The familiar ping sounds, and I look at my phone to find out if the message is from a friend or a foe.
“Free Gaza from homophobic Hamas! If you were there you’d be killed!”
Ugh, Foe. On a dating app of all places. I was used to this on social media, but it happens too often everywhere else these days. I was not prepared, but the floodgates opened and I needed to swim through this mess, again.
Homophobia permeated through the message, as it does in every part of the world, even in Berlin. Berlin - the so-called “queer utopia”, the most progressive city in all of Gay Europe, or Gay-ropa. We were told that the modern gay revolution started here, at the Eldorado cabaret, and Magnus Hirschfeld and Marlene Dietrich would embrace us with open arms if they could. In the real world, National Socialism destroyed it all, and, by 1945, Marlene, Magnus, and Eldorado were gone. But the queer spirit is strong, and Berlin flourished once again.
I dreamed this spirit was real when I worked on the stage production, Lila Lied, a queer cabaret telling the histories of these icons with the production’s title referencing a queer liberation anthem. I danced in my fringe dress on stage as Annita Berber, ascending as the bright lights made me dizzy. I sang as Marlene Dietrich, looking in the mirror, trying to find some part of her, but I could not, even though her face stared back at me. The cast, mostly people of color - this was intentional, an attempt to show what could have been if this dream world continued to flourish.
As an artist, a queer Arab artist, I wanted nothing more than to embrace this world and be a part of its claims to modernity. But people of my heritage pay a tax specific to them, and it does not pay forward in kind.
In my career as a drag artist and performer, I have taken different names, trying to find something that would ensure my acceptance into the drag scene: something cheeky, bold, and international. “Cupcake” did not encompass my dark fascination with Medea; “Queen of Virginity” became too classist with its monarchical reference. However, the discomfort around my drag name was undoubtedly connected to my first name. How could I justify my identity with its masculine, Shi’a Muslim connections that I felt so troubled by? I would not be the performer I am today without struggling to come to terms with my culture and gender identity. I added a feminine suffix and became Hassandra. I am a queer, non-binary, Arab drag artist and I am tired of pretending all aspects of my identity are mutually exclusive.
The latest wave of racism has come with an emphasis on Islamophobia, and looming threats of pending anti-semitism. It crashed ashore on October 7th, and the Arab community of Berlin held in its collective breath. The post 9/11 world has conditioned all of us living in the West to fear inevitable aggressions against us after such attacks abroad, but it came at the bitterest of times. We’d pushed past the impasse of hate in Europe and pop culture finally noticed us. Young Europeans, especially in Germany, incorporated “habibi”, “yalla”, and “wallah” into their vocabularies. I remember watching the coming-of-age film Kokoon in 2021 and witnessing this shift for myself on screen. The sister of the main character, a German, says to her mother “Ich schwöre auf Allah!” to which her mother replies “Du glaubst nicht in Allah!” The sister replies that all the kids at school say that, implying her classmates are Arab and that it is a “cool” thing to say. When did Arabic-speaking culture become fashionable? When did we stop being scary and terroristic to European eyes? Was this the moment we’d been waiting for?
When I first started performing in drag, I wanted to use it to reshape my memories and reconnect with parts of my culture I felt I had lost. I had only been in Berlin for a year then and wanted to reinvent myself. My first performance was to a Shakira song to which I belly danced, feeling proud to honor a Lebanese-Columbian like Shakira. My foolishness made me forget I was in the West, and my naïvety made me believe I could fit into this world as an Arab artist. The lustful stares and the strange comments after the performance made me uncomfortable, but I could not grasp why. It was only later, after several years in nightlife, that I realized I was not just an artist. I was the Token Arab: the person of color, the political element, utilized for flavor, diversity, and exotic entertainment. In retrospect, I felt disgusted and vowed I’d never put myself in such a powerless position again.
Some years after this realization, contradicting my vow, I chose to compete in the Mx. Kotti drag pageant. In my performance, I put my identity and body hair on full display, speaking out about how I would not be objectified for it as an Arab, and I dared those in the audience to look at me for what I am: a person. I won that pageant, thinking my message was received loud and clear, and I was overwhelmed by perceived acceptance. I’d finally (finally!) made it. All parts of my drag, including my identity, came together at this moment. But to my surprise, several white Europeans were still confused over my message:
“But isn’t it a compliment to be told that you’re attractive,” gossiped one drag queen.
I could only swallow the lump in my throat. The racialized gaze of the Westerner still could not be swayed, even when I told them through my choreography, music, and costume that they should. A seed of resentment was planted inside me, the ground dry and infertile. I thought it would die before my desired community saw me for who I truly was.
I stare at my phone, the burning inside my chest familiar. It was not the sentiment that “all Arabs are homophobic” that bothered me, but the blatant reminder that even though I was queer, I was not welcome in this city. Maybe I was not trying hard enough to just be queer, as the Western image of queerness expected me to be. However, harsh memories are saviors to present doubt and sobered me instantly.
There were times in my career when I tried to play the part of the “queer artist”, white-washed to perfection. I developed my art, painted on pretty make-up, and used my training in acting and performance to create conceptual, moving pieces. I must have been mistaken because another venue told my former collaborator:
“We love Cupcake, but their pieces are too artistic.”
I wanted respect, but more than anything I wanted to be myself. I stepped out of the white-wash shower and founded Queer Arab Barty, a party centered on creating a space for the queer Arab* community where we could finally claim autonomy over our entertainment and enjoyment away from prying European eyes. Funnily enough, the same European eyes noticed me there, and I was soon offered by a club to perform, book and curate a “Middle Eastern” party…for 75 euros. The regular fee for other performers was 75 euros, while Arab performers got 50 to perform at said party. The audacity.
Even though I continued to grow as a performer, and my art became more complex, I got pegged simply as the “Arab” performer. Around me, fellow Arab performers were punished for their vocality, such as when a colleague made a joke about “BDS(M)” at the nightclub where I worked and did not meet the approval of the backstage manager who sarcastically insinuated that they would not be booked again. I often performed at another venue with a drag artist and collaborator who always negotiated my booking. It became a game of will they/won’t they ever want me as a solo performer. Alas, my day finally came…the day after the Beirut explosion in 2020. The venue wanted a Lebanese performer to do a fundraiser for the victims of the blast. In my heartbreak, I did it. The burden of being a diversity hire can only be carried on the back of a good PR campaign, and, in my case, with extra glitter. I felt the bitter seed in my chest sprout roots deeper inside me.
I don’t want to answer this message. I want to scream through the abyss of the app so that the person on the other side can hear and know how it feels to be tokenized and racialized, to be both the water to wash away white guilt and the scapegoat to point the finger at when a Westerner feels endangered. But I don’t. I rise another day and face this stranger again, until another time.
“Meet me outside. I swear I can’t take this. Queer people exist everywhere, including in Gaza. I’m done talking to you.”
In my analysis, Arabs exist in the West for three purposes: fear, sexualization, and tragedy. Every so often, a fourth is added: for political pandering.
But what is “political” for the European? For me, it is sharing my traumas, speaking my language, and showing my body hair. For white drag queens, it is sticking up the middle finger to Trump - a “safe” enough option - and preaching for “love and peace” but not once suggesting anything concrete. Yet I am the “more” political choice of the two, even if it seems that the queer Arab artist cannot claim anything, neither titles nor concepts, without the approval of a supervising Westerner. Gay-ropa does not want Arab queens with opinions on freedom, and sharp tongues (as well as strong as nails).
Gay-ropa comes with concessions for the Arab person that in the end put our existence into a constant Russian roulette of identity. A fear of bodily harm emerges around every corner. Today you fear going out in public with make-up. Click. Tomorrow you fear how your untrimmed beards make you appear to bureaucrats. Click. Next week, it is people insisting you’re a boy. Click. A car passes by throwing out a slur. Click. Yet again, another terrorist attack. Pow. Reload.
- Image Caption
Cover / Fig 1.: photos taken at ADIRA PARTY on 08.07.2023 by Tansu Kayaalp
Courtesy and credits Tansu Kayaalp