• The Club Arak logo. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
A queer party event with its roots in the Middle East has been catering to Arab-Australian revelers for 14 years.
Elias Jahshan

3 Feb 2016 - 4:09 PM  UPDATED 4 Feb 2016 - 9:37 AM

When the organisers of Club Arak sat down to brainstorm name ideas for their party, they knew from the beginning that they wanted something with a twist.

“We came up with the concept of sweat, and we thought, sweat is arak in Arabic, and arak is the alcoholic drink so we thought that was a great combo,” co-founder Alissar Gazal said.

“If you were bilingual you’d completely understand the concept, it had a cultural connection. And arak is a drink known to many cultures, not just Lebanese or Arabs in general.”

With almost 25 parties under its belt since its debut in 2002, Club Arak has become an institution in Sydney’s gay and lesbian scene – partly because of the reputation it has garnered for its unapologetic celebration of Arabic music and culture.

"I remember at one point someone came running up the stairs saying ‘you’re not going to believe the queue’.”

Its roots were first sown when Gazal was on an overseas trip that saw her visit London, where she attended a south Asian gay and lesbian dance party called Club Kali.

“I was so blown away,” she recalled.

“They were playing all sorts of music, from Bangarra, to Bollywood, to Arabic to Rai, and I thought, why do we not do that so openly and publicly?

“Then I went to Beirut and went to Club Acid, one of the city’s gay nightclubs. It was at a time in the late '90s, early 2000s, where Arabic music had gone through this incredible change and revival and entered the club scene. It was like a total confirmation and I came back very enthusiastic.

“[Club Arak co-founder] Fadia used to throw these dance parties in her lounge room, and there would be heaps of people who’d come along. They were always gay and lesbian events, but it was always in someone’s lounge room, so I suggested to Fadia that we should have a dance party.”

From there a date was set, a queer DJ who specialised in Arabic music was locked in, the now-closed Old Caesar’s at Camperdown was secured as a venue, and a humble budget was spent on advertising in pink media outlets.

“We all thought it could be a one-off... we expected a couple of hundred people to show up, maybe,” Gazal said.

“There were no pre-sales. Fadia and I were at the door and I remember at one point someone came running up the stairs saying ‘you’re not going to believe the queue’.”

Various venues in Sydney's Inner West have since hosted the party across its 14-year history, including the iconic Imperial Hotel at Erskineville. But for the first time ever, this weekend it heads to Oxford St with a stint at nightclub, The Shift.

Despite the changes, Club Arak continues to be one of the few Sydney parties that has been consistently organised by women since its inception.

“I always find that within the gay male world, patriarchy dominates, including in gay and lesbian Australia,” Gazal said.

“For us, it’s really essential that women have equal space or access to space than men. It’s just as important to create a space for Arab gays and lesbians just as it to create a space for Arab lesbians.”

“I’ve had the most amazing conversations with people who have approached me privately or during the party saying, ‘thank you, you’ve made me feel like I exist, like I’m not the only gay in the village’."

It’s this onus on creating a safe space for Arab queers of all genders that has been a driving force behind Club Arak’s enduring success.

“What made me feel very strongly about the need for us to go on was the reaction of the public – the people who came to our parties, and how it affected their lives,” Gazal said.

“I’ve had the most amazing conversations with people who have approached me privately or during the party saying, ‘thank you, you’ve made me feel like I exist, like I’m not the only gay in the village’.

“When a person comes to us and says ‘I’m not out, my parents don’t know I’m here but you’ve made my night’, when they say ‘you’ve changed my life’, or when they create a piece of artwork that’s been influenced by what we do and come out publicly because we helped them – that to me is far more important, even though that was not our initial aim.”

Although Club Arak is all about Arabic music and aimed at an Arabic-speaking crowd, Gazal said it remained inclusive of all cultures.

For Arab Australians specifically, the opportunity to dance to their cultural music in a safe, public space holds special significance – considering the entrenched stigma around homosexuality in Arab culture.

“We wanted to create our space, with our own rules and ideas rather someone else’s,” Gazal said.

“We go to the mainstream gay and lesbian parties, and yeah, the music is okay and we dance to it, but we enjoy the dancing more at our cousin’s wedding. It’s a cultural connection to the music.

“I’m also quite aware that within the mainstream gay and lesbian community there is a lot of racism. It exists to this day in many ways. So we wanted to make our space well known, and we wanted to make our existence known, that we are here and we’re in your face and we’re not making any concessions about who we are.”

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While gay and lesbian parties with Arabic music have been around in the UK, France and the US for longer periods of time, in Australia, Club Arak is a trailblazer. Several other gay parties catered to and organised by people of various culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds have since emerged — mostly in Sydney and Melbourne.

“These parties are not happening because we don’t want to be part of the mainstream, they’re happening because the mainstream finds it hard to accept who we are, and accept our difference,” Gazal said.

“It’s almost like, if you want to be part of the mainstream gay and lesbian community you have to assimilate. You can’t remain a ‘wog’. You can’t remain cultural-specific. I have issues with that – because what it is is that you can be sexually diverse but you can’t be culturally diverse.

“For me it’s really important that we dare to hold our face and say, this is who we are and belong here, but we belong here in our own way and our identity is multifaceted.”

Elias Jahshan is the editor of Star Observer, and an Arab Council Australia board member.