Written by Lizzy Vartanian Collier
Photographs by Bettina Frenzel
Edited by Eliza Marks
Raphaël Khouri’s play, She He Me, follows the lives of three Arab characters who challenge gender norms and society’s understanding of what it means to be LGBT. It was staged as a reading in Munich, Germany, and followed their previous play, No Matter Where I Go, which took place in Beirut in 2014. Both works fall into the category of documentary theater, highlighting the experiences of LGBT people within Arab communities and the history of activism in the region. My.Kali met with Raphaël to discuss the importance of addressing sexuality and issues of LGBT identity in the Arab world, and theatre’s potential role in contributing to understanding of the issue.
What made you begin writing plays initially?
I originally wanted to be an actor, but growing up as a girl in Saudi Arabia and Jordan in the 80s and 90s in a Jordanian family, that was impossible. It’s hard even now, and back then it was next to impossible. I was also being bullied at school for being gender non-conforming, so I started hiding in the library and writing poetry there.
Later when I lived in Beirut, I thought I would become a stage director and I did an apprenticeship there. But when it came time to direct, I couldn’t find any play that resembled me and my friends. I went to a theatre conference in Alexandria and a curator there explained about documentary theatre. I was amazed and I decided that’s what I needed to do. The poetry morphed into plays. Angela Davis says she wrote Beloved because she wrote the novel she wanted to read. That’s exactly how I feel about She He Me.
Why do you think it is important to tackle subjects around sexuality in the Arab world? And, how do you think theatre can add to the conversation?
She He Me is mostly about being transgender and gender non-conforming, and No Matter Where I Go is about queer women’s experiences in Beirut.
Our society is constantly erasing us or vilifying us as queer, trans, and gender non-conforming people. Our lives and stories and histories need to recorded and seen. These plays should exist for this same reason that My.Kali magazine should exist for the same. Lucille Clifton said, “everyday, something has tried to kill me, and has failed.” This is proof.
Theatre is very powerful in achieving this goal because it is so confrontational and direct – you have someone live in front of you. It is embodied. That’s why it gets banned and censored. Because of its power.
I’ve just read an excerpt of the English translation of She He Me, and there are issues covered that affect both Arabs and non-Arabs. Do you think it’s important to show that there are still problems that affect people universally regardless of race?
Absolutely. I don’t believe transphobia or homophobia are unique to us. My white trans friend was very badly beaten in the street in Munich and no one helped her, not the passerby, nor the police. I have heard of gay men in Austria who still marry to cover their sexuality.
There are, however, two significant differences: Western society is generally more individualistic, so not everything you do reflects on your family in the same way it does with us, and it has laws and healthcare that are protect individuals to a greater extent.
The play details the struggles of LGBT people from the Arab region, but also offers a history of LGBT activism in the region. Why did you think it important to include this?
All of our history needs to be recorded, just like the history of cis and straight people around us. We need it for future generations to see and appreciate and understand themselves and their past, current and future situation, and to know who their heroes and freedom fighters are and were. This is our culture and history.
What difficulties did you face in trying to stage the play (if at all)?
This question made me laugh. Can you imagine trying to do queer and trans plays in Beirut or in Amman for example? I did try in Beirut, and the French cultural centre agreed to stage it (because technically it is French soil so the censorship couldn’t touch it) but the director changed their mind. She He Me has references to Lebanese security interrogating and abusing and imprisoning a trans woman, so there was no way we could do it in the open. My play No Matter Where I Go is about queer women’s lives in Beirut and none of the people’s acting in it were really out at work or to their families in a way that would be safe for them. Instead, we did a private staging of it at AUB by invitation only.
Eventually, I became discouraged by everything in Beirut and decided to leave to Europe. Here, the problem is that theatre is very racist and sexist and transphobic as well. It’s really mostly white cis men who have power. Even white cis European women have trouble trying to gain access to theatre in Germany, so you can imagine how hard it is for someone like me: an Arab with an Arab name, who is trans, doesn’t speak the language, and never studied theatre let alone in the German system. I had no wasta. But I persevered and finally my play was produced this year in German in Vienna. I also had a play produced in Munich last year, about racism in German TV and cinema.
What response have you had from people directly affected, those living within the Arab world?
Ironically, very little. Some close friends wrote to me on social media when my play was produced in Vienna to congratulate me. Also, it was covered in Al Akhbar newspaper and one cis person wrote to me after she read it to congratulate me. But not much else. But coming from Jordan and from a homophobic family, I stopped expecting support or respect or recognition a long, long time ago. Especially since I grew up as a woman there. It trains you to expect fucked up shit. Even My.Kali took till now to talk to me. Why is that?
Does this response differ from the response you received where the play was performed?
In Vienna, She He Me sold out and there was a wait list. People loved it and were very very moved. We were listed the number two play in the city. Six articles were written about me and the play. Many people came up to me after performances to thank me. My favourite was when a class of teenagers came. They didn’t make a sound during the whole performance. That for me was the biggest sign of success.
Do you plan to take it anywhere else?
Yes, but first I’m working on publishing it with a German publishing house and they will be distributing it for me. That’s currently in the works.
Will there be a sequel, or other plays on a similar theme?
Yes, absolutely! But I don’t like to talk about things that are still in the works.
In a time of heavy censorship around LGBT identities in the MENA region, Raphaël Khouri draws light on issues that are often swept under the carpet. By highlighting the struggles and history of the lives of LGBT people from the Arab world, their plays educate and inform their audiences about what it is like to be an LGBT individual from region.