“The hookah breaks the ice,” said the man behind the bar.
A collection of old, silver-painted water pipes styled as light fixtures hang above his head, bathing in gold a crowd of men as they puff away on flavored tobacco below. The pulsating beat of Arabic music wafts onto the outdoor patio from inside the bar, where throngs of gay men dance together, and scantily clad male go-go dancers gyrate on stages.
A similar scene of rhythm, smoke, and liquor plays out nightly throughout Los Angeles, a city revered for its immigrant and gay cultures. But for party-goers at this weekly romp, the atmosphere was a new one. Most hailed from the Middle East, where homosexuality carries social and sometimes even legal punishment. In Saudi Arabia, homosexual sex carries a maximum penalty of death, and even in Lebanon, which has a burgeoning gay club scene, “sexual intercourse contrary to nature” is illegal.
“In Middle Eastern culture, it’s much more difficult that you’re gay,” said Karo Margar, the hookah bartender, a 21-year-old Armenian-American from Glendale, California. “I’m not out,” adding that he’s told his sister, friends, and younger cousins but not his parents.
On a recent Thursday night, Arabic, Armenian, and English fluttered in the air at Club Nur, a weekly Middle Eastern gay club that has a home at MJ’s Bar in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. At a time of religious and ethnic strife abroad, Christians and Muslims flirted, smoked, and danced inside a near pitch-black bar. The crowd, like the Middle East itself, is diverse.
“They can come in and can be themselves,” said promoter Hrair Sarkissian, who founded the club with a partner in 2006. “They don’t have to worry about who’s looking and who’s not. They listen to their favorite songs … and have that feeling of being in the Middle East, and gay, and comfortable.”
In between puffs of champagne-orange flavored tobacco, Sami, a 24-year old from Saudi Arabia, said such public gatherings of gay men are unheard of in his home country, where parties are driven underground. Like others interviewed for this article, he only agreed to give his first name.
“There are some things I can’t do in public. It’s really hard,” the UCLA freshman said before scurrying off to translate for a friend who spoke only Arabic and had found a prospective match.
Sarkissian said the taboo of homosexuality in Middle Eastern culture means hosting the club requires special consideration. Curtains were deployed to enclose a sidewalk-adjacent patio during Club Nur’s stint at a West Hollywood venue. The number of promotional pictures taken has dwindled after patrons expressed their uneasiness. And a request from an Israeli reality show to film the scene at the club was denied.
“We understand our clientele doesn’t feel comfortable being that exposed,” said the 42-year-old Armenian from Lebanon.
Religious Interpretations of Homosexuality Have Cultural Significance
“As far as the religion is concerned let’s not make any bones about it. [Homosexuality] is incompatible,” said Usman Madha, community liaison for the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City. “We are no different than the Catholics, or the Orthodox Jews or the other faith-based communities.”
Islamic scholars typically view the story of Lut (Lot in the Bible) as condemning homosexuality, as do many Christian denominations, where the story is commonly known as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Like many tales in Islamic, Jewish, and Christian lore, the stories are similar but differ slightly. In all texts, God destroys a community he deems sinful.
Such religious interpretations still carry weight, even as gay individuals gain rights world-wide. On a recent night at Club Nur, Fahad, a practicing Sunni Muslim, parroted Madha’s religious conclusions. The business student, who drove an hour on a rainy night to come to the club, said his beliefs have stopped him from leading the life of a “full gay man.”
“I don’t honestly practice having sex with men,” he said, explaining that his faith views such actions — but not his feelings — as forbidden. “It’s hard not to have it, but what are you going to do?”
Fahad, who had been to the club once before, was beaming while he spoke. But the Qatar native couldn’t say if the smile was one of enjoyment, simply replying that Middle Eastern music, coupled with scores of gay men “surprised” him.
“Honestly, inside there is struggling between myself and religion,” he said.
But observant Muslims are far from the only group dealing with such contradictions. Many of the club’s patrons, like its founders, are Armenian Christians. And like their Muslim brothers, religion is a touchy subject.
Rev. Tavit Boyajian of Saints Joachim and Anne Armenian Apostolic Church in Illinois says the Bible clearly labels homosexual sex a sin. The priest has even written a blog post on his church’s website titled “Is the Armenian Church Against Homosexuality?” where he advocates “addressing another’s sin” with “gentleness and sincere concern for the well being of the other.”
“I find it interesting why people don’t just disagree. I have no problem if you disagree with scripture,” he said in a phone interview. “They can say, ‘The Bible says this, and I think it is wrong’ … then we could have a discussion.”
But nestled inside Club Nur, young men brushed off the edicts of their religious leaders.
Salem, a Druze from Beirut, bantered back and forth in English with an Armenian Christian, also from Lebanon. The 28-year old said he believes in God but is not religious.
“If I was religious, I wouldn’t be here speaking with guys,” Salem said, referring to the denunciation of homosexuality among the Druze, a mystical religion with roots in Shiite Islam. “A lot of gays are atheists.”
The filmmaker said he came to Club Nur to find a “hot blooded” man fresh out of the Middle East.
“If he has been living in California for a long time, he’s so Californian, so L.A. The qualities I am looking for are not there,” he said. But Los Angeles is still preferable, he added, because the city’s open culture makes it easier to meet potential partners.
“It’s nicer here,” he said, surrounded by gay men and the sweet smell of burning hookah tobacco.
In the U.S., some religious leaders have even challenged long-held views on homosexuality.
“The Koran speaks about relationships, and in general, it does not use male and female to identity them. It speaks in terms of spouses, partners, and lovers,” said Imam Daayiee Abdullah, a black convert, who has administered nikahs, or Islamic marriage contracts, to gay individuals for decades.
“So often people read the Koran in black and white, but God speaks in depth and breadth, and they fail to read that and understand [scripture] in those terms. They cut people off, but that is people’s fault not God’s fault,” the openly gay Washington D.C.-based imam said.
A Place Where Both Identities Are Celebrated
As the clock ticked toward one in the morning at Club Nur, Talin Shahverdian chatted loudly with her friends next to a red-backlit bar.
The 37-year-old Burbank resident said she came to meet “hot Middle Eastern women” but the turnout disappointed her.
“If I was a gay man this would be heaven,” she screamed over the thumping beat, looking toward a crowd of about 30 revelers illuminated by red and blue strobe lights dancing on a wood-paneled dance floor.
“You get to be with your own people,” Shahverdian said with a smile.
Throughout the night, Gevorg Khudyan shuffled through a variety of music from his raised DJ perch that overlooks the dance floor, intertwining Israeli, Armenian, Persian, Turkish, and English beats with predominately Arabic riffs.
“In the Arab world, there’s like 15, 16 different genres. You have Saudi music, which is the Gulf music; you have the Lebanese; you have the Egyptian; you have the Tunisian. Everybody has their own style of music even though it’s Arabic,” said Khudyan, 29, who along with Sarkissian founded and promotes the club.
Two years ago, when Club Nur was located in West Hollywood, Sarkissian and Khudyan (Margar’s boyfriend) put on a Mediterranean cruise promo. The nights included food and music specific to six ports of call around the sea.
“We did Turkish, and all the Armenians were pissed. And then we did an Israeli night, and all the Arabs were pissed,” Sarkissian said. “I have friends who haven’t been to the club in the last two years just because they were pissed.”
Such divisions were a disappointment, Sarkissian said, but added they are an anomaly inside the “ideal Middle East” he and Khudyan have created; one where both identities — gay and Middle Eastern — are not only welcomed, but celebrated.
As excited patrons lined up to enter the club, Sarkissian — drink in hand — chatted calmly inside a dimly lit enclosed patio abutting the street. The weekly party has even spawned several relationships, he said, including his own marriage. (Sarkissian and his husband married during a short window after the California Supreme Court overturned a gay marriage ban and prior to Proposition 8’s passage.)
“I have these two friends,” Sarkissian said. “One is Israeli and one is Palestinian. They went home together. We told them to go home and work on the peace process.”
Andrew Khouri is a second-year graduate journalism student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. A Southern California native, he enjoys reporting on politics, business, and issues of social justice. He has interned for the Associated Press in London and the Daily Breeze newspaper in Los Angeles County.
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