Gay Muslims Pack a Dance Floor of Their Own
The crowd at Gayhane, a monthly party for Arab and Turkish gay men, lesbians and
bisexuals at SO36, a Berlin nightclub. The event’s name is fashioned from gay and
“hane,” Turkish for home.
source: Berlin Journal of NY Times
By NICHOLAS KULISH
Published: January 1, 2008
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 on 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 the condition of anonymity out of fear that he would be ostracized or worse if his family found out about his sexual
Safety and secrecy come up regularly when talking to 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. Ms. Souad, 43, a transgender performer born in Ankara as a
boy named Ali, has put on the party for over a decade.
Ms. 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. Ms. 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, Ms. 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 D.J.’s, Ipek Ipekcioglu, 35, said she got her start rather suddenly, when one of the founders of SO36 walked up to her
and said: “You’re Turkish, right? You’re lesbian, right? Bring your cassettes and D.J.”
Ms. 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 D.J. for six years and performs all over the world.
Fatma Souad, a transgender performer
and Gayhane’s organizer, before dressing
for a Gayhane party last week.
The space is decorated with bright yellow wall hangings depicting elephants, camels and even a flying
carpet, with an intentional degree of kitsch, Ms. 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
“These differences are there,” said Bernd Simon, who led the study and is a professor of social psychology at Christian-Albrechts-
University in Kiel. “We can’t deny them. The question is how do we cope with them.”
“The answer is not to replace homophobia with Islamophobia,” he added, pointing out that homophobia is also higher among Russian
immigrants and in other, less urban parts of Germany.
Kader Balcik, a 22-year-old Turk from Hamburg, said: “For us, for Muslims, it’s extremely difficult. When you’re gay, you’re immediately cut
off from the family.”
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 if 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 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,” he said. “We’re here to have fun.” And they
marched off to the dance floor, smiling.