With the lights down in the performance space in Hamra, one of Beirut's liveliest neighborhoods, five drag queens reveled in their singular spotlights, lip-syncing songs. The audience applauded and cheered them on.
Drag culture has existed in Lebanon for several decades, gaining popularity with performances by Bassem Feghali, who brought the tradition into the mainstream in the 1990s. The number of drag performers has since grown from one major figure to more than 30 relatively well-known queens of varying degrees of fame.
The popularity of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the competitive American reality television series, has spurred renewed interest in drag in Lebanon. Despite the show’s popularity, however, Lebanon’s scene differs markedly in some ways from its Western counterpart, with Lebanese queens bringing a unique cultural identity to their drag.
Sultana got into drag a year ago, realizing that it was something she could do after watching RuPaul’s show.
“I stumbled across ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ and that was when I was like ‘Oh people actually do that,’” Sultana said to Al-Monitor. “At first it was a bit weird, especially since I come from the Middle East. It was such a new world that was brilliant, but at the same time a bit scary. But the more I watched the show, the more I was like, ‘Oh my God, I really like this. I would love to try it. I would love to do it.’”
Yasmina El-Samina told Al-Monitor that he was inspired by Lebanese drag queens, as opposed to Western performers.
“We have our own drag culture,” he explained. “It’s different from the American culture and the French culture. We created our own balls. We created our own performances, our own segments. We own it. Drag in Lebanon isn’t inspired by RuPaul. If it is inspired, then I would say it is by the one and only Bassem Feghali. I personally take a lot of slogans from Bassem Feghali. I see him as an Arab RuPaul. What he did was very controversial back then, and he played it in a very smart way.”
Despite having different inspirations for getting started on the drag scene, both Sultana and Yasmina have found performing to be an amazing experience.
“It’s really euphoric,” Sultana enthused. “I’ll never forget the first time I was on stage. Every time feels like the first time, but the difference from the actual first time is the nerves that came with it. It felt like there’s a new addition to my life, the drag persona, because, in one way, it is like a heightened self-realization or a heightened self-expression, but, in another way, she [Sultana] is someone that I don’t even know at times.”
Both Sultana and Yasmina also agree that the incorporation of Arab and Lebanese culture in local drag is extremely important because it allows performers in Lebanon to distinguish themselves from those in other parts of the world. Sultana acknowledged a certain amount of Western influence on Lebanese drag, but she added, “[We have our] own twists, which I think is what makes it so special."
“It’s different in two ways in my opinion,” Sultana explained. “It’s different politically, and it’s different aesthetically. When you want to talk about the political factors, I feel like just the idea of wanting to do drag in Lebanon is already a huge thing to think about. I’ve seen a lot of people who started drag after me, and right before they start doing it, they’re questioning: ‘Do I want to do this? What if my parents find out? Is it safe? What if I get in trouble?’ Meanwhile, in the West, I don’t think that’s as big an issue. Already we’re different because we’re not in the safest space to do it. We come from a very toxic masculine society that is panphobic at the same time.”
Sultana further remarked, “Aesthetically we have a lot of Western influences, but we also have our own touch, where our fashion is different, and our inspirations are different, and our pop icons are different, our activists are different, our music, our food. Everything is different. So, as much as one queen might have a Western look, there’s at least one thing that you might find that is different.”
For Yasmina, the reason he performs in Arabic and makes use of various aspects of his culture and heritage is much simpler. “I’m doing drag in Lebanon,” he said. “Why should I do it in English? I’m a Lebanese queen. I’m an Arab queen.”
Regardless of their differing views on some issues, both queens expressed the same concern about the lack of knowledge among younger audiences and queens when it comes to major figures in the drag and queer communities.
“Technically, the most mainstream that drag has gotten [in the Middle East] is Bassem Feghali, and she has been doing it since the ’90s,” Sultana said. “But, at the same time, the attention that we’re getting — younger crowds who don’t know Bassem Feghali — that’s something that scares me a bit with these younger generations. I see 17- and 18-year-old queer people who don’t know who Bassem Feghali is when he’s one of the only queer icons that we have in the country or in the region. The attention that we often get from these younger crowds who might not know the history of queerness is fueled by ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ because they watch the show, so they know what drag is, and they know that we have drag in Lebanon, so they come to our shows.”
While Yasmina is disappointed that younger audiences do not know Feghali, he is more accepting of their situation.
“They don’t have our same content,” he said. “They love RuPaul, especially the young queens. A lot of young people don’t know Bassem. It’s okay. No one can force them to watch Bassem or force them to get inspired by Bassem.”
Both Sultana and Al-Yasmina view the incorporation of their Arab and Lebanese identities into their acts as a way to celebrate their culture with the audience as well as a way to better connect with them. Sultana particularly respects the ability of one particular fellow queen to connect with her audience through culture.
“I see that very well exhibited by Zuhal because she has been doing it for a year or two before me,” Sultana remarked. “From her very first days, she has been incorporating Lebanese and Arab culture, which is why she has such a huge following, because of her relatability, in the Lebanese and Arab sense, because of her grit and wit, and because from her first days, she would crack a joke that a Lebanese grandma would like.”
Neither performer is worried that Western interpretations of drag will overshadow the Arab and Lebanese cultural infusion in their own drag, as such elements have become too ingrained in Lebanon’s scene to be separated.
“It’s part of who we are, whether we like it or not,” Sultana asserted.
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