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Saviz Shafaie: Persia's Pioneer

By Jack Nichols

savizmom.jpg - 39.13 K Saviz Shafaie and his mother, Maheen Saviz Shafaie was in his late thirties when I first met him in the 1980s. On March 21st he'd invited me, along with a group of exiles, to his home where we celebrated NoRuz, the Iranian New Year.

At that time, many years had passed since I'd socialized with Iranians, the very people who'd ignited in me, when I was only twelve, an intense curiosity about their colorful native land and its ancient admirable culture. 9

Why, I'd wanted to know, upon first meeting Iranian kids in 1950, had the American males in my own culture been reduced to slapping each other's backs as their only socially-acceptable show of mutual affection?

And why, on the other hand, did my young Iranian male peers feel free—in front of their parents—to show me an almost romantic sort of platonic love, a love accompanied by same-sex hugs, hand-holdings and even kisses?

I learned that Saviz had once delivered—in the early 1970s-- what was no doubt the first gay liberation speech on Iranian soil, speaking to a group of classmates at the university in Shiraz. Later, arriving in the U.S., he'd immersed himself in sociological studies, quickly becoming an activist not only for gay and lesbian liberation, but for the men's movement and other progressive causes as well.

He'd read my tome on masculinity, Men's Liberation (Penguin, 1975) and had grasped early-on why the subject of male role-conditioning is more important, in many ways, to same-sex relationships, than almost anything else. Saviz had already become a hard-working member of the nascent men's movement, as well as an outspoken advocate of gay and lesbian rights in the South.

His New Years party showed me that side of the Iranian character I'd loved obsessively in my youth. There was Saviz himself, unashamedly dancing for his guests. And I thrilled to his golden recitations of Iran's great poets such as Rumi and Hafez, poets known and beloved by all. And then, there were his own poems.

The Iran-Iraq war had been raging at that time and the celebrating Iranian exiles feared for the safety of their families still living in the homeland. The cruel ayatollahs still enjoyed, at that time, a kind of total control.

Previous People Features from the GayToday Archive:
Interview: Savize Shafaie

Iranian Gays Bravely Unite Worldwide

Iranian Gay And Lesbian Magazine Hosts GayToday Editor

Related Sites:
Homan: Los Angeles
GayToday does not endorse related sites.

Even so, Saviz was able—through the heartfelt assurances he communicated— to focus his exile friends on what he knew to be the best antidotes in the struggle against worry, antidotes alive and well through their extraordinary culture.

Following the party, I composed my own poem to thank Saviz for re-igniting in me a passionate recall of my youth's foremost friendships and enthusiasms, those I'd shared with Iranian diplomats' children in Washington, D.C.

My poem, dedicated to Saviz, was titled

Noruz Reunion

Back to old Persian roots I go, touching young skeptics and old
mystics, fondling each disappearing seed that falls
behind a garden wall.

I hear the plaintive songs, the minor key of majesty and march,
I see the woman strong, sure-footed as she speaks.
I feel the probing eyes of spirit men, their faces lit by wily kindness,
the Persians of my childhood days.

The poetry begins. The human voice resounds.
So serious is each refrain,
so greatfully received.
The Persians chant into my soul,
as in the days of old.

These the earnest tones long missed;
These the sounds to call the future.
I join the probing question-themes, I giggle with the rest
at worldly clowns.

As quickly as the laughter fades, as sun goes down,
I am resolved that darkness will not win.
I cross a bridge on moonlit streams;
I see a flock of birds on high
and fly with them.

Baghdad bombs rain,
and clouds of mustard gas choke TV screens.
I bite into a Persian sweet. I marvel at a fresh-plucked fruit.
I listen to my heart.

Iran, Iran, it sings, My Unlived Dream:
to sit by some clear Persian brook,
nursing an old obsession for your lore.

O ancient Crossroads land, how quick you come to light
in exile Persian eyes.

Saviz with his lover, Jim Ford Within that same year, Saviz met his great love, an American, Jim Ford. At a Quaker meeting house, my Iranian friend and his wonderful lover held what they called a commitment ceremony. I sat in the audience and was one of those many who spoke of their affection for this exemplary couple, wishing them a happy future.

Among the things I noticed about this gathering was the diversity of causes that its celebrants represented. Many were involved in the Peace and Justice movement. And, of course, there were gay activists, feminists, environmentalists and men's liberationists.

For years, Saviz, along with his extraordinary mother, Maheen, had owned and operated a health food store in Florida's Winter Park. There, men and women, scions of progressive forces from all over the state, dropped in to enjoy refreshing smoothies and lively conversations that were unrivaled in their concern for the common good.

Saviz lost no time introducing me to the fledgling Iranian gay liberation movement, and he published the New Year's poem I'd written in the pages of Homan, the Iranian gay and lesbian liberation magazine. He traveled, along with the then-editor of Homan, to visit me at the beach. In each subsequent issue of the magazine, both of us were proud contributors.

Saviz earned a degree in social work, making many friends, as usual, at the university. He excelled as a student, and was soon helping and counseling citizens whose fortunes had waned.

With Jim, his constant companion, he also earned the love and respect of Orlando's gay community. The two lovers were presented with an annual award because of the inspiration they'd brought to so many.

Sadly, just as his new counseling career was getting off the ground, an inoperable cancerous tumor felled Saviz. He's now awaiting what appears to be an inevitable death. But like the trooper he is, he's meeting death with that same clarity and fearlessness he'd shown when he (a published gay liberationist) had temporarily returned to Iran in spite of the fundamentalists' threats—to visit his dying grandmother.

At the end of August, I received an invite to Saviz's 50th birthday party. I rented a car on the beach and drove to Orlando in a cloud of uncertainty. He knew he was dying. We, his friends, knew too. What kind of party would it be?

Over 30 guests were present, half of them Americans, the rest Iranians, both male and female. If a man's character can be shown by the friends he keeps, I thought as I mingled within this circle of people, then Saviz gets the highest possible marks.

He looked wan and tired at times, but his hopeful eyes were lit by a strong inner assurance that celebrated each moment spent living. He was not afraid to die, he told us. His triumphant face revealed as much. He'd lived a life of which he was rightfully proud.

And each of those proud to be his friends, myself included, stood and told how he'd touched them in some unforgettable way. There were professors, poets, activists, writers, and fellow students. There were few sad faces, although an Iranian woman wept openly. But Saviz was eagerly celebrating life just as he'd always done. He'd wanted the birthday guests to enjoy just such a celebration.

I watched as his faithful Jim helped Saviz accomplish those physical tasks required by the party. All I could think was how glorious is the personal manner that shines in this enormously kind man, how wise has been his choice of a lover, how lucky he was to be so loved by so many. His hair, dark when I'd first met him, was now nearly snow white.

Something physical about Saviz reminded me, I thought, of a older mentor I'd chosen when I was aged 15. The older man had been Iran's first envoy to America and the first Iranian to marry an American woman. Saviz, I noted, is the first Iranian gay man to formally commit to a relationship with an American male. His white hair, like that of my long-ago mentor's, gave him a kind of distinction, being a crown showing his wisdom.

I whispered to Maheen, his mother:

“Your son's dignity and beauty, now grown inwardly to maturity, recalls for me the best and highest pinnacles in Iran's ancient culture.”

As I write, Saviz still lives. My love for him expands. My reasons for admiring him multiply. I see how natural to him is the courage with which he faces death. This has been doubly sweetened by his own deep-going awareness that he's long managed to live with a deathless energy, working tirelessly to dispose of unnecessary human suffering.

As I left the birthday party, I thanked my lucky stars for their having brought this man into my life. The uncertainty I'd felt before arriving at his party had dissipated. Instead I found myself remembering a verse in the poem I'd dedicated to him twelve years before:

As quickly as the laughter fades, as sun goes down,
I am resolved that darkness will not win.

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