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Hayfaa Chalabi

Against the binary: Shaking my hips in a queer Cypriot wonderland

Our gender columnist reflects on their childhood of Cypriot weddings and rekindling a love for community and dance away from celebrations of heterosexuality.

28 Jul

As a child, I used to love going to Cypriot weddings – and it was a good job I did, because when you come from an island where basically everyone is a distant relative, you get a lot of wedding invites. Traditional British Cypriot weddings are BIG. My parents, for example, had 500 people at their wedding – and that isn’t unusual at all. 

My favourite part of a Cypriot wedding is the music, particularly the commitment to it. We hire out community halls and Cypriot bands play for hours, usually followed by a DJ who takes us into the early hours with the cheesiest of US pop music. People dance well beyond aching feet, and every two minutes someone comes up to you and asks if you remember meeting them 25 years ago when you were a newborn. And then, of course, they proceed to explain how you’re related by listing off a bunch of family members you have also never heard of.

But, when I hit puberty, something changed. My family were no longer able to force me into dresses (I had never wanted to wear them), and I was faced with the difficult choice of wearing a dress and being a uniform, and therefore pretty anonymised grandchild, or wearing a suit and being labelled “eccentric”, becoming the subject of aunties’ gossip over Turkish coffee.

The thing is, when you are the regular subject of gossip, you don’t just stay a subject of gossip, but you have the pleasure of becoming an “example”; a reference that all Cypriot grandparents and parents use when they are trying to make their own kids feel guilty.  

“Oh, you don’t want to walk to the chippy by yourself,” some grandma would tell her granddaughter. “Or you’ll end up like Yas, never marry a good Cypriot boy, and then what would have been the point of your grandparents surviving British colonial rule and fleeing conflict in Cyprus?”

“I felt in community, but also not in community – this strange space where I both belong as a Cypriot person, but don’t belong as a queer and trans person”

I carried on going to weddings, this time in suits. It was actually pretty chill as far as I could tell, which made me challenge my own internalised, orientalist projections as a British-born Cypriot. But there was still something missing. I went to heterosexual celebration after heterosexual celebration. These weddings were basically parties for straight culture, which, I have to say, isn’t generally my vibe. I felt in community, but also not in community – this strange space where I both belong as a Cypriot person, but don’t belong as a queer and trans person.

So I’m very happy to share that a few weeks ago I was in queer Cypriot wonderland. Like at a Cypriot wedding, there was a live band playing Cypriot music, but this time with both Greek and Turkish lyrics. Queer and trans Cypriots from all over the island shaking our hips like we were at a first cousin’s wedding. The music, the dancing, the joy – we had it all. Except, we were at a night that celebrated us and not a masterclass in heterosexuality 101. 

For this, I have Haringey’s Global Cinema Club to thank. They hosted an event called Borderless Bodies earlier in June this year and, without being too dramatic, it really did change my life. I’ve been to many LGBTQIA+ nights, and many Cypriot community events, but never had I been to something that was both.

“Queer and trans Cypriots from all over the island shaking our hips like we were at a first cousin’s wedding”

“In this space we are neither Turkish Cypriot or Greek Cypriot but Cypriot, something that is both these things, neither of these things but also so much more,” is a quote from the Borderless Bodies zine that accompanied the event. On the same day, there was a bi-communal Pride event in Nicosia/Lefkoşa/Lefkosia, the divided capital city of Cyprus. From a distance, I watched a video on Instagram of Cypriots from both sides of the island who had sewn two gay Pride flags together. Our communities know all too well the pain of borders, and yet the magic of queerness led us together across imposed divides, and tear them down.

At Borderless Bodies, we came together bi-communally to watch films about queerness from all over Cyprus. I chatted to the dad and sister of Elise Hassan, who helped organise the event; they were there supporting her by handing out juice, dolma and kofte. I met Aphrodite, a Cypriot drag queen whose yaya helps them with their drag looks. Our families were often a topic of discussion – some have turned us from their homes, manymost have had to go on their own education journeys growth spurts of learning for us and some have helped us into drag costumes.

One of my favourite parts of the night was watching a film, Narlık sokak (Pomegranate Street) by Florenza Deniz Incirli. Through the peeling of a pomegranate, you see community and love passed down through generations. The film goes from London to Cyprus – and to the immediate familiar sound of a choir of crickets. Florenza’s grandmother teaches them how to make golifa, a Cypriot dessert. Over the past few years, I have also been spending time with my nene, learning her recipes. She describes them in a similarly vague and hard-to-replicate fashion.

Watching the film, it struck me that I had never before seen an openly queer Cypriot interacting with their family, outside of myself and my sister. For a moment, that made me sad, but then I became excited – excited that all of us came together on that summer night to celebrate all parts of our identities, and cherish how rich and gorgeous our community is.

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