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Gay Arabs find a place to dance in New York

Gay Arabs find a place to dance in New York
New York:  Around midnight, upstairs in a small club on Avenue of the Americas, the pitch-black dance floor resounded with the rapid stomps and warbling, high-energy cries of the dabke, an Arab folk dance performed at weddings and other celebrations.

When the strobe lights flashed, they revealed a sea of raised hands. A man in the crowd removed his kaffiyeh, the traditional headdress worn by some Arab and Kurdish men, and whipped it around in the air.

"I can understand so many conversations going on right now," a Fashion Institute of Technology student shouted over the music, coiling his wrists and shaking his hips to the belly-dance beat. "But you wouldn't want me to translate. It's all dirty. Dirty Arabic."

This was a recent Saturday night at Habibi, a floating monthly dance party of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Arabs in New York. In a city that seems to offer activities for every conceivable gay subculture -- one 700-entry directory lists support groups for, among others, gay vegans, pilots and sailing enthusiasts, along with 62 religion-based groups -- Habibi is perhaps the only opportunity in New York for gay people of Middle Eastern descent to interact openly in an organized setting.

"In New York there's nowhere I can come to and cry, so to speak," said Amir, 27, a registered nurse from Saudi Arabia who lives in Brooklyn and has been coming to the party for six years. "Habibi is a welcoming community."

In its nomadic nine-year history, Habibi, which rests only during the holy month of Ramadan, has inhabited straight and gay clubs and hookah bars all over Manhattan -- Flamingo, Boom, the China Club, Club Duvet, Moomia -- and outlived many of them.

Lately, Habibi has made its home at Club Rush in Chelsea. Its downstairs neighbor there is one of the city's few "twink" parties; the word describes particularly boyish-looking men. Throughout the night, shy, lithe, silken-haired young men trickled upstairs to ogle the mob of Arab men dancing to Middle Eastern pop, spun by the party's founder, a practicing Muslim named Abraham.

Habibi, the Arabic word for "my beloved", is a sort of stepchild of a more serious-minded group called the Gay and Lesbian Arab Society. Abraham, a former accountant in his 40s with a shaved head, steady gaze and smoky accent, was one of the society's co-founders. Through the 1990s, the group met at the LGBT Center in the West Village.

"It got big, which is not always a good thing, because you have all nationalities of the Middle East," said Abraham, who is of Syrian and Palestinian descent, grew up in Kuwait and now lives in Astoria, Queens. Like others interviewed for this article, he spoke on the condition that his last name not be used.

"The Egyptians want to hang out with the Egyptians, the Moroccans want to hang out with the Moroccans, et cetera," he said. "This is always a problem you have with Arabs."

The cookies-and-tea meetings, Abraham said, "got a little boring." The first Habibi party, in early 2002, was a fund-raiser for the society, held in an Italian restaurant on the Lower East Side. "I thought what was natural was to do something fun, have people dance, have fun," Abraham said.

Though the Gay and Lesbian Arab Society tended toward balkanization, Abraham said: "Habibi blends everybody. It breaks down as many walls as possible. You have everyone in the same room dancing."

The society's ranks, meanwhile, continued to thin. By the end, only a handful of people would show up for meetings.

"I think around 2004, it was the Internet that really did it," said Nadeem, an Iraqi Christian who served as the society's president from 2000 to 2004, when it stopped meeting -- though its Web site remains active. "There wasn't a need to go to meetings; people could just meet up online. Habibi is so successful, one, because it's a business and Abraham really treats it like one, and two, the idea of a party entices people more."

Gay Muslims, at least as much as adherents of other faiths, face hurdles reconciling their religion with their sexuality. At the city's biggest mosque and one of its more progressive, the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, the imam, Mohammad Shamsi Ali, laid out what amounted to a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"Homosexuality is grouped with adultery, fornication, all of them very severe sins, but you don't need to talk about it," Mr. Ali said. "It is between you and the creator." He said gays and lesbians were welcome at his mosque, even to bring their partners. "But we don't need to know about their sex lives," he said.

As the only game in town, Habibi, which has attracted as many as 300 guests, brings together Arabs of all social stripes -- at once a blessing and a source of its own brand of discrimination.

"In Dubai, everyone is bisexual," a 22-year-old Columbia University accounting student said at the party in November. "But it's such a different scene there." Calling Habibi "kind of trashy compared to what most Arabs, at least in Dubai, are used to," he said: "I mean, there are street vendors here." Nodding in the direction of a man standing in the shadows nearby, the student said: "You can spot the ones who sell kebabs on the street. It's not difficult."

In the D.J.'s booth, Abraham kept the hits coming -- mainly from Egypt and Lebanon, but also some South Asian and Indian pop. "Anything with a belly dance beat," he said. "Keeping people on the dance floor is a natural high for me."

The dancers included plenty of non-Arab men, many of whom Abraham said were regulars.
"Hummus queens," a 24-year-old grocery clerk from Queens named Hilal joked at one of the parties. "That's what you call white guys who go for Arabs."

Some of the guests yearned for something more than just a good time. "There's a lot of post-9/11 baggage that people want to deal with," Hilal said during another party. "But the only option they have is to go out to a club and dance?"

Still, Hilal, wearing a "Hummus Is Yummus" T-shirt and a Mohawk haircut, took his place on the dance floor, too.

And around 1 a.m., three female belly dancers took to the stage, dressed in pink sequined burqas. The crowd tightly gathered around the dancers and cheered as the women, piece by piece, stripped their burqas to a crooning love song.
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