Drag against the occupation
A full dance floor in a South Tel Aviv nightclub, replete with its share of drag queens. Ostensibly another Friday night of gay men having a good time. But this is not an ordinary party of this sort. Palestinians and Jews are dancing together, the music is Arabic, several of the drag performances have a political content, and even the time of night - from the early evening until before midnight - is designed so the celebrants can get home at a reasonable hour without being asked too many questions.
The party is taking place as part of the activities of a new association, Al-Qaws [The Rainbow] for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society. The dance parties, which take place once every two months, characterize the organization's nature: Political activism can be more than just demonstrations and serious slogans. You can surely dance while fighting for civil rights.
The association's members, who come from all over the country, began operating in 2000 in the context of the Open House gay organization in Jerusalem. But lately they realized they had to take another step to meet the special needs of the Arab gay and lesbian community in Israel, and to preserve their uniqueness and political character. Al-Qaws registered as an independent association, and on March 1 will celebrate the launch of its operations.
The association's director, 29-year-old Haneen Maikey from Jerusalem, says the parties are only one aspect of the group's activities, which include local support groups. "We also provide a personal response to people who come for advice, information and a sympathetic ear, and we organize events as well," she says.
'Badge of shame'
Al-Qaws is the first Palestinian-Israeli organization to cater to the entire gay and lesbian Palestinian population. About five years ago the organization Aswat (Voices) was founded for lesbian, bisexual and transsexual Palestinian women. The organization's members are involved in a variety of feminist and political activities. Last year, when they wanted to hold a large convention in Haifa, the Islamic Movement published a condemnation of the convention and called it a "a badge of shame."
An Arab gay man or lesbian in Israel is doubly excluded: In Arab society they suffer from oppression and discrimination because of their sexual orientation, while in Jewish society they suffer from discrimination for nationalist reasons. Maikey says the Arab gay or lesbian in Israel "remains a stranger even in an accepting environment." Usually their relationships are conducted in Hebrew in an environment different from their original cultural milieu. "So even if it's an accepting environment, you remain a stranger, a kind of 'guest of the culture,' and you have to behave according to rules determined by the other," she says.
According to Maikey, "At the parties many people say that it's important to them that there is finally a framework where you can speak Arabic without fear." At the parties there is a sense of freedom and liberation, one reason being the variety that is celebrated. "There's everything here, and everything is accepted," says one of the female participants. "Arabs, Jews, men, women, lesbians, gays, trans, straights." Another reason for the feeling of liberation is that the parties are a meeting place for many identities, mainly gender and national identities.
"I see the parties as both a path and a goal," says Samira, an activist at Al-Qaws and Aswat. "As far as I'm concerned the parties are part of a way to build a community. It's a social meeting place and the beginning of creating a community. It's also a place where you don't apologize for anything about your identity. In the nightclubs and at other parties we are asked to leave the Palestinian aspect outside the club before we enter. Here it's a place that doesn't ask for that. On the contrary, it nurtures our identity."
Songs of love, and struggle
On the stage the performances are beginning. A drag queen sings a love song by the singer Fairuz, another begins a belly dance. A black drag queen with a dark blond wig, wearing a tunic sewn from a keffiyeh, gets onstage. "I don't care what they say," she sings to her beloved. "Every day I'll be what I want to be."
Later the installation artist R. appears. He is active in the Al-Qaws Tel Aviv-Jaffa branch and organizes exhibitions, but he prefers not to be identified by name. R.'s installations are political and very moving. One can often see people in the audience crying. To the strains of songs of struggle, for the most part by classic singers such as Fairuz or Majida al Romi, he appears as a character he created: "Arus Falastin," The Bride of Palestine. "It reminds people of who they really are," he says.
The conflict and distress supposedly subside at the party, mitigated by drag. R. says that "in recent years, all the drag queens I have encountered came to entertain, to make people laugh, to amuse. Although all drag is political in itself, when it is only amusing it becomes boring in a certain sense. Ordinary people - that doesn't excite anyone any longer."
At the last party R. appeared as a "drag king" in a new character he created: Ahmed Basha. His face adorned with bristles, a keffiyeh on his shoulders, he wears a black shirt with the inscription "Free Palestine."
The song he sings, by Lebanese musician Marcel Khalifa, was written during the first Lebanon war. It tells about a little boy who is playing in the yard, looking for string to fly a kite. Suddenly he sees a plane in the sky, "a kite that doesn't need string," he calls to his friends. The plane then bombs the house and turns everything into fire.
Can we expect a Palestinian gay pride march as well? Is coming out of the closet one of the goals of the association?
Samira says that coming out of the closet is not a sacred goal. She was born and grew up in the North and currently lives with her Jewish partner in Tel Aviv. Her immediate family knows about her sexual identity, but the extended family doesn't know (which is why she prefers to be interviewed without her last name). "For me the issue of visibility is important," she says. But she and Maikey stress that visibility does not necessarily require a gay pride march, but can be achieved by "creating a discourse in society."