The Palestinian gay and lesbian community has yet to leave the closet, but it’s on its way. Today it’s possible to go to parties of gays from the Occupied Territories and see young residents of the West Bank perform drag. They have not told their mother about this, but one day they intend to conquer the entire Palestinian Authority.
Recently, a young nineteen year old Palestinian resident of the West Bank performed drag for the first time in front on an Israeli public in a dance club in Tel Aviv. The public consisted of gays, straights, and freaks in costume. A minute before he went on stage, while a bearded guy wearing a blonde wig was performing Israeli folksinger Hava Alberstein‘s “Like a Wildflower,” Hussein (a pseudonym) was reading verses from the Holy Qur’an. His overexcitement about his first contact with the Tel Aviv audience did not mar his act, which included performing a song of the diva Haifa Wehbe, considered one of the prettiest women in Lebanon. For an hour, some 800 people became excited when Mrs. Hussein-Haifa sashayed on stage all the while removing her high heel shoes and dancing. Several Palestinians present in the audience ran ahead to encourage him and even stood in line behind the curtains to shake the shaking hands of Hussein and thank him.
Hussein prays five times a day, but he also worships Britney Spears and popular stars in the Arab world, like the French singer Alizee and the Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram, whom he imitates in his drag performance. In the West Bank, he lives in the border zone between life in the closet and life outside the closet. Like several of his friends, he is considered one of the pioneers of the Palestinian gay-lesbian community, and not only because of his drag performances which he performs in private parties of the gay Palestinian community.
Together with his little sister, Hussein lives in his mother’s house in one of the West Bank cities. His room resembles that of an adolescent girl: wall-to-wall posters of the top pop singers of the Arab world, with a bit of the Spice Girls for variety. Heart-shaped pillows and teddy bears decorate his bed. “Everybody in town says that I’m the first slut in the town.” When he says slut he means homosexual. “But they have no proof whatsoever,” he adds. In contrast to the Palestinian homosexuals that are persecuted in the Palestinian Authority and seek refuge within Israel, Hussein does not see himself as a victim, so much so that he publicly flirts with his definition of homosexual. In the streets of his native city, he and his good friend Samar (a pseudonym) openly show off their queen clothes collection, with obvious Palestinian adjustments — tight fitting clothes, high boots with pants tucked inside them, and stylized hairdos. Next to his pocket he wears a small pin, which I gave him at one of our earlier meetings; the pin has the word “Homophobia” and a red line above it. People shout and whistle at them on the street and at the university. It seems that the whole city knows that two homosexuals live in its midst; so far, they are alive and well.
— Does his mother know?
“All my friends are gay,” says Hussein when talking about his classmates at the university, where he studies economics. “There are a lot of gays here in general.” Hussein and Samar are exceptions in so far as they desire to leave the closet. “It is fine for everybody to sleep with me and live with girls and not be considered gay,” declares Hussein. “Simply nobody calls this gay around here.”
Sexual behavior in the Arab world is not connected to a person’s identity. The notion of “sexual identity,” which is widespread in Western thought, is an unknown concept in the Arabic Islamic world. In their world, people are supposed to be straight and lead a straight lifestyle, and there is no connection between their straightness and their sexual desires. Thus, most men and women who desire to sleep with their own sex can do so discretely and continue to lead otherwise normal lives. Their concealed desires do not constitute a fault line in their lives. Tahar (a pseudonym), a friend of Hussein, exemplifies this: he is a man, who is attracted to men and finds it difficult to admit this; he will most likely marry a woman. He calls himself “straight” because it is easier to present himself as such.
Hussein claims that he is in the closet with his family, but what does he mean by this? Hussein and Samar both work on their drag performances at home, at full volume, while Hussein’s sister serves as an audience. Hussein’s mother, a divorced woman, and his sister know that his closet is full of women’s clothes and makeup. The mother even saw the condoms that are in his room. When we were sitting in the living room, words like “drag” and “gay” were freely bandied around in front of the mother, who understands and speaks English. It is not clear what she does not understand but no doubt the issue of homosexuality is not hidden from her eyes. Hussein sleeps in the same bed with his mother and sister. Later at night, while his mother is watching television, he sits spellbound in front of the computer in the same room and chats on Israeli dating sites for gays, such as Gaydar and Atrafdating, as well as a few Jordanian chat rooms, where he trades pictures, talks about sex, and arranges meetings.
As for Samar who has performed as a drag artist for already a year, his family has never heard about his homosexuality but definitely show a more hostile attitude toward extrovert feminine behavior. “My sister also hates this behavior,” he says. “She saw Hussein and said ‘He’s like a girl.’ Only my brother does not care. He does not know, but sometimes I think he does. He laughs at me when I speak on the telephone: ‘With whom did you talk, with your boyfriend?’ But I know what he means by this.”
— How dangerous is it to be a queen (a gay man displaying feminine behavior) in a society which celebrates machismo?
Hussein says, “If I see somebody on the street and say ‘Look at me’, and if he looks at me, I approach him and begin to shoot the bull. It is not dangerous. What is dangerous is to do this in front of the police or tough guys.”
If Palestinian gays did not have enough troubles of their own, an additional security danger is the Israeli Occupation. The Israel Security Service (Shabak) cynically uses Palestinian homophobia and coerces gays to choose between recruitment in its ranks and forceful outing. Most Palestinian gays choose the first option in order to save their lives. As such, every gay is considered a potential collaborator. Hussein and Samar have yet to be recruited and it also seems that it will happen soon, given the high status of their families. But two years ago Hussein was kidnapped from his home, most likely by Fatah men, who wanted to “shake” him up and check whether he is a collaborator. “They kidnapped me because I had long hair,” he relates. “They took me to a large empty area, where they beat me up and dragged me on the ground. They interrogated me with regard to sex with men. I told them that I was not gay. Had I admitted to them that I was gay, it would have meant that I am a collaborator. They beat me with sticks and stones. Every time I said ‘no’ they hit me. I said that I love Palestine and I would never in my life work for Israel. Finally at 12:30 after midnight they put me in a car and dropped me off near the house.” The Palestinian security service has also not overlooked Hussein and Samar and invites them for “visits.” Hussein says, “They write down all that I say, but they have no proof; they have not caught me. Sometimes I think that they would like to catch me.”
What distinguishes Palestinian gays is the fact that they are the only partygoers in the world who hold underground parties. Once a month, some 150 participants get together and hold hidden parties at secret and changing locations. The majority are Arab Israelis from places like Jaffa, Jersualem, and Nazareth; the rest, Palestinians from the cities on the West Bank, who endanger their lives as they sneak into Israel and break the law. Hussein, Samar, and a few friends went by foot for some two hours to circumvent the roadblocks in order to arrive at last month’s party. Some of the guests at the party were older than them and looked amazingly straight: regular manly men who left wife and children at home and came to the party. The younger generation has adopted a more queeny look: slanted asymmetrical hairdos and tight fitting clothes. Among the invitees were also some Israeli gays who like this genre and a few drag queens who grew up speaking Arabic at home.
The parties are the most heartfelt, pioneer expression of the up and coming Palestinian gay and lesbian community. One can sense the great excitement in the atmosphere. In the early hours of the night, on a busy Israeli street, the entrance to a bar that caters a homoerotic Arab party is an entrance to another universe. Contemporary Arab dancing music blares from the walls, and tables were moved to the side in order to make every millimeter of space available for dancing. The guests were pressed together in the crowded bar, but unlike gay clubs in Tel Aviv, the amount of condoms in the bathrooms was negligible. Flirting took place on the dance floor, all the while couples danced with piercing looks and hand contact. Unlike the clubs in Tel Aviv, where men barely look at one another as they give one another the run-around to the alienating sounds of electronic music, here all the enticement is in the sensual belly dancing and movements of the waist, which are as if taken from video clips of the pop singer Shakira. Only those who know how to sway can obtain something. Handsome youths, with a bit of makeup, wearing red bowties or net shirts, wrapped themselves in the arms of their partners and kissed while dancing. “I cannot believe that there are so many Palestinian men and all of them here are gay,” whispered Hussein’s boyfriend. This was his first party. “In Israel gays have parties every day,” Hussein says, “but we only have parties like these once a month so we invest a lot of our soul in them.”
Hussein and Samar were first exposed to drag performances in these parties. At the Jerusalem Open House, the umbrella organization that advances the rights of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, they received encouragement and support to perform drag on their own. The Open House organizes a Palestinian project which brings together young men and women through its internet site, which gets tens of thousands of hits in a month and slowly builds the Palestinian gay and lesbian community. “Hussein and Samar are part of this larger community; they are not lone examples. That’s the major difference in comparison to the past,” says Haneen Maiki, who directs Palestinian outreach for the Open House. “A generation has grown up that wants to make changes in the society here; they don’t want political refuge in Switzerland or beg a visa from Israel. They want to build their community here.”
While practicing their drag performances in front of the mirror in Hussein’s room, Hussein and Samar explain the different genres of Arabic drag. In the upcoming party, Samar intends to appear as a bimbo whereas Hussein as a contentious woman from high society. Other than the basic idea of imitating a woman, neither performance has an equivalent in the Western version of drag acts. They get their inspiration from the world of images from Arab culture, from the great divas of Beirut, who appear on the music channel Rotana TV and programs like “Star Academy,” the Arab version of “A Star is Born.” “Many Arabs want to see Western drag, but we in the Arab culture must show Arab drag,” says Samar. “I can do Western drag but I prefer to do Arab drag. In Lebanon, drag is not something exceptional or special; there are many transsexuals, so it is normal.”
In Western culture many drag queens are transgenders (women who were born as men) who have become or are on their way to becoming women through operations and hormonal treatment.
— You are not like this.
Samar: “I don’t want to be a woman; I like being a man. I like to do drag because it is theater, like being a producer of my song. I cannot do drag to a man because I am a man. I am feminine and I love to play this role, to put on makeup and dance like a young woman, but I am not a woman.”
Hussein: “I would never want to turn into a Dana International, but I am good at imitating her. I can imitate Haifa Wehbe to perfection. I could not do this with men’s clothes. My dream is to march in drag at the gay parade in Jerusalem, carrying the sign ‘Palestinian and Proud.'”
Hussein and Samar, hidden fans of the roadblocks, come to Tel Aviv about once a month, according to the connections they have made on the dating site Atraf. At his home Hussein shows me his profile on Atrafdating and Gogay. He heard about Atrafdating from a friend in East Jerusalem. Later at night he is chatting simultaneously on two dating sites in addition to a Lebanese one. The list of online friends includes some 30 people from Tel Aviv, New York, Tul Karem, and more. Samar has succeeded in having an extended relationship with a Tel Aviv guy, a solider whom he has met in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
— Why do you think Israelis are interested in meeting Muslim Palestinians on Atrafdating?
Hussein: “They contact me because they think I’m cute. They see my profile and that I am a Muslim. If it bothers them, they don’t contact me.” Both in Hussein’s profile and that of Samar it is written that they are Muslims, a fact that, they say, only turns on some of the surfers who want to go out with them in exchange for a ride and entertainment in Tel Aviv. Among the largest fans of Palestinian gays, they emphasize, stand out combat soldiers and the border police – the very people who prevent their entrance into Israel and turn their crossing roadblocks into a university of humiliating experiences.
Hussein: “Every time I cross a roadblock, even the women soldiers ask me if I am gay. Once she asked me in Arabic in front of my mother. After that she let me pass without checking my identification card. Once we were stopped in Jerusalem by border policemen,” he continues. “We were four on the way to a party and drag performance. All my drag clothes were in the bag. The policeman knew that we were gays since he was himself gay. We only had the green identification card. When he asked where we were going, we mumbled something to him, but he straight out guessed which club we were going to since it is a gay club, so I confessed this, and he told me to go and appear there in drag. The other policemen were quite surprised.” The border policemen wrote down details about the guys but released them without forcing them to sign the usual guarantee that they will never return again to Israel. “They just told us, “Go and do your drag at the Mukata [Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah].” But that night they showed up at the same club in uniform to look for the young guys.
“I hate what the soldiers do to us at the roadblocks,” says Samar. In the same breath he talks about his attraction to border policemen on account of “their sexy uniforms.” This ambivalence is at the basis of his relation toward them. “I was so happy the first time I was asked by a soldier at a roadblock whether I was gay,” he says. “I was happy that he would know that there were gays in Palestine. I used to cross one permanent roadblock where the soldiers knew me and every time they wanted to know more and more.” Allah had mercy on him, so he arrived at his premiere performance in Tel Aviv.
We picked up Hussein with Tahar at the roadblock next to their houses, relying on the fact that the soldiers at the roadblock would see an Israeli face and not notice that two illegal residents are sitting in the backseat of the car, which is what actually happened. In the middle of the ride, Hussein asked for silence for a few moments and prayed. After the roadblock, in Tel Aviv, Hussein and Samar were free to behave like true queens, to make eyes at cute guys at the beach or sauna, but at the same time they had to shed their Palestinian identity, lest they would be detected by a police patrol vehicle.
— How much can you keep to Muslim customs when you are in Israel?
Hussein: “Islam makes it easy on its believers. I can pray when I travel; it’s OK. The only thing that is forbidden is to eat pig meat, to drink alcohol, and to be a collaborator for Israel.”
— But according to Islam you are sinning.
Hussein: “My dear, I was born like this, but I don’t think that a person who works as a collaborator or drinks alcohol was born as such. I try to do all that the Qur’an says for me to do. In the end Allah and I will meet, and I think he will forgive me.”
Samar: “I ask Allah what can I do, because I don’t like women at all and if I marry a woman this will be a sacrifice, and I know that he would not want me to suffer.”
When he is asked what he likes better, his Palestinian city or Tel Aviv, Samar says he prefers his home. “In Tel Aviv they don’t like Arabs, even in Jaffa, they don’t like me because I’m from the Territories. Palestine is my home even if I cannot be totally free in it. But I tell everybody in Tel Aviv where I am from. Gays like other gays and they don’t really care. When I was at the Vox Club, I told everyone where I am from, and nobody cared, as long as I didn’t blow up on them.”
Especially since Hamas has gained power, many Palestinian gays prefer to emigrate to the West, where they can marry and live with their partner and thus get rid of the burden of Arab society.
— What about you two?
Samar: “I already told my family that I will not marry. My mother said to me: ‘Perhaps when you are 27 or 28 you will change your opinion.’ Seriously, I’d love to leave Palestine, perhaps to Canada or Lebanon. In Beirut I saw two guys kissing on the street and nobody said a thing to them. I want to marry, but with a man. I cannot do this here because the place is too small and there is no privacy here; everybody immediately knows everything about everybody.”
Hussein also wants to see his future outside Palestine, after he finishes his studies in economics as his mother wants him. “But not because I am bored or because it is hard for gays here. Everybody is out of the closet in Jordan, and, God willing, everybody will soon be out of the closet in Palestine. I want to leave because I want to be a singer, and a singing career will not kick off in the West Bank.”
— Why not stay and make a change here?
“I will change things here as much as I can and then leave. I want to do things for gays wherever I go, and if I will have money I will donate it to places like the Open House. I think my family will accept me as a gay person. I intend to be the first gay Palestinian out of the closet (who lives in Palestine), and I will do this on television and newspapers and not only to my family. Of course, this will be a great shock and even dangerous, but everything I do is dangerous.”
Liad Kantorowicz, who grew up in Israel and the United States, is a writer and a sex worker. She is a member of “Coalition of Women for a Just Peace” and “Anarchists Against the Wall.” This article first appeared in the Hebrew edition of the Haaretz weekend magazine and was translated by the Alternative Information Center (31 May 2006).