Lebanese writer and actress Dima Mikhayel Matta writes on quarantine, revolution, and being queer in Beirut.
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I am writing this while stuck in quarantine in my Beirut apartment. Queer people know this very well. We do most things in the confines of our apartments anyway. In a country where homosexuality is still criminalised, our homes become our restaurants, movie theaters, bars, clubs, and community centers.
On Thursday 17 October 2019, a revolution began in Lebanon.
On Thursday 6 February 2020, my autobiographical play on queerness premiered in Beirut.
On Friday 6 March2020, they told us to stay indoors because of a pandemic.
I placed my play in the middle so that I can stare at this small window of opportunity I had to perform, after things calmed relatively down with the revolution, and before things escalated with the pandemic.
Queers operate in small windows. The few seconds when we think that no one on the street is watching and we kiss our date. The few minutes we have to talk on the phone with our partner before our parents walk back into the room. The split second we pray for, so that we can escape violence. I can’t call them small windows of ‘opportunity’. Maybe they are small windows of feeling human – of having basic rights.
For over a month after the revolution began, I took daily to the streets. I would wake up at 5am, get dressed, grab coffee on my way to meet friends and strangers, and block roads before people made their way to work. We were paralysing the city the same way the government had paralysed us. We needed to get to our roadblock points, and for there to be enough of us to block traffic before people managed to get to their workplaces. We had to grab that window of time. Then we would move to the downtown square and continue our protest until evening. Us queers in the protests used that small window of time to take up space. We chanted: ‘standing with the queers, we will fight the far right, standing with transpeople, we will chant in the squares’. The first time I heard these chants, they felt possible. I heard them and I looked around, expecting backlash and violence, but the more we repeated them, the more people joined in and repeated them with us. I was smiling from my chest; my heart was happy. These words will topple the government, I thought.
A man yelling homophobic insults at the prime minister apologised. Do not use gay as an insult. He raised his hands, palms open in surrendering agreement, and he apologised. I never thought I’d see the day. We needed the time to take up the space. We wanted these public spaces to be ours.
Then the revolution dwindled, and we went back home. The public spaces were empty, again. They were not ours, again. The window for the revolution closed.
I went back home and kept rehearsing for my play, This Is Not a Memorized Script, This Is a Well-rehearsed Story, with my director. My revolution moved indoors. I had to stage this queer play. It was my chant. My fight. For four nights, I took up the space of a theater, and people filled it with me. For an hour, people listened to my story, and they felt heard. This was my window, and I was yelling from it.
During my time on stage, a journalist wrote a review. ‘Even if this script can be seen as “daring” in a city like Beirut’, she said, ‘it is not enough to justify this string of confessions that nears on therapeutic. Confessions such as these might only be liberating for the performer herself’. Those were her last two lines.
This journalist thought that my play served only as therapy – therapy for me. Jack Kerouac wrote 320 pages (depending on the edition) and Charles Bukowski wrote – well, his entire body of work – about being broke and having sex and getting high, and their books are considered cult classics. But if a woman writes about her life, it’s seen as indulgent, as narcissistic navel-gazing. What will it take for us to be allowed to take up space? Or, more urgently, how will we take it?
I don’t think sharing intimate details about my life was therapeutic. I think it was necessary. I have been acting for twelve years, and have not come across one single queer female character on stage in my country. Where was my likeness on stage, when I was coming out? Where is it now, when I am struggling with my gender identity?
‘I don’t want to leave, but I don’t want to stay here either. I want to be here only if here is different’. These are the first two lines of my play. I have a very complex relationship with my city – as most of us do. Most days, I think we should look at it the way we look at an impressionist painting. From afar, so that it makes sense. During the revolution, this changed. I wanted to be here because I was helping making here change. Now, I am here because I have to be. In this window of suspended time, a time in which we are forced to stay indoors, I feel like I lost. I did not change anything. I am still a queer body in a confined space, and the revolution feels far, far away. But for four days in November, my queerness was heard and seen in Beirut, and it mattered.
I am stuck in my apartment, so I go out to the balcony for a semblance of outdoors. The streets are empty, and people have closed their windows. I don’t think it’s silly. My mother told me that, during the civil war, she would close the wooden shutters of her windows with the realisation that it was absurdly useless, but that it made her feel safe. I think we need to do anything we can do to feel safe right now. I call my friend, she says that all is not lost, it is just paused. Knobs twist to both sides.
Dima Mikhayel Matta is a Beirut-based university lecturer of creative writing, writer, and actress. She was awarded a Fulbright scholarship and received her MFA in creative writing from Rutgers University in 2013. In 2014, she founded Cliffhangers, the first bilingual autobiographical storytelling platform in Lebanon. Her first play, an autobiographical one-woman performance titled “This is not a memorized script, this is a well-rehearsed story” toured as a work in progress at NYU, Shubbak, and Outburst festival in 2019. It premiered in Beirut in February 2020. She is currently working on adapting it as a memoir.
Photo credit: Daniela Dias