ADIRA Festival, an anti-orientalist drag and Arab pop music festival, will take place in Berlin on June 8th 2024. In the following interview, Hassandra, the creative director of ADIRA Festival, speaks about the origins of this hit in the underground club scene, the social nature of Arab drag in diaspora and the role of memory, and the power of drag to bring people together.

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As Creative Director of ADIRA Festival, how would you describe the importance of the event? What was your motivation for helping to found ADIRA Party? How did it evolve from or complement previous endeavours, and how has it developed over time?

ADIRA is, in essence, a space where we seek to honour Arab pop music and to create a space where queer Arabs and allies – and anyone who loves Arabic pop music – can come together and find support and togetherness. Creating ADIRA was also an attempt to gain autonomy in the organisation of such events, because many events which claimed to be similar are organised by white people who do not know so much about the rich culture of Arab pop music.

ADIRA is a continuation of a similar project, Queer Arab Barty, which began before the pandemic. After the pandemic, we rebranded it as ADIRA Party, but the idea remained the same: a much needed space for queer Arabs in Berlin to come together. With everything happening in the world right now – in Germany in particular – we really needed that space to cater to our needs, where we feel at least a little bit safer than at other parties. It’s not a cool party, it’s a community party – it’s somewhere people go with their friends to meet other people and dance together. We had our debut in February 2023, and we’ve had about five editions so far.

To what extent did the other organisations and initiatives you have been a part of – Critical Queer Solidarity, the HERA Collective, Queer Arab Barty – emerge from the same aims, needs and motivations?

As a drag performer I have always wanted to make drag more visible – true, drag has become mainstream, but queer Arabs remain at the bottom of the pyramid. At Berlin Pride there is no Arab bloc – there are many other blocs, but I’ve not seen an Arab one. ADIRA Drag Festival emerged from this sense of frustration that no-one had created this space yet.

All the different queer Arab initiatives I’ve worked with – Critical Queer Solidarity, the HERA Collective, Queer Arab Barty and ADIRA – emerged from a need to create our own spaces. Critical Queer Solidarity is an official association and its work is very involved in youth education. For example, one of the projects I organised and facilitated was called “Drag It Up”, a week-long drag boot camp for which we had around almost 40 participants from different European countries. We were also able to broaden the circle by involving people from Tunisia and Armenia.

There are a few of us who founded and help maintain Critical Queer Solidarity. There’s no hierarchy in the way that we work. All members of the team have different interests: some are interested in environmental activism, some in decolonisation etc. Each person works on their own project and we provide support to each other when needed. We also tend to have volunteers helping us.

You previously co-organised and performed the original monthly show “Therapy Sessions” in order to open up discussions about wellness, health and loneliness in the LGBT community. Why and how do you seek to facilitate these discussions?

We try to deconstruct, to a degree, this idea that drag queens are always positive and exist for the mere purpose of entertainment and making people laugh. That is, of course, what we do, but at the end of the day we are people, and the important thing is to elicit conversations and communication. It takes a lot of courage to be able to address the elephant in the room and admit that we are facing problems, that something is wrong, that we are not okay.

This is why the community side of events is so important, be it panel discussions or other activities on the side. For example, this year we hosted a queer iftar meal during Ramadan.

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How did you personally find your way to drag as a means of self-expression? Have you ever performed drag in Lebanon or anywhere in the Arab world?

I came to drag through theatre – I went to a theatre school. When I left Lebanon and moved to Berlin, I found it difficult to become an actor because of the language barrier and so on, I found myself really drawn to drag as a free art form, and it started making a lot of sense – I started using drag to express myself, and in turn drag sort of opened other doors for me. Through drag I got a lot of visibility that also allowed me to then be involved in theatre again, then dance performances and nightlife, organising events, DJing and so on – I had to go far away in order to come home.

I’ve never performed drag in Lebanon. I was supposed to perform in Tunisia in 2020, but then the pandemic happened. I was also supposed to perform in Tunisia this year, but then my visa was rejected. I don’t go back to Lebanon often, but now I’m increasingly thinking that ADIRA can build a bridge between Lebanon and Berlin, which could lead to inviting some artists from Lebanon to come to Berlin.

How did you settle on the drag name Hassandra, and what were the inspirations behind this choice of name? What characters or influences had an impact on your drag performance?

The name Hassandra came originally from the Greek mythological figure of Cassandra, but it’s a long story. I relate to her very much and I think it has a lot also to do with how we as queer people see ourselves. We tend to grow up feeling very excluded, as if we’re intruders, and I think that has a lot to do with how I saw myself as a kid. Settling on a name has been a journey: I started with “Cupcake” before moving onto “Queen of Virginity”, but eventually “Hassandra” made much more sense because I stopped feeling the need to westernise my name.

At theatre school, we would have to pick a character to play each semester, and I never had the chance to play Medea, or Shakespeare characters like Lady Macbeth. But I related to them, and even some Biblical characters such as Mary Magdalene, who I was able to do my stage directing project on. I think I find inspiration in these characters because I have also felt the injustice and prejudice that these characters faced, but through drag I was able to portray this conversation in dialogue on stage: my performance often includes two characters coexisting on stage, with one of them portrayed by me on stage and one of them through a video of myself.

I think, having reflected on this for years, that I used to see my mum and my sister in these characters, and see myself through my mum and my sister. I saw how women faced a lot of prejudice, and drag gave me a means to express that.

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Do you feel that the recent climate in Lebanon has affected how comfortable drag artists feel performing there?

I think what happened recently at Madame Om has raised concerns for more safety measures to be taken into consideration, But I mean as far as I see there are still drag shows happening. Drag artists always face different issues everywhere, and the issues always vary. Here in Berlin, there are similar safety issues, as well as censorship.

As drag performers we’re never fully safe. I live in Berlin and I never take the public transportation in drag. I’m never alone in drag, because I don’t feel safe.

You have mentioned that ADIRA is a nostalgic event. How much do you feel that the performances and panel discussions at ADIRA relate to LGBT history in the Arab world?

Adira is a term that was initially popularised by Bassem Feghali, a pioneer Lebanese TV drag queen. It was important to us not to choose a name which was part of the genuine Levantine gay slang, not just some cliché Arabic word. This is the kind of thing we tend to pay homage to – for example, I do a performance set that references a lot of Bassem’s work. Aside from this, a lot of elements within Arab pop culture itself are very drag and very queer – with all the Arab pop divas and so on – so I think they intersect in a lot of ways. Wherever there’s fashion, wherever there’s pop, wherever there’s camp, there is always queerness and drag; I think if there wasn’t such a need and a desire for that space, the ADIRA Festival wouldn’t have happened and people wouldn’t have been so excited for it to happen.

The theme of the panel talk this year is all about nostalgia – about memories and how we deal with memories on stage. Living in the Arab diaspora, we tend to showcase memories a lot in our work: how do we use these memories? How do we display them? And once that process is complete, what do we do next?

ADIRA describes itself specifically as an “Anti-Orientalist Drag and Arab-Pop Music Festival”. How do orientalism and anti-orientalism manifest in the world of drag, and why did you choose to specifically include anti-orientalism in the description of the event?

Orientalist tropes are still very much alive. Our existence is often misinterpreted, misused, utilised to fit certain tropes. The reason we said specifically that it is an anti-orientalist festival is as a way to regain or reclaim a sort of power and autonomy, and to state that we are actively working on fighting the orientalist stereotypes that people have of Arabs. Do not expect us to be belly-dancing the whole time. (There’s nothing wrong with belly-dancing, but we’re not going to be belly-dancing for you the whole time!)

This is a space where we can celebrate our art with our own people, and other people who appreciate it. That doesn’t happen very often, because often we have to curate our performances in a way that also appeals to the white gaze, and in ways which are simple enough for them to understand. This festival is different: by stating clearly that it’s anti-orientalist, we’re asking the attendees to do their own research, to be aware of the space, to be curious.

The event is primarily for queer Arabs or people from the Arabic-speaking world, but it is also for allies. It is for people who are respectful and aware of this pace. We have never turned down anyone who’s not Arab, although we do prioritise queer Arabs.

Where do you see ADIRA in the future?

Times are hard at the moment, especially given the wave of racism in Germany, and to be honest we feel quite conflicted about putting on an event like this right now. But all the more reason to strengthen our presence even more at a time when we keep being pushed to the margin.

I hope that the festival will encourage other queer Arabs to start doing drag. Hopefully in the future, we’ll see ADIRA in Beirut, with Bassem Feghali!