We Do What We Dare Not Name
Iranian President Has Become A Great Denier
New America Media, Commentary, Sandip Roy Posted: Sep 25, 2007
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has become a great denier, and the most absurd of his negations is the existence of homosexuals in Iran. But in many parts of the old world, says NAM editor, Sandip Roy, the act is very different than the public face, which admits nothing but traditional values. Roy is host of the radio show UpFront.
At Columbia University Mahmoud Ahmadinejad established himself as the Great Denier – of nuclear weapons, the Holocaust, and homosexuals. “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country,” he told the audience. “In Iran we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you that we have it.”
Perhaps it was the ghosts of Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari.
On July 19, 2005, Marhoni and Asgari, both teenagers, were hanged publicly for homosexual sex in the Iranian city of Mashad. That was the year Ahmadinejad became president. What he meant to say is that, in Iran we have no (more) homosexuals.
The skeptical laughter and boos from the audience showed that while some might still believe that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons for peaceful purposes, no one bought his homosexual-free zone.
But the problem lay in the question. During his speech, a questioner asked him why does his country deny women and homosexuals rights. If the questioner had asked the Iranian President about acts of homosexual sex, of deviancy, maybe Ahmadinejad would have paused.
Iran is not alone in that denial. From Uganda to India, many countries, especially ones with colonial histories, try to disown this western import. (Cricket, Marxism, washing machines are okay for import apparently despite their Western roots.)
This thing of darkness, Ahmadinejad seemed to say, I do not acknowledge as mine.
The West always wants to label, classify, order. The East lives in a more laissez-faire world where anything goes as long as you don’t label, classify, order. In 1944, in one of the first obscenity cases in India, famous Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai was hauled before the court for a short story about lesbianism. It was called The Quilt and it was clear to any reader what was going on under the quilt when a noblewoman and her favorite maid pulled it over themselves at night. “Begam Jan’s quilt was once more swaying in the dark like an elephant… The elephant was making sounds as if it was trying to squat. The sound of someone smacking his lips as if savoring a delicious sauce.”
But the court absolved Ismat Chughtai because she never named the act that happened under the quilt. She never took the quilt off. Safely hidden under it, Begum Jan could do whatever she wanted.
Five decades later, Indian-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta pulled the covers off lesbian sex in the film Fire where two Delhi housewives are shown not only making love, but also wondering what name to call themselves. Theaters were ransacked, screenings disrupted, questions were raised in parliament. And it was not just by homophobic religious fundamentalists. “There is a danger that many of those exposed to this controversy will learn to view all such signs of affection through the prism of homosexuality. As a consequence many will feel inhibited in expressing physical fondness for other women for fear of being permanently branded as lesbians,” worried Madhu Kishwar, the editor of one of India’s most famous feminist magazines, Manushi.
The protection of the quilt was gone. The act of naming is dangerous.
The act of showing is even more so. The soon-to-be-released film version of the best-selling novel The Kite Runner is causing a ruckus in Afghanistan for showing the rape of a young boy. The family of the 12-year-old boy actor wants the scene cut. “This is against Afghan culture,” the boy’s father told the Associated Press.
Yet if there is one country whose culture is imbued with boy-love, it’s Afghanistan. Nineteenth century British explorer Richard Burton wrote in his accounts of travels through the region about “lads almost in women’s attire with kohl’d eyes and rouged cheeks.” “The cities of Afghanistan and Sindh are thoroughly saturated with Persian vice,” wrote Burton in a double-whammy to both Iran and Afghanistan.
A famous Pathan marching song goes, “There is a boy, across the river with a bottom like a peach. But alas, I can’t swim.” The Taliban even had an injunction against their fighters taking boys without facial hair into their private quarters.
But when it is shown in film, the act moves from private quarters to the public sphere. It gets a name. It gets an identity. It gets a marker on the Kinsey scale. And you cannot avert your eyes from it. It becomes real.
“The people of Afghanistan do not understand that it’s only acting or playing a role in a film,” the boy’s father told AP. “They think it has actually happened.”
And it has. It has happened thousands of times, hundreds of thousands of times. But now it’s been dragged into the light, pinned down like a butterfly on an entomologist’s table, available to dissect, label, name and even post on YouTube.
There are men having homosexual sex in Iran. Ahmadinejad knows that. His questioner knows that. The questioner tried to shame the Iranian president. The Iranian president retreated into blind denial. The real failure of the interrogation at Columbia University was in not being able to find a way to talk about that obvious truth without completely stripping off the quilt.
Once we figure out how to do that, we might even be able to discuss nukes.
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