Broken Borders

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To be human is to communicate. One of the most beautiful forms of communication is to be intimate, often seen in the bond between family members; sometimes, it leads to sex, and sometimes it remains hidden in the deepest layers of a person’s existence, but it is something that gives life vitality. Various parameters affect intimacy, among which religion, tradition, language, culture, and government laws will be addressed in this article. As an Iranian who was brutalized by the Iranian government for the crimes of writing and social activism and now lives in exile in Norway, I will reflect on my personal experience of these events.

 

Iran

If you have never lived in the Middle East, you only have a vague idea of what intimacy means for Middle Easterners. There are many barriers, including Islamic laws and family and tribal traditions, to having relationships with the opposite sex (and same-sex relationships for the LGBT population).

Islamic laws form the basis of interpersonal relations in a country like Iran. Based on these laws, any physical contact between people of the opposite sex who are not Mahram”[1] (related to each other) is prohibited and would result in a sentence of 10 days to two months in prison in addition to 99 lashes. Sex outside marriage or same-sex relations is punishable by 100 lashes, execution, or stoning. According to these rules,  schools for boys and girls are separate, and the first environment where girls and boys can experience a more intimate relationship is the university at the age of 19. This gender segregation is applied in many other settings in society. When kissing, hugging, and even the simplest physical contact are forbidden, the intimacy formed would be intertwined with fear, control, and repression, and it will likely face unexpected challenges.

Tradition is another important pillar in determining the level of intimacy in family relationships. Accordingly, age and gender are parameters that have an important effect on the level of intimacy between people. In patriarchal societies like Iran, the grandfather is considered the head of the household, and relationships between adults and minors are based on respect and lack of intimacy in speech and behavior. Intimate relationships between members of the same sex in the same family are usually more pronounced. This tradition prevents certain various forms of communication between members of the same family in most Iranian families, even when religion does not play a prominent role where even religion does not play a prominent role. For example, there is always an aura of ambiguity and emotional tension in the relationship between cousins. According to Islamic laws, a male/female individual is considered basically non-mahram” [2] (unrelated) to his/her cousin(s), who is therefore eligible for marriage. Thus the intimacy between cousins of the opposite sex does not reach the level of intimacy as between cousins of the same sex.

Despite all the difficulties and laws that exist to establish communication in Iran, the formation of sincere relations between Iranians is “faster” compared to Norwegian society. There is no easy way to comment on the depthand permanenceof these relations, but if avoiding sitting next to one another on a bus is a typical Norwegian lifestyle, one Iranian characteristic is to start talking as soon as they sit next to you on a bus.

When I was in Iran, as a writer and social activist, I was insistent on breaking taboos and changing laws that prevented intimacy between people. Part of that happened in my writings, and, as someone who has the power to influence the younger generation, I tried to defend individual freedom and to break the applied gender segregation as much as possible with my social acts and attitudes.

For example, regardless of age, gender, Islamic laws, and the usual red lines of Iranian society, there was a deep intimacy in our friendship group of boys and girls. And one of the reasons for my arrest was that my rebel literature and art, together with my social personality and free spirit, were welcomed and emulated by the young generation and served as a warning to the government.

Many taboos and traditions are scrutinized with the emergence of a new generation in Iran. Indeed, Generation Z of Iran does not abide by the strict Islamic laws, some of which are noted above. Hence, the intimacy among them — regardless of sex and gender —  is way more profound than that of former generations. The rebellion of this new generation in Iran against the laws and traditions of the past can be seen in the Woman, Life, Freedommovement.

 

Prison

In totalitarian countries, the system/regime determines the intimacy level. Iran’s dictatorial government tries to control society by controlling people’s bodies. This is why the laws related to hijab and interpersonal relations are applied by the moral police, and security forces are allowed to enter the private sphere legally and illegally. For example, if a party host is not involved in the cumbersome customs and rituals of gender separation and relationship control, the police can arrest and detain the host and guests for holding a mixed party. They can stop a car on the street and ask the passengers how they are related to each other, and they will be arrested and prosecuted if they are mixed friends of both sexes. Although the police do not stop every car, they have created an atmosphere of fear and apprehension in the shadow of the law’s support, leading to unwanted consequences for intimacy.

In addition, the government uses the personal relationships of influential figures and people as a basis for political repression and uses it as blackmail or evidence of a crime in court. For example, we might see a prominent artist suddenly start defending the political performance of the government in the media. In these situations, it has frequently been proven that the artists’ support of the dictatorial government or its representatives can be traced to the forces of repression, who are well aware of this particular person’s private life. Because famous people can be blackmailed and used, it is much more difficult for them to have intimate relationships. They are under more control and face stronger reactions.

I was imprisoned in Evin solitary confinement for 38 days and interrogated daily for the crime of writing and fighting for social justice. My interrogator rarely physically tortured me, but I was constantly subjected to psychological torture. He had read all my emails, private chats, and diary entries and watched all the photos and videos on my laptop. To pressure me mentally, he usually talked about my private life. Although he couldn’t prove with evidence that I had “illicit” intimate relations, he tried his best to use my personal life to make me falsely confess to what he wanted. Despite my resistance during all those interrogations, the judge sentenced me to 99 lashes for shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex.

This trauma made me so vulnerable in being intimate. Communication was too costly; I could not make new friends or resume my former close relationships with the same intensity. Just as the violation of a person’s body creates trauma and alters their personal relationships, the violation of my privacy had the same effect on me. But I had the hope that living outside of Iran would make everything all right.

 

Exile

Being exiled robs you of the language and the ability to communicate with it. As a large part of emotional relationships is based in verbal communication, a sudden exile would put you in trouble with establishing intimate relationships — especially because the person exiled has to feel a strong urge to make new friendships, being away from the homeland.

The greater the cultural and environmental differences between the two countries, the more difficult it will be to enter the host community and create intimate relationships. For instance, consider Iran and Norway. In everyday Iran, friendly relations are formed quickly and somewhat unconsciously. It is even surprising that Iranians are more interested in friendship with Westerners. In contrast, in Norway, especially in smaller cities, foreigners face a much more difficult challenge adapting to the new society. Native people often have a limited group of friends from youth and are conservative in making new friendships. Even if foreigners become fluent in the new country’s language to some extent, making connections will still be challenging. In the best case, the newcomer would be able to master the new language in terms of surface structure, but getting to know and being fully familiarized with the deep structure of a language interwoven into the culture and history of the host society takes time. That is why I could hardly debate in a second language and understand verbal jokes and pranks, especially dark humor, which might cause misunderstandings, confusion, and sometimes feeling insulted.

Cultural differences are another challenge that stands as an obstacle in creating an intimate relationship. For example, in Iranian culture, despite the religious and traditional barriers mentioned above, people touch each other more carelessly. Hugging, cuddling, holding each other’s hands, caressing each others hair, and even cheek-kissing, especially among same-sex friends, are seen abundantly, even if the depth and duration of friendship are not considerable. The first thing a foreigner in Norway discovers about friendship is that you should be careful about a tighter physical territory, which means not getting too close to people’s bodies. Another cultural dissimilarity is that it is not customary to hug other people’s toddlers or babies. Such cultural differences would change the immigrant’s presuppositions and mentality, which are the basis for developing an intimate relationship. As this person tries to adjust the standards of relationship to those of the new society, and at the same time has years of experience with the concept of love, friendship, and relating to others, they may behave in ways that are strange and which cause fear and alienation. Consequently, multiple experiences of miscommunication will frustrate this person, leading to depression, aggressive behavior, or anxiety.

I was in a different situation when I came to Norway as a guest/refugee writer through ICORN (International Cities of Refuge Network). On the one hand, I was a famous poet in Iran, I had a lot of close connections, and there were a lot of fans who wanted to have a special relationship with me. Throughout my life, I didn’t have to initiate a relationship. These conditions changed entirely after the court verdict (11.5 years in prison and 99 lashes) and my escape from Iran.

On the other hand, because I came to Norway through the ICORN residency, I entered a friendly work group where the relationships were already in place, and I just had to learn them. The presumption of others about me as an Eastern womanwas the first thing I encountered.

My classmates at the language school (Læringsenter) counted me as a “Muslim woman,” and members of ICORN and the Norwegian literary circles expected me to be a poet out of jail, whereas I was both and neither. It should be noted that all children born in a Muslim country are labeled as Muslims on their birth certificates, and if they do not want to be labeled as Muslims when they grow up, they cannot express it because of the lack of freedom of belief. If a person born into a Muslim family declares that s/he is not a Muslim, s/he will be put to death.

Although I had the freedom of belief in Norway to declare my lack of belief in religion, if I had done so in the language school, I would have been rejected by most of my classmates. It would have been almost impossible for me to make friends during the two years I was enrolled there.

Looking from another point of view, I was a poet who was invited to various events to talk about prison, interrogations, escaping with the help of smugglers, and such memories, in addition to reading poems of mine. Talking about these things had two contradictory aspects. One placed me in a vulnerable position, and the other made me a hero to an audience I could never reach. I could not form close friendships with those around me for these reasons.

The environment we are raised in, the rules we have been subjected to as children, and our various experiences and traumas shape our relationships with others. But art can bring people together and be a source of intimacy, regardless of all the myriad challenges described above. As a matter of fact, art is a medium that can shape human communication beyond religion, tradition, language, culture, and laws, which is powerful enough to break down barriers.

This means that my poetry has become a mediator of sincere relationship when I read a poem in Persian to a group of Norwegians and see some people slowly shedding tears even though they do not understand the meaning of the words.

After six years in Norway, my audience accepted me as a poet/writer, not just an exiled one. As a result, in a way that is neither precisely Iranian nor Norwegian, I can now be myself with more freedom and be able to form intimate relationships.

 

[1] a person who is outlawed for one to marry; it is permissible for him/her to see them without hijab and touch them like shaking hands.

[2] is someone who is not Mahram which is a relation status taken place by marriage (in-law), like mother in law, son in law, etc. or blood (immediate), like aunts, uncles, siblings. According to Islamic laws, marrying people who are non-mahram (unrelated) is allowed, like cousins, while it is prohibited to marry a person who is your mahram (related).

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