In Israel, an African immigrant opens his own dance club

A subculture of underground African dance clubs and churches has emerged for Israel's estimated 20,000 immigrants, many from Eritrea and Sudan who seek asylum.

Daniella Cheslow
Bolli Impanem moved from Nigeria to Tel Aviv in 2000. After being slapped at an Israeli club, he decided to create a place for himself to dance within the Tel Aviv African neighborhood.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

On a chilly Friday in a basement on a graffiti-lined street, about 100 African men and a handful of women move to upbeat, deep-voiced Nigerian music. Red and green disco lights swirl overhead. Bolli Impanem wears a red-and-white soccer jersey as he flits between dance floor and DJ stand.

“I don’t go to Israeli clubs,” says Mr. Impanem. He moved to Israel in 2000 from Nigeria to play soccer for Hapoel Beer Sheva, a pro club, but stayed when he married a Dutch woman. “Somebody slapped me once at a club and it was embarrassing.... So I made a place for me to dance.”

Israel’s African population numbers about 20,000, although no exact figures exist because of illegal migration. First, Ghanaian migrant workers came in the 1980s, followed by other laborers. Today most Africans in Israel are asylum-seekers from Sudan and Eritrea.

Israel sees the Africans alternately as refugees needing help or as burdens on the economy. Amid the debate, an African subculture has emerged near the Central Bus Station, including hair-braiding salons, more than 10 churches, and Sudanese coffee shops where men watch soccer late into the night.

Tel Aviv University geographer Izhak Schnell studied African churches here in the early 2000s.

“When I researched, the Africans asked me how they [could best] operate without being seen,” Mr. Schnell says, noting their fear of the immigration police. “They would do the Sunday prayers on Saturdays.”

Like the churches, Impanem’s basement disco is camouflaged. The heavy metal front door is down a staircase at the back of a nondescript, fluorescent-lit driveway.

For Nelone Key, a South African without working papers, the basement is a place to forget about his frustrations, such as not finding a job despite a university education.

“I just like to dance sometimes,” he says.

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