Music by VICE

The Lebanese Belly Dancer Who's 'Too Queer' for His Country

Belly-dancer, singer, and artist Moe Khansa turns masculinity on its head in the Middle East.

by Kirsten O'Regan
Dec 18 2017, 5:00am

Khansa, photo courtesy of Alireza Shojaian

Lebanese artist and performer Moe Khansa sprints in 20 minutes late for our appointment, gasping for breath and apologizing profusely. He’s wearing black sportswear with a sizeable bag slung over one shoulder, out of which he fishes a laptop even before sitting down. He has to finish a funding application, he explains—it’s due in half an hour and the internet is not cooperating.

Khansa (his stage name) ducks out at one point to buy additional phone data. It’s often easier in Beirut to hotspot to your 3G rather than rely on dodgy WiFi. He finally manages to submit the application, but laments that his chances aren’t high. The topics he chooses to deal with are too “queer” for many Middle Eastern organizations, and he has had to write around the specifics of his project.

Before this year, the 25-year-old was best known as a taboo-busting belly dance enthusiast. But his real emergence into public consciousness was the release of the music video “Khayef” in the summer of 2017, which attracted press coverage and a flurry of social media attention. While he dances in the video, it’s his voice and his vision that saturate the clip—repurposing Egyptian singer Mohammed Abdel Wahab’s 1929 hit “Khayef Akoul Li Fi Qalbi” (“I’m Afraid to Say What’s in My Heart”) to comment on contemporary issues of masculinity and tell an intimately personal story. Directed by Mohammad Sabbah, with music by Mohammad Zahzah, the video’s lyrics and baroque, sensual imagery upend traditional notions of gender.

Though known as a dancer, Khansa's artistic practice is much broader. To create his music videos, another of which was released on December 7, he contributes creative direction, his newly-discovered singing chops, and his expressive body. He also collaborates with local talent—directors, music producers, actors—to realize these idiosyncratic, evocative spectacles. He draws inspiration broadly: Björk, FKA Twigs, and Arca are his “people,” he says. He also cites influences like Robert Mapplethorpe, Sufism, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous. His art is multilayered, synthesizing diverse cultural references to tell a untold story about the Middle East.

Just ahead of his most recent music video release, Khansa spoke with VICE about his evolution as an artist, the importance of telling Middle Eastern narratives, and the creative climate in Beirut.

VICE: How did you first get interested in dance?
Khansa: My mother was a dancer. She wanted to go on a TV show in the category of belly dance, but my uncle refused. He didn’t want his sister to go, and back then, big brothers were always in charge. So she became a diva in her own community of friends and family. When her song comes up, she goes on, in a very conservative outfit. But it's one that showcases her curves, and she’s dancing—literally one of the most beautiful and excellent dancers you could ever get an eye on. I was always influenced by that.

You’ve just finished filming a new music video? Tell me about the project.
When I started exposing myself as an artist, I was initially known as a dancer. People recognize me through my TEDx Talk about belly dance, but that was very spontaneous: I won a talent show, and one of the judges asked me to give a speech about it. But it wasn’t the career I was trying to shape, because—from my perspective, at least in Beirut—being a dancer without doing all the things that I do is not enough. There’s the dancing, the singing, the lyrics, the writing, the whole aesthetic. It’s all connected together, using the sound of technology, the electro-pop.

Behind the scenes of "Khayef," photo courtesy of KHANSA

The first video I did was “Khayef.” It’s a remake of an old classical Egyptian piece. I’m in this phase where I’m kind of retouching. I take the work of these artists—which was all about presentation, being on stage, allowing the people to listen, which was so beautiful—but we’re now in this era where you need to make a change. We have a lot of issues. So I’m retaking these pieces and talking about these issues. I’m working with a fresh, young producer with an EDM background to take it in an electronic, experimental direction, away from the classical Arabic.

The first video was about diversity and identity. The second is basically about suicide. It celebrates Middle Eastern art, it celebrates Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum. And it also has a gender element to it, because I’m a man playing Umm Kulthum’s role. We share this small story of an artist as a reference to Hassan Rabeh: a Syrian dancer who was living in Beirut. He was one of the most beautiful dancers you could ever share a space with. Very quiet. But his energy was so beautiful. He took his own life a year ago. The last thing he did was dance, amidst the whole Syrian crisis.

How collaborative are the music videos?
I’m still fresh to the whole music scene. When I write something, it’s kind of a visual composition. I’m a dancer and performer initially, so the first thing I see is something physical: bodies moving, certain incidents that are either narrative or aesthetic, but so rich I end up writing about them. This is how it starts: looking at the whole experience, and then going to the right person to do the sound that is required for that experience. There are so many collaborations I would like to do. Some people have turned me down—they give you a reason but it’s actually just because it’s very queer for them. But collaboration is elevating. It’s taking you to different places.

Your work is very focused on the Middle East and the cultural heritage here, which strikes me as perhaps slightly unusual for a young artist in the region.
[Laughs] Whereas everyone else wants to be Beyoncé? Yeah. Everyone just tries to step away—they’re like, fuck this country. Or they want to make the change but they just get [frustrated]. For me, the change happens when you just do it. If you are living now in the Middle East and you’re an artist, then you have a duty here before you start doing something for outsiders. People don’t ask us about our sex lives, about our relationships, about all these things—and there’s so much to talk about. Some people are like, "Yeah, but there’s no point in saying it in Arabic." But why must you say it in English?

Now, I consider myself bankrupt. I have nothing in my account, I’m still living with my parents, and it’s a mess. I’m a college dropout and all of that. I’m at the stage where I walk on the streets eating a can of tuna—and that’s the highlight of your career, because you realize that you’re not trying to do pretentious work or work that’s not real to you, just because you want the money or you want to be out there. We’ll reach a point in life where we want to talk about transcendence like Björk and everyone else, but we’re not there yet.

Moe Khansa, photo courtesy of Alireza Shojaian

Tell me about your interest in gender and sexuality. How did you decide to incorporate these concepts into your art?
It’s not that I decided to incorporate them—I live them. I still remember the first time I performed as a kid. I didn’t know it was called “drag,” it was just me as a kid, maybe 12, 13. I was wearing a big dress, in front of families, parents who were clapping and cheering for me. I used to just hold a garlic masher and be performing like that. I would put on outfits—not to become a woman but to become a persona, a character. And that still speaks to me. When you’re dancing with a female body, you’re uniting with the rhythm—you’re no longer defined as a female body, you’re something different. That’s what I’m trying to reach.

Gender fluidity seems to be embraced more and more, but here, like elsewhere, macho culture is so overwhelming.
I have so much to say about that. One of the songs that I just finished is called “Khabberny Kif” (“Tell Me How”) and in the video that I have in mind, I’m talking about the macho community. Not just the heterosexual community, but the gay community,where everyone’s afraid of femininity. It imposes beauty patterns based on a heterosexual matrix. But I like that! Not that I endorse it—but I like that it’s there for me to play with and talk about. We have these gatherings where there’s so much testosterone. But what if someone just walks up and starts throwing glitter on everyone? Just trying to transform it into something else…

Photo courtesy of Moe Khansa

You gave up on college before finishing your degree?
I took that time to really figure out who I am as an artist. I was making my own New York, in a way. I created my own curriculum, jumping from place to place. At university, it’s all designed in a way to work for the market here, but there’s not a market for performers. I know at some point I’m just going to reach a dead end and be like, "Oh shit, I really need to go back to school." But I realized that in the beautiful team of artists working with me, I’m the only one who doesn’t have a degree, and I’m the leader. Everyone has faith in me. That feels huge.

Is Beirut where you want to be?
I want to—Beirut is awesome. But I’d be stupid if I stayed. There are so many options outside, and here it’s very limited. There’s so much you need to invest in to develop as a performer and all I do is teach belly dance classes for lovely old women to pay for my own classes. That’s why I take side jobs to fund my artistic projects. So many ideas are not going to work in Beirut. But the story is from here.

Kirsten O’Regan is a freelance writer living in Beirut. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.