At a new cabaret, queens and L.G.B.T.Q. Arabs can party freely.
On a humid Friday evening in May, Ana Masreya rushed from her job at a talent agency in Midtown East to her Bedford–Stuyvesant apartment. She only had two hours to prepare before hosting her second show.
Onstage, Ana, whose drag name means “I’m an Egyptian woman” in Arabic, can easily nail cartwheels in six-inch heels and always has a trick up her sleeve — or thigh-high boot, from which she may pull a glitter-drenched fan. But her performances belie the fact that her drag queen persona is only one year old.
Growing up in Cairo, where openly gay people continue to be persecuted, Ana, who identifies as male and uses both male and female pronouns, lived closeted and strove to be “macho” like so many of the men around her. That prevented her from coming to terms with her sexuality. “I believed for a very long time that I was going to hell and that the devil was inside me,” she said.
After she moved to the United States for college, Ana discovered “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and realized she had found her calling. But it would take time to get onstage and shed the paranoia and shame she had carried.
When she finally made her drag debut last summer, she felt like an outsider among the other queens working in New York City. Her performances are “inspired by a completely different set of cultural influences,” she said. She envisioned a North African and Middle Eastern cabaret that would celebrate diversity and fuse her love of drag with her love of Egyptian culture. It would also be a place where people like her could feel safe in their own skin.
And so, in April, the show — whose name we cannot print here, but is a play on Nefertiti, the ancient Egyptian queen — was born.
For the May performances, Ana arrived at the venue, Macri Park, a gay bar in Williamsburg, at 10 p.m. The space, dimly lit by red Christmas lights and a disco ball, slowly transformed: A wall tapestry with Pharaonic drawings was draped above the stage, while an Egyptian flag hung below the bar’s marquee. A D.J. played Arabic-language hits, both old and new. Early arrivals trickled in and grabbed tables — latecomers would have to stand (or dance) until the night wound down at 4 a.m.
For her first event, Ana gave free drink stubs to the first 30 people who bought tickets online. But because it was now Ramadan, she held back on that offer out of respect for the holy month.
Ana paced around for an hour and a half waiting for people to arrive; once she was happy with the turnout, she took the stage — to Jessica Lange’s version of “Gods & Monsters.” She slowly danced with a vintage microphone and, for a moment, coolly stepped off the stage to accept tips from the audience. “It’s innocence lost / innocence lost,” the song concluded. Ana greeted the crowd, to wild applause.
Up next was Ivy Kush, a queen born and raised in Morocco. She is wearing a beaded vest, tight leather pants and a bandanna, à la early Christina Aguilera. Had she ever done anything like this back home? “Oh no, honey,” she said. “I can’t be myself in Morocco.”
In Morocco, she said, there are gay people who openly go about their lives, but that comes with a risk. Others subscribe to a French saying that translates as: “To live happily, live hidden.”
“But I’m tired of hiding,” she said. “I just want to live happy the way I am.”
Koko Rokoko, a queen originally from Texas whose aesthetic blends influences from her Mexican heritage and 17th and 18th century European fashions, came on stage next. She showered the audience with rose petals before taking off her tulle skirt to reveal a leotard with fringe in the colors of the Mexican flag.
Though the show is billed as an Egyptian cabaret, Ana encouraged Koko to join the lineup because she wants to highlight performers of color who put an “ethnic spin” on their drag. “It’s a privilege to perform in such a great community” Koko said. “Everyone kind of sticks together — you see the same faces every time.”
Other entertainers on the lineup: Electra, an Egyptian queen who identifies as a cisgender woman, whipped out a surprise phallic accessory onstage. Hoowee (“him” in Arabic), a Lebanese-American drag king, emerged in a pink tutu skirt and a tulle ruffle collar. Then comes Cherihan, who took her drag name from the Egyptian actress and singer Sherihan.
Cherihan recently moved to New York from Cairo, where, in 2010, she said she was nearly arrested for putting on some foundation and touching up her eyebrows. Police officers had seen her sitting in her friend’s car; she said they forced her out and beat her before letting her go with a warning. Ever since then, she has been afraid of walking in the streets there.
Ana met Cherihan at a party. Noticing her dancing skills, Ana told her she should give drag a try. At Macri Park, Cherihan belly-danced to “Bos Alaya,” a pop song from the mid-2000s by the Lebanese singer Dana, while attendees sang along.
In between sets, Ana announced a raffle for her copy of Saleem Haddad’s novel “Guapa,” about a young gay man living in the Middle East. “I would love nothing more than to see this book get loaned to another queer Arab who might be searching for some answers,” she said.
It was her turn to perform again, this time to “Mahassalsh Haga” by the Moroccan singer Samira Said. Mid-song, she yanked off her wig, showering the stage with black petals she’d packed underneath — and revealing a blond buzz cut.
During a break, the D.J. took over; one woman plays along to the music on a darbuka, a goblet-shaped hand drum that’s popular across the Middle East. Every few minutes someone ululates; others dip into the backyard to smoke. A handful of people form a chain to do dabke, a traditional line dance from the Levant.
At 2 a.m., the queens returned in new looks: Cherihan has swapped her long, black wig for blond curls, while Ana stepped out in a red and gold belly-dancing outfit, playing finger cymbals to “Motreb Hambolli,” an earworm by the Lebanese singer Marwa. Ana often performs to English music, but she said her favorite songs are by Arab divas she grew up listening to, such as Sherine, a widely loved star in Egypt and a former judge on the Arabic version of “The Voice,” or Lebanon’s Nancy Ajram, one of the biggest names in Arab pop.
To wrap up the night, the queens gathered onstage for a group photo while the audience cheered them on and snapped pictures of their own. Ana promised they would be back: She hopes to make the show a monthly event — the next one is June 22.
“I want to create drag for our people,” she said.
By Devin Yalkin and Sara Aridi