Recently, the LGBT Center held a panel discussion discussion entitled Borders: Queering the Middle (East) a panel discussion about ‘Queer life in the Middle East’ with the director and actors of the upcoming production of “Borders”. “Borders” is a story of two gay men who meet on Grindr, one in Israel and the other in Lebanon. The only panelists that lived in the Middle East happened to only live in Israel. While representation itself is an issue, the play Borders is quite problematic.
One of our community members and former Board Member, Hilal Khalil, was asked to moderate the panel discussion. He agreed as long as he could learn more about the play, and when he did, he knew it was best to sever all ties with the play and the event. He sent the following email to the LGBT Center, copying Tarab NYC, those associated with the play, the New York Commision on Human Rights and various community organizations. While we have not verified all the statements in the email below, we thought it was important to share his message with our community and allies.
Again, we are deeply disappointed in the LGBT center hosting an event about ‘Queer life in the Middle East’ centering it on Israel, with no regard for the occupation of Palestine, the lives of queer Lebanese, and that other countries exist in the Middle East. We believed the leaders of the LGBT Center when they apologized for their past actions and promised to work with organizations like ours to be a better ally to Queer MENA folks. Unfortunately, as demonstrated by their actions, it has not kept its promise of being a better ally and we demand better from the institutions like the Center that claim to be safe and welcoming to our community.
Dear Richard, (Manager of Community Partnerships at The Center) I originally agreed to participate in this panel to discuss Borders because I assumed that the Center would have carefully vetted a production like this. The Center is an organization that claims to envision “fair and accurate representation of LGBTQ people”- and I’m surprised that they sponsored the production of this play. During the panel discussion, it became very clear that the producers, director, and actors did not conduct adequate research nor do they have the requisite expertise to create a fair and accurate portrayal of a 20-something Lebanese gay man in 2012. In light of this, I unfortunately cannot participate in this public discussion today. I sadly can no longer remain an impartial and objective moderator for reasons I will outline below. I framed these reasons with leading questions. You may use my questions and critiques in the panel discussion scheduled for today. I highly recommend that the following disclaimer is used: The relations between Israelis and Lebanese are governed by the 1943 Lebanese Criminal Code and the 1955 Lebanese Anti-Israeli Boycott Law, which forbids any interaction with nationals of enemy states, including Israelis. This play is a work of fiction. No Lebanese citizens participated in the making of this play. Borders reinforces Inaccurate Cultural Representations of Gay Lebanese Men The character George is clearly a man of wealth, power and privilege. He was able to avoid compulsory military service, lives in Beirut, owns a smartphone that has Grindr, is able to travel freely to Berlin, and is surprisingly immune from the consequences of communicating with an Israeli citizen. George’s actions and characterization in the play undermines years of hard work by activists and organizers in Lebanon to create a safer and more inclusive Lebanese society for all people. Sadly, it is the closeted Lebanese elites like George of the wealthy ruling class and their foreign imperialist allies that allow homophobia to exist in Lebanon, Socioeconomic and political problems oppress the Lebanese people. Lebanese in the south continue to face rolling power outages, water and food insecurity, among other issues. For decades, Hollywood and the American Theater has inaccurately portrayed non-white characters, especially Arabs. Borders is a missed opportunity for accurate representation, genuine diversity, sensitivity, and visibility in the arts for all communities of color and historically oppressed people. While this play may be appealing to some Arabs, Lebanese, and LGBTQ individuals and has received support from other organizations, this fact cannot be used to gloss over the reality that Borders still relies on a specific gay Lebanese narrative that is not reflective of the lived experiences of the majority of the Lebanese people, queer or otherwise. While not all Lebanese and Israelis are enemies, not all gay men are allies. Borders attempts to portray that a gay man’s experience in Lebanon is the same as a gay man’s experience in Israel. While there are similarities, there are also stark differences that this play glosses over. The ways in which gay Lebanese navigate queer issues cannot be understood outside of the specific context of Israeli/Lebanese wars. “In fact, the experience of homophobia as the primary discrimination one faces in life is usually the mark of an otherwise privileged existence. For the majority of the people of the world, oppression, to paraphrase Edward Said on culture, is contrapuntal. It moves, is multi-directional, it is adaptive, and it forms a terrain of interconnected injustices.” – Maya Mikdashi During the discussion, it became evident that the actors drew upon their own lived experiences of homophobia to bring life to the characters. Eli has the benefit and privilege to draw upon his personal experiences. He has experienced gay life in Israel, served in the army, and was exposed to a wide range of queer Israeli portrayals which allow him to create a more nuanced portrayal of Boaz. Furthermore, he is aided by a script written by an Israeli playwright who has a similar lived experience. Adrian has no benefit whatsoever and is placed in a difficult situation as a Cuban-American of Lebanese descent and must rely upon his own personal experiences in the US. This begs the question: why the imbalance in character development? There is not a lack of queer artists or queer academics from Lebanon who could have served as consultants or guided this production. The Lebanese consulate in New York promoted Mark for Redaction in 2018 which included queer Lebanese artists, actors, and performers that Borders could have consulted. Columbia hosted The (R)evolution of Arab Queer Cinema: Queer Representation in Film Pre- and Post-Arab Uprisings in 2019 that could have been used as a reference. Lebanese queer activists from Helem and other NGOs frequently attend human rights conferences in New York City and could have been consulted. Lebanese queer films were screened at Arab Cinema week in 2017. The Center has had a long standing relationship with Tarab NYC and the LGBTQ SWANA and Arab community and has co-hosted many events. Even the play Borders acknowledges the existence of the openly gay male singer of Lebanese band Mashrou3 Leila. Furthermore, to add insult to injury, Borders ends with a song performed by Mashrou3 Leila without securing the legal rights or consent from the band. Here, the message at the end of the play becomes clear: Borders seeks to exploit Lebanese identity and culture without compensation for personal gain. This production is absurd., but is this an absurd play? During the discussion, director Michael Piazza states that the style of the play feels more than realistic, and is even hyper-realistic. I assume he was referring to the postmodern artistic movement where the real and the fiction are blurred in technologically advanced societies and allows the physical to blend with the virtual. This is in direct contrast to where I would position this play:The theater of the absurd which does not focus on logical acts, realistic occurrences, or traditional character development, and instead focuses on humans trapped in a difficult and incomprehensible world. Technology cannot hide the fact that Borders is an imaginary portrayal written by an Israeli playwright, and produced by an Israeli company who have no understanding of the day-to-day, lived experiences of gay Lebanese men in the south of Lebanon or Beirut. The panelists talked about how this play could be about all different types of borders, such as the Cyprus/Turkish border. This completely minimizes and reduces the lived experiences of Lebanese. While there are similarities, there are also stark differences. If the play could have been about any other border, it should have been about any other border than Lebanon/Israel. Are Lebanese people worth consulting with and protecting? I mentioned in the discussion that it was dangerous for me to participate in this panel. The fear of jail or death for Lebanese citizens is not theoretical or fantastical. The threat is actual, real, and imminent. The assassination in Beirut on February 4th of Lokman Slim, journalist, political critic and queer ally, serves as a warning for all activists and artists like myself. Yet, no one seemed to be concerned about my safety. This reminded me that Lebanese bodies are disposable. The only person who seems mildly concerned about these inherent risks is Boaz’s character in the play. How would the Center react if I was detained, arrested, jailed, or killed upon my return to Lebanon because of my participation in this panel? The consequences of interacting with Israelis is not enough to deter Lebanese artists from participating in art projects concerning Israel/Palestine. For example Lebanese artist Roy Dib’s road movie Mondial 2012 presented a love story between two men that explores the institutional borders of the modern day Middle East. He was able to circumvent Lebanese laws and evade prosecution by working with filmmakers in Ramallah. Many talented Lebanese citizens, such as myself, would have been willing to ghostwrite or serve as an anonymous consultant on a project like this if the producers were truly interested in creating an accurate and more nuanced portrayal of a Lebanese gay man. Thank you for your time and consideration. Hilal Khalil