It’s being billed as a night to “dance to amazing Arabic music,” but this dance party’s ultimate goal is unity. Arabian Knights, taking place on Feb 26, 2016, is the brain-child of two friends: Kerolos Saleib, a Toronto local originally from Alexandria, Egypt; and DJ Louay, a recently landed refugee from Syria who is in the process of starting his life over in Canada.
“You don’t have to let go of your culture and the things you love about your culture because of what happened back home,” Saleib says. “[Middle Eastern LGBT people] escape everything that’s happening back home, the religious traumas and the wars, and they want a better future for themselves.”
Before coming to Canada, Louay organized LGBT events in Syria — and for a time, it was a success. “Before the war we used to do this party without any bad things happening from the government,” he says. But in a country where homosexuality is punishable by up to three years in prison, he had to be careful. As long as he kept the parties quiet and underground, holding them in rented villas and mansions in the suburbs of Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia, he says he managed to stay under the radar.
But as Syria’s civil war continued, and ISIL’s influence and homophobic violence became rampant, remaining unnoticed became more difficult.
“[The war] didn’t start suddenly,” he notes. “It started stick by stick. We didn’t feel it strongly until after four years.”
Louay says he soon faced violence from both government authorities and gangs. He says he was tied up and beaten by security guards for complaining when one of them crashed into his car. He was also held at a security branch for 10 days, he says, where he was questioned about his parties. By then, he says, his parties were being closely monitored.
But it was when he was kidnapped and beaten — allegedly by other gay men disguised as security guards — that he knew he was in real danger.
Louay fled to Lebanon and applied for refugee status. The process took a year, from the time he applied to the time he arrived on Canadian soil, in Montreal. He’s been here for just over a month and a half.
“It was very hard to lose everything,” he says. “You lose your jobs, your friends, your car, your home. You will start from zero. I hope day by day it will go okay.”
He also faces issues with his parents, who came with him to Canada. He has come out to them many times, but they choose to ignore his sexuality. “They don’t know that I’m continuing my life here, and we have rights here and you can’t say anything,” he says.
Saleib wants to help gay refugees like Louay begin to rebuild their lives. He’s hoping to make Arabian Knights a non-profit event with proceeds going toward helping LGBT Middle Eastern refugees and to people living with HIV.
“[They] are scared to say that they are poz and they can’t get the meds, so they’d rather die,” he says. He adds that he’s interested in working with Rainbow Railroad, an organization that helps bring LGBT refugees from the Middle East.
But for now, Arabian Knights is generating some buzz — even with non-Middle Eastern LGBT party-goers. “They’re mostly looking for a Middle Eastern husband, but hey! It’s still bringing people together and we’re excited to be able to share that experience with them as well,” he says. “There’s nothing like dancing to some beautiful, poetic Arabic music.”