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.
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.)
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.