Secret freedom at Tel Aviv’s ‘Palestinian Queer Party’ (TIMES OF ISRAEL) By MICHAL SHMULOVICH 04/20/12)
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Firmly in the closet at home, Palestinian gay pride flourishes once a
month in an underground Israeli nightclub
Chiseled, scantily clad men danced onstage. Strobe lights flashed as
the bass echoed. The smell of cologne wafted through the air. There
were kisses — one on the right cheek, one on the left — and friendly
It could have been any Tel Aviv club, really, except it wasn’t. It
was a Friday night and I was at my first Palestinian gay dance party
in south Tel Aviv.
People greeted each other in Arabic: Kif inta? Shu ’jdid? The stereo
wailed, inti ‘omri! — you are my life! — as the DJ played hit after
hit by Egyptian and Lebanese pop stars Amr Diab, Nancy Ajram and
Sherine. No Eyal Golan or Justin Timberlake here.
And there were drag queens, dressed to the nines in high heels and
short skirts, with bows in their very long, very straightened hair.
Others covered their faces, or wore burka-like head veils.
This did not, however, stop them all from carousing together. One of
the drag queens yelled at me to stop photographing — it could be
dangerous for them if someone sees the pictures, I was told, because
many of those at the party are still in the closet.
In fact, a few people I met did not want to tell me their names or
where they were from, or any detail that could link them to the fact
that they were at the party. Hence, the names of people interviewed
for this article have been changed to protect their identities, and
the photos carefully selected.
The party is an anonymous safe haven. And that’s why it’s such a hit.
The group alQaws organizes the Palestinian Queer Party — its name for
these monthly events. According to its website, alQaws works
to “promote sexual and gender diversity in Palestinian society”
throughout Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The monthly Arabic music extravaganza is meant to be a kind of free
zone for Arab men and women to be gay — in their own culture, yet
outside of society’s proscribed sexual and gender rules.
It’s inclusive, meaning fans of the community are welcome, and yet
it’s discrete. It’s also a meet and greet and, for some, it may be
their only outlet to gay culture in their otherwise straight lives.
Call it activism or pleasure seeking: The party celebrates both being
Palestinian and being gay.
It started about 10 years ago, originally taking place in Jerusalem
on weekday evenings, when some 40 or 50 Palestinian men from the area
would gather. The organizers moved it to Tel Aviv about five years
ago, and now hundreds show up each month. People travel from all
over: Ramallah, East Jerusalem, small Arab villages in northern
Israel, Yafo, everywhere. Those traveling from Ramallah have their
own ways of getting into Israel – some of them with official permits,
but most of them without. [For the purpose of this article, Israeli
Palestinian-Arabs and Palestinians from the West Bank are grouped
together -- broadly, in terms of social culture -- and not to achieve
a political message.]
Some West Bank Palestinians request visitor permits to enter Israel,
but the documents don’t always materialize. Often they need an
Israeli to act as sponsor and even that won’t guarantee entry. The
unofficial channels are still preferred.
Abbud, a young Palestinian man from outside Ramallah, smiled when I
asked him how he got to Tel Aviv. “Oh, we have our ways,” he said,
hinting that it was not the first time he’d made the voyage. I asked
him how he planned to get home at the end of the night. “Getting out
is easier than getting in,” he replied.
When I asked him if he thinks people come from Gaza, he laughed and
said it’s too dangerous, but added that they would probably like to.
There have been rumors of over a hundred gay Palestinians from Gaza
who have crossed into Israel to live, to avoid persecution for their
homosexuality. However, the move remains dangerous.
Yet crossing borders, it seems, is a minor hurdle compared to the
challenges of daily life “back home,” living as a gay man in
patriarchal Arab society, where tradition and family honor abound.
Under the radar
My pocket-sized knowledge of Arabic came in handy at the party: I
introduced myself to Tamer, a soft-spoken middle-aged Arab man with
piercing eyes, near the bar. Thank goodness for him — he was like the
party mayor, popular and knowledgeable.
The first person he introduced me to was Hamad, his boyfriend.
Probably 20 years Tamer’s junior, Hamad hails from a village outside
Nazareth, where Tamer is also from. Nowadays, they live together in
south Tel Aviv. Hamad is the energetic type, muscular and wildly
handsome. He pranced around with his fellow revelers, kissing this
one, dancing with that one.
In between songs, I tried to ask Tamer more questions about his life,
and how he came to attend this event. “We dance first, talk later,”
he joked. It was loud and hard to talk, so I agreed. I decided to
soak up the festive beat and enjoy the attention. As one of the only
girls at the party, I was fussed over.
On our way out, Tamer stopped me. “You’ll come over for dinner next
week, habibti” – my love.
A few days later, I went to Tamer’s for a delicious home-cooked meal.
We were sprawled out on the floor for this feast. In between
mouthfuls of tabouleh and seasoned rice with lamb, he began telling
me about himself — just one life of the hundreds who regularly attend
the dance party — a life filled with surprises.
“I used to be married to a woman,” Tamer announced. “And I have two
kids. Two beautiful boys!”
He seemed to anticipate my reaction, and answered in a tone that was
half-joke and half-cover-up: “I like men and women,” he chuckled, as
if to tell me he wasn’t always gay, per se, it’s just something that
came to him later in life.
But there was more to his story. Even if Tamer really is bisexual, he
did not have much of a choice: To stay in Nazareth, he had to get
married – to a woman, of course.
“My kids don’t know I’m gay,” added Tamer. “Why would I tell them? It
wouldn’t add anything to their lives – or to mine. I do as I please,
I don’t answer to anyone. I want them to live normal lives and to
have everything they need,” he said, referring both to his being gay
and to the emotional hardships his sons faced when he and his former
wife split up.
So, Tamer chose secret freedom — in impersonal Tel Aviv, where no one
really knows him — and he can do as he pleases, most of the time.
Hamad later told me that his family thinks he lives with roommates in
Tel Aviv so that he can find better work opportunities and save
money. In fact, Hamad and Tamer work together at a Tel Aviv
restaurant; Tamer is a cook and Hamad washes dishes. They live with
two other gay Palestinian roommates.
“They have no idea,” Hamad laughed. Only one of the four roommates
has come out to his family: Saadi, a shy young man from the Golan
Tamer later told me he took Saadi as a roommate because Saadi’s
family asked him to leave when they found out he was gay. “He had
nowhere else to go,” Tamer said. Now Saadi supports himself by
working at a convenience store in central Tel Aviv. He told me that
he still visits his family on weekends.
The roommates radiated the warmth and closeness of a family — which
makes sense, because in a sea of contradiction, they are each other’s
support and social conscience. They provide each other with a
barometer for normalcy between mixed identities — heterosexual,
homosexual, Palestinian, Israeli.
“In our world it’s still very hard to be gay,” said Tamer, “and men
do a lot of things to hide it.” He told me, for example, about a
famous imam who had solicited him for sex once. If a Palestinian is
gay, in most cases, their families don’t know about it. It’s one of
the best-kept secrets.
While in Lebanon and parts of the Gulf being gay is less frowned
upon, in Palestinian society homosexuality is barely acknowledged.
Talal, a young gay man from a prominent family in Ramallah, agreed to
speak to me for this article. Talal, who is dating a Palestinian man
from East Jerusalem, says that although they run in the same social
circles, barely anyone knows they are “more than friends.”
Checkpoints are one kind of barrier but Talal’s politically connected
family is the more threatening obstacle. It would be a major blow to
his brother’s high-ranking position in the Palestinian Authority,
Talal said, if the community found out about Talal’s sexuality. And
so, the young couple plan to move abroad for a while, they told me,
hopefully to Europe, to try to “live in freedom.”
And if being gay in Palestinian society is tough for men, the stigma
for a Palestinian lesbian woman is harsher. Talal explained that in
traditional Palestinian society, women don’t go to clubs and they
abstain from sex before marriage — unless they’re very progressive or
break away from their families altogether.
“Some [lesbians] move to Ramallah,” Talal said. “But, come on,
everyone knows each other here,” he added, pointing to the fact that
trying to live a secret lifestyle is no small task.
Even at the Palestinian Queer Party, there were only a handful of
Marriage – but to a woman
I asked Saadi, who had just finished gushing about his new boyfriend,
what he envisioned for himself. “Are you going to stay in Tel Aviv?”
“No,” he answered. He wants a family, he said. “When I get married,
I’m going to tell my wife I’m gay… so that it’s fair,” he added.
I asked him what he meant. “No façades,” he explained.
He stressed that he wants his own children. Marriage, for him, will
likely serve as a pretense — a tool — to enable him to garner social
Karim, the fourth roommate, an outgoing nursing student from Akko
with excellent English, chimed in, saying that he intends to marry a
woman as well.
He said he used to have girlfriends, and that maybe he’ll marry a
girl who is also a lesbian so they can help each other. “I’m gay, but
I don’t want a serious relationship with a man anyway!” he joked,
making light of his single status.
“Plus, I like women,” added Karim. He’ll marry, he said, so long as
he can have fun. Fun, in this case, being homosexual encounters. I
asked him if he would sleep with a woman, and he said that he hadn’t
yet, but that he would.
It wasn’t that he didn’t recognize that he was gay. He was different,
for example, from some men I had met while traveling in India, who
slept with men but didn’t identify themselves as gay. Those men
seemed to stumble upon it by chance rather than choice — out of
proximity to other men or desperation from not having been able to
sleep with women.
With Karim, on the other hand, I couldn’t be sure that he would
consider himself “gay” in the future. Like he said, he might just do
gay things once in a while, but live as if he were straight.
Perhaps Karim’s liberation comes from him not having to, or rather,
not being able to freely define himself as either straight or gay —
at least not to the outside world, meaning his world, in Palestinian
society. The secrecy gives him room to live one lifestyle and explore
another — all under the radar.
And Tel Aviv, the anonymous city, provides him with the perfect
backdrop. (© 2012 THE TIMES OF ISRAEL 04/20/12)
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