With the world of drag busting out all over, and becoming more mainstream, we take for granted here that drag isn't easy for all to do freely or , at least with cost. But drag is more far reaching then one thinks. Even in the Middle East. Some may assume drag and cross-dressing were recently introduced in Arab countries, but rumor has it, the legendary Umm Kulthum began her singing career disguised as a Bedouin boy. Although the "Star of the East" dressing up as a young boy isn't exactly the same as drag, it demonstrates that Arabs have long been challenging traditional assumptions about gender through the way they present themselves publicly.Many historians trace the cross-dressing trend within the Middle East and North Africa to the height of the Ottoman Empire, with Kocek (boys who danced and sang in female dress) and Cengi (girls who did the same in a male dress) being popular entertainers as far back as the 16th century.
Today, as Rupauls Drag Race and many famous queens proudly shine in the limelight, they are building on a tradition that Middle Easterners have long been a part of. Here's a look at some modern-day Arab queens who deserve our attention, and a round of applause for being simply fabulous.
The way Amrou Al-Kadhi sees it, "you have not met a drag queen until you’ve spent time with many of the Middle Eastern women in Harrods!" Himself a proud Iraqi-British queer drag queen, Al-Kadhi credits his Arab mother as being one of the major inspirations behind his drag performance. A queer drag queen wasn't exactly what Al-Kadhi's parents and family had envisioned for his future, but he said they now "choose to ignore it as one big pink elephant in the room and try and get on as much as we can. "Fortunately, Al-Kadhi has found acceptance and support from his twin brother. Recently, Al-Kadhi sealed a six-figure book deal to publish his memoir, Unicorn.
Anya Kneez did her growing up and living in Brooklyn, New York, for 23 years, but then Anya moved back to Lebanon with her family in 2012. Although she admits she struggles with conservative values that make it more difficult for her lifestyle Kneez has a found space for herself in Beirut's burgeoning queer scene. Since then a friend of hers has made a documentary titled A Queen in Beirut.
Lebanon's Bassem Feghali stands out as one of the most prominent drag queens within the Arab world.
Through recreating legendary Middle East singers such as Sabah and Fairouz, as well as modern divas including Haifa Wehbe, Elissa, and Nancy Ajram, Feghali uses his performance to make audiences laugh, while also subtly challenging societal notions of gender. I had the honor of meeting him once on a rare US appearance, and honey, no one does head pieces like this queen.
The Bride of Palestine, clutching a rock in her hand, she stood on a Tel Aviv street back in 2008 wearing a bloodied wedding dress and sang loudly: "Let the jails' doors be destroyed."Let this madness be defeated, and let anyone who betrays us become stones," The Bride belted out as confused Israelis passed by. The Bride is a gay Palestinian drag queen living under Israeli rule. Oppressed by conservative society on one side, he is also forced to face the cruel reality of living as a second-class citizen in his native land each day.Part of a group of Palestinian drag queens that met on a regular basis in underground clubs, The Bride is considered to be one of the most popular performers due to her fierce politically charged routines.
A former competitor on the ninth season of RuPaul's Drag Race, Jay Rivera aka Aja has Moroccan, African-American and French heritage, although she was adopted by a Puerto Rican family. This is one queen who had it rough in the beginning. Rivera's drag name was inspired by the 1982 Bollywood movie "Disco Dancer." One of the songs in the film is titled "Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja." Ever since hearing those lyrics, the name just kind of stuck. Aja also went on to compete in RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars Season 3. Although she didn't win either competition, she definitely left an impression. In 2016, she went on to win the award for Drag Queen of the Year at the 4th Annual Brooklyn Nightlife Awards, where is continues to shake up Brooklyn. Thankfully Aja has gotten pass the strict guide lines of her background. And if you want to see a good drag performance on to one of Aja shows. She is good.
Here's to these queens breaking boundaries and being role models to queens everywhere.