Habibi

Hello Mr. Magazine - - HABIBI - Text by Aruthur Allen Illustration by Daniel Gray

As a gift to my girl­friend I went back into the closet for the night of her wed­ding. I hated the idea, but our mu­tual friends con­vinced me to find more pro­duc­tive out­lets for my mil­i­tancy. She comes from a large Pales­tinian fam­ily, and I was per­suaded that there was no harm in ton­ing down my love of men for the du­ra­tion of her nup­tial feast.

“Be­sides, they could very well ask you to leave if they catch you hunt­ing grooms­men,” pointed out a close friend who had al­ready met the fam­ily.

Ask me to leave? My ex­po­sure to the ways of Arab men was ad­mit­tedly lim­ited, but I had heard of their pro­tec­tive­ness. Her fam­ily was tra­di­tional enough to plan the wed­ding ha­lal, so no al­co­hol would be served and I would have no room to mis­be­have. The idea of a dry wed­ding was for­eign to me, but so were the guests.

My girl­friends and I had our own ta­ble, which stood out from the masses of cousins, sec­ond cousins, and great aunts fill­ing the rented ban­quet hall. Ev­ery­one but our­selves seemed Mid­dle East­ern in ori­gin. I was the cher­ished gay in a group of the most cov­etable sin­gle women I’ve ever had the priv­i­lege of know­ing. We loved wed­dings, and ev­ery wed­ding we’d at­tended thus far had ended with my girls own­ing the dance floor, danc­ing their hearts out while en­chanted young men sum­moned the courage to join. By find­ing my way to the cen­ters of these dance cir­cles I would broad­cast my close­ness to the girls, so that when­ever I would leave them for a drink I would in­stantly have buds, bros, dudes, and bud­dies I didn’t have be­fore. I never tired of the at­ten­tion it gave me. I imag­ine the ef­fect is sim­i­lar to find­ing a hand­some magazine model in­ter­ested in learn­ing your name.

Af­ter the cer­e­mony was fin­ished and the din­ner was eaten, the danc­ing be­gan. It was a while be­fore the hired troupe of tra­di­tional dancers fin­ished their show and the DJ ex­hausted his playlist of Mid­dle East­ern pop songs. My girl­friends and I clapped from the side­lines. The melodies had life and felt ap­pro­pri­ate to the ro­mance of the oc­ca­sion, but not know­ing any Ara­bic, we couldn’t con­nect to the mo­ment. We could only ob­serve it, which was pleas­ant un­til our feet started to hurt from stand­ing. By the time we heard fa­mil­iar mu­sic, the crowd had al­ready loos­ened up with­out us. It didn’t take us long to catch up, but it was some time be­fore I no­ticed things were not how I ex­pected them: en­chanted young men were not sur­round­ing us. Ig­nor­ing the mu­sic for a mo­ment, I stud­ied my girl­friends. Their danc­ing didn’t have its usual con­fi­dence and their ex­pres­sions looked dejected. They weren’t en­joy­ing the Pales­tinian fla­vor of the wed­ding. Their fur­rowed brows and side-glances drew my eyes to the gy­rat­ing mass of young men oc­cu­py­ing the cen­ter of the dance floor. Not one was pay­ing any at­ten­tion to the girls of my gang or the veiled young women in dis­tant or­bit around the ban­quet hall. I was stunned. These dap­per emirs were danc­ing with each other, and en­joy­ing – solely – each other’s danc­ing. They all lip-synched along to the Amer­i­can pop

songs the DJ chose. They looked each other in the eyes when they danced, and sang into each other’s faces. No one stared at the floor or stud­ied the ceil­ing; they looked at each other, smiled, some­times laughed, and shook a lot. Mad­den­ingly, they played with each other’s neck­ties.

“Are they for real?” one friend of mine asked an­other. An­other friend grabbed my arm. "Gay?" The bride had joined us. "No. Arab." She laughed. "How're you do­ing?" she asked me.

“I’m good” I lied. I felt like an anx­ious puppy watch­ing a ten­nis tour­na­ment. I wanted to be with them. I wanted to play with their ties. I wanted to know if the fam­ily would ask any of them to leave with me. But the longer I stud­ied them the more con­vinced I be­came that we were cut from dif­fer­ent cloth. Danc­ing, for me, at best has al­ways been a pre­lude to some­thing more. But these young men, in full view of their el­ders, were en­gaged in the con­sum­mate act of close­ness. I couldn’t join; I would taint some­thing beau­ti­ful. They were danc­ing hon­est and free. I would bring, not an hon­est love of the mo­ment, but a vain hope for the next.

My girl­friends, as girls, couldn’t be traitors. Their scru­ples weren’t mine: they were de­ter­mined to at­tract the boys over to us. I joined them in try­ing to ini­ti­ate, un­suc­cess­fully, a sub­tle dance off be­tween the two dance floor vor­tices. The girls with head­scarves through­out the room smiled at our fail­ure. We danced our hearts out while oc­ca­sion­ally glanc­ing back at the young men who now wore no jack­ets and still hadn’t no­ticed any­one out­side their fra­ter­nal throng.

My date, the maid of honor, shoved me. “You’re dy­ing to.” “I can’t.” “As if any­one’s go­ing to no­tice…” “If any of them gets as close to me as they are to each other, I’ll blow our cover.”

“I refuse to be­lieve you’re the only one on this floor with a boner.”

“Be­lieve it!” the bride said. Her hus­band joined her. “Arthur’s afraid of your broth­ers,” she laughed.

“Habibi!” his arms shot out to me. “Come, come, come!” “No! No! No!” “Yes! Yes! You are my brother too. C’mon!” He threw his arm around my shoul­der and marched me over to the grooms­men. They raised a cry for him and sucked us into their whirl. They all looked me in the eyes, but I don’t think they no­ticed me. They weren’t even lis­ten­ing to the mu­sic; they were watch­ing it in each other, as if through each other’s pupils they fol­lowed light shows of happy synapses. I be­came self-con­scious. There was mu­sic in me they were look­ing at, and I didn’t know how to look back. I felt fake.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to purge my­self of my se­cret. They smiled at me, en­cour­ag­ingly. They saw trick­les of joy where I felt tears of pres­sure. The groom said some­thing in Ara­bic and they laughed and tight­ened the cir­cle. He let loose, happy on his day. He must have asked them to take me in. He found it hi­lar­i­ous and, eu­phoric, kissed my cheek, then leapt from the throng back to his wife.

I wanted to warn them, I wanted to stop them. But they wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t hear the song. I had no choice but to meet their eyes and watch the mu­sic for my cues. They were so close to me, these happy, warm young men. They didn’t want more, they had what they wanted: not me, not each other, but the mo­ment we all fed into, in the cul­ture they had a place in.

I left the cir­cle, and breath­lessly re­turned to my seat far down the ban­quet hall by my­self. I don’t smoke, but I wanted a cig­a­rette, some­thing bit­ter to bal­ance my sen­sa­tions. I set­tled for dark cof­fee. I can taste it as I write this.

I’ve gone danc­ing since. I’ve danced among my own great fra­ter­nity of gay men again. I re­turned to my cul­ture, but now I feel fake where I used to feel most hon­est and most free. I wish my girl­friends had joined that cir­cle that night and saved me, be­cause now, far past their help, I miss the mu­sic those princes saw in my eyes. Arthur is a Seat­tle film­maker whose forth­com­ing de­but fea­ture is a love story (Win­ningDad.com). He can’t de­cide if he wants a boyfriend or a puppy, but knows he likes camping with scotch. Fol­low his mishaps on Twit­ter @MovieMen­sch.

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