Khaled Alesmael is meeting the Iraqi Bear.

“Today and after two years in here, I don’t recognize myself. Even the mirror doesn’t”


Illustration: Jenny Mörtsell (bilden är beskuren)


The gay bear social networks are almost empty in Sweden. Sometimes, I reach the bear gays in the neighborhood countries particularly Norway and Denmark. But it seems that there are many interesting hidden bears nearby. Once, in August 2016 –I was already in bed – I have got a notification that I received a message on Growlr. I opened the app to find this message:

“I am so much into the middle eastern guys. Where do you live sexy?”

It was from a hidden account, and without a profile photo or any information Furthermore, it was 100 km away from my house in Gothenburg.  I did not give any attention. Sometimes, I get this kind of messages in the weekends from drunk people they are looking for a  casual intercourse. I was about closing the app; his photo popped up below the text message. It was a picture of a typical Middle Eastern guy. Thick black eyebrows, dark long beard and Turkish style mustache showing his hairy shoulders.


It was hard to go further with him and get his phone number; it cost me weeks. He was afraid to speak about himself as he was an asylum seeker in Asylboende near Ullared., especially when I introduced myself as a journalist and looking for friends or cases for my work. I read fear, loneliness, sadness and sexual suppression between his words.

I, as a gay man came from the middle east, totally understood his fear of the media. I was patient until he felt more relaxed and revealed his real identity. He decided to add a photo to his bear gays social media and named the profile “Iraqi Bear”.

We both had somethings in common, gayness, the background, culture, language, race and mainly the life in the asylboende with homophobic roommates. We became friends. I invited him to my house in Gothenburg to introduce him to my partner and our friends.

@Gothenburg September 2016!

It was his first time in Gothenburg, September 2016.I waited for him at central station, he waved hello from between the trains. A chubby guy dressed an XXL shirt and blue jeans; nothing can tell that he is gay except his dark sexual humour about men. That visit was just three weeks before his main interview with the migrationsverket. He needed someone to listen to him and make him feel safe in this exile.


The Iraqi Bear used to work as a makeup products’ salesman in his homeland. He is too much into fashion and beauty “I used to spend all my day in front of the mirror combing my hair” he said. He used to have long hair and very different style as a chubby guy in Baghdad. He was obsessed in accessories and colourful hats. Suddenly, he cut his hair and stopped wearing his accessories. Unknown groups started in 2014 to hunt the male guys with long hair, girlish clothes, and tight-fitting clothes. He was afraid to get a threat or to be killed.

His roommate in Ullared was a 55-years-old conservative man from Iraq too. He did not like The Iraqi Bear, he found him effeminate and too much. He always commented on his behaviour and bothered him with his questions; Why do you use a beauty full set hair like girls? This question took the Iraqi Bear to the homophobic environment that he run away from it. He started to act as a straight man as much as he could. “I am a stranger and feeling lonely in a crowded place” He described his life in the asylboende. The Iraqi bear lives in two exiles; the first is the homosexuality in a place like the asylboende and the second in Sweden.

He was in a far distant relationship with an Iraqi guy. They both made the journey together, but for a reason, his boyfriend decided to apply for asylum in Finland. They were in touch every day exchanging photos and talk about their new lives and dreamed of their future.

During that visit, he was very excited and happy, He was already in touch with his lawyer, and she promised him that she would help him to get three years’ residence permit in Sweden. His main interview with migration case officer was on the 27th of October 2016.

@Helsinki October 2016!

I met his boyfriend in Finland. He was already integrated and had a lot of Finish friends. I met him at his work; he was working as a waiter for a coffee shop and bar for bearish gays in Helsinki. I was impressed by his personality, very sociable and kind person and I knew from my Finish friends who always attend the coffee shop that he was a hard worker and extremely friendly. He obviously had better life and opportunities than the Iraqi Bear.

He was waiting to be granted the residence permit too; this would allow him to visit his partner in Sweden.


@Home July 2017

I was at my place in Gothenburg reading the news about the Iraqi model Karar Nushi who was brutally killed in Baghdad ‘because of his good looks.’ He was found covered in stab wounds in the middle of the city. Karra’s friends said on social media they believed he was killed in ambiguous circumstances because of the way he dressed, his long hair and his friendship with female actors. I immediately thought about the Iraqi Bear and what he told me about killing the young guys (who had different styles or high fashionable, girlish clothes like models)  in Baghdad. I phoned him.

His voice was broken on the mobile phone, as the connection was very bad: “The migrationsverket rejected my asylum application, and I broke up with my boyfriend.”

@Halmstad October 2017

The migrationsverket moved him to a different asylboende, the nearest city was Halmstad, and we met there. He took me to his favourite coffee shop. The door of the coffee shop was covered with the Welcoming phrases with several languages it was a sign that they are open for all nationalities Välkommen, Welcome, Marhaban, Witamy…etc.

I could not recognize him; he lost weights. And when he took the sunglasses off, his eyes were different to before; they were very sad and tearful. “I lost everything” he started the conversation.

On the valentine’s day “14th of February 2017” he was sitting in his room at the asylboende, feeling lonely and sad. It was the first Valentine after the boyfriend broke up with him. “The love has been vanished because of the distance,” he said. On that day, he received a post from the migration office with a negative decision. “such a love day” ironically, he said.


Two years in the asylboende are enough to make him lose his way; he is acting like a straight man to protect himself in a homophobic environment. “I am always playing a role, I am an actor” He lost his identity, personality, and the confidence”. “Today and after two years in here, I don’t recognize myself. Even the mirror doesn’t” he said then he followed: “The migrationsverket did not believe that I am gay. That was the reason they rejected my application.”

Published in Swedish in  Ottar Magazine Autumn 2017





























Published by Khaled Alesmael

KHALED ALESMAEL is a multi-awarded journalist, author and sometimes filmmakers. He worked in Syria and the Middle-East for more than fifteen years, was the correspondent for Radio France International/ Arabic from Damascus and the media officer for the risk reduction project/ UNDP Damascus. In 2012, he escaped the war and continued his career in the media in Egypt and Turkey. He apply for asylum in Sweden in 2014 and he got it and became a Swedish citizen in 2018. His works have appeared in the prestigious investigative programs Investigative Mission/ SVT and Conflict Program/ Swedish Radio, and he has been writing for several newspapers and magazines like Ottar in Stockholm and Newstatesman magazine in London. He has also worked for the daily German newspaper as a visiting journalist through the International Journalist Program. He became a Swedish citizen in 2018, and he lives in London now. Selamlik is his debut novel; it came out in August 2018. It has got considerable attention in the Swedish media and positively reviewed: "Selamlik is a prospective classic, a low-key melancholy, and grand book." - Dagens Nyheter “He reminds me of Jean Genet, as brutal as helplessly romantic”. The legendary Swedish gay writer Jonas Gardell for Expressen. “A magnificent account of the Syrian disaster" Sydsvenskan. "Selamlik glances at gates to other worlds" JP. "Khaled Asmael's debut novel about a man's escape from the Damascus gay scene to a refugee center in Europe glides imperceptibly between fantasy, nightmare, and reality" Göteborg Posten.

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