Meet the Syrian refugee fighting homophobia with belly dance

When he was 20, The Darvish landed in Berlin from Syria seeking a fresh start. Belly dancing took him back to his roots.  

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Berlin-One thing any Arab LGBTQI+ quickly learns is to master the art of leading a double life. It may sound simple but it takes very careful planning. As a teenager, The Darvish, a Berlin-based Syrian belly dancer, picked up the skill rather quickly, and with his country being torn apart by a bloody civil war and a lack of law, he had to be even more cautious. 

But as he approached the end of his adolescence, he decided that living in hiding was not something he was interested in, so off he went to Germany – initially to seek an education and a chance at truly living.

“I had to do it all on my own, without any help from my parents because they didn’t necessarily agree with me leaving the nest and studying abroad,” says The Darvish, who asked that his real name not be used. “But I knew there was no other choice for me – there’s no plan or future for me to stay in Syria.”

After arriving to Berlin, The Darvish was stunned by many things, most significantly the realisation that he can be almost about anything he sets his mind to. Gone were the days of hiding, it was now his time to step into the light. But his career as an entertainer and LGBTQI+ activist wasn't his choice – it came about as a coincidence.

“I was dancing with friends at a night club and a drag queen, who’s also a friend of mine, saw me dancing and approached me and said that I have got to be on stage,” he says. “I was nervous but then when I went up on stage. I owned my heritage and I saw the reaction and how accepting and how lovely the feedback was, and how great of a voice I can have.”

What started as merely artistic expression soon snowballed into a full-blown career as an entertainer and activist. The Darvish’s controversial and in-your-face art form quickly gained him a big fan base, which led to him having the one thing most LGBTQI+ in his homeland actively avoid: visibility.

“Coming from Syria, it’s not easy to own your sexuality or orientation, or say out loud that I’m here,” The Darvish says. “There’s power to that, and so many people don’t have the possibility to vocalise it. Through me, they feel seen.”

But it’s not only his Arab queer sisters and brothers that The Darvish hopes to reach with his art, it’s also the Western audience, to challenge widely held misconceptions about his queer Arab identity.

LGBTQI+ Activism

“Being queer is not easy. Add to that an immigrant, person of color, a refugee: It’s ultimately hard to prove yourself to a society that rejects your existence,” he says. “To break the stereotypes and fight prejudices that are rooted in the Western mind is a constant battle. And that’s why I chose belly dancing to be my weapon because I’m the one writing my own story and owning my heritage.”

Another layer of his activism lies in the very simple fact that one of the most frequent entertainers he collaborates with is Berlin-based Israeli drag artist Judy LaDivina.

“We celebrate our community, culture and heritage, and show how much we (Arabs and Israelis) are more alike than different.”

“What I would really hope for in the future, with my voice and the many more voices like mine, is to change the perspective of how people look at belly dancing in the MENA [Middle East, northern Africa] region, because it’s still stigmatised and not regarded as a true art form, which it is,” The Darvish says. “I’m doing this because I know I can have a voice, and I know that this voice can lead to change, and can lead to knowledge.”