Love to Love Habibi:
NY Press Nightclubbing Column #4 with Habibi

by Tony Phillips

A 30-something man wearing a striped dress shirt places the fingers of one hand alongside his temple while the fingers of the other come to rest on the front of his khakis, turning his upper body into a lopsided eight. He holds this pensive pose for a few beats. Suddenly, his hips begin to gyrate and a smile washes over his goateed face while his hands flutter up toward the mirror ball like isometric birds.

He’ll repeat this hip-quake later with a cocktail in one hand and it goes from stirred to shaken with a few shakes of his pelvis. Soon, he’s power-blending and his drink covers most of the people dancing around him. They don’t seem to mind. Welcome to Habibi: one of the most graceful yet welcoming dance floors in this city. But beware, staring too long from the banqueted sidelines will eventually end in outstretched palms locking on you while the fingers curl inward. It’s a universal invitation to the dance; and it’s pretty hard to resist in this Arabic-tinged pleasure dome.

This occasional, roving dance party is the brainchild of a former accountant named Ibraham Joseph who spins at his own parties under the nom de disc I.Z. Habibi is a one-man show, with Joseph juggling everything from grooming the email list to choreographing the belly dancers, but the party has outgrown tiny venues like Boom and Downtime and currently resides at The China Club. It’s also gone from a quarterly gig to an almost monthly event, which has allowed Joseph to shelve the bookkeeping day job and live la vie Boheme 24/7.

“I’m bored with hip-hop and house music,” Joseph explains, “I’m bored with seeing the same thing everywhere I go.” And that ennui, coupled with a hunch about the audience for his kind of party, caused him to get his party started just after 9-11. “I really saw that there is a market for middle-eastern, Arabic music and a party that was just different from everything else,” he says. “That’s what encouraged me to give it a shot.”

He hesitant to say much more about himself after the party winds down. He’s not shy, but prefers an air of mystique. “I hate labels,” he explains, “and I want you to come to this party with a completely open mind. The least amount of information I give, the better it is for you and me.” He does allow that were he to hire another pair of hands, they’d have to be adept at shooing people away from the DJ booth. He doesn’t mind requests, but not when he’s working.

The oddest request I entertain at Habibi is a patron who asks to borrow my scarf. I oblige, figuring he wants to duck outside for a smoke, but he knots it around his waist and bucks his hips, following the bouncing scarf around the dance floor. The commotion continues as I lean against a mirrored wall and try to track my accessory as it circulates the party. Soon, those upturned hands are beckoning and like it or not I’m dragged into the hip-shaking fray.

That fray is the reason Joseph gets up in the morning. Okay, make that the afternoon, but he is expecting about 500 people at his next party and would love to double that number. Right now, he’s working with lights that seems to be plotted on two settings: on and off, but he’s on the lookout for “a really big space where there are video screens.”

Still, part of Habibi’s charm is that absolute economy of means. Things are decidedly low-tech. There’s no Phazon sound system and there are even moments when the needle seems to drag across one record and land on another disc entirely, but the crowd never stops moving through what he calls “primetime” or the hours between 11 and three.

Joseph’s recipe is a simple one: “A mix of Arabic music from all over the Middle East that I mix with some Indian and Latin music. I always add the Arabic touch, or if it’s Arabic music, I add a global touch, like house beats, so it’s a complete blend.” Needless to say this cocktail, like everything else in Habibi, is served shaken.