Reporter's notebook

Secret freedom at Tel Aviv’s ‘Palestinian Queer Party’

Firmly in the closet at home, Palestinian gay pride flourishes once a month in an underground Israeli nightclub

Dancing the night away at the Palestinian Queer Party (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Dancing the night away at the Palestinian Queer Party (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

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 embraces everywhere.

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.

Dances and embraces at a secret location (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Dances and embraces (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

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 discreet. 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.)

Call it activism or pleasure seeking: The party celebrates both being Palestinian and being gay.

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.

Anonymous fun in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Anonymous fun in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

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!”

I gasped.

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.

Ads outside the Palestinian Queer Party (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Ads outside the party (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)

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 Heights.

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.”

While in Lebanon and parts of the Gulf being gay is less frowned upon, in Palestinian society homosexuality is barely acknowledged.

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 women.

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 status.

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.

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