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  • Make Hafla not war: Berlin’s queer Middle Eastern party spreading the love


Make Hafla not war: Berlin’s queer Middle Eastern party spreading the love

Berlin queer icons The Darvish and Judy LaDivina on Yalla Hafla, their celebration of coexistence, bellydance and lip sync extravaganza.

Credits: Mahnoosh Naikan

Drag artist Judy LaDivina came from Israel to Berlin in 2015, while dancer The Darvish arrived from Syria in 2016. After a chance meeting on a dancefloor that year, the pair struck up a creative partnership, and built a show together that not only combined their cultural roots, but celebrated them. From their beginnings at Silverfuture to the show’s current home at Tipsy Bear, they have been bringing an authentic queer hafla (meaning ‘party’ in Arabic) to Berlin audiences ever since. 

Their show Yalla Hafla – translating as ‘let’s party’ – is a vibrant cocktail of drag, lip-sync and belly dance. You may be tightly packed into a bar with a beer in hand, but LaDivina and Davish transport you across oceans with songs in up to 47 different languages. We sat down with them to look back at their journey over the last five years, and to talk about their anniversary show The Bride at the Theater im Delphi, coming up this week. 

 The true meaning of what we’re doing is sharing our authentic selves.

Your hotly anticipated anniversary is happening this week. Without too many spoilers, what have you got in store for the show?

Darvish:  Expect theatricals, authenticity, healing of trauma, growth, even joy and food that will fill your tummy with so many feelings!

LaDivina: The bride as a metaphor, as a symbol in our culture is the local Cinderella. I don’t know many young humans who dreamt about being Cinderella, but I know many young humans who dreamt about being the bride. It comes with a lot of glamour, joy and preparation. But also with a lot of confrontation that you deal with afterwards as an adult when you realise that as much as we love our culture, it is very toxic, very male-dominated, and difficult when it comes to human and queer rights. We make peace with all of that. 

Photo: Ronny Heine

Darvish: Exactly. We want to confront those issues with an artistic approach. We want to deliver the message of “make hafla not war”. 

LaDivina: At the end of the day, that’s what we do, we suggest a different narrative. We both were raised in systems that would make it very easy for us to not see each other, to not understand each other, and definitely not to celebrate each other. We believe that if we can, everybody can. That’s what Yalla Hafla is all about and that is definitely what The Bride is all about.

Let’s go back to the start. How did you two first meet?

L: It was the end of 2016, we met on the dancefloor of a club. At the time, I was just starting my drag career and I thought it would be a good idea to get dressed up and go to all kinds of queer spaces so I could mingle and get to know people. To give people the opportunity to get to know me. Then I spotted this gorgeous creature dancing – obviously – on the stage.

D: Ah, of course I was on the stage! 

L: I was in drag, so I was confident to reach out and say, “Hello, who are you? When are we going to start doing something together?” That was pretty much it. Plain and simple, right in the face. I think it was a week later when Darvish showed up to one of my shows to celebrate their birthday. Then I literally dragged them [on stage] to do a little improv dance with me. That was the moment when we were like, ok, let’s set a date to have a show where we’re just doing one number, no rehearsals and we’ll see what happens.

Photo: Roland Kunos

Was that how Yalla Hafla became a regular show?

D: At the time both of us were starting our artistic careers. Judy already had a couple of shows running. I was a baby artist, I was not even thinking of dancing as a career. The way we came up with Yalla Hafla, was that after a couple of performances we really understood how needed this kind of representation is.

After bringing that on stage and receiving that love, we thought, let’s take it a step further – maybe do a proper night for our roots. It was at Silverfuture at first. Initially we were testing the water, seeing what the reaction would be. First, it was called Newbie Night: Mediterranean Passion– broad, for people to explore. From there, we gained confidence with each other, within ourselves and with the audience.

The core of what we do is not about us, it’s about the moment that we create with the audience.

L: At one point, we came to Silverfuture and said, no more Mediterranean Passion, it’s time for Yalla Hafla! That’s who we are, that’s what we do and from that moment on, it became, for me, one of the best ways to celebrate home and to offer a different narrative.

Whenever you would hear about anything Arabic or Jewish-related – regardless of countries or nationalities, just the plain Arabic Jew – it was usually represented in a very heavy, unwelcoming way. For me, being that Arabic Jew – my family spoke Arabic, that’s who I am, regardless of the fact that I was raised Israeli – we realised that it was important to show and celebrate what we have in common and make it accessible to other people. 

What have been some of the most unexpected joys of performing the show over the past five years?

L: Easy. The show healed my relationship with my mother. It was already heading in that direction, but it really happened the day she was there at Silverfuture. After the show, she made me feel like a kid, she was celebrating, she was actually proud. Seeing what we did made her feel like we were safe, that we were on the right path and that we were doing something of great value. From that moment on, my mum has been a proud queer mother, which is not something I ever imagined I would be able to say.

Photo: Frederik Busch

D: I can think of several moments because at that time, and throughout these last five years, I have been shaping myself as a person and as an artist. A lot of people, who were friends back in the day in Syria, bullied me or did not necessarily understand who I was (in my friends circle, I was out as a queer person). Nowadays, most of these people live abroad, and most of them have seen my work and are aware of the person that I am today. It touches my heart, every time someone says, ‘We apologise and we are happy and proud of everything that you are working on; of the way that you are representing Arabic people’.

We both were raised in systems that would make it very easy to not understand each other

Do you feel like spaces in Berlin and Europe are becoming more inclusive and open to queer performers and drag?

D: Throughout the five years that I’ve been working in the culture and nightlife industry, I have definitely seen the space grow. There are more possibilities and doors. But it’s still under-represented. We’re very grateful that Silverfuture gave us a platform. Then others offered because we were working hard towards this kind of inclusivity.

That showed when we were booked by Die Linke for the 1st May celebrations in 2019. It showed us that people wanted to work with us on a political level and have the platform to engage with us, for our communities and for a better future. That was the first time that we ever stepped out of a safe space or a club context and into the wild, as I would say, into the world.

L: On the street, just doing the show on a tiny stage. When we went on stage, there were maybe five people in the crowd. By the time we finished the show, the entire space was packed. 

Photo: Mahnoosh Naikan

D: We claim the space, and then we share it. 

L: Being in a very international city, we want people to have that sense of home. That’s why I’m lip syncing in 47 languages. I can ask you in the middle of the show, “Where are you from?” and you tell me “I’m from Greece, or Japan”, or wherever, and we will play a song and do something with it.

How do you find Berlin audiences in general?

D: It depends where you are. There’s a difference between a queer audience and a straight audience. There’s a difference between a Burlesque audience and a theatre audience. Generally speaking, it’s very open, but I think there are still steps to make in terms of interaction.

L: For Yalla Hafla, the audience is the most important part. They’re the only reason this show has been able to run for five years, and counting – khamsa khamsa (“knock on wood”). As much as we are very passionate about performing on stage, the core of what we do is not about us. It’s about the moment that we create with the audience.

In order for that moment to appear, it takes both of us, the audience and us, to show up. We can have shows that are very intimate with only a few people there, and still there will be magic in the air, because the audience will give that energy. Once we’re on stage, no matter how dressed up we are, or how much make-up we wear or what the production value is, what we bring is our soul, the sound of our mothers, our grandmothers, cooking in the kitchen, celebrating before weddings. 

Who on the Berlin drag scene are you fans of at the moment?

Photo: Mahnoosh Naikan

L: I want to give a shoutout to Pansy because I think that everything that has happened in the past five years in terms of the drag scene in Berlin, and post-Covid, especially on the English-speaking international scene, would not be possible without this drag artist. She opened doors, created spaces, invited us in, gave us lessons, gave us shade, love, she gave us all of that. I will forever hold a great amount of respect for her, because I know it’s not easy.

D: Every time I am at a queer drag show or production here in Berlin, it inspires me because I see the type of joy that these artists are putting onstage. So, I guess my shoutout is really to every bad bitch in the city that’s creating a way for herself, themselves, himself and others.

What’s your dream for Yalla Hafla?

L: For the 10-year anniversary: Mercedes Benz Arena! I know that might be naive, but my dream is that we take the Yalla Hafla Tour to Damascus and Tel Aviv. Together with a supporting, loving audience. I know that many people will tell me it’s not achievable, definitely not in our lifetime, but I would rather that I keep on trying. That’s my dream.

D: I have a dream that our existence, our coexistence will speak up for and cure a lot of traumas in others and try to give hope of healing, because God knows our community and our society, be it queer or not, be it Arabic, Jewish, or not, needs it. 

L: The true meaning of what we’re doing is sharing our authentic selves, and not shying away from our choice to be a demonstration of love rather than the clichés of our leaders, that’s it. I hope as many people as possible will join us in this journey and make hafla, not war. 

  • Theater im Delphi, Gustav-Adolf-Str. 2, Prenzlauer Berg, The Bride (13.0.23, 19:30), tickets are available here
  • Tipsy Bear Berlin, Eberswalder Str. 21, Prenzlauer Berg, monthly shows, find out more here