‘Honey, bring your husband next time’
SHARON OFFENBERGER savors the LGBTI night in Tel Aviv which celebrated something rare in the Middle East – unadulterated freedom
I WILL PREMISE THIS story with a qualification on language. I’m sure my 15 year old daughter would be unhappy with my use of binary pronouns for a sexually fluid, “gay” community instead of LGBTI, and any generalizations about Arabs, Jews or people in general In the story.
She may be right, but the Middle East is neither politically correct nor socially courteous. Sexual preference is not an indicator of political views. Like everything else, gender, identity, and emotion are handled in a way that doesn’t fall on the side of good manners. All Facebook profiles in the Middle East should automatically be a “hot brothel”.
“We’re going to a party” my French friend told me, “Meet me at an address in south Tel Aviv, I’ll text you at 8pm”. I had barely put my kids to bed when I was fully dressed and ready to rock with very low expectations. Dancing at 8 p.m.? Clubbing (for lack of a better word) in Israel never starts before 1am.
In a suspicious alley, used by garages to make ear-breaking noise during the day, or maybe a set for the TV series Fauda, we entered through an unsigned door without waiting in a queue. In an air-conditioned warehouse with almost no decoration, the room was full of men, dancing.
It was South Tel Aviv‘s secret and not-so-secret LGBTI party.
Israel has touted itself as a gay Mecca for the past decade, and Tel Aviv’s annual Pride Parade has become a staple on the international LGBTI calendar. Yet Israel still suffers from internal homophobia, especially among all of its religious groups. The Jerusalem Pride Parade is held under tight security, especially after a teenager was stabbed and murdered there in 2015.
Pride parades in Arab villages in Israel or neighboring countries are, of course, non-existent. In the Holy Land, it is not uncommon to live an “official” life following the correct steps of marriage, childbearing and family responsibility, and a secret life from anything that can be considered “sin” , from alcohol to premarital sex to infidelity.
This is not easy to understand for a foreigner in a region where the family is considered paramount, even for his own needs.
Despite what many think, going to Tel Aviv’s nightlife doesn’t make anyone any less Palestinian. The vocal opposition to the occupation does not depend on love life, and nationality has never been an obstacle to flirtation between Arabs and Jews, whether gay or straight.
In Hebrew and Arabic, we call each other “cousins” when we are not rude and hateful. In the Middle East, people are allowed to marry their cousins, right?
Back at the party, a preppy-looking guy in a white Penguin shirt and belted blue chino shorts grabbed me almost as I walked in, pulled me up to him, and started dancing. “Don’t worry, I’m gay,” he reassured me.
“Duh,” I thought, and I was nonetheless impressed by his civility as he brushed up against me.
My friends rejoiced that I was a “Bette Midler of the Middle East”. I didn’t flinch.
The music was a fantastic East-West fusion, the best I’ve ever heard. The men were immaculately groomed and well dressed. Body hair removed and head hair transplanted if necessary. Beards that would have made Theodor Herzl proud.
Small groups of women liked to dance alone without being hit on. Basic drinks, no fancy cocktails. Sweating in the driveway where we would retreat on hot summer nights to smoke cigarettes. Still, the party was rather conservative compared to those I had attended elsewhere. It wasn’t a Sleaze Ball in Sydney.
An announcement arrived in Arabic and English, although it was in Israel. There was going to be a show; no filming or photos allowed. Cell phones were used for their original conversational purpose. “Weinak?/Where are you? sounded over the music. More chatter, less Instagram.
When the drag queens came out, they looked innocent and inexperienced, which only added to their charm. I imagined them practicing secretly in their rooms. It became clear that this party was special for the one commodity that was hard to come by in the Middle East – unadulterated freedom.
Arabs, Israelis, foreigners, gay men and women, transgender all danced together. And the 40-year-old Jewish mother from Melbourne.
Arabs, Israelis, foreigners, homosexuals, transgender (Hebrew, plural) were all dancing together. And the 40-year-old Jewish mother from Melbourne.
With the attention I received, my friends raved about how a “Bette Midler of the Middle East” I was. I didn’t flinch. I had been compared to Hollywood actors before, usually Meryl Streep or Winona Ryder from the movie reality hurts.
The party would end around 11 p.m. Those who received permits to attend had to return by midnight, or risked more than becoming pumpkins. We were sent back to the streets of Tel Aviv with a secret in our hearts.
The reality of everyone’s life would bite again the next morning. But for a few hours, everyone, including me, lost identities that shape and constrain us in ways that are simply accepted as a fact of life. “It’s like that” – kacha ze – in Hebrew. We don’t live in Sweden.
I left the party high and swore to come back every month, which I did for a while. I had a full time job and two young children. In a hectic life, Friday from 8 to 11 p.m. was the only available date to get out of a routine life of work and motherhood.
“Ahlan motek (Hi sweetie),” I greeted my new friends.
“Habibti (darling). Bring your husband next time,” I was encouraged.
Photo: Gay Israelis watch a show at a gay club in Tel Aviv, 2006 (AP/Oded Balilty)