What happened to 11? (Writing Prompt)

Writing Prompt: “What happened to 11?”

Writing time: 2.5 hours

Editing time: couple of minutes 

“What happened to eleven?” she asked, from the corner seat of the living room– her seat. She didn’t look round at me anymore when she asked, because after 40 years of asking me the same thing by now it was more a question for herself. What pained me was that each time she asked nowadays it was followed by an exhausted sigh that seemed to drag her closer to death. She was close enough to death, already.

I carried on rearranging the table in her home, I needed to freshen the flowers, check the post, make some tea for us both before we sat down together to look through the photo album again. Just like we do every night now that Mum can’t do these things by herself. I feel as though if it wasn’t for that photo album she would have died by now.

I passed her the tea, “here you go, Mum,” I said, brightly- trying to distract her from eleven.

“Milk an t—,” “Milk and two sugars, Mum,”. I was too tired today to recount the script.

She had gotten worse lately, so I’d come in to check on her after I finished work. The nurses would do the morning check, and the social worker popped in for all of two minutes in the early afternoon. They were out the door before Mum had time to clock they were there: “How are you doing Jean? got your album Jean? good. Taken yer pills? I’ve popped some bread on the side for you, and some mags, Mike will be by after work, Jean, so I’ll leave you to it”. Lovely people, social workers, but easily jilted.

The album itself was a colossal thing, about the size of a paving slab. The cover was swirled with teal and purple dye, in that late 19th century style, and gold claps framed the corner. “Photos,” was elaborately engraved, also in gold, across the top. The pages of carefully glued photographs were divided by thin sheets of delicate paper- not a rip even after all these years. Each photograph had an immaculately handwritten footnote, and a number.

It was mystical. As children, my younger brother and I were never allowed to touch it. In fact, Mum kept it hidden from us in the laundry closet, on the shelve above the boiler, underneath the clean towels. Almost every night I would climb onto the boiler, trying not to slip on its olive coloured insulation and carefully pull it out, before sneaking back to bed.

It was better than any novel I had ever read; a dive into my real family history. Upon peeling open the front cover the album exhaled an ancient, musty breath, inviting you to observe the life within. Movement and smiles, sternness and joy, jubilation and grief. Unknown faces and long dead pets: “Jerry”, the gleaming Collie on the beach, number 6.

Number 15, my debut in the album, aged 3 propped against a white fluffy rug and the first photo in the album to be taken in colour. My hair was thick and dark, and my eyes were piercing blue.

Number 24, Mum and Dad’s wedding photo, stood outside the church, top-hats clutched in front of groins, Mum holding me. The church driveway was dotted with confetti and everyone apart from my Mum was gleaming, she looked miserable.

Number 27, my brother, James, as a new-born, propped up against me, aged 6.

It was controversial in my family that I was born before my Mum and Dad married. I was never told anything about the circumstances, but the album told the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Apart from when it omits the truth.

Mum had got as far as picture 12, old friends having a Sunday roast, smiling and passing food over the table. They had obviously frozen for the photo. She went through it chronologically several times a day. Usually she’d linger on 12 with her hand placed flat on the previous page where photo 11 used to be, as if she could conjure up the missing image if she stared intently enough at 12. As if removing her hand would reveal it was there all along. It never did reappear, though. Lifting her wrinkly hand off it revealed nothing but a square of evidence of the original colour of the page; a light shade of brown. Underneath the devilish patch: “Jean and Harry’s wedding, St.Johns, Aldersham, 1960.”

As a child, photo 11 was the most curious chapter of my nightly reads. I was never told of who Harry was exactly. I knew he was my Mum’s ex-husband, but I could never verify anything else; firstly, because I didn’t know how my Dad would react—he never so much as mentioned Harry and, secondly, because I wasn’t meant to be looking at it in the first place. Their silence felt like betrayal to me. I had just as much right to know about our family history as anyone else, why was I being kept out of the loop? Since when did Mum live in Aldersham? To me, life started and ended with Mum and Dad, my Mum and Dad.

Harry made no more appearances in the album, and, when I was around 12 I made the decision to kill him off from my favourite novel altogether. I didn’t like seeing the picture of them both, married. It had no place in my history and was obviously a mistake. It just made no sense.

It was meticulously planned, the excision, I must say. I selected a day to fake illness. A Thursday, because a Maths test was scheduled for that Thursday, so I thought I might as well maximise my profits. Mum and Dad both went to work and James went off to school as normal. I stayed at home.

My memory of that day is visceral. I had cornflakes for breakfast, an extra-large helping, since no-one was there to stop me. I remember sitting in the kitchen alone and watching the green bird-feeder outside undulate in the wind. It one was one of those overcast days where morning turns to afternoon with no trace. I only had Harry on my mind. I took the album out of the laundry room and brought it downstairs to the living room. To have it so obviously out in the open, rather than under my covers, gave me a rush of adrenaline. There it was. Photo 11. Harry was taller than Dad, had thick, dark hair, a thin face and was handsome. Mum beamed at the camera, her wedding dress oozed downwards and outwards in a smooth triangle. All detail was lost in the flash. I recognized Grandma and Grandad, stood by Mum’s side.

The operation was simple and I did it without thinking. Dad’s letter opener, which was always on the chest of draws in the hallway, acted as the perfect scalpel: out with the cancer. I laid the photo on the side and put the album back in the cupboard, making sure to leave the towels exactly how I’d found them.

I remember the feeling of the photo in my hand as I walked down the path that went along the other side of the garden fence. Although I didn’t want to look at it anymore, I was ironically careful not to bend it. I took the shortcut, down the muddy verge, using the exposed tree roots as make-shift stairs. I then headed back up to path through the patches of wild garlic; the smell of which still haunts me. I got to the bridge and walked to the very middle with military precision. I leaned my elbows on the barrier and took one last look at the photograph. I suddenly felt a little bit sorry for Harry. I was his executioner; he was no longer welcome in my family album. No longer welcome in my mind; how little I knew of how he would occupy it every day thereon after.

I let go.

The photo swam through the air, this way and that, before landing face up on the water. I clearly remember seeing Harry’s dark hair, his ill-fitted suit and his beaming smile being pulled away in the current, forever gone. Good. Done.

Mum was at photo 57 now and looked over at me and smiled. Watching her in her failing years, I had got used to her formula; about one minute per photograph, with the exception of 24, which was a little longer. 11 was always the longest, though. Once, she spent over an hour staring at the patch of brown, tracing her finger underneath the footnote continuously. “What happened to 11?”, she’d mutter to herself, “what happened to you, Harry?”

“WHAT HAPPENED TO NUMBER 11?!” The shriek from upstairs sent chills down my spine. I was in the living room watching the news with Dad.


Dad put his tea down got up of the sofa reluctantly- “always something Jean”. Through the ceiling I could hear wailing, followed by my father’s feeble attempts to calm her down.

“It’s gone, Matthew, it’s gone!!”, Mum yelled.

“What’s gone, Jean? Tell me what’s gone?”

“Eleven, it’s gone. Harry, it’s gone”.

Suddenly the conversation dropped. I could tell that Dad was controlling the proceedings now, like he did when he deemed that things had gone out of control.

They both came downstairs. Dad entered the living room and let my Mum go in ahead of him. I pretended to watch the television, as if I had no idea what was going on. But the stares were too much.

“What happened?” I ventured.

“You did it, didn’t you? That was the only one”, she said. Her calmness disturbed me. I could see the anger physically shaking her from inside.

“Do what?”

“See, he didn’t do it, Jean, now leave it”, Dad said before sitting back down and watching the television. I could see his mind was still occupied. Mum was stood by the door, shaking her head and staring at me. I was too scared to waver my gaze. As long as I stared her down, I was innocent.

Her eyes were pulverised red by tears. She made to say something and stopped halfway.

Without moving and clearly wanting the ordeal to end as much as me, Dad shot out a slow, punctuated, deliberate sentence.

“Jean, don’t you dare”.

Mum was at photo 82 now, my son, Theo, propped up with his older sister, Eddie. It’s the newest photograph in the album. I suppose it will be the last on my mother ever sees. Because we don’t know how long she’s got, we try to bring the kids round every Saturday morning. It’s the same story with the same story; Eddie sits on Grandma’s lap and helps her turn the pages of her album. She’ll often be bored by picture 10, but he is sweet enough to know that this is way Grandma Jean likes to do it. Theo is old enough now to have a peep, too, but he’s more interested in Grandma’s varicose veins.

The kids distract me from the chores of that album. An album that I know back to front, side to side. I can visualise every single image in my head from 1 to 82, including 11. The one that I removed out of childish vengeance, out of selfishness and lack of self-awareness. I removed the only photo of my Mum’s first wedding, the only photograph of Harry that Dad had allowed her to keep. Because of me, Theo and Eddie will never know what their grandfather looked like.


Happiness Within Earshot of War

It was a situation I was used to. An event hall is an event hall after all, and photographers face the same obstacles in each one; tripping tablecloths, floral centre pieces, stray lawn chairs, loose wires, red and green lights. The tiered floor led down to the stage. On every table crumpled cigarettes lay in glass ashtrays gasping their last breaths.

Rebellious, isn’t it, to smoke inside nowadays? Well, how apt. We were in the city of Baalbek. Nestled in Lebanon’s North Bekaa Valley, this Iranian financed, Hezbollah controlled corner of the country is a launching pad for soldiers sympathetic to the Syrian regime.  That very afternoon, before the show, the streets were clogged by a funeral procession for a returning local.

But the flow of people across the mountainous border is far greater from the other direction. Over a million Syrian and re-re-located Palestinians are in Lebanon seeking shelter from the war next-door. Some of these people were sitting on the lawn chairs around the round tables, crumpling cigarettes in to the glass ashtrays and moving the flower pieces in order to see each other better in the red and green lights.


Selfie. Copyright: Jake Threadgould

A crowd had gathered in Baalbek’s function hall to see the final show of a year’s worth of film, theatre and music workshops facilitated by the NGO Better Together: Search for Common Ground. The program saw young Syrians and Lebanese come together to tell their stories of escaping war and accommodating those who have, respectively. As the name suggests, Better Together: Search for Common Ground seeks to iron out the tensions that inevitably arise when communities are involuntarily thrust upon one another.

Readers of Western media are, by now, accustomed to the images of those escaping terror; children peeking from behind tarpaulin doors, families being hauled onto dry land from rickety vessels, bodies on the sand. However, this event endowed the young participants with new creative skills and returned the power of representation back to those affected. This wasn’t swampy Macedonian fields nor was it hysterical parents. This was black-tie, crisp shirts, special occasion head-scarves, heavy make-up, laughter.

One film, done in the style of an old silent movie, told the story of a Syrian girl and her father’s struggle to earn money selling milk from their cow. The father became exhausted so the daughter started to sell milk herself, too. To avoid damaging her father’s pride, she would do it secretly; getting up early to milk the cow, walking to the shop and returning before her father woke up. The secret was out when the father found his daughter collapsed outside. She was stricken with exhaustion, too. Escaping the war is often just the beginning of the struggle.


Green Light, Copyright: Jake Threadgould

Official discourse in the West is preoccupied with refugees on the move and how we divert these humans humanely.  We’re less bothered about the sedentary people in the refugee camps within ear-shot of the Syrian border. They’re safe, what more do they want? Refugees face the constant threat of fading into a statistic. For most Europeans, the humans who inhabit the camps that litter the Levant as well as the migrants trudging through the Balkan barriers are merely faceless blobs on a map.

I sat down next to Mahmoud, 21, who told me that in the dead of night in Baalbek, he can hear the dull thudding of shells on the other side of the mountain. His besieged home town, Zabadani, where the majority of his family remain, is a mere 32km away from our conversation. He made the difficult decision to leave two years ago. He told me he taught himself English by watching super-hero films, which became evident from the Hollywood twang in his voice as he reeled through a list of people he knew working at the NGO Action Aid. He wanted to see if I knew any of them. It’s a small world for the Syrians in Lebanon. There are restrictions on who is allowed to drive, curfews, and most of the jobs on offer are badly paid, arduous and illegal—something that the recruiters of Jihad use to their advantage.


Mahmoud, Copyright: Jake Threadgould

However, Mahmoud tells me that although it can be boring from time to time in Baalbek he at least has more to do than he did in Zabadani. He spends his days making films, taking photographs for Action Aid, playing music or otherwise “just doing as much as I can before I go to sleep”. He has aspirations to join his brother in Germany but, without the means, for now he is just trying to stay busy. For Mahmoud the show was an opportunity to break his routine and to forge friendships. How necessary companionship is.

But that night in Baalbek wasn’t just an opportunity to celebrate conviviality; it was an excuse to party. Shoulder to shoulder, arms around shoulders and, at one point, a tower of three people on each other’s shoulders. Mahmoud captured that for me on my camera as I no longer had free reign of my arms. The dancing was ferocious and the smiles were contagious. I stood still and took in the screams of joy, the greedy embraces and the dripping mascara. This was a shared history. A shared story. Perhaps the most important of our times.  Step outside the hall and the empty streets filled with rain. Drive for half an hour East and the streets are stained with blood.

This night to forget reality, if for just a couple of hours, was a night to remember. People are people, after all. What we have in common is revealed in the way we deal with the obstacles put in front of us.


Party in the Bekaa, Copyright Jake Threadgould





Lebanon´s political stalemate, where next?

Despite not knowing what she looked like, I spotted Nadine Moussa from the moment she walked into the Starbucks. Something about the way she carried herself.

I’d already bought a coffee so she matched it with one of her own and a Panini, kindly offering me a Panini, too. Lebanese hospitality.

Moussa is passionate and speaks the kind of punchy rhetoric that comes with almost three years of campaigning.  She leans forward and touches my arm on occasion to add emphasis: “that is not democracy”, she exclaims, inviting me to laugh in agreement.

I do. I feel like an imposter waiting to be caught out. I am interviewing Lebanon´s first ever female presidential candidate.

Nadine Moussa ran as an independent in the inconclusive 2014 elections. Her political party, Citizen´s Movement not only hopes to offer an alternative to Lebanon’s two mighty coalitions, the March 8th and March 14th Alliances, but to reform the Lebanese electoral system altogether.

Civil society is hostage to the failing government. State-scheduled electricity black-outs rotate daily around the neighbourhoods of Beirut to save money, infrastructure remains largely substandard and overly reliant on foreign financial aid and currently mounds of trash are being swept off the streets of the capital and buried underground. I am reminded that it´s not all doom and gloom; perhaps in a few million years Beirut will have its very own oilfields.

But for now, the stalling State squeezes the young and educated Lebanese towards the departure lounges. Lebanon simply has too little to offer. This is unfortunate for Nadine Moussa; whose reformist campaign targets the very demographic to which these fleeing graduates belong.

The government seems to abide by the old adage out of sight out of mind, will the status quo trudge along just because the President is nowhere to be seen?

She explains that what they need to start political reform is a platform for the “silent, unaffiliated majority”. As with anywhere, the silent majority is hard to entice out of the shadows towards political activism. Many young people prefer visa applications to protesting.  But Moussa reassures me that her voice of change is welcomed by the disgruntled young men and women on the street.

Lebanon’s partisan press, on the other hand, reserves little column space for dissenting voices. And Moussa herself risks being bound to the silent majority if she cannot carve out a space in the turgid and failing world of Lebanese media.  Her campaign is thus far largely restricted to social media and interviews in several international publications. This makes the process of mobilising local supporters slower. The national press, according to Moussa, is well aware of this. As are foreign powers.

Many regional heavy-weights such as Iran and Saudi Arabia use Lebanon’s sectarian electoral system to hold ideological sway over the region. Airbrushed photographs of Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, punctuate the portraits of Hezbollah soldiers in North Beqaa. Drive forty-five minutes south and road signs don´t let you forget that the tarmac was laid thanks to the house of Saud. Where would you be without the Pan-Arab highway? Probably a military checkpoint on a road with another name. The Silk Road 2.0? Mullocracy Drive?

For those with their ears to the ground, this deepening sectarian monopoly is nothing less than alarming. As the confessional leaders bolster their feudal control over territories in the presidential vacuum, the crevasses in civil society may become wider. Christian, Shia and Sunni leaders preach the same message to different crowds: we must look out for our own interests. Moussa says that what is happening now is not dissimilar to what happened in Syria on the lead up to the Arab Spring. But where would different factions direct their anger in a country with no clear Head of State? At each other?

Civil unification is the key ingredient for reform. Many people’s political views stem from God. This is a question of education, of basic separation of Church and State. The confessional system doesn’t protect the rights of Lebanon’s diverse population; it merely picks at its war scabs.

Moussa is under no illusion that it will take time to achieve her political goals—two whole generations according to her, “but at least they’ll have something”, she jokes.  She tells me that although her progress is hard to gauge in this political flat-line, the sparks she sees in the eyes of young women motivate her.  It is at least, possible to change the stereotypical idea of femininity in a patriarchal society. “We offer a glimmer of hope in a long, dark tunnel”.

Nadine Moussa’s candidacy symbolises the struggle of the disheartened middle class. It symbolises the fight to put women on centre-stage. It symbolises the desire to put old politics and politicians to bed and for Lebanon to move confidently away from the civil war as one.


Nadine Moussa, photo by Jake Threadgould




Para Ser Humano


Crimes against humanity permeate all corners of our planet. I saw a kid with a mullet on the metro the other day. Every day I have to read inspirational quotes people have shared on Facebook. This morning I woke up with a mild hangover and had forgotten to put a bottle of water by my bed for the morning. It doesn´t bare thinking about does it?

I mean, would you just look at the bloody news?

Storm Imogen is being a right bastard. The Obamas aren’t satisfied with their Wi-Fi coverage in the White House. A leopard lost the bleeding plot in a school in India, police are interviewing him to determine the motive. Cameron is trying to reassure us that he will raise ferry prices to ensure the wild children from the Jungle, Nord-pas-de Calais, won´t ever see the blue birds of Dover. AK-47s raised their ugly nozzles once again in Ireland. 27 more nameless humans drowned of the Turkish coast. Prisoners in Syria are still being systematically murdered by Assad´s cronies…

There are wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, Somalia, Turkey, Nigeria, Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, Niger, Cameroon, Mexico, Pakistan, Egypt and Libya.

We can only hope that our supreme leader and saviour, Donald Trump, will send us a divine message telling us how to clear this all up.

It´s easy to give up on humans. We´re crap. Total crap.

It doesn´t help that the people who represent us on the world stage are blighted with the same disease of being homo sapiens. It´s playground politics really, homo sapiens will forever want better shoes than their friends. There´s always that one kid who will punch you in the stomach for a cheese and onion crisp. Or the weirdo who tortures stray cats in their spare time.

We can pretend as much as we like that in our ever-enlightened world there is no place for racism, but imagine a “swarm” of migrants and what do you see?

Dehumanisation, too, comes in handy when squinting at reality. We can´t kill a human but we can kill a rat. We couldn´t bomb a human, but we could bomb the “scum”.  How could we possibly deal with a swarm of migrants, swarms of stuff are never good. Waves are dangerous, too.

We can´t imagine the horror that some people have to live day in and day out. So we often just don´t.

But I find it odd how the people who lose faith in humanity aren´t living the nightmare. We can edit our own reality; turn the news off if we find it too distressing, we can say “oh, god, I don´t want to know”, we can text a donation to plaster over the guilt.

What drives people to sail across the Mediterranean on raft? Desperation no doubt, but perhaps a faith in humanity, too? Faith that their fellow human beings will help them. And for a time that was the European mood, people went to train stations in Germany with toys and blankets and food to meet and greet their new arrivals. Sweden accommodated thousands of people. Then a migrant murdered an aid-worker, and then shelters were burned down and fascists took to the streets again. And then there were incidents of sexual harassments across Europe. And we reveal racist thinking by trying to find patterns and connections of culture in a mass of people with one identity: migrants.

People are great, I think. This morning Fi bought me bread. In Iran people invited me for dinner nearly every day. In Turkey a man paid for my bus-ride. Perhaps it´s just impossible to consider the human race as a whole, and when we do the patterns of behaviour we find, or at least concentrate on are largely negative. I´d argue that the forces for good are found in the individual and miniscule transactions of everyday-life. Saying hello to someone is nice. Tipping a waiter is nice. Parting with an object is nice. Squeezing someone´s arm mid-conversation is nice. Thinking about someone is nice. Being concerned about someone is nice. Being concerned about people you´ve never met is just as nice.

When I start to lose my faith in humanity, I just try to focus on the details.

I will remember to put that water bottle by my bed tonight, though.

Why I Support Donald Trump

1. Firstly, it would be hilarious. The image of this grinning, mouldy tea-bag of a man walking onto the stage against the backdrop of the Star-Spangled Banner is a source of endless entertainment.

2. There’s no room for sanity on the world-stage. Trump would be hoisted to the heady heights of Putin and Xi Jinping— two megalomaniacal autocrats whose iron knuckles scrape the floor. One subtle difference is that while Putin and Xinping like to swallow people and countries whole, Trump prefers to spit them out. He might have to consider invading Ottawa if he wants to gain any respect from those particular peers.

3. It would do justice to the American political system. When sensible Republican candidates sink to the bottom of the barrel leaving one rotten apple who probably kisses the bathroom mirror every morning and another who thinks the Pyramids were built by the Tony the Tiger, is it not time for a quick reassessment?

4.  Because money does equal power. If Trump didn’t get that million-dollar loan on which to build his Empire, he’d probably just be the drunken, racist driveller at your local bar complaining about the sober Mexican guy who took his job.  The only reason the world is subjected to his ill-formed opinions is because of the bulge in his back pocket.

5. Peace in Syria. He would most likely accidentally re-direct airstrikes towards Slovenia, ironically killing thousands of innocent Syrians queuing up at the border, clambering over each other for a dose of the racist indifference that awaits them.

6. Revolutionising men’s hair. Out with the Kim Jong-Un look, the kids of tomorrow will ask their barber to blow-dry the road-kill they have sellotaped to their head. Anything to look like our new Imperial overlord.

7. He’ll provide thousands of jobs to migrant bricklayers who will find themselves marveling at their achievement from their home country.

Complacency is a Virtue

Copyright: Jake Threadgould

Copyright: Jake Threadgould

I am militantly apathetic and therefore well acquainted with the confines of cynical complacency. I violently project my apathy towards most things that other people seem to get riled up about; the Scottish Indy Ref, Jeremy Corbyn, David Cameron (oink), Catalonian independence, being productive, fulfilling dreams, waking up in the morning. I mean, whatever, all days end anyway.

This may sound like I have the sentience of phlegm, but I do care about some things— gay rights, women’s rights, Kurdish independence, Rioja— to name but a few. Perhaps a curious selection considering I am a hetero (?) male from the overcast climes of the Scottish north. Actually, not that curious at all if you believe in love and perhaps skim the news once in a while or, like me, read it so obsessively that it affects your social life: “no I can’t come out tonight, there’s been a landslide in Brazil”.

It also helps that I was raised by feminist social worker who would thankfully scorn me for saying someone’s shoes were totally gay from the day the nurse spanked my gender-neutral arse cheek until the day it sank in that it was totally gay to call something gay in a derogative, totally gay way.

Copyright: Jake Threadgould

Copyright: Jake Threadgould

Today’s protest was of the feminist ilk: contra la violencia machista. It reminded me that looks can be deceiving. I was speaking with a guy in a bar not long ago and our conversation swiveled towards women’s rights. His key point was “go outside and you’ll see that women in Spain are equal”.  It may appear that way but just because women in Spain don’t have to wear hijab, can leave their house unaccompanied, can drive, can vote, can choose their partner, have access to tampons, condoms, education, aren’t stoned to death on a daily basis doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done.

Some people struggle to see the inequality because they don’t have to live it. If I go on a night out the chances of catcalling, being groped or forcibly kissed are pretty bloody slim. And just because I roll the bottom of my jeans up doesn’t mean I’m asking for it. It sounds ridiculous but I’d hesitate to guess that almost 100% of my female friends could relate to this. I have had to play the role of pretend boyfriend for people before in order to curb unsolicited attention. That should not be brushed off as the norm.

There should also be no reason why a woman can’t walk through a dark park at 4am after a night out. But there is. Until there isn’t, there will still be a place for global feminist movements.

But you know, whatever. Like I care.  All days end anyway.

Protesters, Gran Via

Copyright: Jake Threadgould

Circular Paths

This monologue was inspired by a series of conversations with a friend in Iran. Although I have taken a few of their points accurately, I have invented much of it. I do not claim to represent the views of my friend or anyone in particular.

Tehran Bazaar

Tehran Bazaar

“If someone in Iran denies having at least two lives they’re either lying or they’re boring”- A.

I am officially mentally ill. ‘Officially’ in this case, however, does not denote reality or scientific accuracy or anything genuine at all. In fact I’ve never even seen a doctor about it. There’s no point. Some people refer to my entire country— and countries like mine­­— as schizophrenic. I definitely don’t have that. Schizophrenia is the inability to decipher fantasy from reality. I know exactly what is real. And I know what’s not real. What the government spews out on television, in leaflets, on billboards is a manufactured reality that only a few truly believe in. Yet, in order to survive in this stolid and oppressive regime everyone must spend part of their daily life upholding these fantastical pretenses. This way we can appease the government and its arms purely in order to carry on living our realities.

How I conduct myself in public— under the gaze of the police— contrasts dramatically with how I conduct myself in my private lives. Yes, lives. I have a few. The one I choose to live on any given day depends on where and with whom I will be spending my time. I’ve mentioned one life already; my public persona, which is the more conservative mask I don in the busy parts of town. Very little of my true self is exposed in this environment for fear of harm. This façade bears no resemblance whatsoever to the personality I take on around my boyfriend in the privacy of my apartment. Well, I say boyfriend, he is in fact a married man but he’s just like me. Our kind of relationship is not uncommon in our community. My apartment is my sanctuary. It smells like cannabis from about 10am onwards. I love cannabis. At night, the silence of my room is prickled by the crackle of joints and the groans of sex.

I suppose that this is a kind of fantasy life. It can’t exist outside my room. I don’t know what I’d do without it. It’s a created world. A world fashioned by the coming together of him and me. It is where I indulge in my vices. I’m always high at the weekends, too, which adds to the unreality of the situation. This life never comes into contact with my others. Well, it did once. I managed to bump into him and his wife at the bazaar— quite the feat if you think about it. Of course I couldn’t say anything, I couldn’t even wave, but I did smile. I doubt his wife would have been standing there if she knew I’d fucked him the night before. Then again, neither would I, probably.

Those are two of my lives. Overall I have five; first there is the life involving ‘it’, which is the gaze and the propaganda of the authorities, the same authorities who tell me that I am mentally ill. ‘Them’ is the second life, it represents the general public, strangers who don’t know me but are told of my kind and how to approach us, whether they take heed of this advice depends on the individual. Surrounded by ‘them’ I must carve out yet another, self-protective existence. Whether I’m in the queue at the bakery, at the bank or at university I deepen my voice slightly and straighten up. Then there is ‘him’, who I’ve already mentioned— my escape, my pleasure, and my vice. Then there is ‘you’. ‘You’ is you, the reader, ‘you’ is my sister, my confidant, the sphere of my life that comes closest to the final frontier of my true self— ‘me’. If you imagine four overlapping circles, ‘it’, ‘them’, ‘him’ and ‘you’, then ‘me’ is the opaque center.

Censored graffiti

Censored graffiti

‘Me’ is my real personality, a deftly veiled and disguised life that would be easily corroded in this toxic atmosphere. The authorities here in Iran make it difficult even for me to explore myself truly so I’m only going on what I think I know. To do what I want would be a crime against the values of the Islamic Republic. In fact, some of the things I do regularly are punishable by death. Only two people know this truth: me and my sister. I imagine that you are starting to get an idea, too, of whom I really am?

My secret truth is safe with my sister and I trust it’s safe with you. To expose my real personality would be to give myself into to systematic destruction that meets and greets people of my ilk. A reaction so volatile that my entire personality (and thereby me) could be snuffed out of existence, strung up by the neck in some grubby prison basement. I was born with this burden. It should be a celebration of love but I am not free to love. I am not free to express myself. I am not free

I. Am. Not. Free.

I am trapped, suffocated, hidden, invisible, gasping, in love, exhausted, desperate, in love. I am torn between fantasies. Fantastical future and fantastical present. Nothing is real. What is real is hidden in the recesses of my mind. I have a feigned past- an outward lie. No past. A past that I myself do not recognize as mine. No trace of me in my behavior. No proof of my reality. My past is ‘him’, ‘it’, ‘them’, not my own. An artificial existence. A pre-determined path of stale and unattractive opportunities. I can’t escape ‘it’. ‘It’ would kill me if it had the chance. I would be erased. But what would be erased? I don’t exist. Not really. Not yet. The government would kill me because I make love to another man, because I love another man, but they wouldn’t see it that way.

Did I choose to live this fantasy because of the reality in which I was born? Or did I choose to live this reality because of the fantasy in which I was born? Deciphering the two is a survival technique, not a symptom. I sometimes feel partially dead. Like I’ve never really existed. I would never renounce my Iranian nationality, which has nothing to do with it. I am fiercely proud to be Iranian. I am an Iranian who is gay. My country tells me that I’m mentally ill because of the way I am. It graciously offers a plethora of treatment, ranging from psychological realignment to gender realignment. Neither of which I need. Neither of which I want. I often find happiness in small things, with my friends and family, and with him. But I’m worried that this, too, is a survival technique.

Sanandaj, Kurdistan

Sanandaj, Kurdistan