Meet the pop icons who inspired a generation of Arab queens

As children, Beirut’s pheasant queens didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Finding an extravagant lavish performance could be as easy as going to a family wedding, walking down the street (especially) watching TV in the Arab world.

In fact, while Beirut’s drag queens also take cues from Western pop stars and the American TV series “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” it’s not hard to say what inspirations they’ve received from Arab stars over the past 20 or 30 years.

“We love kitsch, above, the more the more,” said Marwan Kaabour, a London-based Lebanese designer who runs Takweer, an Instagram account dedicated to the intersection of Arab popular culture, Marwan Kaabour. And stars such as Lady Madonna, a singer who has appeared frequently on television dressed as a Christmas tree, and Sherihan, who made an appearance on a popular Egyptian TV show during Ramadan, which has seen dozens of costume changes, certainly delivered.

Among the stars who have made a huge impact on drag in Lebanon is Bassem Feghali, the famous comedian who has impersonated a female celebrity and has been wearing cross-dresses on television since the 1990s. Within a culture that values ​​traditional gender roles, here was a Lebanese man dressed as a woman on national television, celebrated for doing so across any generational divide.

Bassem Feghali impersonating Sabah.

“Bassem Feghali was the only reference we had in drag,” said Evita Kedavra, a cyclist who grew up in Lebanon and now lives in Copenhagen. “Many of his phrases he would have made became part of colloquial Arabic.”

Feghali may be rare to see on TV, but he exists in a culture that values ​​drama and glamour. “The performance is celebrated,” Kaabour said of growing up in Lebanon. “It’s not uncommon for you to go to your cousin’s wedding and the guys are just dancing.”

Many other cyclist queens in Beirut described their aunts’ lavish outfits, hair and makeup at weddings and formal gatherings.

“I grew up in an environment with a lot of super feminine energy,” said Andrea, the stage name of the makeup artist who performs in drag. Andrea remembers her childhood among “church women” with a penchant for drama. “They were very extravagant, whether it was their personalities, their clothes, their hair, their makeup, their jewelry, everything.”

“But it wasn’t one that was sexy or somewhat provocative,” Andrea added.

That changed the first time Andrea saw Lebanese pop star Haifa Wehbe in a music video, where she debuted in a red chiffon dress, her hair flipping as it rained.

Haifa Wehbe in her music video “Agoul Ahwak” (2002).

She doesn’t particularly like Haifa’s voice, and she doesn’t think she’s a good dancer either. that’s not the point.

“Having her in the room and being on stage was more than enough,” Andrea said.

Likewise, the Egyptian artist Sherihan, Latifa Pompi, also captivated. During one of her appearances in the Egyptian TV program “Fawazeer Ramadan”, you find her singing in a purple and gold kaftan, then sitting on top of a cheap car, then moving around in boots.

Sherihan in “Fawazeer around the world” (1987).
Egyptian television network

“Anyone can have a beautiful voice and anyone can look beautiful,” said Pompey, who played Sherihan in Beirut’s drag shows. “But to have that imagination, this strength, this ability to create these amazing outfits and concepts says a lot about you.”

“The way she saw herself as a character is really cool,” Pompey added. “In everything that happens, I make sure I always have that extra touch of Sherihan.”

“Extra, always” could also describe Lebanese singer Lady Madonna (no relation to Ms. Ciccone), who continues to appear on talk shows with an extreme appearance.

Saturn, Beirut’s full-time drag queen, drew inspiration from Lady Madonna’s allure on stage. “The amount of charisma she had on stage, in her performance, and in her looks, is very attractive to me,” said Saturn. “I know I’m strong and strong and she inspires me to learn from her.”

Lady Madonna on “Masrah al Noujoum” (1988).
Jordan Radio and Television Corporation

“It’s a level of camp and magic that I think is kind of universal in every culture,” Kedavra said. “I think there are pockets of witch camps that gay people associate with on a basic level.”

She added, “I don’t know if it’s science or genetics or something else, but you see the sequins, you just, ‘Hey! ”

According to Diva Beirut, stylist and drag queen, Sabah epitomizes this great blend of glam, camp, and resilience. Known for dozens of films and albums as were many of her ex-husbands (the exact number is disputed, but it may be as high as nine), Sabah was drawn to a man-crazy public figure on media appearances and beyond talk shows during a career that spanned from the 1970s through the 2000s. Twenty one. And although she passed away in 2014, she is still a touchstone for camp and entertainment in Lebanon. Only this year, Feghali appeared on Lebanese TV, impersonating her.

Sabah in the musical “Sit al-Kil” (1974).
Lebanon TV

For Diva, performing as a morning and incorporating Arab culture into its drag represents a paradigm shift in how the LGBTQ community in Beirut defines itself.

“We are Arab. we are here. She said. “We’re doing something very new to us, very new to everyone.”

Evita Kedavra’s colleague and friend Anya Knez said she felt the cyclist scene in Beirut was about more than just fun or entertainment.

“When I started the checkout, my goal was to get free drinks and skip the line,” she said. “And as I got older, I began to realize that there was a lack of Arab representation in the drag culture.”

Now in New York, where she studies design and manufacturing at the Fashion Institute of Technology and continues to perform, Anya receives messages on Instagram from aspiring drag queens across the Arab world.

One of the Instagram messages came from a teenager who lives in a conservative village outside Beirut. The sender’s biography reads: “The future Lebanese drag queen.”

“That’s what I want to see,” Anya said obscenely. “I want to see young Arab gays go out and do whatever they want.”

The original Arabic letters by Wael Morcos. Archive photos: LBCI (Haifa), the Egyptian Television Network (Sherihan).

flattening It is a column that explores the intersection between art and life. Produced by Alicia DeSantis, Leo Dominguez, Julie Robin, Tala Safi and Josephine Sedgwick.

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