Showing posts with label Beirut. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Beirut. Show all posts

January 29, 2019

Beirut Tough Drag Queens are Flourishing and Defying Middle Eastern Habitual Conservatism

Lebanese drag queen Anissa Krana checks her makeup in the mirror at a friend’s house in Beirut ahead of the Grand Ball. The drag scene in the city has steadily grown over the past year. (Natalie Naccache for The Washington Post)
 Washington Post

 Anissa Krana is the center of attention, sitting quiet and cross-legged in the middle of the room. The storm of the year has started howling outside, and the party is just beginning around her. 
Friends chatter and buzz, painting lips and cheekbones on her face; everyone’s eyes are on the clock. Doors at 9. Onstage from 11.
The star of the show takes a deep breath.
Welcome to Beirut’s drag-queen scene and the night of the Grand Ball. For many, this evening would be a debut, and an introduction to a community that prides itself on its flair. But for Anissa Krana — a stage name for Aniss Ezzeddine, 22 — it is the high point of her first year performing, and the biggest audience yet. 
The Middle East is known for its conservatism, but with its febrile nightlife and more liberal mores, Beirut has long been hailed as a relative haven for the region’s LGBTQ community, though not without challenges.
Shows are often impromptu and take place under tight security. Some fliers make no mention of venues, so information travels by word of mouth. 
Performers usually turn up in their street clothes, transform into a whole new character, then shed their costumes again before slipping back outside. Anissa, though, will be making an entrance tonight. A car to the venue has been organized, and she wants to enjoy the reactions of her fellow passengers.  
Drag has deeper roots here than elsewhere in the Arab world, and over the past year, the scene has started to flourish. Many here who became drag performers grew up watching Bassem Feghali, a comedian who gained popularity in the early 2000s by impersonating female singers. In 2015, Evita Kedavra, a Palestinian Armenian drag queen, took the stage, and one by one, the circle grew. 

Anissa Krana has glitter applied at a friend’s home in Beirut. Her makeup usually takes hours to apply. (Natalie Naccache for The Washington Post)
With dozens having taken the plunge since last year’s Grand Ball, the artists credit one celebrity above all: RuPaul and his wildly successful talent show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” 
“That made a huge difference,” said Narcissa, another drag queen, of the Emmy-winning U.S. television series. “Suddenly everyone was watching it, and you just thought, ‘Wow, I could do that, too.’ Those artists taught us a lot.”
Now in its 10th season, the show has become mandatory viewing for most of Beirut’s queens, downloaded or streamed over the city’s famously poor Internet connection. “I just fell in love with it,” Anissa Krana said. “When you put on your wig for the first time, then the makeup, you just get into that character so fast.”
Emerging from those varied influences is a scene that blends an homage to American drag culture with something distinctively, and irreverently, Lebanese. Anissa Krana and Narcissa exude Hollywood glamour, all tumbling curls and dresses with jewels. Performers like Kawkab Zuhal set kohl liner on dramatic lashes for acts lip-syncing to Arabic music or telling sharp jokes about Lebanon’s crumbling political system.  
The city’s drag scene has taken off just over the past year, according to those in the know, with events rotating around a handful of trusted clubs. The Grand Ball earlier this month was to be at one of the biggest, with some 30 contestants competing in front of an exuberant, tightly packed crowd. The energy swelled as the performers rapped and belly-danced, their dresses depicting the four classical elements: earth, water, air and fire.
Sometimes, worlds collide. In October, to almost everyone’s surprise, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” star Sasha Velour strode through one of Beirut’s most famous civil war landmarks, a brutalist-style cinema still riddled with bullets known as the Egg. Videos from that party show the diva, dressed in scarlet sequins, sashaying past the crowd, sometimes pausing for the camera while others studiously ignore it.
“No one knew it was going to happen,” said Eli Rezkallah, the founder and creative director of Plastik Magazine, which organized the event. And when the music played, he said, the crowd was spellbound. “It was one of the most magical moments of my life,” Rezkallah said
Ahead of a performance, artists might spend weeks creating an outfit to suit their character.
“My drag is what I couldn’t be when I was young,” said one performer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety. He said he had started trying on his mother’s heels and makeup in secret, years before coming out as gay. When his parents found out, they barred him from their house and his friends turned on him.
He lives with other drag queens now. “They’re like my family,” he said. “We help each other with food, with makeup, money — everything.”
Others have faced similar trials, kicked out of their homes and ostracized by the communities in which they grew up. 

Krana’s make up palette. (Natalie Naccache for The Washington Post)
Although the Lebanese state is more tolerant of homosexuality than other Arab governments, the penal code can still be invoked to make arrests. In May, the organizer of Beirut’s Pride Week was detained on charges of “incitement to immorality,” before he was pressured into canceling a poetry reading, a sexual-health discussion and a legal-literacy workshop. 
“We don’t have stable laws here,” said Narcissa. “One minute, the state is looking one way; the next, it’s staring right at us.” 
Performers who choose to travel to their shows in drag can be stopped at checkpoints. Venue owners risk their licenses by putting on an event. Only a small number of venues are recognized as “safe spaces” for the drag and broader LGBTQ community, and owners must have strong ties to local authorities to ensure the police won’t turn up and harass attendees. 
“If I was doing this in New York, I wouldn’t think twice. I would just do it. But in Lebanon, you have to stop, you have to discuss everything,” Rezkallah said.
And yet the shows go on — usually without a hitch. 
“I want people to dream that this is normal, that this can happen in Lebanon, without knowing what we went through to get them there,” Rezkallah said. “I don’t want people to feel the struggle. I just wanted people to enjoy themselves.” 
By 8 on this recent evening, Anissa Krana was ready, her torso nestled in a royal-blue corset and glowing in the apartment’s low light. She wore thigh-high boots with heels sturdy enough to last the night. A platinum-blond wig was her pièce de résistance. 
“We’re going to have fun tonight,” she told friends as she struck a pose. With hands on her hips, she was the most commanding presence in the room. Then she turned on her heel and walked out toward the storm.
The car was waiting. It was time for the Grand Ball.

Krana in her royal-blue corset, thigh-high boots and platinum-blond wig. (Natalie Naccache for The Washington Post)

May 28, 2017

First Gay Pride in Beirut

In Lebanon, the LGBT community has made important strides in recent years. A series of court rulings have poked holes in a law that essentially criminalizes homosexuality. This has encouraged activists to push for greater rights.
Lebanon is a relative safe haven in the region, with well-established gay bars and clubs tolerated by the authorities. A number of organizations advocate specifically for LGBT rights. Last week was the first-ever Beirut Pride celebration, and the first time activists raised the rainbow flag in honor of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, May 17.
But this is a region where gays have faced deadly persecution at the hands of extremist Islamist groups. Activists say they still have a long way to go to feel safe to be themselves, much less achieve equality under the law.
Joseph Aoun is one of the Lebanese activists pushing for change. He heads the community center of the LBGT advocacy group Helem, which, along with another group called Legal Agenda, provides legal services to those persecuted under existing laws. Helem also serves as a community center.
I meet Aoun at Madame Om, a bar in an old Beirut mansion overlooking the city port. A Warhol-esque painting of the bar's Egyptian diva namesake, Om Kalthoum, watches over as organizers prepared for the evening's Beirut Pride event about protecting oneself under the existing laws.
"People are sick of being treated like s***," Aoun says, sipping a gin and basil cocktail. He is annoyed that a separate LGBT event was canceled after an Islamist group protested and a hotel venue backed out. And he is even more exasperated that local media took the cancellation as a sign the gay community is facing setbacks.
A coalition of Muslim clergy has been "fighting Helem since 2005," he says. But Helem has persevered. "It's about having the guts to confront," Aoun says.
He believes the LGBT community should always have a Plan B and work around obstacles. "We can't frustrate the community," he says.
I first met Aoun years ago, when he ran Bardo, a gay-friendly bar and dance venue. As the manager, he had to remain on good terms with the authorities in order to keep the place running. Today, he seems liberated from that role and has thrown himself into his activism. He is in fighting mode and fiercely proud of Helem's 2017 campaign marking the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
The group's Arabic video campaign, with the slogan "Homophobia is Terrorism," aired on a major national TV network and garnered more than 120,000 views on Facebook. Men and women stare directly into the camera, as a narrator speaks: "I'm someone like you. I don't pose a threat to society. But this society allows the fact that I am beaten, humiliated, imprisoned, raped or even killed. Don't be part of it. Acceptance is what builds societies. Hate is what creates terrorism."
Aoun says the video campaign struck a chord and received far more positive feedback than negative. "We had a firm slogan: 'Homophobia is terrorism.' It's not a disease; it's not a phobia. It's a terrorism act — it's a hateful act."
He notes that while life can be hard for gays in Lebanon, the challenges are even greater for trans women, who can't blend into society as easily as gay men, or refugees from Syria and Iraq, who face added discrimination. At Helem's headquarters, there is a washing machine and a shower, to help give those on the fringes a measure of dignity.
The Lebanese law regarding homosexuality is a vague one, criminalizing "unnatural" sexual acts. In recent years, Lebanese judges have made increasingly progressive interpretations of the law. Aoun says his group's work with Legal Agenda helps ensure all those who face criminal charges over their sexuality are provided representation. Their goal is for the progressive interpretations of the law to continue.
Earlier this year, Justice Rabih Maalouf, in Lebanon's Metn district, ruled that intimate relations between homosexuals are a "natural right" and thus cannot be criminalized. Legal Agenda, whose lawyers provided the defense, says the judge stated that depriving homosexuals of those rights would amount to discrimination, and was therefore contrary to the law.
"He said the role of the judge is not to convict people based on the opinion of the majority," Aoun adds, but "to protect natural, basic rights of human beings."
Aoun smiles. "Cheers to that," he says.
The last afternoon sun streams through the arched windows of the Madame Om bar, now filled with attendees. The first speaker, Naji Raji, whose causes also include heritage preservation, rises to offer his experience as a member of the gay community.
He recounts a 2007 encounter with the police. A friend had been caught with gay-themed pornography on his laptop. He had brought up Raji's name during an interrogation, claiming he'd helped with the filming.
"My mom came to the [police] station and she was hysterical," Raji says. "They told her, 'Your son participated in a porn movie and he's a homosexual and he's in jail now and he's going to be imprisoned.' My mom was so hysterical, she fell to the floor."
Raji was charged under Lebanon's Article 534 against unnatural acts, which activists say can be punishable by a year-long jail sentence, or usually a fine. Because the police believed he participated in the making of the film, he was also charged with "promoting prostitution."
Raji's family was able to get him out of jail in a matter of days, which he says took the help of personal contacts intervening on his behalf, and a $2,000 bribe. Helem helped, too, appointing him a lawyer for the next three years of court hearings.
During a subsequent arrest, Raji was subjected to an invasive anal test, a practice that Human Rights Watch has condemned as torture and is illegal under United Nations conventions Lebanon has signed.
"Nowadays, things are a little bit different. There's social media and social pressure," Raji tells the crowd.
But he still advises those arrested under existing laws to deny all charges related to homosexuality.
"You shouldn't utter a word before hiring a lawyer. This is the most important thing ... because regardless of how strong you are as a person and how evolved society is nowadays, the pressure you experience there is unbelievable."
He takes a question from the audience: A man asks whether his arrests have made it more difficult for him to get official documents, like a passport.
Raji responds that while he could legally have the charges erased from his police record, at this point, he considers them a badge of honor.
"I want the hurdles. They're amusing," Raji says boldly.
The man commends him: "It's very good to be defiant."
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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