Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 38 / 21 September 2017
 

Asheq

Nightlife

The new Middle Eastern gay dance party


The Asheq party held in January.
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For local Middle Eastern LGBTQs, finding a space where their own culture and music can be enjoyed was limited to the Bibi dance parties. When that event's organizers left town, Ghazwan Alsharif, a gay war veteran and accomplished chef, decided to revive the event and give it a new name: Asheq.

"One day I and a few friends and club managers were sitting around drinking gin and tonics, talking about Bibi ending, and one guy said, 'Dude, you have a lot of friends,' and that we should put something new together. The Middle Eastern community in the Bay Area does a lot of gathering; events, parties. But having a gay one is different. So I told my friend, I'll try to do it." The first was in November 2014.

"I put a lot of time and money into it," said Alsharif. "I had a good connection with the international rescue community; I was doing a search for new refugees in the community. They put me in contact with a couple of them, and we held a fundraiser for them."

The event revived the collective gatherings of the Bibi events, with a few breakthroughs.

"We had our first transgender belly dancer," said Alsharif. "It was fun. Afterward, I thought. 'I want to do it again.'"

A second event followed in January of this year. The next one takes place this week, May 8 at Slate Bar (2925 16th Street).

"It's changed," said Alsharif of the event's evolution. "It's a more diverse crowd. We'll have different belly dancers, male and a female. It's fun, an awesome night, although I don't expect to make any profit from it."

Alsharif pays the dancers, some who are from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The event attracts North African queers and their friends, although non-Arabic or Persian folks are welcome as well. The music, spun by straight DJ Nile Awad, is a festive mix of house and dance tracks with modern and traditional Middle Eastern music.

Alsharif believes there is something special for his community to gather for fun, and in the same space.

One of the male belly dancers who will perform at the next Asheq.

"So many of us spend hours on the social media apps; Grindr, Scruff," he said. To get them to come out to his events, Alsharif promotes it on such apps and websites.

"What I do is try to find a Middle Eastern crowd and send them the flyers and posters about the party. My goal is the gathering, us supporting each other."

By support, in part, Alsharif, who is 43, mentioned the problems LGBT Middle Eastern people have, with highly conservative families, religious pressures, and the ongoing threat of racial and antigay violence in the U.S.

"Despite that, we still have our culture of having fun," said Alsharif. "Trying to convince people to come out is sometimes not easy."

To alleviate the pressures, Alsharif chose Slate, a straight club, as the event's next venue. "It's out of the Castro for now," he explained. "Not all of us are okay to go there."

Anywhere with the abundance of selfies and cell phones can be problematic. You might notice a lack of images from the recent Asheq party. That's because semi-closeted Middle Eastern gays and lesbians still have privacy concerns, what with an image making its way around the world in seconds.

A previous Bibi event held in Oakland.

"My last event was awesome, super cool," said Alsharif. "I'd done a lot of work on it. But after posting pictures, I got messages and emails from people asking me to remove their photos; a few pictures, not a lot."

Although quite out himself, Alsharif, who is from Iraq, understands.

"I have an ex-boyfriend, he's from Saudi Arabia," said Alsharif. "He had the same problem."

Alsharif has been in the media several times as one of few out gay Middle Eastern men willing to take that risk, as an activist, U.S. Army veteran, and now, event promoter.

"My parents still don't know, although I'm out here," said Alsharif. "My younger brother knows, but since 2005 when I told him, we haven't been close."

When he lived in London from 1980 to 1986, Alsharif was in an arranged marriage.

"I was much more successful in Iraq," he said of his life before the U.S. and other countries invaded his homeland.

"My parents refused to believe their son was gay, and said, 'You have to get married.' They presented a folder of photos of eligible women. It was like card play; 'Pick one!' I just saw one lady who looked like Barbie. When I was a kid, I loved playing with Barbie. When I married her, I was doing her hair and dressing her up. She did not figure it out."

After moving to the U.S. and working with the Army, Alsharif faced a lot of life changes.

 

Ghazwan Alsharif in Iraq, from the film From Baghdad to the Bay.

Life in Wartime

Serving in the U.S. Army from 2003 to 2006 in the engineer brigade 4th Infantry, 1st Infantry and 28th Infantry as a translator during the Bush-era invasion of Iraq, Alsharif was even jailed for several weeks by his superiors in 2003, during the chaotic time of the capture of Saddam Hussein. He was suspected of being a double agent.

"It was a horrible time, but afterward, I served again," he said.

As dangerous as it was serving in the U.S. Army as a translator, he faced other risks. "I could not live outside the military base, because my family tried to have me assassinated," Alsharif said. "My family thinks I've betrayed my country."

From Baghdad to the Bay a one-hour documentary, tells Alsharif''s story (www.frombaghdadtothebay.com).

Alsharif has since divorced, but has a twelve-year-old son who lives in Manchester, England.

"The last time I saw him was in 2008," said Alsharif. "He said, "Oh, Dad. I know everything about you."

By being more out than most of his friends here in the Bay Area, Alsharif hopes to inspire others.

Ghazwan Alsharif (left) with DJ Nile Awad.

"I've said it many times; one step is a change," he said. "I'm trying to let them know it's okay. Yes, we suffer, even gays who are born here. But it's okay to come out. There is a relief about not lying to ourselves anymore. I was a liar for 40 years. Now I feel more relieved."

Even so, his family connections remain fragile in some ways. Recently, his family's former house in Tikrit was bombed.

"My parents left a year ago when ISIS came to Tikrit and took over," said Alsharif. "When the army came and reclaimed Tikrit, my older sister's house was damaged. She checked on my parent's house. It was totally destroyed. I was so distraught. I can't help them. It's terrifying. But I grew up with this chaos."

When he's not creating delicious food or planning gay parties, Alsharif is also finishing a book about his experiences. Originally titled Shut the Fuck Up, he's since changed the title to Inchab, which is Iraqi for the same phrase.

"It's about the war and chaos, the changing of a person's life; sort of fiction, but is my life."

Alsharif sees his own personal struggles as part of a reason to continue creating joy, through cuisine or events like .

"The party is a form of relief. You should see the people celebrate!"

He hopes to continue the event every two months.

"We'll see what happens. There are always new people and faces at our parties. Even if you're not Middle Eastern, there are hot men and women!"

 

The next Asheq is May 8 at Slate Bar (2925 16th Street). For more info, visit www.facebook.com/events/1079474318745955/






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