A burgeoning drag scene challenges stereotypes

A dark silhouette against a red curtain of a person dancing

Kawsar Zant, a Palestinian drag queen, performs. 

Jaclynn Ashly

Kawsar Zant, a 20-year-old Palestinian drag queen from Jerusalem, stepped on stage at the Duplex Club in Jaffa, donning a loose-fitting graduation dress with a large Palestinian flag stitched on the front.

Najwa Karam’s “Lashhad Hobak” (“Begging for Your Love”) blared from the speakers, and Kawsar lip-synched and shook her hips. When the beat quickened, she suddenly tore off her graduation dress from Al-Quds University in the occupied West Bank, revealing a short silver number underneath.

Kawsar’s cheering friends threw a rosary from the crowd. She caught it and started dancing dabke – a traditional Palestinian dance.

“The dabke steps were specifically for men, but I was dressed as a woman wearing a short dress,” Kawsar told The Electronic Intifada with a mischievous giggle.

Kawsar is part of a burgeoning Palestinian drag scene in Jaffa and Haifa, involving Palestinians from all over historic Palestine – from Jerusalem to Umm al-Fahm, in present-day northern Israel.

“I am prouder than ever to be Palestinian and a drag queen in this political situation,” Kawsar said, noting that her shows and visibility are challenging Israel’s attempts at pinkwashing decades of colonization and its more than half-century occupation of Palestinian territory.

“I am also challenging the old Palestinian way of thinking of what men and women must be,” she added.

A play on names

Like many drag queens in the Palestinian scene, Kawsar’s name is a play on words. “Kawsar” is a popular Arabic name for a woman. In Kawsar’s case, however, she derived her name from “Kawthar” – the name of a river mentioned in the Quran, where it was promised that whoever drank from it, would never be thirsty again.

However, in the Palestinian Jerusalemite accent the “th” sound is changed to an “s.” The name “Zant” is a play on the Arabic word “zanat,” a verb meaning “she adulterated.”

“I love drag because I feel like I’m getting closer to who I am when I’m on stage wearing makeup and dresses,” Kawsar, who performed her first drag show last year, told The Electronic Intifada.

“I don’t know how to explain it, but there’s a personality inside me that comes out, and explodes in rainbows and sparkles,” she said, laughing and making exaggerated gestures with her hands.

“When I’m on stage looking at the crowd and hearing them scream my name, my heart beats so fast and it gives me so much energy,” she added.

The drag shows are held at the Duplex Club, a left-wing Jewish-Israeli establishment between Jaffa and Tel Aviv, and, more recently, at the Palestinian-owned Kabareet club in Haifa. A less frequent, more underground scene also exists in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.

Cherrie Mota is a 21-year-old drag queen from Nablus in the northern West Bank. Her name is a play on the Arabic insult “sharmuta,” which means whore or prostitute.

“People say this word to shame feminine men,” she explained. “So I’m claiming that word, and saying: ‘Yes, I’m sharmuta, bitch.’”

“Escape from reality”

Mota, who comes from a conservative family, says she began discovering drag culture in YouTube videos. “YouTube was an escape for me,” she said. “I got to see LGBT culture and people who were accepting themselves and living their lives.”

Mota does not know why specifically she was attracted to drag culture, but says she has always been interested in anything related to art and expression, or gender and sexuality.

“Drag is an escape from reality,” she explained. “And it can be used for anything – for fashion, art or protest.”

“I believe in the saying that when you give someone a mask, they show their true face,” she continued. “I think drag is like that because when you cover your face with all this makeup and exaggerated clothes, you’re showing another side of your face – your true face, the one you are scared to show because of social restrictions.”

“So when I’m performing I feel free and empowered – like I can do anything and no one can tell me what to do.”

Mota believes LGBT Palestinians and drag queens have an important role in the Palestinian struggle, noting that LGBT communities follow drag scenes from various places around the world.

“If the Palestinian drag scene can be brought into the mainstream and under the lights, we can show the world our [Palestinian] struggle in a different way, because they will see our struggle as LGBT people under [Israeli] occupation,” Mota said.

However, one of the biggest obstacles for the queens is dealing with their own conservative communities.

Under Palestinian law, homosexuality is not a crime. Nevertheless, in August, the Palestinian Authority police announced a ban on a gay and transgender advocacy group, that was only rescinded because of the resulting backlash.

Thus, it is rare for anyone to come out to their families. Only a select few friends and family members are aware of Kawsar and Mota’s sexual identities.

A man dressed in woman's clothes and wearing make-up claps

Elias Wakeem, aka Madam Tayoush, has, unusually for Palestinian drag queens, come out to their family.

Jaclynn Ashly

Elias Wakeem, aka Madam Tayoush, came out to their family at 17.

Wakeem’s drag name translates to “Lady Floating.”

“When you get thrown into the water, you have two options: to dive underneath, and if you stay there without oxygen you will end up dying. Or, you can just let yourself relax and float above it,” they explained.

Wakeem, now 28, comes from a conservative Orthodox Christian family and grew up in the small village of Tarshiha outside Haifa.

“I came out in a very drastic way. I dropped it on them like a bomb. I told them, ‘I’m gay and you just have to live with it because this is who I am.’”

Wakeem is one of very few Palestinian drag queens – if any – who use their real name during interviews and publicize their performances.

“How much more can we hide? I don’t judge anyone, but for myself I cannot hide anymore. I want to show off. I want to be present and make people understand that we exist. Because this is the way we are and we’re not going anywhere,” they said.

Barbie dolls, lipstick, and mother’s high heels

Mota has only been able to perform in private LGBT parties in Ramallah owing to Israel’s permit regime applied to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza Strip.

Unlike other Palestinian drag queens who hold Jerusalem residency or Israeli citizenship and therefore have freedom of movement throughout the West Bank and Israel, Mota must apply for an Israeli permit to enter occupied East Jerusalem or Israel.

“I don’t really know how to describe that feeling,” Mota said. “Seeing these people who took your land telling you what you can do, what you can’t do, where you can go, where you can’t go – even determining whether I’m able to go see my friends.”

“It’s a horrible feeling,” she added.

Wakeem describes at a young age convincing their brother and sister to play with barbie dolls when their parents were out of the house, or putting on their mother’s lipstick and wearing her high heels.

“I think those were the first drag shows I performed,” Wakeem said.

Wakeem’s interest in drag began coinciding with an awakening political identity once they left home to Jaffa at 17. Wakeem says their family rarely spoke about politics in the house.

“Politics were something we didn’t talk about. There was always a trauma from my grandparents’ experiences during the Nakba,” Wakeem told The Electronic Intifada, referring to the creation of Israel in 1948, when at least 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes and land.

“My father in particular feels very unsafe when talking about it because of the trauma his family has experienced. So they never wanted to pass that trauma down to us.”

Wakeem’s exploration of their sexual identity and developing political awareness started to “work together.” Wakeem performed their first official drag show at an Israeli club in Jaffa at 18, along with several Israeli drag queens.

By Palestinians, for Palestinians

Wakeem started off participating in the left-wing Israeli drag scene, and focused on the political situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Wakeem recounts one routine they would perform on stage in which they had the audience call out and repeat the letters of ehtilal – Arabic for “occupation.”

Wakeem would shout “e” and the Israeli crowd would repeat. Once all the letters were spelled out, Wakeem would get the crowd to put it together and shout “ehtilal.”

“It was a way to make people [Israelis] realize that despite you seeing this drag queen on stage, this drag queen is not going to forget who she is. And she will always remind you about what you’re doing in this country,” Wakeem told The Electronic Intifada.

Wakeem, who says they have been working for years to develop drag culture in Palestinian spaces, tells The Electronic Intifada that the Palestinian drag scenes in Jaffa and Haifa have been growing in recent years, attracting crowds from even outside of the LGBT community.

“Lately there has been this beautiful communication,” Wakeem said. “There’s a way for straight, LGBTQ and different kinds of crowds to meet and learn from each other.”

“We have to understand that we all have our own struggles, and we have to choose to either enjoy together and learn from one another, or to keep fighting – like the Israelis are fighting with us all the time.”

Wakeem says that when they perform in Palestinian spaces, they tend to move away from politics and refocus their performances on educating the crowd about drag culture.

“For me, drag is much more fun and challenging in Palestinian spaces,” Wakeem told The Electronic Intifada. “It allows me to express myself exactly as I did when I was a kid, without thinking that I have this specific political issue that I need to talk about.”

But “even when I do drag and the song and show are not directly talking about politics or Palestine, just in the fact that it’s happening within the Palestinian community is a statement on its own – not only to the Israelis or to the world, but to our own Palestinian community,” they continued.

“And that’s something spectacular. I feel like I have a place in my own community now. This is something I used to dream of, and now it’s happening and I’m a part of it.”

Jaclynn Ashly is a journalist based in the West Bank.