For Arab Lesbians, a Place to Dance Freely

Posted on 20 May 2012


Published: May 18, 2012

Emily Berl for The New York Times
Jaida Dance, center, performs for patrons.

AN unusually cold May evening left much of Greenwich Village looking abandoned, but inside Henrietta Hudson, Arabian desert rhythms were entrancing patrons. The lesbian bar was hosting the inaugural Banaat, the female offshoot of the gay Arab dance event Habibi.

“We love eclectic world music, but we never did a Middle East party,” said Lisa Graziano, an owner of the bar. “Now, we can give lesbians a choice.”

Inside the tinsel strewed bar, the event’s organizer, Abraham, who wanted to give only his first name, searched through books filled with CDs. “In the Middle East, they’ll play a lot of English music,” he said. “I only play Arabic.”

Abraham, a former accountant, uses D.J. IZ as his event name. He is of Syrian and Palestinian lineage and was born in Damascus. His largely all-male Habibi parties evolved from his work with the Gay and Lesbian Arab Society.

Habibi is the masculine form for “my darling” in Arabic. Abraham said that he thought to call that night’s party the feminine habibti, but worried even native speakers would be confused. Banaat means “girls.” “It’s pretty clear,” Abraham said.

Still, he said: “It never crossed my mind until recently to do a women’s party. A group of girls I am friends with from the Middle East told me, ‘We don’t want to come to your party because it’s all boys.’ ”

With Banaat, Abraham said jokingly: “I would like to think I am doing it the Middle Eastern way: boys together, girls together. Like schools and weddings.”

Established 10 years ago, Habibi has developed a loyal following, including non-Arabs. “I was pleasantly surprised,” Abraham said, but he was unsure how Banaat’s opening would go. “I want to see more heads,” he said. “Let’s hope for the best.” While there are other gay Arab parties in the United States, this may have been the first aimed at lesbian Arabs.

A few young glamorous women arrived early. One, who identified herself only as Maya, is 26, of Lebanese heritage and lives in Brooklyn with her parents. Pushing her long, wavy raven hair from her face, she said: “I just feel really happy that this is happening. To find a group of Middle Eastern women that are like me in New York.”

Over her jeans, Maya wore a bangled hip scarf that sparkled under the disco ball. She said she is not usually out on a weeknight. “I’m a normal, hard-working full-time employee,” she said, ”but I’m a lesbian and I want to be around others who are similar to me.”

Most of the crowd, which rarely rose above 50 people (half the bar’s comfortable capacity), was timid, curiously watching until two belly dancers, Jaida and Shari, arrived wearing sequined, diaphanous outfits, cleavage spilling from bejeweled bras. With long pink and white veils, they lassoed women to bump hips against them, dollar bills accumulating at their waists.

Jaida stepped into a cage in front of Abraham’s D.J. booth. Women grabbed at the bars, playfully fighting to enter. Asked if dancing here is different from Habibi, Jaida batted her glitter-smeared eyelids and said: “For me, dancing is dancing, and I enjoy myself. The people are warm and friendly here tonight.”

They also epitomized New York’s diversity, with Latins, African-Americans, Asians and Caucasians — and a handful of gay men.

Colombia-born Katia Abuchaibe, a Henrietta’s regular, said: “One of my very good friends is Arabic and she invited me to this. It was a beautiful thing to see, Arab culture, and the gay scene.” Scanning the crowd, she said, “I wish more Middle Eastern girls came. Yeah, I wish that.”

“So far, so good,” she added. “I love the music.”

Iquo Ukpong, originally from Nigeria, was expecting more people. “My friend is a belly dancer so we came to Habibi tonight,” she said. Told it was a new women’s event, she looked around in delightful surprise, then said, “The men’s is much better.”

Abraham chatted with Jaida, eyeing the crowd. “I was expecting it would be more,” he said, adding, “it’s the first time and lots of faces are here this night for the first time. And that is what you want, new faces.”

Over all, he viewed the inaugural night as successful. For the 10th anniversary Habibi on May 27, at the Ritz, a gay club in Hell’s Kitchen, Abraham said he might have a dedicated women’s dance space.

Ms. Graziano, the bar owner, seemed happy with the premiere. “I think everything was running great,” she said. “And there were a lot of beautiful girls.”