents in the society concerned to live their lives in the way that is natural to them as gay men, without the fear of persecution." - Lord Rodger
One would think that all of these different judgements would form a mass of legalistic gloop in her head, with hyperlink leading to hyperlink, but they were surprisingly sharp. She maintained this state of "flow," only interrupted by her father's key in the front door. It saddened her that he would rather spend these urgent few days teaching teachers how to teach, than pro-actively addressing what had happened to his only son. She geared herself up for a confrontation, hoping that it would not be necessary.
"Farzaneh. . . " he began.
Riaz's expression suggested an anagnorisis, a quick flash that the situation was at once both much worse and much better than he had allowed himself to take in. Much worse in the sense that his amazing, talented boy – who had purposely planned and worked for all the good things in his life – was now being subjected to someone else's (cruel) whims, for behaviour that represented a trifling snapshot of his life, and shouldn't even be a crime in the first place. The only conceivable way in which things were better? The fact that he had a daughter who was emotionally resilient enough to advocate for her brother, and for all those mired in similar injustices, while tackling the legacy of her own personal hardships.
"Let's go and get your brother out of that hellhole."
Farzaneh rose out of the chair like the Steamboat geyser in Yellowstone Park. "Why did you only speak up now? Maamaan has been a wreck for days! A fucking wreck! You could have supported me!"
For once, she didn't feel the sense of shame that swearing in front of one's parents would normally invoke.
Instead of the rebuke and the contrarian posture she was part-hoping for (the only way she could get an authentic exchange with her father sometimes, even as a 30-year-old), he sat down and rubbed his eyes.
"Sit back down. You need to know this. My brother Hasan was arrested in 1986, three years after you were born. He was sentenced to hanging, but killed himself while on Death Row.
The charge was sodomy."
Tehmina Kazi is the Director of the registered charity British Muslims for Secular Democracy, and was listed as one of the BBC's 100 Women in October 2013 and 2014.