Gay Muslims party in Berlin, nervously

BERLIN: Six men whirled faster and faster in the center of the nightclub, arms slung over one another’s shoulders, performing a traditional circle dance popular in Turkey and the Middle East.

Nothing unusual, given the German capital’s large Muslim population.

But most of the people filling the dance floor Saturday at the club SO36 in the Kreuzberg neighborhood were gay, lesbian or bisexual, and of Turkish or Arab background. They were there for the monthly club night known as Gayhane, an all-too-rare opportunity to merge their immigrant cultures and their sexual identities.

European Muslims, so often portrayed one-dimensionally as rioters, honor killers or terrorists, live diverse lives, most of them trying to get by and to have a good time. That is more difficult if one is both Muslim and gay.

“When you’re here, it’s as if you’re putting on a mask, leaving the everyday outside and just having fun,” said a 22-year-old Turkish man who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear that he would be ostracized or worse if his family found out about his sexual orientation.

Safety and secrecy come up regularly in conversations with guests, who laugh and dance but also frequently look over their shoulders. To be a gay man or lesbian with an immigrant background invites trouble here in two very different ways.

“Depending on which part of Berlin I go to, in one I get punched in the mouth because I’m a foreigner, and in the other because I’m a queen,” said Fatma Souad, the event’s organizer and master of ceremonies. Souad, 43, a transgender performer born in Ankara as a boy named Ali, has put on the party for over a decade.

Souad came to Berlin in 1983 after leaving home as a teenager. She studied to be a dressmaker and played in a punk band but discovered Middle Eastern music through a friend and began teaching herself belly dancing. Souad started Salon Oriental, her first belly dancing theater, in 1988, and threw the first Gayhane party – hane means home in Turkish – in January 1997.

The club was packed by midnight and still had a line out the front door. On stage, Souad mixed a white turban and white net gloves with a black tuxedo with tails and a silver cummerbund, her face made up with perfectly drawn eyeliner and mascara. Dancing, she was all fluid motion, light on her feet, expressively twisting her hands and swiveling her hips.

Under flashing colored lights, guests, some with dreadlocks and others with carefully gelled coifs, moved to songs by the likes of the Egyptian Amr Diab and the Algerian Cheb Mami. Beats from traditional drums crossed with electronic ones, as melodies from flutes and ouds intertwined. When several circle dances – halay in Turkish – broke out at once, the floor began to shake from the stomping.

One of the regular DJs, Ipek Ipekcioglu, 35, said she got her start rather suddenly, when one of the founders of SO36 walked up to her and asked: “You’re Turkish, right? You’re lesbian, right? Bring your cassettes and DJ,” she recalled. Ipekcioglu spins everything from Turkish and Arabic music, to Greek, Balkan and Indian, a style she calls Eklektik BerlinIstan. She has been a full-time professional DJ for six years and now performs all over the world.

The space is decorated with bright yellow wall hangings depicting elephants, camels and even a flying carpet, with an intentional degree of kitsch, Souad said, and an intentional distance from anything Islamic. “We take care that religion is not mixed in here, not in the music, either.”

Outside, the boom of loud firecrackers can be heard, the first test rounds for the annual cacophony here that leaves New Year’s revelers ears’ ringing. Kreuzberg has been home for decades to large populations of Turks and Kurds, many of whom have very conservative religious values. Yet they have had to share the neighborhood that formerly abutted the Berlin Wall with many counterculture types, artists and anarchists and also gays and lesbians.

According to the city’s Schwules Museum, partly devoted to the history of gay people in the city and the country, “a lively homosexual subculture had developed in Berlin by the second half of the 18th century or perhaps earlier.” It was known as an oasis for gay men and lesbians in the Weimar period immortalized by the writer Christopher Isherwood and in the period when West Berlin was surrounded by the Wall. Today, the city has an openly gay and highly popular mayor, Klaus Wowereit.

But gay men and lesbians from Muslim families say they face extraordinary discrimination at home. A survey of roughly 1,000 young men and women in Berlin, released in September and widely cited in the German press, found much higher levels of homophobia among Turkish youth.

“These differences are there. We can’t deny them. The question is how do we cope with them,” said Bernd Simon, who led the study and is a professor of social psychology at Christian-Albrechts-University in Kiel. “The answer is not to replace homophobia with Islamophobia,” Simon said, pointing out that homophobia is also higher among Russian immigrants and in other, less urban parts of Germany.

“For us, for Muslims, it’s extremely difficult. When you’re gay, you’re immediately cut off from the family,” said Kader Balcik, a 22-year-old Turk from Hamburg. He had recently moved to Berlin not long after being cut off from his mother because he is bisexual. “A mother who wishes death for her son, what kind of mother is that?” he asked, his eyes momentarily filling with tears.

Hasan, a 21-year-old Arab man, sitting at a table in the club’s quieter adjoining cafe’, declined to give his last name, saying: “They would kill me. My brothers would kill me.” Asked whether he meant this figuratively, he responded, “No, I mean they would kill me.”

“I’m living one life here and the other one the way they wish me to be,” Hasan said, referring to his parents. He said that he still planned to marry, but when he turned 30 rather than right away, as his parents wished. “I have to have children, to do what Islam wants me to do,” he said. “I would stop with everything in the homosexual life. I would stop it.”

He stood up from the table and called to his two friends. “All right, boys, let’s go dance. We’re here to have fun,” and they marched off to the dance floor, smiling.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday January 1, 2008.
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