The colorful hookah pipes are laid out first. Soon the smell of perfumed tobaccos—white grape, tangerine mist, pumpkin pie, and strawberry—fills a back room covered in Persian rugs. Shiny pink fabric hangs from the ceilings, harem style. Ornamental lanterns glow.
When a young man clad in Middle Eastern tribal clothing appears on the dance floor and begins to move, it’s clear this isn’t your everyday club. He swings his hips and begins to wail as men crowd around him, gyrating beneath rainbow-hued strobe lights. Above, on suspended platforms, go-go dancers sway from side to side, and the sounds of ancient instruments—the oud and the doumbek—meld seamlessly with electronica beats.
At Club Nur, a Middle Eastern gay club, men and women from Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Armenia, and Syria have been reconciling their ethnic heritage with their sexual identities since 2006. They are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, some new immigrants, others first-generation Americans. All yearn for a taste of home—the pounding sound, say, of the dhol drum—but also for something that many never feel in the countries of their ancestors: acceptance.
That acceptance wasn’t always guaranteed in Los Angeles, either. Even in this liberal-leaning city, homosexuality was a crime 50 years ago. In the 1950s, gay social clubs functioned like secret societies. In 1967, the nation’s first gay rights rally was held after a police raid on the Black Cat Tavern, just one mile from where Club Nur opened its doors. In certain parts of the United States today, those who are openly gay still risk being bullied or worse. But in the Middle East, to be out is to put your life in jeopardy. There are no gay pride marches, no hot lines, no laws to protect the civil liberties of gay people. Gay marriage is unthinkable. LGBT Middle Easterners lead closeted lives, marked by the fear of bringing shame to their families. The desire to feel less isolated is one of the main reasons many choose to move to L.A. and, once they discover it, to visit Club Nur.
“I miss home. That’s why I come here,” says Tom, a soft-spoken Iranian-Kuwaiti, who, like many others interviewed for this story, asked that his full name not be used because his parents don’t know his sexual orientation. Tom relocated to the United States from Iran about five years ago, leaving behind a long-term relationship with a university professor that he could never make public. Asked what he gets out of an evening at Club Nur, he says simply, “Relief.”
In arabic nur means “light.” In Armenian it means “pomegranate,” a fruit that represents fertility in the Caucasus. Gev Khudyan was thinking of both meanings when he cofounded Club Nur. A tall, burly 32-year-old, Khudyan is a man, but he’s often referred to as the “matriarch” of the Middle Eastern gay community in L.A. His gregariousness (he knows the name of each and every Club Nur patron) and tell-it-like-it-is attitude has solidified his iconic status in a community that lacks many public role models.
Khudyan jokes that he and his friend Ryan H. Sarkissian started Club Nur because they wanted to go to a party where they were in charge. But in fact, the club’s roots go deeper. From a young age Khud-yan considered himself an outsider. Born in Yerevan, Armenia, he moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was seven. He remembers never feeling skinny enough or popular enough, and he spent years rejecting who he was: shunning his family’s traditions, keeping his gay identity hidden, struggling with thoughts of suicide, and for a time even being engaged to a woman. That all changed in his early twenties, when he began to embrace his heritage as well as his homosexuality. But despite visits to West Hollywood gay clubs (he thought them pretentious) and Middle Eastern nightspots (they were too straight and too noninclusive), he felt like something was missing.
“I was always striving to have a place where we could just go and be,” he recalls. So he and Sarkissian, a close friend whom Khudyan had met during a summer they spent in Armenia, decided to create it. Sarkissian knew the owner of the now-defunct gay club Fuel in Studio City and asked if they could host a themed event there on Thursday nights. They spread the word on MySpace and by distributing hundreds of flyers featuring buff male models in kaffiyehs, fezzes, and next to nothing else. On Club Nur’s first night, 400 people showed up (Fuel only accommodated half that). Long lines spilled out into the street. “We looked at each other,” Khudyan recalls, “and said, ‘This is something that needs to become a business.’ ”
From the beginning that meant not being underground. Khudyan wanted everyone to know about Club Nur. That was good marketing, of course, but it was also in sync with the mission of the place: to no longer hide in the shadows. “You go to church, and the church tells you being gay is wrong,” he says. “You come home, and your mom says, ‘Oh, I understand there are gay people, but not in my house.’ I didn’t want other kids to think about killing themselves. I wanted people to know that there’s a place to go hang out. There are other gay people. You’re not alone.”
In that first year Khudyan and Sarkissian worked hard to grow Club Nur, which had found a permanent spot on Thursday nights at MJ’s bar in Silver Lake. They organized special nights for Persian New Year and brought in belly dancers and a doumbek player. A series of “Cruise Nights” gave patrons the chance to experience such faraway places as Morocco and Greece, with all the baklava they could eat and arrack they could drink on several “stops” through the “Middle East.” Club Nur drew thousands to MJ’s—more than anyone had expected.
At one point Club Nur relocated to West Hollywood’s Club 11, a swanky gay hangout with good-looking bartenders. On opening night they attracted 1,500 people. “It was phenomenal,” says Sarkissian, who is 45. “Some people would wait over an hour to get in.” But soon Club Nur’s founders noticed that the buzz was diluting its cultural identity. Tensions erupted. Some non-Middle Eastern employees felt the faithful Club Nur regulars were rude and pushy.
“The bar didn’t treat my customers like they were special,” says Khudyan, recalling the staff told him his patrons had “superiority issues” when he complained. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’re Middle Eastern; we all have them. That’s what we’ve grown up with. Every one of our parents tells us, ‘You are the best. You will always be the best.’ ” Less than a year later Club Nur moved back to MJ’s, which was featured on an episode of the Bravo reality series Shahs of Sunset (the show’s cast was pictured riding atop the Club Nur float in the L.A. Pride parade).
Go talk to Club Nur’s loyal clientele is to hear stories both uplifting and devastating. A man from Syria, a country where being gay is punishable by up to three years in prison, tells of being raped by a police officer before he emigrated. (When asked about Club Nur, he lifts a glass and says, “I’m very grateful to have it.”) Another man says he was in an abusive relationship but that the friends he’d made at Club Nur gave him the strength to end it. A third man, Suren Magakian, says Club Nur made it possible for him to stop living a lie.
Magakian had emigrated from Armenia to Los Angeles as a young boy; even then he knew he was gay. He also knew that wasn’t acceptable. “I would try to date girls,” says the 26-year-old student. “You go through that battle within yourself.” Only after a friend recommended Club Nur did he discover that other gay Middle Easterners existed. Soon he was there every Thursday. He credits the club with transforming him from a standoffish, shy teen into a playful, confident adult. His energy and self-assurance are contagious, and he’s been known to arrive dressed in a custom-made black burka, “just to make people talk.” Club Nur “made me grow up,” he says.
Some surprising liaisons have been formed at the club: Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims have dated after meeting there, as have Armenians and Turks. Sarkissian, who has a Lebanese-Armenian-Christian background, met his husband of five years, a Persian Jew, at Club Nur. But while romance has blossomed at the nightspot, many patrons say that the most important thing they’ve gained is friendship.
On a particularly hot evening the crowded hookah bar is alive with the shrill, intoxicating sound of the zurna, an Anatolian wind instrument. Alev Kocatepe, an ethnic Turk from the Netherlands who is a lesbian, hoists herself onto a raised platform. She is one of Club Nur’s dancers, known for her furry go-go boots and skimpy handmade outfits. As her hips shake, gay men approach to slip bills into her bra.
Later, during a break, she tries to explain the magic of Club Nur by describing her relationship with Khudyan, who’s DJ-ing this evening. Each week Khudyan prides himself on tailoring the music he plays to the respective tastes and demographics of his audience. When he sees the “Gulf kids” from Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, he knows to reach for Khaliji music. When a group of Armenians comes in, he blasts the popular tunes of singer Harout Pamboukjian. In between there’s always Lebanese pop superstars Nancy Ajram and Haifa Wehbe, the closest icons gay Middle Easterners have to Cher and Kylie Minogue. Now Kocatepe looks at Khudyan fondly.
“Gev is full Armenian; I’m full Turkish. And as everybody knows, Armenians and Turks don’t get along,” she says. “The beauty of gay Middle Eastern males and females is that they know how it is to be rejected. They know how it is to be hated and looked down on, so the last thing they’re going to do is reject me. To them I’m family. ”
A lot of men and women feel as Kocatepe does. Which is why there was such an outcry in March when Khudyan updated friends on Facebook with a somber post. “Kind of sad,” he wrote. “Found out that MJ’s bar is closing down, which means Club Nur will have its last event on March 27th in Silver Lake…we will have a new location release soon.”
Some suggested trying to rotate the venue through different communities—Long Beach? Anaheim?—so that the club could be more inclusive. Others offered their condolences, while others put a positive spin on the news. “Onto bigger and better opportunities,” one commenter wrote.
Khudyan certainly hopes so. As he seeks a new venue, he realizes “we are leaving our comfort zone,” he says. But he’s determined to keep Club Nur alive. “Where else would I get a chance to hang with everyone here? It’s where the community comes together.”