Split personality

Fafi Abdel Nour (23) was born in Syria, lives in the northern tip of the Netherlands, studies pharmacy during the day and DJs for ‘free spirits’ at night. People have trouble labeling him, but Fafi doesn’t care anymore.  

words by Haroon Ali

What do you remember about Syria?
‘Not much, because my parents fled the country when I was three years old. I was born in Aleppo. I remember buying sahlab with my mom, a sweet dairy drink that I used to love. I also recall going to the public swimming pool with my family. My memories of Syria are very visual, but I don’t know if these are my memories or just stories my parents told me. I don’t want to go into too much detail on why we left, but religion played a big part. I come from a Syrian orthodox family and was raised as a Catholic. We were first placed in a refugee center in the north of the Netherlands. After a year or so, we settled in the city of Groningen, where we still live today. My younger brother and sister were born here, in the Netherlands. They both have blue eyes by the way.’

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What was it like to grow up as a Syrian kid in a predominantly white part of the Netherlands?
‘It was hard for me to look so different from the other kids. I desperately wanted to be Dutch and even asked my mom if she could dye my hair blonde, so I would fit in more. It was like I had a split personality. I wanted to disprove all the stereotypes Dutch people have of Arabs, by studying hard and speaking the language fluently. I also wanted to respect my family and our traditions, but I had all these different thoughts and feelings that I couldn’t share with them – especially being gay. I couldn’t express myself freely in both worlds, which made me feel insecure. It has taken me a while to ignore other people’s perceptions and really form an identity of my own.’

How did your family respond to your coming out?
‘It wasn’t an easy road. When we came to the Netherlands, religion was the only stable factor, it gave my parents hope. They wanted to pass that on to us, so me and my siblings were baptized, took the Holy Communion and went to church every Sunday. I even was an altar boy, following the priest around in a white robe, holding a candle and a Bible. But by the age of sixteen, something felt off. Christianity didn’t give me hope, I just craved freedom. It was confusing, because everything I felt was wrong. At first, I told my family I was bisexual, to make it easier on them. But it still created a rift, because my parents grew up in an entirely different world and didn’t understand my new identity. This was completely new to them and they were also worried that I would face extra challenges in this society, being Arab and gay. But time heals most wounds. When I moved out at 19, our moments together became more meaningful; we fight less these days. Recently, we all went on a family vacation. As we were driving, my dad suddenly said that they could have handled my situation differently and that they’re trying to come to terms with my sexuality. Despite everything, we all love each other very much. And in my culture, having the love and support of your family is everything.’

Did music help you to liberate yourself?  
‘Absolutely. After I graduated high school and came out, I took a gap year to explore music – and myself. When I started going to clubs, I finally felt accepted and safe. There are a lot of college bars in Groningen, but Paradigm and OOST are clubs where everyone can be themselves. The vibe is very down to earth. There are also no rules regarding closing times; you party as long as you want. After I started DJing, I wanted to bring together the local queer community. A lot of gay bars closed down and the ones that remain only play Britney and Beyoncé. At one point, I didn’t feel queer in my own town anymore. That’s why we started our bimonthly party HOMOOST, at OOST, to give queer people and other marginalized groups a platform to voice their opinions, not just a floor to dance on. We organize talks and work with different organizations to bring queer activism back to Groningen.’

Skeptics might say that clubs are no place for true political activism.
‘I disagree. Music is the ultimate way to unite people from different cultures and backgrounds. I don’t just go out to party or get wasted, but to meet interesting people that I would never meet at school or in some office. Clubs are spaces where all these different people can exchange ideas freely and challenge their own thoughts, which can lead to activism. That’s why diversity in the club scene matters. If I go to a club that only books white, male DJs, I don’t feel included. We need to take conscious action to make clubs inclusive for everyone, also for women and people of color.’

You’ll be making your debut at De School on March 29th, with Elias Mazian and Jayda G. You also played at Is Burning during Amsterdam Dance Event. Does it feel different to DJ in the capital?
‘I’m quite nervous to play at De School for the first time, but I’m also excited. I don’t want to be a different person in Amsterdam than I am in Groningen. I also don’t limit myself to one genre. I like the joy of disco, the trippy vibes of italo, but I also dig house. I play music for a free-spirited crowd, but I never let the venue determine which records I bring – or the way I dress or express myself.’

You also study pharmacy at the University of Groningen. How do you plan to apply that knowledge?    
‘I don’t know yet.’ (Laughs.) ‘Maybe open the first club pharmacy when all recreational drugs are legalized. I’ve always been interested in biology and chemistry – I’m a bit of a nerd. I’m studying how different substances affect human beings. Everything in this world can be a drug, from ketamine in the club to likes on Instagram and even the love of your partner. I don’t know how I will eventually apply my degree. I will start my master program in September, so it’ll be a challenge to combine school assignments with music and gigs. But I do plan to see it through. I like science. When I lost my faith in religion, science became my way to understand the world. For me, science makes sense.’

Who or what inspires you the most?
‘My family, despite everything we’ve been through. We came with nothing and had to work hard to get where we are today. They have taught me to take nothing for granted and be grateful for everything you receive in life. My parents and siblings are very active members of the church and help refugees from the Middle East integrate in Dutch society, make them feel at home. It’s kind of funny… We all try to help people, except they do it via the church and I do it in the club.’

Carlos Valdes