ON ACID

Marwan Kaabour

Sunday, January 30

"So, where would you like to go for your 18th birthday?" Sahar asked.
I had one answer in mind, and she knew what it was... but played along to make it less awkward for me. She was always considerate like that.
She'd been raving about Acid for the past two years, and I was gagging to go. Just imagine a closeted,hormonal 16 year old hearing about this magical place and trying to stay cool about it. I fake-hesitated, and after a long pause said: "You know where the fun places are, so I'll leave it up to you."
She looked at me with raised eyebrows and replied: "Hmm, would you like to go to Acid?". My heart literally jumped out of my chest. I collected myself and said "Yeah we can try that, if you want". She smiled.
I was turning 18 on the 3rd of February, 2005. I'd never been to a nightclub before. This was meant to be my first big night out, but I had to wait for a couple of weeks because I had exams coming up.
I basically spent those two weeks trying to choose my outfit, while simultaneously coming to terms with the fact that 
for the first time ever, I would be present in a 'gay' place. 
To everyone else, I was still a straight boy, or at least I thought so-apparently I was the only one who was oblivious to the fact.
Monday, February 14
5 days before the big night, I was in the middle of a French language exam. A deafening sound shook the room, the windows' glass shattered and my French teacher said: "Damn Israelis, their aircrafts must've broken the sound barrier again."
It wasn't the Israeli aircrafts. A massive explosion has just led to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. What followed was weeks of anger, demonstrations, protests, violence, and further assassinations. In a nutshell, not the best time to party.
That period marked my own political awakening. My sexual awakening, however, had to wait for a month or so until the tension in the atmosphere could fizzle out.
"Marwan, what are you wearing?" Sahar asked over the phone, with a mild accusatory tone.
"You know that nice white shirt we bought together from Zara?"
"Right. Take it off right now. Put on your worst t-shirt and shoes, something you won't mind getting dirty or burnt."
Apparently, Acid wasn't like the other clubs in Beirut. Apparently, I had to dress down. I did make sure to go to the hairdresser, though, and have my hair painfully straightened and waxed-probably why I don't have much of it left.
Finally, over a month following my 18th birthday, I was in Sahar's friend's car heading to Acid. We went up from Furn el-Shebbak towards Sin el-Fil, then took a left at Futuroscope, a place where I would go as a child to play arcades.
We entered a massive parking lot. It was already pretty packed. The guy who ran the place was aggressively trying to tell us where and how to park. Sahar's friend was not amused. The parking lot itself was set on top of a hill that overlooks Beirut. The area felt private, secluded, and wide open at the same time. Acid sat in in the middle of a long street, with a few small residential houses from one side, and the towering Futuroscope structure from another.
A circular facade appeared, with laser lights showing through the glass tiles that line the top. We walked towards the entrance, where the bouncer was arguing with a group of girls. We stood behind them and waited for our turn. , The bouncer asked for my ID, looked at it suspiciously for a minute, and requested the $20 entrance fee (open bar!),  gesturing nonchalantly with his head for me to go in. It was only later that I noticed how young I looked when I was 18. Probably a 'twink' as some might say, a tag I continue to struggle with shaking off.
Past the bouncer, and through the plastic curtain, I found myself on the dance floor.The place was ram-packed-deafeningly loud, dark, hot, and sweaty. 
The interior could not be more typical of an early 2000s nightclub. The space was circular and symmetrical. The back wall was lined with 'Buddha'-inspired stone sculptures that also formed the backdrop of the long bar. Green laser lights whizzed above the dancefloor as the club's patrons' hands swayed in the air. It felt like I had just walked into the video of Jennifer Lopez' 'Waiting for Tonight'.
Sahar was waiting for me by the bar. She mentioned that I should only get an Almaza beer. Apparently the quality of the alcohol served was pretty dire. We got our beers and made our way to the centre of the dance floor. I was simultaneously trying to look cool, but my naturally big dark bulging eyes probably gave away my game as I ogled at everyone and everything happening next to me. The fact that I was a closeted, horny virgin did not make things any easier.
The dance floor was a large open space. The (buddha) bar was to the back, and a raised platform/dancefloor was on the opposite side, flanked with two large wooden cubes, which was also used for dancing. The DJ booth towered above the raised dance floor. The DJ could barely be seen with all the laser lights flying about. Thankfully, they were playing radio-friendly R'n'B.
I made sure to dance next to Sahar the entire time to avoid giving the impression that I'm open for business-my business plan was still being developed at that point. At some point, a friend of hers grabbed my waist casually and shook it as a gesture that I should loosen up. I was horrified. I gave him a tense smile and retreated into my imaginary closet. Nearby, a group of 4 or 5 fellow 'twinks', who seemed like regulars, were dancing energetically. At one point, they formed into a 'sandwich' of sorts, in a way that I'd never seen men dance together before. I was blown away by the sexual nature of their routine. I wanted to be in a 'sandwich' as well. It wasn't long before the massive bouncer came and separated the boys apart. They didn't seem too bothered. They'd probably been in this situation before.
As the night progressed, I started to observe a set of unwritten rules that were generally enforced at Acid.
The crowded dance floor created a shield that allowed 'lewd' behaviour to happen. A number of  bouncers, sporting the largest biceps I'd ever laid my eyes on, were roaming the dancefloor, separating people apart with their sheer physical scale. It seemed like two guys or two girls could dance together, as long as they wouldn't get too close or touchy. The rules, of course, were negotiated over and over again. It almost felt like a game of cat and mouse, with people trying to steal a kiss while the bouncers looked away, or to 'dirty dance' until one of them noticed. The hand of one would go down the pants of another, which might get you kicked out, but it seemed worth the risk. Even with those rules, there was an immense sense of freedom. 
We were situated right at the centre of the dance floor, in between the 'cubes'. The cubes seemed like the kind of place go-go dancers would normally be on, but it was the club's patrons who were doing the job instead. It was the place to show off your moves, to be seen and to live your moment in the spotlight. Anyone could go up and dance for a bit, but if you overstayed your welcome, the pesky bouncers were always there to tap your shoes as a warning that your time is up. I saw one girl dancing on one of the cubes by herself, no one was allowed to join her while she danced. She was incredible. Her body moved energetically and sensually, all with a huge smile on her face. Sahar told me she was a professional dancer, and a regular at Acid.
At some point, we decided to go out for a cigarette break. The outside area was crowded with people smoking, chatting, and flirting. As I sat and observed everyone around me, I started to get the feeling of this new universe that I had stepped into. I could not unsee what was in front of me, and I felt grateful for it. I was dying to strike up a conversation with some of the boys who were around me, but I had to keep my cover up (lol). A few meters away, a drag queen was berating her friend who must've said something that upset her. I squirmed in my place. I had never been so close to a drag queen. Their outlandish mannerism made me uncomfortable. She was loud, but really funny at the same time. I didn't know what to make of it.
A few moments later, around 1am, I could hear the music change. A guy standing nearby turned to his friends and said: "Ballash el 3arabe" ("The Arabic music just started"). In that instance, a mass migration occurred from outdoors to indoors, and vice versa. We followed suit a few moments later. In a matter of minutes, the energy on the dancefloor had transformed into a belly dancing frenzy. Hips were gyrating to the sound of Nancy Ajram. The drag queens came out to lip sync.
Usually, when dancing to Arabic music, there's the 'boy dance' and the 'girl dance'. The boy dance would consist of spreading both arms away from the body, with the index finger pointing out, followed by moving the arms back and forth, side to side in a static way. On the other hand, the girl dance was more energetic, and involved moving the hips, shoulders, legs, and even face. When I was much younger, I only knew one type of dance, the girl dance. My family members would applaud me as I danced at birthdays and special occasions. As I got older, it was 'brought to my attention' that it was not appropriate for me to do the girl dance anymore, and I had to learn to do what boys do. At that moment in Acid, with Nancy Ajram's voice blowing from every corner, all the boys were doing the girl dance. Without hesitation, I joined in.
We danced until 5am. The longest I had ever been out. As we drove back home, I asked Sahar: "What should I tell my parents?". I made her give me names of straight clubs that I could claim I went to instead.
I felt filthy, but I loved the filth that was on me. I went up to my parent's apartment and snuck into my room. Thankfully, they were both asleep. I sneaked  into the shower to wash away traces of the crime that I had just committed. I could actually see dirty water being washed off my body. It was probably the colour of the shame and confusion that was going down the drain.
For the next couple of years, I would go to Acid on an almost weekly basis. Not only was it a place where I was able to express myself and dance freely, it was also a place where I learnt about sex, gender, friendships, music and more.
Way before local discussions around gender politics became more frequent, Acid had seemed to encapsulate inclusivity in an unpretentious, almost organic way. Everyone seemed to co-exit in that bubble, even if momentarily. It was in our interest to protect each other, and to cherish this place that allowed us to exist. The space did not discriminate against anyone -even though, some of the people did. Gays, lesbians, drag queens, trans men and women, escorts, oddballs, straight people, and the inevitable white voyeur shared the same dancefloor. Due to the lack of gay clubs, we (luckily) had one place where we had to be together, and encounter each other. Its isolated location, made it an strategic place for escapism.
Soon enough, I realised 'my phase' was going nowhere. The realisation probably happened a few months later, after that first visit. After a night out dancing at Acid, I ended up going home with a boy. It was my first time. By that point, I decided that if I'm not going to stay put in the closet, I might as well enjoy my time outside of it.
I started making friends who were in the same space in their life as I was. It became a ritual, a pilgrimage of sorts, something to look forward to every weekend. I'd put on my best(?) outfit, some of which included a black T-shirt emblazoned with a red leather playboy bunny logo, and another gem that I found in Mar Elias street, which had a see-through mesh back. We'd all go to the hair salon to straighten and wax our hair against its will, then pack ourselves into a car and head up to Acid.
We danced and drank. We were reckless and hungry. Sahar's advice about drinking Almaza was thrown out of the window. I downed questionable vodka cocktails (Sahar used to call me balou3a, Arabic for 'drain') that left a particular acidic aftertaste and probable permanent damage on my liver.
With time, I allowed myself to be vulnerable. I was flirted with and I didn't resist. A boy touched me, kissed me, and I happily went along. My battles with my sexual identity were fought on that dance floor. My prejudices about what I was willing to 'tolerate' were challenged and shattered on that dance floor. I learnt that being mara ('effeminate') is ok. That I shouldn't squirm and cringe when a drag queen was making a scene. That being overly sexual and choosing to fuck in the toilet is ok.
I also got my heart broken and cried on that dancefloor. I couldn't have hoped for a better place for my first heartbreak.