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While the rest of America sleeps, a group of Middle Eastern men of terrorist age gather in an underground location. Brawny, hirsute and looking like your average brooding, unemployed, Cairo-café mint-tea drinker, they are plotting a takeover — of the dance floor, that is. “Habibi Yalla!”As the beat kicks in, the guys ululate madly to the latest Amr Diab hit, gyrating
their considerable hips and bellies, as sinewy as the most voluptuous belly dancer’s;
they punctuate the air, expressing ornaments in the music with flairs of their
eyebrows and wrists. In a way unique to the permissiveness of Arab manhood, the
men exhibit a sensuality and rapture with dancing that borders on the effeminate,
all while demonstrating the virility of a peacock not afraid to preen.
Behind this scene is a regal assortment of meze (the small plates of Mediterranean
food best eaten with drinks and good conversation), scented with the familiar
spice blend zatar that makes every immigrant in the room nostalgic. A song
by the wildly popular Lebanese songstress Nancy Ajram comes over the speakers,
and two corkscrew-haired Levantine women, hands clasped and waists wrapped in
cloth, scurry past to replicate the diva’s latest moves, in sync with her immaculately
produced music video playing overhead. This is the scene, in the heart of Hollywood’s
Little Armenia, at Club La Zeez, an alternative Middle Eastern event hosted by
Palestinian promoter, playwright and expert belly dancer Saleem.
We meet over orange blossom and rosewater ice cream, at Mashti Malone’s on Sunset
and La Brea. The flavors mirror his affable sweetness, at least until he douses
our dessert with lemon juice for a bittersweet twist. He started the club in 2004
as the grand finale to Al-Fatiha’s third North American conference for LGBTIQ
Muslims, before expanding the mostly Arabic playlist to include musical offerings
from South Asia and the Latin world — areas touched at some point by Arabo-Islamic
expansion. His goal was to create an alternative Middle East, one that might mirror
the dreams of the sexually and culturally marginalized, right here in the immigrant
city of Los Angeles.
“Back home, you cannot have a club like this,” a patron from Cairo explains. “It
would have to be underground or in a private home.” Thus, the Arab gay men at
Club La Zeez, ecstatically out of the closet if only for a night, have generated
a small utopia made uniquely possible by American circumstances. And for many,
the club has revived the 700-year link between Latinos and Arabs, dating back
to Moorish Spain, when everyone’s genes and languages melded. The club’s music
retraces this historic cultural thread, the interconnectiveness between peoples,
with seamless transitions from bhangra to salsa to Arabic pop.
“Arabic music blends so easily because it’s mixed with every other culture you
can think of,” says Saleem. “It’s overlapping, and I show it.”
He mentions that Andalusian music is his second favorite kind, and stresses that the chant “Olé!” originates from the exhortation “Allah!” (“God” in Arabic).
A trio of guys — the Syrian-Mexican couple Kareem and Alex, and their Egyptian
friend Abdallah — delves further into the subject of Arab-Latin mutual appreciation.
“We look the same and we feel we are the same,” says Kareem, before his boyfriend
interjects, “but Latins are hotter.”
“Our cultures are similar: family-oriented and respectful of elders,” Abdallah adds. “We are both very in tune with our sexual feelings; we love to touch and kiss.”
Kareem and Alex demonstrate and then become so distracted by each other that Abdallah
has to take over the official spokesperson duties: “Our blood is the same. [Latinos]
are the closest thing to us away from home.”
Not all is harmony in this cross-cultural dynamic, however. Alex doesn’t appreciate
how gay Arabs try to live two lives, one for family and one for friends. In the
tradition of Middle Eastern storytelling, Abdallah explains: “We’re Arabs, we’re
not supposed to live one life . . . an Arab club always has two doors, swinging
both ways.”
Greeting guests at the club’s door, the delightful Maria (a Mexicana who signs
her name “Leila” and used to have a Palestinian boyfriend) tells the story of
meeting Saleem after seeing his award-winning play, Salam/Shalom, about
a tumultuous Israeli-Palestinian gay relationship. She confronted him after the
play and demanded, “Let me be a part of your club!” after finding out that he
had one in the works. “My grandma’s last name started with ‘Al-’,” said Maria,
a disciple of classical Armenian and Iranian music, “and I say people who look
alike are alike.”
One of the biggest factors in the resurgence of Moorish-Latino ties here in L.A.
arrived in the form of a recent telenovela, El Clon. Full of tantalizing
music, food and costumes, the Spanish-language soap recounts an affair between
a Brazilian man and a Moroccan woman, its subsequent dissolution and then the
woman’s traditional Moroccan marriage to one of her own.
“My 50-year-old lady friends from church wanted to learn the dancing, and they
appreciated how the men protected the women,” Maria gushes. “If you ever go to
East L.A. and mention El Clon, people get excited.” Fans of the Telemundo
soap opera now take to peppering their speech every now and then with “inshallah,”
a frequent Arabic phrase meaning “God willing.”
Inside the club, Saleem, with much fanfare, deftly walks up to the stage with
what seems like a chandelier/veil balanced on his head, accompanied by the female
dance trio Flowers of the Desert. All the girls are Latina yet nail the Raqs Al-Sharqi
(Dance of the East), adding little embellishments and details evoking a certain
time and place in Egypt. Brianna, one of the performers, captivates the crowd
and at one point salutes her father in the audience. Brianna’s dad, Jerry, explains
how his daughter got involved in Arab dancing at 14 after seeing the Colombian-Lebanese
Shakira on TV. A year after enrolling in an Alhambra school, Brianna was crowned
Belly Dancer of the Universe at a Long Beach competition.
“It’s the same as in salsa,” Jerry says. “You get a drugged feeling, and everyone
is just so happy. You can tell she really feels it.”
Not 15 minutes later, the ladies arrive decked out in sparkly salsa wear, adopting
an altogether different body language, and the Arab men respond with a word they
have in common: “¡Olé! ¡Olé!”
The next Club La Zeez is Saturday, July 9, 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. at the Stone
Bar, (323) 466-6061, $10.

LA Weekly