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Spring 2020

Madam Zona: A Memoir

An excerpt from Payam Feili's memoir about life as an Iranian asylum seeker in Israel.
P

ersian writer Payam Feili was born in Kermanshah, Iran, in 1985 and was raised in Tehran. His first book of poetry appeared when he was 19, and he has since published numerous collections of poetry, short stories, and novels. An out, gay activist, Feili was imprisoned by Iranian authorities and fled the country for Turkey in 2014. After his book I Will Grow, I Will Bear Fruit … Figs, a fantastic novel incorporating Jewish and Israeli themes, was translated into Hebrew, Culture Minister Miri Regev invited Feili to visit Israel. After arriving in 2016, Feili applied for asylum as a refugee; the government has so far refused to grant him permanent residence. He currently lives in Haifa.

Madame Zona is Feili’s memoir of his coming to Israel and the first months he spent living in Tel Aviv. Even readers who might be familiar with Feili’s story, which has been widely covered in the press, will be surprised and captivated by his account, the first two chapters of which are published here for the first time.

This is an aliyah story like no other. Feili, whose arrival made him briefly famous, watches Israelis watching him: how they project their fantasies onto his narrow frame, from government ministers to lovers to passersby on Rothschild Boulevard. With his keen, sensitive eye, Feili sees right through the everyday experience of life in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv to the true, broken heart of Israeliness. Madame Zona is a record not only of Feili’s own experience, but also a reckoning with who we are and the way we live now.

Staunch and Strong, But Absentminded

Life in Israel is not easy. Not inside the walls of Jerusalem and not in Tel Aviv among people’s feigned happiness that reeks of misery and old wood. The dregs of that same happiness people put on display in the wake of a disaster.

It had been a year since I arrived in Israel, and I was alone almost all day, or all night. Everyone had somehow run away from me, or I had somehow run away from everyone. I think my lifestyle frightened people. In any case, it’s normal. I, too, am sometimes afraid of people.

I had rented a small studio on Nachalat Binyamin Street and spent all my time there. I no longer lived with Khaya. It had been two months since she had again taken to her bed. She ate nothing and said nothing. She was like that sometimes. Many times. She would suddenly stop communicating with everyone and everything around her. Once when she wanted to explain her life to me briefly and accurately, she said, “I’m not in the game.”

And that’s how it was. Khaya wasn’t in the game. It had been twenty years since she had given up on it. She was like that sometimes. For weeks, she would stop talking and grow so quiet that I could hardly believe all those other times when her endless chatter would blow my brain. But even then, she sometimes spoke a few words to me. Very few. She would ask a simple question. For instance, what I had eaten, or where I had been. During those episodes, she wouldn’t even return her mother’s phone calls. Mina would ask me about her.

“Has she eaten anything?”

“Does she say anything?”

It had been about two months since Khaya had again relapsed into that state. Once every few days I would head for her home. It was only five minutes away. I would cook something simple for her to eat, which she wouldn’t eat. I would try to help her take a shower, which she would refuse to do. She said she couldn’t get out of bed. And she couldn’t. Sometimes she would stay there for weeks. Like a corpse. All that was missing was someone to record the time of death. I would try to make her talk a little, which she did, and sometimes she didn’t.

Back then, the route from my studio to number 3 Lilienblum Street to go see Khaya on the brink of death was my entire world, or all I saw of the world. The people, the streets…It was only a few minutes’ walk. Sometimes when I went there late at night, I saw no one along the way. I would be all alone. Some nights Amnon would come to see me, and once in a while in the afternoon I would go to Rothschild to smoke hashish and watch the children. Their games and laughter…

Children give shape to happiness. They give you a strange energy, the kind that helps you tolerate the passage of time. They are innocent and impartial. Carefree, they uninhibitedly run down the boulevard and often laugh out loud in a way that reveals how little they know about life. With their puffed-up tufts of hair under the sun and their slim, pale pink fingertips.

I’m sometimes afraid of them. I’m often afraid of them. They are the possibility of life. With those small, often chubby hands, they can rob you of your only possibility of death, or hide it somewhere out of reach.

Mothers who commit suicide are strange people. Strange and of course deeply despondent. Staunch and strong, but absentminded. Strangers who at home with their children think of their aimlessness and pay ransom to their deadly loneliness.

I couldn’t be the mother who one day leaves home for a hotel and never returns. My guess is that even if I were to walk out of a thousand desolate homes a thousand times, in the end I will again empty the bottle of valium in a bin, go back, and think of something for dinner.

Of course, I’m not certain of this, but it’s not worth the risk.

Children turn the equation around. I don’t want that. I don’t want those small, chubby hands that often come to you at daybreak to rob me of my death, or hide it somewhere out of my reach. I must always be sure that I can die. With no attachments, especially to children…With them, things become complicated.

My guess is that I must always protect my death and not allow anyone to hold it beyond my reach. This, I will not compromise. No, I will not be deceived by Tel Aviv and children. Ultimately, I’m afraid of both. Of course, the things I’m afraid of are not few. For instance, the shriek of ambulances that suddenly hurl you from Tel Aviv’s content womb to Iran and its chaos in 1987. To the dark years of war and the long lines for medicine and food. To the sound of sirens and the caving in of everything everywhere and the stampede toward bomb shelters…

Before crash-landing in Israel, I knew Tel Aviv as a cheerful city, or better said, I did not know Tel Aviv. It was the same during those first few weeks. I thought of Tel Aviv as a city lounging under the Mediterranean sun with a smile on its face, far from all the tumult and turbulence. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that the smile is fake and the Mediterranean sun is fake and the spirituality at the walls of Jerusalem is fake. Even the smiles of passersby and the warmth that emanates from their hands is, in the end, the sort of lie that fools tell each other when they’re in a bind.

The first few days, I felt people here were happy and had a thousand excuses for it. But it wasn’t so. No one looks for an excuse to be happy, the same way that no one looks for anyone else. It’s like losing your capacity for happiness due to an excess of tragedy. It’s like not looking for any excuse at all after everything has come to an end.

People here are mostly alone. Alone and afraid. And those who are not alone, are afraid of ending up alone or abandoned. It’s easy to see how with every passing day, they become more absorbed in this fear and smile more broadly.

No! I will not be deceived by Tel Aviv and the children.

I Live In Fool’s Paradise, Madam Minister

Tel Aviv is always awake. Like corpses too afraid to sleep after the war. The first few nights, I couldn’t sleep either. I stayed up all night and gazed out the hotel room window. The street below was never quiet. Drunk youth laughing out loud and shouting each other’s names. I mostly heard Arabic words and names. Perhaps because I didn’t know any Hebrew. Constantly, Arab shouts, Arab names, Arab boys … It reassured me that I was still in the Middle East. I was happy that I hadn’t been forced to choose between America and America.

In a letter addressed to the Minister of the Interior, a lady minister of the Likud Party had offered me another option. The option of coming to Israel. A few days after it was published in national newspapers, I cancelled my plans for going to America. An organization in Stockholm had arranged it for me. They had secured some sort of a US visa, or invitation letter, or something along those lines. I don’t know. It had taken them almost a year. One of those organizations that take bare-assed third-world artist refugees, straighten up their lives and help them migrate. Artists who live in unsafe countries such as Iran and Afghanistan. But in the end, my admittance to America coincided with news of the lady minister’s letter. I had been living in limbo in Turkey for more than a year and was trying to get my legs and limbs together enough to head for America when the lady minister used “cultural creativity” and invited this Iranian poet to visit The Promised Land. And Iran’s media outlets sponsored by the Revolutionary Guards started running articles with headlines such as “The Apple Of Zionist Minister’s Eyes Turns Up In Israel,” and other similar drivel.

I decided not to leave the lady minister’s kindness unanswered and abandoned all other plans. Yet, I was not at all certain of how things would turn out in Israel. Still, I wanted to go. I wanted to see people around me speak in Hebrew, smile in Hebrew, lie in Hebrew. In any case, I had made up my mind. My family thought I was making a mistake. Of course, I was making a mistake. But it was a beautiful mistake. I like these sorts of mistakes. Mistakes that end up becoming stories. When I look back at everything that has happened these past few years, I remember it all as scenes in a story. As though I have stepped into the Land of Fairytales. Just as distant. Just as imaginary. Everything has the characteristics of a story. They are true, but they are also lies, and they tell lies — in Hebrew!

My guess is, if I were to go back to those days, I will repeat the same mistakes. Even though it wasn’t easy. As soon as I set foot in Israel, the Iranian media flew into a frenzy. They were outraged. They published articles with crude headlines that verged on profanity. They called me the “prostitute poet” and “the minister’s bootlicker.” Sometimes the articles were followed by hundreds of cruel and offensive readers’ comments. Of course, they were all fake. The Islamic Republic’s government creates media outlets for themselves, they become the audience and leave comments for themselves. Many things are fake in Iran. Many things are secondhand. A secondhand Republic. A secondhand revolution. A secondhand constitution. Even a secondhand Supreme Leader. Nothing is purebred, nothing is genuine. Everything has come from somewhere else. We have been shafted with imitation versions of everything.

My family in Iran was under a lot of pressure. Pressure from the media and the clamor and commotion they created. Pourya was afraid of this. He was afraid the Revolutionary Guards would go after them. He had been afraid of this for ten years. I was under a lot of pressure, too. My consolation was that soon the uproar would die down and I would have some peace and quiet. My consolation was that at least I was still in the Middle East. That the people and sceneries around me were familiar. I didn’t want to live anywhere other than in this barrel of gunpowder. Perhaps I was addicted to the chaos and madness that emanated from it. This itself had shocked the reporters. They kept asking me about it. And I couldn’t explain why I had escaped one hell only to seek refuge in another hell. They constantly bombarded me with questions.

“I live in fool’s paradise,” I often replied.

But this didn’t satisfy them. It seemed incomprehensible. I think they considered it an idiotic answer, or an ambiguous one with no particular reasoning. In any case, I was fed up with it all. For several hours every day, I had to explain why I had come to Israel and why I wanted to stay. Every week, hours and hours of interviews and bullshit press conferences. That world had gone mad over why this Iranian poet had ended up in Israel. I think it remained just as shocking for Iranians in Iran. I don’t know. I wasn’t reading or listening to news from Iran. I didn’t want to know.

What I wanted was to see every corner of Israel. I wanted to see if it was the same fantasy land I had discovered in the Torah or not. But everyone just wanted to know more. And I went on answering reporters’ questions.

“Why?”

“Why?”

“Why?”

But I had come to Israel just to live in the stories of the Torah and to lie in Hebrew. Besides, I could no longer live in Iran. My time there had long run out. I couldn’t go back. I had escaped. Long before, I had thought that if one day I were forced to live somewhere other than Iran, that somewhere would be Israel. I knew that with an Iranian passport, it was unlikely that I could even get a visa. But I thought once the Hebrew translation of my novella was published in Israel, I might be able to use that as an excuse for a short visit. Which is what happened.

I flew from Istanbul to Tel Aviv. With Khaya. I was exhausted and anxious, and I remember I was afraid, of something. I drank almost the entire duration of the three-hour flight. So much that I don’t really remember what happened at the airport and when Khaya and I were separated. All I wanted was to be taken to my hotel.

From Istanbul to Tel Aviv. From insanity in Turkish to insanity in Hebrew. From one madness to other madnesses. From this airport to that airport. And you don’t know when it will all end. City to city…You must find your home somewhere. There must be a home for you somewhere. If not, you have to forge one. Even a photocopy will suffice. Like this photocopy of my visa in my wallet which seems to suffice when I show it to the police. They inspect it and their frown disappears, and a certain expression of satisfaction and assurance appears on their face. I have seen the same satisfaction and assurance on the faces of Russian prostitute drug dealers after they snatch the hundred-shekel bill from your hand and inspect it.

“Why?”

“Why?”

“Why?”

I was sure I didn’t want to live in Pennsylvania or Stockholm. In cold places. I’m afraid of cold cities and cold people, and this is something I wasn’t able to explain to CNN or The New York Times.

“I live in fool’s paradise,” is all I said.

Translated from the Persian by Sara Khalili

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