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Beirut's blossoming drag scene beats its own path despite taboos.

Summary: "I left the house in full makeup -- face beat for the gods!" 25-year-old designer and animal rights activist Joe exclaimed, referencing a particularly powerful, exaggerated style of makeup as he recalled the night of his first drag performance.

BEIRUT: "I left the house in full makeup -- face beat for the gods!" 25-year-old designer and animal rights activist Joe exclaimed, referencing a particularly powerful, exaggerated style of makeup as he recalled the night of his first drag performance. That day had been a long time coming. His drag persona, Narcissa, had been gestating for years.

"I've always liked to dress up as a woman," Joe -- who, along with The Daily Star's other respondents on this topic, preferred not to give his last name -- said. "I used to wear my mother's skirts, tops and heels without her knowing."

Growing up in a conservative Christian family, he was always aware that deviating from the norm was often looked down upon. "It's taboo," Joe said. "Nothing in this country tells you that you can be whatever you want, sadly."

But Narcissa puts her stiletto-heeled foot down regardless, extravagantly resisting society's rules.

And she aims to inspire others with her unabashed deviance and striking aesthetic.

She does so at Beirut's frequent drag shows, held in various venues across the city, mesmerizing the crowd in an enchanting spectacle. "

When you look at Narcissa, you're going to be petrified by her beauty," Joe said. "She has a strong personality and she's a fiery redhead ... and, of course, she's Lebanese."

Drag -- a medium to express male femininity -- has, according to local self-described "cat" and "queen-in-training" Imad, been traditionally repressed by patriarchy and homophobia. Lebanon's burgeoning drag culture, Imad told The Daily Star, is particularly groundbreaking because it elevates the discourse around queer activism and fashion in the country, and can be subversively uncomfortable.

In Beirut, drag enthusiasts say that the art form has gained more traction over the years.

Spurred on by reality TV shows like "RuPaul's Drag Race" and by increased exposure on social media, drag has finally started blooming in a non-Western context.

Though some looks may have been inspired by American or European drag models, gone are the days where the West was seen as the absolute pinnacle of drag prestige.

According to 24-year old Zyad, the oversaturation of Eurocentric drag makes it important to gain inspiration from Arabic styles as well. His queen persona, Zuhal whom he describes as glamorous and beautiful yet sharp and sarcastic draws on Arabic culture and what he calls "Arab drag."

Zuhal aims to showcase immaculate Arab makeup and outfits, to interpret and lip-sync to Arabic songs, and to make an effort to speak and write exclusively in Arabic.

Zyad told The Daily Star that he hopes to shift away from popular drag concepts and doesn't feel the need comply with Western standards.

"I'm working on my own aesthetic," he said.

Striking Latiza Bombe, who has been a notable queen on the Beirut scene for two years, is characterized by her black lipstick and ever-changing hair. She is also known as 21-year-old waiter and business student Mostafa, who emphasized the versatility of drag.

"Everyone presents a different kind of drag," Mostafa told The Daily Star. His kind, he says, exhibits the "gross yet glamorous" parts of the art, and he notes that queens should feel free to express themselves whether they're more performance-oriented, look-oriented, or just simply enigmatic.

Mostafa noted the satisfaction of being able to watch several unique queens perform, each with their own styles and particular following. He encourages queens to celebrate their dazzling diversity.

With no uniform profile for a drag queen, each performer presents a different set of skills and characteristics, Imad -- aka Mloukhiyye -- explained. Some drag artists are talented singers, dancers or actors, while others excel at makeup and sewing, or possess a unique body type or sense of humor.

Imad, 24, who prefers a gender-neutral pronoun, said their alter ego Mloukhiyye enables "my own persona to be expressed in ways that aren't usually approved by the heteronormative sphere."

Mloukhiyye aligns herself with more modern drag trends, which don't necessarily require one's drag ensemble to be overly alluring or traditionally feminine. "Contemporary drag could be anything outside of the box," Imad said. "It's not necessarily about looking like a woman."

They note that since Lebanese pop-diva impersonator Bassem Feghali found mainstream success, subtly bringing drag to the forefront in the early 2000s, times have changed -- and will change more rapidly in the years to come.

Though the drag world in Beirut is still fledgling, many queens who spoke to The Daily Star said it's already diverse enough that generalizations about its constituents cannot hold.

"There are lots of intersections and spaces where people from different understandings, sexualities and genders can spend time in [the community]," Imad said, adding that this sphere has been able to outgrow "that stereotype of being just for gay men, and is becoming a platform for queer women, trans people, non-binary people, bisexual people."

Mloukhiyye, Imad said, really came to life following a workshop by "half-human, half-mannequin" Hans Harling.

A local 25-year-old costume designer by day and drag queen by night, Harling attended Beirut Pride Week in 2017, providing workshop attendees with makeup, handmade headpieces, and a space to perform in their completed looks.

It was initially hard to get a hold of drag supplies in Beirut, Harling said. But this absence prompted her to make her own pieces, as well as to make a name for herself. Her shop, Moonstone Design House, is in Burj Hammoud. "I do my best to provide [those interested in drag] with whatever they need," she said.

Noting her love of glam, glitter, magic and "a pinch of bitchiness," Harling affirms there's no wrong way to perform drag, and insists that the community should be communal and caring.

"The best part is," she said, "no one is competition. ... Everyone knows and supports everyone."

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:May 17, 2018
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