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Meet the Pop Icons Who Inspired a Generation of Arab Queens

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As children, the drag queens of Beirut didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Finding extravagant high femme performance could be as easy as going to a family wedding, walking down the street and (especially) watching TV of the Arab world.

Indeed, while Beirut’s drag queens also take cues from Western pop stars and the American TV show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” it’s not hard to spot the inspiration they’ve gotten from the Arab stars of the last 20 or 30 years.

“We love kitsch, the over-the-top, the more is more is more,” said Marwan Kaabour, a Lebanese designer living in London who runs Takweer, an Instagram account devoted to the intersection of queer and Arab popular culture. And stars like Lady Madonna, a singer who frequently appeared on TV dressed as a Christmas tree, and Sherihan, whose appearances on a popular Egyptian TV show during Ramadan featured dozens of costume changes, certainly delivered.

One star with an outsize influence on drag in Lebanon is Bassem Feghali, a popular comedian who has been impersonating female celebrities and cross-dressing on television since the 1990s. Within a culture that values traditional gender roles, here was a Lebanese man dressing as a woman on national television, and being celebrated for it across any generational divide.

Bassem Feghali impersonating Sabah.

“Bassem Feghali was the only reference point for drag that we had,” said Evita Kedavra, a drag queen who grew up in Lebanon and now lives in Copenhagen. “A lot of his catchphrases that he would do became part of Arab slang.”

Feghali may have been the rare cross-dresser on TV, but he exists in a culture that prizes drama and showiness. “Performance is celebrated,” Kaabour said of his upbringing in Lebanon. “It’s not uncommon to go to your cousin’s wedding and the men are just belly dancing.”

Several other drag queens in Beirut described their aunties’ ostentatious outfits, hair and makeup at weddings and formal gatherings.

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

“But no one was sexy or somewhat provocative,” Andrea added.

That changed the first time Andrea saw the Lebanese pop star Haifa Wehbe in a music video, where she first appeared in a chiffon red dress, flipping her hair as the rain poured down.

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

She acknowledges that there are better singers and dancers than Haifa. That’s not the point.

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

Latiza Bombé was similarly captivated by the Egyptian performer Sherihan. During one of her appearances on the Egyptian TV show “Fawazeer Ramadan” you could find her singing in a violet and gold caftan, then sitting atop a cheap facsimile of a car, then hopping around dressed as a boot.

Sherihan in “Fawazeer Around the World” (1987).
Egyptian Television Network

“Anyone can have a pretty voice and anyone can look pretty,” said Bombé, who has performed as Sherihan at Beirut drag shows. “But to have this imagination and this strength and this capability to create these amazing outfits and concepts tells so much about you.”

“The way she saw herself as a character is really impressive,” Bombé added. “In everything that happens, I make sure I have the Sherihan touch which is extra, always.”

“Extra, always” could also describe the Lebanese singer Lady Madonna (no relation to Ms. Ciccone), who continues to pop up on talk shows in maximalist looks.

Zuhal, a full-time drag queen in Beirut, has drawn inspiration from Lady Madonna’s onstage charisma. “The amount of sensuality she used to offer onstage and in her performances and in her looks is so appealing to me,” Zuhal said. “I know that I’m powerful 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 glamour that I think is sort of universal in every culture,” Kedavra said. “I think there are pockets of glamorized camp that queer people relate to on a fundamental level.”

“I don’t know if it’s science or genetics or whatever, but you see sequins, you’re just, ‘Hello!’” she added.

According to Diva Beirut, a fashion designer and drag queen, Sabah embodies this heady mix of glitz, camp and resilience. Known as much for her dozens of films and albums as she was for her many ex-husbands (the exact number is disputed, but it could be as many as nine), Sabah leaned into a man-crazy public persona in media appearances and on talk shows during a career that stretched from the 1970s through the 2010s. And though she died in 2014, she remains a touchstone for camp and showbiz in Lebanon. Just this year, Feghali appeared on Lebanese TV impersonating her.

Sabah in the musical “Sett el Kell” (1974).
Télé Liban

For Diva, performing as Sabah and incorporating Arab culture into her drag represents a paradigm shift in how Beirut’s L.G.B.T.Q. community is defining itself.

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

Evita Kedavra’s fellow drag queen and friend Anya Kneez also said she felt that the drag scene in Beirut is about more than just fun or entertainment.

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

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

One Instagram message came from a teenager who lived in a conservative village outside of Beirut. The sender’s bio read, “Future Lebanese drag queen.”

“This is what I want to see,” Anya said, using an expletive. “I want to see young Arab queers coming out and doing their thing.”

Original Arabic lettering by Wael Morcos. Archival images: LBCI (Haifa), Egyptian Television Network (Sherihan).

Surfacing is a column that explores the intersection of art and life. Produced by Alicia DeSantis, Leo Dominguez, Jolie Ruben, Tala Safie and Josephine Sedgwick.

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