In an unassuming street in the middle of Malasaña, Madrid’s bohemian barrio, an old lady peers through the shutters of her first floor apartment in a quaint, 19th-century walk-up. She stares at the cobbled streets below and into the open shopfront of Madrid’s renowned bar, Cazador. Inside, we’re photographing its owners Osama and Enrique (and their dog Rio), in what has become, in just four years, their natural habitat. She watches in awe as the scene unfurls, shutters now fully open and her frail hands clutching the wrought-iron railings on the balcony. She’s reached the point where she can hold back no more and offers a jolly, verbal contribution to the proceedings. I can’t pick up exactly what she says with my limited Spanish, but the boys smile and wave back. Rio in turn responds with a tail-wagging bark, catching the attention of a young couple and their dog. They stop for a chat and the canines canoodle. A teenager jumps off her bike to take a picture with the dogs, destined for Snapchat. A delivery truck screeches to a halt to unload bottles of beer for the weekend ahead. For a second, in the early evening sunshine of this warm Spring day, Cazador is the centre of the universe.
The thing is, that moniker is not too far from the truth. Just the night before, somewhere between midnight and 2am (you’ll have to forgive me as the whole affair was a little hazy), the time when Madrid’s nightlife starts to heave, I saw it for myself. Having negotiated my way through the crowd, Enrique had clocked us coming in and lined up shot glasses of ‘Thunderbitch’ across the bar, (the house shot-drink that is everything you’d imagine it to be and more). As the night ensued and many more drinks were poured, I met so many fun, diverse and interesting people, Madrileños and visitors alike, from all walks of life. There were people from the creative arts, diplomats, lawyers, actors – I even bumped into a friend from home in London. They came from near and far, crowded into this cosy space for a little bit of Cazador magic. At the centre of it all, proudly stood behind its small bar, dishing out the gossip as well as the drinks, were partners in life and work, Osama and Enrique.
The boys met online via a friend of a friend on the social-networking site Facebook of all places, a true 21st-century love story. They bonded over their passion for queer film, from Araki to Almodóvar, but also vintage Spanish movies from the fifties and sixties.
Osama is a card-carrying Madrileño, born and bred in the Northern reaches of the city. His father was a Lebanese immigrant from Beirut, hence the displaced (un)Christian name, which ultimately proved very original in a city overrun by men called Juan or Carlos. At the tender age of 23, he set his sights for London, where he lived and worked for seven years, primarily in film production, assisting a number of very well-known filmmakers and directors.
“Having grown up in Madrid, everything about the city started to annoy me a bit and I wanted to get out. But then after many years away, I realised that all the stuff that used to annoy me is actually what I ended up missing the most,” he explains.
His seven-year itch was compounded by a longing for that familiar sense of community that’s so rife here in Madrid. He missed the people, the weather, the lifestyle and furthermore the spontaneity.
“When you are in your twenties, you desire to be part of something much larger, to be more plugged-in to the world and to be anonymous. You desire to find yourself, be who you want, when you want, with no one to tell you what to do. Then you hit a milestone. For me it was turning 30; I started to wonder what it would be like to be at ‘home’ again. I love Madrid’s small-town feel, although it’s a big city with the prestige to match. But here, people know and care about you and the concept of community is very important.”
The first six months were difficult for Osama, readjusting to the Madrid way of life.
“London embraces ambition. And although things are changing, Madrid to some degree is a place that wants you to conform and play along,” he tells me.
He kept his head down, working in the city’s thriving film and TV industry. Within a year of being back in Madrid, he met Enrique. Enrique is an actor, who hails from Valencia in the south. He came to Madrid to study acting at the Royal School of Dramatic Arts and never looked back. He too had an itch to scratch about London, but only spent a year in the British capital before coming back to pursue a career in acting, working in theatre and TV.
“In Valencia, we have a very laid-back life. It’s a Mediterranean thing. Here, those spirits are amplified ten- or twenty-fold into what is an inherent lust for life. I am the typical example of someone who has come here from a completely different place and was embraced by the energy of the city,” says Enrique.
He goes on to explain that Madrid is the hub of Spain and the capital of the Spanish speaking world. While it’s nowhere near open water, it has a port mentality, a melting pot of cultures, albeit distinctively Spanish. This is what he loves most about the city.
“Those people bring dreams with them when they come here. I always say that here in Madrid, there are a lot of dreams floating around. This city allows you to dream and if you’re lucky, fulfil it,” adds Enrique.
A year into dating, Osama and Enrique decided to go into business together. They gathered all their savings and with some help from the government, gathered the capital needed to build their dream. In Spain, if you’re unemployed, you’re allowed to ask for all the money you’d get in state benefits all in one go, if you’re starting a business. So they both took advantage of this and set off on their adventure. Their business-plan was effective and simple. Madrid wasn’t in great economic shape back then, but there was one sure-fire business opportunity – a bar. Madrileños, being the social, congregational animals that they are, see the neighbourhood watering hole as a must-have.
Osama and Enrique had originally looked to do something related to their career in the dramatic arts and film, but decided that it would be better to focus on setting up a bar instead, using the proceeds to fund filmmaking projects on the side. Add to that, both Osama and Enrique really enjoy being around people.
“We just loved the idea of being the centre of the entertainment. We could have done something very different and worked in an office, looking at each other all day. But what we both love most about Madrid is that Madrileños know how to have a good time. And it’s not because we are looking for a way to escape from our ‘real lives’, we just enjoy celebrating life as it is,” says Osama.
Enrique concurs. “When I first came to Madrid, everyone was so welcoming. When I went somewhere where I didn’t know anyone, it wouldn’t be long before someone would strike up a conversation. Before I knew it, I’d meet their friends and they’ll take me on an adventure for a whole night, sometimes even for the whole weekend. So, considering myself to be a seasoned Madrileño, I felt it was my responsibility to take on that very spirit, capture it and pass it on to other newcomers or visitors. It is something that is uniquely Madrid, I’ve not seen it in any other city in the world that I’ve visited.”
The boys didn’t have enough money at the time to get centrally-located premises, so they opened up on a side street in Malasaña. Malasaña was a different place back then, a deprived part of town. To open a bar, let alone a gay bar, was a bold move. But Osama had seen the way Dalston in London had changed and had felt the same thing potentially happening here. Madrid is also a relatively safe place and not once did they feel scared about fronting a gay business. With Chueca on its border and peaking in popularity, some of the queer, bohemian spirit had started to spill over.
It was difficult to start up. While the neighbours and local community were happy that they were bringing some life and soul to the area, they were concerned about anti-social behaviour.
“I remember our first cleaning lady, she lived around here. She came in one afternoon to talk to us because she said the neighbours were gossiping about men kissing in the street. They claimed to have no problem with it, but recommended that perhaps we asked our customers to do it inside because there were children watching from their windows. Which actually delighted me, ” chirps Enrique.
I pondered what kind of parents allowed their children to be awake at 2 in the morning, but alas we are in Spain.
“We just told her that we weren’t going to do that, because it is important to have visibility and an open discussion. We wanted everybody to know that everyone should have the freedom to express themselves however they want to. I wonder to this day what she told them, but we never heard anything about it again,” Enrique added.
Cazador means ‘The Hunter’. The name is rooted in the couple’s love for the cult Carlos Saura Spanish flick called La Caza (‘The Hunt’). They wanted it to be a strong and empowering brand, but felt that ‘The Hunt’ was perhaps a little over the top. Softening it to ‘The Hunter’ made all the difference, plus they also loved the word-play of what it meant to gay people. Both being in film, they also loved the aesthetic and art-direction opportunities the name offered. They both had a keen eye for antiques and anything vintage, so having the idea of a hunter as the theme for the décor sealed the deal. The boys restored the bar’s furniture themselves and featured works of different, emerging artists across their walls, creating a film-set of a venue that brought their dream to fruition.
Film continues to play a really big part in both Osama and Enrique’s lives, feeding into their queer identities. They have recently completed a gay short film, Según Mateo, which Osama directed and Enrique acted in. They are submitting it to various film festivals worldwide and are in the process of co-directing a second. Both their films are set in Madrid and provide fantastic social commentary on the city they live in.
“Según Mateo is a film that explores the typical Spanish dilemma between religion, local culture and queer identity. I believe that while Madrid is quite a liberal city, we do live in a bubble. Religion is still an underlying theme to the acceptance of ourselves as gay people and while in Madrid we have gone a long way to address this, it is still a big issue in the rest of Spain. Religion runs deep in the veins,” says Osama.
At this point, Osama quickly glosses over the fact that he is Pedro Almodóvar’s assistant. I fan-boy a little. Almodóvar is the ultimate queer Madrileño, who formed part of Madrid’s ‘La Movida Madrileña’ movement. To understand Madrid’s open culture, one has to go back a few decades to when Spain made a transition towards democracy after 50 years of fascist dictatorship. Alongside the huge changes in politics motivated by the death of Francisco Franco, there was a counter-cultural movement where the desire to remould the Spanish identity created a time of sexual and political freedom. Almodóvar’s first few films captured the spirit of the period.
Enrique also explores gay themes in his own work.
“The last thing I did was a 15-episode TV show where I played a gay character. While I was doing this, I had a funny feeling that not everybody on set was comfortable with the gay thing, which was interesting for me, particularly in this industry. It was underlying homophobia perhaps, or even ignorance, I don’t know. I’m also working on a theatre piece exploring HIV/AIDS, but related to football, two subjects that just never ever cross. Here a discussion came up about the similarities between being a footballer and actor, along the lines that if you’re gay and in either profession, it’s best not to come out at risk of ruining your career. It just really made me feel that the work in LGBTQ rights, even here in Madrid is far from done.”
Osama added, “Visibility is really important. Community is also very important. We talk a lot about LGBTQ rights in Madrid, but I think sometimes people, and particularly gay people, are a little too comfortable. Being gay in Madrid – in Spain – has changed, but there’s still a lot more we need to do. I think we are a little bit too obsessed with body image and overt masculinity for example. In Chueca, there is a particular look, aesthetic, expression and expectation – one kind of party, one kind of masculinity. I don’t believe in conforming to that in any way.”
I had noted myself that there isn’t a very alternative scene in Madrid. Even in mainstream advertising featuring male models, they are selling the dream of overt maleness, in that if you are going to make it big, you have to look and play the part. And that’s even more amplified on the posters for gay nightclubs that adorn the walls of Chueca – love who you like, but be a body builder and have a beard.
“I just hate it,” says Enrique. “We want our community to be of all shapes and sizes, from all backgrounds. We also welcome a lot of straight people to the bar, not to mention older people from the neighbourhood. We are not part of a ghetto.”
You can see why Osama and Enrique have hit on a winning formula at Cazador. Four years into their entrepreneurship, they are running a successful business that allows them to engage in their deep passion for film-making. Their secret? Well, it’s pretty obvious. Going to Cazador feels like coming home. It is fun and familiar. It encapsulates the spirit of Madrid. On top of all that, it really brings forward the concept of community among queer people in the city.
Our big night out last night ended at crazy o’clock taking part in Osama and Enrique’s favourite pastime – karaoke. There’s nothing more fun than watching drunk, passionate, Spanish people warble their favourite tunes until the sun rises. Osama’s go-to song is the late George Michael’s Faith. And Enrique’s is a duet, Resistiré by Dúo Dinámico – the Spanish equivalent of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive – you may know it from the closing credits of Almodóvar’s ¡Átame! Both songs are extremely poignant, about courage, strength and a determination to succeed regardless of heartbreak and pain. For me, the songs capture the essence of Madrid, one beautiful, dramatic, diva of a city that you can’t help but love. It is a place where you will overcome all odds if you put your mind to it; because the underlying spirit is one of strength, solidarity and a license to dream big.