Habibi Ana is a place where you can forget about feeling ashamed of your homosexuality. Where you can flirt or date with people like you. For years this bar in Amsterdam has been the place to be for gay Muslims. But it all ends on Saturday night. Amsterdam city council is closing Habibi Ana down – for breaking noise regulations.
By Raja Felgata
Turkish, Egyptian and Moroccan gays and lesbians all make their way to this eccentric café. It’s more than just a place to socialise. Young people from different Arab cultures come for the opportunity to talk about their struggle with their identity and the fear of coming out. Straight during the day, gay behind the closed doors of Habibi Ana.
The bar’s founder Atef Salib initially had doubts about opening the business. “But someone has to take the first step,” he says. “I wanted to bring homosexuality into the open in Arab circles. I opened in 2001, and we took part in Gay Pride with an Arabian Nights boat. We didn’t want to stay hidden anymore, we wanted to break the taboo.”
Gay in secret
“In Egypt, where I come from, homosexuality isn’t supposed to exist – it’s not allowed to exist,” Salib says. “Men have to dress and behave as heterosexuals, and for women it’s not safe to express lesbian feelings. Openly gay behaviour is utterly out of the question. If you’re homosexual, you keep it a secret.” Or you move to a more liberal country, as Salib did in 1982, when he emigrated to the Netherlands.
“I wanted to set up something for Arabs. Not that I didn’t feel welcome in Dutch gay bars. But the atmosphere is different. Every culture has its own opinions, its own ideas, its own jokes. You understand each other better. I only play Arab music, serve Moroccan mint tea, Arabic coffee. We all feel at ease.”
Many Muslims lead a double life: during the day they’re respectable family men, in the evening they let their hair down at a gay bar.
Hatim, a 28-year-old Moroccan from Amsterdam, is unusually open about his homosexuality. “Precisely because it’s such a big taboo, there are actually many more gays and lesbians than we think,” he says. “When you see that some people regard it as a disease, it drives you mad. I know guys and girls who have committed suicide because their community turned against them. They had no-one to turn to. Your own brother who wants to kill you and is after you with a gun because you’re attracted to men, stories like that. Unfortunately I’ve been hearing more and more stories like this recently. Yet Allah loves everyone, irrespective of their colour or sexual orientation.”
OK to be gay
Moenira Shirwa (25) was ashamed of being a lesbian because she’d been taught that homosexuality and Islam are incompatible. Until she met Imam Mushin Hendricks, who taught her that there is no mention of homosexuality in the Qur’an. In an interview in 2011, the gay-friendly imam told RNW that it’s “OK to be gay”. He helped Moenira accept her sexual orientation, and now she stimulates other young people to do the same. Her project Respect2Love supports gays and lesbian from multicultural backgrounds.
Gays and lesbians aren’t the only people to see the closure as a major loss for open-minded Amsterdam. Heterosexual Moroccan girls are also drawn to the bar’s dance nights, where they feel free and can be themselves, without worrying about brothers, neighbours or cousins discovering they are out dancing. It’s a way to escape social control but stay in a familiar environment. Straight Moroccan girls feel at home at Habibi Ana as a place where they can go out with men and women who, like them, are exploring their social, emotional and sexual identity.
‘Haraam is haraam’
But if you ask around in the multicultural neighbourhood of Slotervaart-Overtoomse Veld in Amsterdam, it soon becomes clear that not everyone is keen on a bar like Habibi Ana. “Being gay is forbidden and it’s a disease,” says Mohamed, a resident of this much-discussed suburb. Standing with friends outside a cannabis ‘coffeeshop’, he lights up a cigarette. “They should burn a bar like that down with all the gays in it. Haraam is Haraam. I don’t want to know these gays, and if you’re one of them, stay out of my way.” Asked how he would feel if one of his friends turned out to be gay, Mohamed thinks for a moment. “I don’t think I’d see him anymore,” he says.
Saturday 2 March is the last evening in Habibi Ana. The vulnerable group of regulars will have to find a new place to go out, be themselves and escape the prejudices and threats of the outside world. And no-one knows when, or if, this unique bar will be able to open again.