A scene from Turkish artists Athena's music video for single "Ses Etme" is pictured. (Courtesy Netd Müzik)

Tufts community members talk alternative music, queer visibility in Middle Eastern cities

In a scene from a 1980s Turkish “Yeşilçam” film, trans diva Bülent Ersoy walks down the street, sporting a grey fur coat and diamond earrings. A little boy in his school uniform points toward Ersoy and asks his mother “Is Bülent Ersoy a man or a woman?” The scene cuts into a close up of Ersoy, who is visibly hurt by the boy’s question, hanging her head in shame.

The scene has gone viral in Turkey in recent years, perhaps due to its melodramatic editing or its lack of subtlety, both typical traits of Turkish cinema from the era. Yet, the scene also addresses one of the many challenges queer communities face in the Middle East, which arguably stem from ignorance and misconceptions related to gender identities and sexuality. LGBTQ groups in the region face violence and prejudice, whether against trans people or the queer community as a whole. Many Middle Eastern governments view queerness as a “Western vice,” ultimately erasing the queer history of the region.

Today, queer-identifying musicians from the region and their allies actively seek queer visibility, promoting LGBTQ rights by correcting misconceptions. Three cities in particular — Beirut, Istanbul and  Tel Aviv — play a vital role. These cities are cultural capitals of countries that are relatively more advanced in LGBTQ rights than other Middle Eastern nations, to varying degrees. In this article, Tufts students, alumni and faculty have commented on the increase in queer visibility and its relationship with the alternative music scenes in different parts of the region.

Lebanon has recently been enjoying developments in LGBTQ rights. While it is still unclear whether same-sex activity is legal in Lebanon (the penal code is rarely practiced anymore), there have been legal developments in gender identity and expression. Hadi Damien organized Beirut’s first pride fest last summer. Alexandra Chreiteh (Shraythekh), Mellon Bridge assistant professor of Arabic studies, believes the recent developments have opened broader discussions in terms of queer visibility, although there is a disparity between Beirut and the rest of Lebanon.

“Homosexuality has gained a lot of visibility in the last 10 years in Lebanon and it has become a little more normalized in certain spaces in Beirut, but not everywhere,” Chreiteh said. “Homophobia is still very much common, in the media and on the street, but I think there have been some advances.”

The arts play a major role in visibility, particularly music, noted Chreiteh.

“Culture is mobile,” she said. “Especially with music, you don’t necessarily need to know the lyrics to enjoy the song.”

With their latest album, “Ibn El Leil” (2015), the Lebanese indie rock band Mashrou Leila has been actively promoting queer visibility by addressing gender roles, sexuality and homophobia in their lyrics. As an openly gay man, lead singer Hamed Sinno has become a poster child of Arab queerness in Western media. Yet both Sinno and the band were more implicit with sexuality earlier in their careers.

“Mashrou Leila is very interesting if you look at their artistic journey,” Chreiteh said. She then referred to the music video of “Fasateen” (2008), in which a male figure wears a dress.

“The queerness was hinted but it wasn’t that obvious. The aesthetics of the third album have been more explicit,” she said.

It is possible Beirut’s acceptance of queer culture prompted Mashrou Leila to promote visibility, yet the band has also encouraged Beirut to be more accepting. Today, Mashrou Leila is not a simple Beiruti band, but a symbol of Middle Eastern queerness, despite bans and arrests of fans orchestrated by some governments.

“Mashrou Leila contributed a lot to how the attitudes are changing,” Chreiteh said. “Culture and arts is a way of expressing queerness … it is a way of forging networks of connection, making you feel like you are not alone even if you are facing difficulties in your own country.”

The queer community in Turkey has been facing difficulties over the last few years. Historically, Turkey was relatively more accepting of its queer community compared to surrounding nations; homosexuality was decriminalized under Ottoman rule in 1858, over 100 years before the United Kingdom. Culturally, the republic has had many queer icons, including Bülent Ersoy and Zeki Müren, who challenged heteronormativity and the gender binary. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw the formation of LGBTQ organizations such as Kaos GL and Lambda Istanbul. The first pride festival in Istanbul took place in 2003, making Turkey the first Muslim-majority country to host a pride event. That said, the government has banned Istanbul Pride for the past two years, citing public safety and Eid-Mubarak. The festival went on despite the government’s ban, but participants were subjected to police brutality, rubber bullets and dogs.

Today, many members of the queer community find refuge in activist networks formed in the past few decades. Omercan Erol, a first-year Turkish student, is critical of queer communities’ decisions to be more exclusive.

“I think activist groups live in a queer bubble,” Erol said. “I spent a lot of time with the LGBT club in Bosphorus University [in Istanbul], and the feeling I got from them was that they chose to separate themselves from the country. Even though they want to change things, I don’t think it is possible to change things without blending with the rest of Turkey.”

In terms of visibility, alternative bands show support of the community through their music videos. Examples include The Away Days’ “Calm Your Eyes” (2015), which features a gay couple, and Athena’s “Ses Etme” (2016). Athena’s music video is particularly significant, as it stars professional drag performer Onur Gökhan Gökçek and features shots from real gay clubs in Istanbul. A Eurovision finalist with a large following in Turkey, Athena’s position as an ally has had a large impact on visibility.

Erol is skeptical about the overall effect of these videos, but he agrees that “Ses Etme” is an exception.

“I saw the Away Days’ concert last year in Kadıköy (a liberal neighborhood in Istanbul) by coincidence … I don’t think their video adds much to the visibility because the people that listen to the Away Days are usually more progressive people,” he said. “Athena is different as they are a very popular band for a long time; its target audience is more spread out.”

Erol is equally critical of the queer lingo used in the lyrics of alternative music, referring to psychedelic rock band Jakuzi’s song “Lubunya,” which means “twink” in Turkish.

“The people I know in Bosphorus University love the word ‘lubunya.’ They really embrace it. However, using gay lingo also has a role in creating a ‘queer bubble.’ It creates an exclusive language,” he said. “Of course it is great for Jakuzi to have a song like that, because they identify themselves with a community, but I don’t think it adds much to activism and visibility.”

As increasing pressures from the government put a halt to queer activism in Istanbul on a grander scale, Tel Aviv maintains its position as a queer-friendly city. Yet, similarly to Beirut and Istanbul, there is a significant disparity between Tel Aviv and the rest of Israel. In an email to the Daily, Tufts alumna and Tel Aviv resident Mollie Dixie Beek (LA ’17) elaborated on the differences.

“Tel Aviv is a city filled with international tourists and residents and the vast majority is secular,” Beek said. “Thus, it is visibly more accepting of LGBTQ communities.”

“For example, Tel Aviv Pride is one of the most famous prides of the world and year round rainbow flags hang (not just during Pride). There are many gay clubs and bars in central locations,” she said. “I know that there are religious protesters to Jerusalem Pride and that visibility of gay bars/clubs and flags [in Jerusalem] is not as prevalent.”

She believes the misconceptions about queer communities are similar to those in the United States.

“Just like in the U.S., I think there are a lot of misconceptions about queer communities that stem from ignorance and stigmas,” Beek said. “Visibility or being ‘seemingly accepted’ doesn’t translate into allyship or actual acceptance.”

Beek also acknowledged that her limited knowledge of Hebrew prevents her from having dialogue with Israelis.

“From my limited interactions with Israelis, it seems that people who aren’t queer don’t really understand this term or concepts of gender/sex/sexuality/identity,” she said.  “In both the U.S. and Israel there is still a lot of learning and accepting to be done.”

As opposed to Lebanon and Turkey, there is a significant representation of queerness in mainstream Israeli music. Queer-identifying musicians include Amir Fey Guttman, Harel Skaat, Ivri Lider and Dana International, the Yemenite trans artist who won the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest.

“[Dana] was a huge star in Tel Aviv and in Europe, so she was pretty much the first representation of the transgender community in popular culture,” Beek said. “She rose to fame before our time, so I don’t know how she was received by Israelis initially.”

Yet, the fact that Dana International is known by younger generations 20 years later proves that her impact is undeniable.

Today, alternative music in Tel Aviv focuses on other marginalized identities, such as Mizrahi Jews.

“Ashkenazi music/culture has historically dominated the radio and TV, even though the majority of the population is Mizrahi … In the recent years, there is more exposure to Mizrahi music and culture on the radio on TV,” she said. “A-WA is a music group composed of Yemenite sisters who sing traditional Yemeni songs in Arabic over electronic beats. They’ve become super popular, not just in Israel; they now do world tours.”

Alternative music has a history of providing voices for marginalized identities. In cities such as Beirut, Istanbul and Tel Aviv, LGBTQ rights are developing, but there is still room to grow. Music in these regions promotes visibility and encourages queer activism.

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