‘Arabs and Muslims flaunted their costumes in true queer glory’ – the Pride I’ll never forget

hen I was a child living in Bahrain, I used to dread family parties. Not because I didn’t want to see my relatives, whom I loved, but because I felt too scared to dance. Some Arab music is beyond sumptuous. It is achingly romantic, dynamic and playful, filled to the brim with the most over-the-top metaphors you’ll ever hear, scored with the most luxuriant instrumentals. The camp melodrama is a gay kid’s dream come true … or worst nightmare, for the opulent emotional sounds almost taunt you to come out through dance. As a child terrified about the very real repercussions that would come from being found out as gay, Arab music was my forbidden fruit at familial events, tempting me to reveal myself and thus ensure my exile.

As a kid, I was particularly obsessed with the music of Umm Kulthum, the 20th-century Egyptian singer whose vocals hypnotised the Arab world with their yearning gravitas. Her voice is full of emotion, and her lyrics drenched in drama – listening to her can be an overwhelming experience. I used to watch my mother and her friends dance to it balletically, while I sat in the corner with my brother, father and all the other boys, restricted from moving my body in the way the music called out for.

During my teenage years, my sexuality and general behaviour became a real issue for my family and community, who were nervous that I was falling into sin and bringing shame on them. My behaviour was policed and punished in all kinds of ways. It was an extremely difficult period in my life. Living in the UK from the age of 11, I came to the reductive conclusion that my Arab heritage and queer identity were incompatible, and so I distanced myself from my cultural roots. Out went the Umm Kulthum CD from the budget Walkman, and in went the considerably less poetic Blue.

When I started hitting gay clubs at 18, it was the soundtrack of Madonna, Diana Ross and Lady Gaga that allowed me to move my body in a more natural way, without the fear of familial judgment. But no music could ever match the magical theatrics of the Arab music I had grown up around. This all changed when I attended Black Pride in London in 2018.

As I wandered around, a shy, handsome Arab person moved towards me, telling me that they were aware of my work and were grateful to have seen some queer Arab representation in the media. With a bewitching stare, they gestured for me and my friends to come with them to “Pride of Arabia”.

We were guided to a hidden pocket of Black Pride, tucked away from the main stage and big crowds. I soon found myself among a group of queer Arabs and Muslims, flaunting the costumes of their pasts in true queer glory, many in drag, belly dancing to the Arab sounds that had raised and (for some) excluded them.

I didn’t think the moment could get any better, but then the rich, powerful sound of Umm Kulthum’s voice came through the speakers. And there, in the corner of a field in south London, I finally fused my queer identity with my Arab heritage, and danced freely to the music that had orchestrated my childhood.

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