Watch that Man

Khansa: gyrating, voguing, subverting gender norms

Khansa’s message is simple: down with restrictive social norms. While belly dancing is traditionally associated with women, Lebanese artist and dancer Khansa teamed up with musician Mohamad Zahzah to challenge long-accepted narratives. While it’s true that Khayef is an adaptation of acclaimed Egyptian composer Mohamad Abdel-Wahab’s Khayef Akoul Li Fi Qalbi (I am Afraid to Say What is in My Heart), Khansa is anything but afraid.

The confrontational track takes on Abdel-Wahab’s original lyrics, which speak both of love and potential rejection, and reinterprets them in the context of Khansa’s journey of acceptance. His version of an Arabic classic deconstructs deep-seated ideas of gender, and explores what it truly means to be authentic. It scares me to speak of how I feel about you, he sings, knowing you might reject and ignore me. But should I keep my love from you? Would my eyes speak the truth of my urges?

The video for the song, which caused a stir in Lebanon upon its release, draws inspiration from a wide variety of sources, ranging from the theatrical pederasty of bacheh bazi (Persian for ‘playing with children’) in Afghanistan to aesthetic expressions of gender neutrality. As Khansa explains, the characters in the clip were styled to articulate the ambiguity of their gender, in an open engagement with Lebanese society about rethinking masculinity and femininity. Making a music video tackling such issues in the Arab world not only stemmed from wanting to shatter gender stereotypes in the region, but also to emphasise the idea that gender fluidity exists, and that authenticity is an ongoing process.


Courtesy Omar Sfeir

How did you first get involved with music?

I entered my first year of university as this chubby flamboyant kid who wanted to explore everything in hope of finding his true passion. I entered a new world of so many possibilities; I was all over the place. I joined theatre productions, I acted, designed costumes, choreographed, and also joined a variety of jazz, swing, and pop bands. It was through this journey that I was introduced to my vocal teacher, Leila Dabaghi, who essentially changed my life. This is when I found my focus – going further in the world of dance and music. I dropped out of my communication art, theatre, and performance major, and focused on my own physical and vocal research.

How did you come to collaborate with Mohamad Zahzah?

My collaborator in the video, Zahzah, and I met in a university music production performance directed by Dr. Martin Loyato in 2015. We were working on readapting a classical Middle Eastern piece to perform it live during the show. I was taking [Arabic] singing lessons at the time, and was studying the song Khayef Akoul Eli fi Qalbi by the Egyptian composer Mohamed Abdel Wahab as part of my training. I showed Zahzah the song, and suggested we do something with it; this is when it all started happening. We then worked on several other pieces, and performed Khayef … in Zahzah’s electro-acoustic band ‘Over Two’. Zahzah is not only a great friend, but also a talented artist, who is constantly working on developing and discovering aspects of his artistry. 

Let’s go back to your dancing. When did you start looking at dance as a way of traversing gender norms and boundaries?

The video’s main idea is quite personal: it relates to my childhood, when I used to put on dance performances at family gatherings, until I started getting older and societal rules took over, gradually caging my creativity and physical expression. I had to constantly listen to comments like, ‘Don’t dance like a woman – you are a man, you need to be tough’. The plot of the video highlights personal individual struggles with gender identity and our society’s perceptions of effeminacy and androgyny. It kicks off with this idea, and ends with transcendence. The basic idea is that when you acknowledge who you are – beyond external restrictions – and eventually embrace your true self, you offer excellence to yourself. This is the transcendence I highlight in the clip. Aside from seeking authenticity, the other ideas range from that of the ‘third gender’ to fighting oppression.

Why did you decide to tackle a topic that is largely taboo in the Arab world? 

The whole project started with a series of complex ideas that were hard to unravel. The difficulty in their range led director Mohammad Sabbah and I to produce a video with a simpler ‘language’, just as with the lyrics of the song. We narrowed down our ideas, and it became easier to follow the story of a boy watching his two different [aspects] perform in his community, and finally, in the end, uniting with [them].


Courtesy Myriam Boulos

However, the song is not the emphasis here, as much as the whole experience of the journey. We gave the Arabic-speaking community an old song reminiscent of their childhood, while presenting it [in the form of] a contemporary aural journey. This remixed classic by Abdel Wahab was a great inspiration to us; the love song he wrote resonates with the characters involved in the video, and embodies the fear of exposing who you really are and revealing what’s in your heart. All the elements of the project were composed to work together in promoting the basic message that it’s OK to be different.

The world is changing, and these limited beliefs will eventually have no place in the new era. The new generation is on fire.

When we worked on the project, we weren’t aiming to ‘tackle’ any specific stereotypes or send a message; we simply decided to focus on a real story, and the beauty of this is that the art ended up speaking for itself without us having to try hard.

Tell me a bit about your approach to the video.

The video has a cinematic approach, and there were several inspirations for the images and staging of the actions within it. One was the [practice of] bacheh bazi and the dancing boys of Afghanistan. I had watched a documentary about their heartbreaking story and was fascinated by how these boys still managed to deliver beautiful art to a community of criminals in a highly unethical situation. This is not to argue that the practice of bacheh bazi is in any way excusable, but rather to highlight the emergence of beauty in even the direst of situations. This phenomenon is clearly [shown] in the video.

Coming from a dance background, nothing [for me] beats the significance of the language the body can communicate. Dance is genderless, and movement is as expressive as images and lyrics, and can strongly shape the whole concept. The setup of the physical theatre at the beginning of the video initially presents the struggles of the characters involved in the story. The main character is fluid, while the women are sharp and distorted. The contrast was pushed further with their respective movements.

[Moreover,] childhood belly-dancing is something many people [in the region] can relate to and reminisce about. It is our Middle Eastern voguing; the only difference is that it didn’t come from fashion magazines. The voguing in the video further highlights gender fluidity.

What’s been the general feedback for the song and video? 

The feedback has been quite overwhelming. We’ve also received great constructive criticism that we’re taking into consideration for our future work. What I wanted initially from this project was to have my voice out there as an artist and let people know I’m not just a ‘dancer’, but getting messages like, ‘Thank you for everything you made us feel’ reinforced my gratitude for being an artist.


Courtesy Myriam Boulos

Has there been any backlash at all? 

A couple of comments here and there. I’ve dealt with a much worse in my life; I think I’ll survive.

What is your creative process? How do you decide on what subjects and themes to explore? 

I am into eclecticism, be it in words, samples, melodies, references, ideas, etc. I like to put all these varied elements together and see how to connect them to construct new material. The constant thing in my creative process is flexibility; my topics are varied and are related to real experiences, dreams, fantasies, gender, stories for the past, and theories.

Many proponents of LGBT rights in the Middle East and North Africa have been labelled ‘degenerate’. How do you think we can overcome such notions as a society? 

By the normalisation of the fluidity of gender roles and LGBT people in general, whether in film, media, or music; for instance, by making music videos that encompass all kinds of sexuality. It’s really in the hands of the media to show [such people] that it’s natural, that it exists, and that if you can’t change your perspective regarding it, you’ll [just] have to accept it. These [notions will] slowly fade away as well. We need to stop trying to change these old perspectives and focus on nourishing new ones; time is doing the cleaning on its own. The Arab world has yet to witness great social revolutions. The world is changing, and these limited beliefs will eventually have no place in the new era. The new generation is on fire.

Cover image courtesy Tarek Moukaddem.

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About the Author

Wided Rihana Khadraoui
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Wided Rihana Khadraoui is an Algerian-American writer and curator. Holding an MSc in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics, and currently working towards an MA in Arts and Cultural Enterprise at Central Saint Martins, she regularly writes about art, culture, and politics in the MENAT region.