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  • Modernist Re-Orientations:Imagining Homoerotic Desire in the "Nearly" Middle East
  • Joseph A. Boone (bio)

"In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country. We don't have that in our country. I don't know who has told you that we have it." So, to the amusement and jeers of his audience during an appearance at Columbia University in September 2007, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded to a question about the report of executions in Iran of suspected homosexuals—hamajensbaaz is the derogatory term the President used.1 Literary modernism—neither European, British, nor U.S. modernism, but the early twentieth-century literature of Iran—might be able to provide Ahmadinejad with an answer to his bafflement. In the well-known "Aref nameh," a linguistically innovative verse satire that appeared in 1921—one year before the publication of Eliot's The Waste Land—Iraj Mirza, an Iranian poet and advocate of the modern Iranian state, makes graphically clear whom he thinks suffers from the curse of male homosexuality, and he does so in wry verses directed against a fellow Iranian poet and boy-lover, Aref-nameh of Qazvin (hence the poem's title):

Oh Lord, what thing is this pedomania        That plagues Aref and greater Tehrania?Why only in this commonwealth        Does sodomy take place with little stealth?The European with his lofty bearing        Knows not the ins and out of garçon-tearing.

Reversing the dichotomy that Ahmadinejad's rhetoric sets up by declaring Tehranian "garçon-tearing" foreign to the more [End Page 561] high-minded European, Iraj proceeds to make his polemical and political point. As long as Iran holds to archaic customs like the separation of the sexes and allegiance to a decadent monarchy, Persian men will not shed their pederastic predilections and the nation will remain caught in a regressive past, unable to enter the era of modernity that Iraj, like many other advocates of Iranian modernization, associated with Europe's virtues of constitutional government and heterosexual normality.2 Obviously, Ahmadinejad abhors the western values that Iraj, eighty years earlier, embraced in the name of modernity, but the two men do agree on one point: sexuality between men has no place in post-Qajar Iran. The rhetorical difference is that Iraj sees Iranian homosexuality as a local problem in need of eradication; Ahmadinejad labels it a Western phenomenon completely foreign to his "motherland." Such a claim, as several recent historians of Iranian sexuality, including Janet Afary and Afsaneh Njamabadi,3 have demonstrated, is belied by the rich, centuries-long legacy of source material, written and visual, attesting to the presence of men's homoerotic loves and dalliances in pre-modern Iran (figs. 1 & 2); it is also contradicted by ongoing efforts to eliminate not-so-foreign manifestations of this "phenomenon" from Iran, as well as neighboring Gulf states, by the harshest means possible (figs. 3 & 4).4

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Fig. 1.

Couple in a camphor wood. Persian Miniature, Safavid style. Late 18th century Courtesy of the Matt and Andrei Koymasky Foundation website, "The Homoerotic Art Museum."

[End Page 562]

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Fig. 2.

Freize decoration on a lacquered box. Early 20th Century Persian. Qajar period, Isfahan. Originally In the Fouroughil Collection, Tehran. Reproduced In Robert Surieu, Sarv-e Naz (Geneva: Nagel, 1967)

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Fig. 3.

Execution of Iranian gay youths. Photograph supplied By ISNA (Iranian Students News Agency) to the website "Direland: Politics and Media, Analysis and Commentary," By Doug Ireland.

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Fig. 4.

Chart reproduced from Amnesty International Yearbooks in Wilhelm Floor's A Social History of Sexual Relations in Iran (2008), p. 360.

[End Page 563]

Behind this tangle of conflicting claims ("we don't have it"/ "yes we do") lies one of the great ironies in the history of relations between Christian Europe and Islamic Middle East, one with political as well as poetical resonances for this essay. For the morally charged language of unnaturalness, vice, addiction, and disease used by European commentators for some 400 years to condemn same...


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