Arabian Peninsula الجزيرة العربية

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Queer Arab Joy in Anya Kneez: A Film Review

[Screenshot from Anya Kneez (2017), taken from Vimeo.] [Screenshot from Anya Kneez (2017), taken from Vimeo.]

Anya Kneez, a short documentary directed by Mohamed Abdouni and produced in association with Cold Cuts, premiered in June 2017 at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, with an additional screening held in Mar Mikhael, Beirut at AR_KA. The eleven-minute film provides an intimate look into the complex life of Abdouni’s best friend, Anya Kneez, a drag queen living in Beirut. Carving out space in our hetero-normative world, Anya Kneez provides visual representation of queer and gender non-conforming Arab culture that is rarely seen. Resisting Western narratives that paint the existence of queer Arabs as contradictory or downright impossible, this film gives agency to the community and portrays our story without shying away from its nuances.

Over the course of the film, Anya’s transformation into her drag persona is revealed through spliced footage and narrative voiceovers, ultimately delivering an enticing visual experience in combination with a heartfelt personal history. Immediately forging an intimate connection with viewers, the film begins with extreme close-ups that show Anya’s makeup ritual and creation of her look, shifting between her bedroom and the streets of Beirut. Simultaneously, we listen as she narrates her life—growing up in the United States as a “fully blooded Lebanese” and navigating coming of age as a queer Arab in a family who views the queer community unfavourably. Ultimately finding a sense of freedom through fashion and drag, Anya discusses notions of identity and belonging as rooted in multiple sites, both literal and metaphorical. Residing somewhat reluctantly in Beirut due to familial and career responsibilities, she obviously still feels an affinity towards the city and culture despite how “[her] circumstances do not fit in [the] country,” which is a central part of her struggle. The apex of the film comes when we finally see Anya’s profile in full frame for the first time, her drag look complete as she dons a headpiece and laughingly notes through voiceover “I am my mother,” alluding to the influence of family, no matter how fraught the relationship.  

Anya Kneez touches upon several difficult truths of being a queer Arab and navigating cultural and familial expectations, but the film also does something even more important than simply tell that story—it shows how joy can still be a part of our narrative. Interspersed throughout the film are shots of Anya dancing solo in a club under pulsating blue and purple lights, however, not until the last few frames of the film do we see a frontal view of her face and the utter happiness she emotes. Thus, viewers understand that despite the hardships Anya faces living as a queer, gender non-conforming drag queen in Beirut, there is still strength and joy to be found in her identity and life. The film’s representation of queer Arab joy and resilience is truly necessary in today’s media realm, as it both challenges hegemonic Western narratives surrounding queer Arab existence and brings strength to our community.  

The complete film can be viewed below.

COLD CUTS PRESENTS • ANYA KNEEZ: A Queen in Beirut from Cold Cuts on Vimeo.

About the Arabian Peninsula Page

Despite its regional and global significance, the Arabian Peninsula has played a tangential role in the study of the modern Middle East. Jadaliyya’s Arabian Peninsula Page seeks to further the debates on the region and its eighty million inhabitants from a myopic focus on statistics, conjecture, and religious violence to one on people and communities, everyday hardships and popular struggles, culture and politics. It will bring together scholars, writers, artists, bloggers, journalists, activists, and photographers who work on or live in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. The goal is to provide an open and collaborative space for the production of knowledge on a region that has largely escaped critical engagement.

Arabian Peninsula Map and Stats

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BAHRAIN 

Population (2016):                                         1,378,904
GDP ($US billions; 2016):                                     66.37
GDP Per Capita ($US billions; 2016):                50,300 
Health Expenditure (% of GDP; 2014):                      5
Military Expenditure (% of GDP; 2016):                4.59
Adult literacy rate (% age 15+; 2016):                   95.7
Internet Users (/million; 2015):               1.259 (93.5%)

KUWAIT

Population (2016):                                        2,832,776     
GDP ($ US billions; 2016):                                    301.1
GDP Per Capita ($ US billions; 2016):                71,300
Health Expenditure (% of GDP; 2014):                   3.0
Military Expenditure (% of GDP; 2014):                3.65
Adult literacy rate (% age 15+; 2015):                  96.3
Internet Users (/million; 2015):               2.289 (82.1%)

OMAN

Population (2016):                                        3,355,262 
GDP ($US billions; 2016):                                    173.1      
GDP Per Capita ($US billions 2016):                 43,700
Health Expenditure (% of GDP; 2014):                   3.6
Military Expenditure (% of GDP; 2016):             12.75
Adult literacy rate (% age 15+; 2015):                  91.1
Internet Users (/million; 2015):              2.438 (74.2%)

QATAR

Population (2016):                                        2,258,283
GDP ($US billions; 2016):                                    156.6
GDP Per Capita ($US billions; 2016):              129,700
Health Expenditure (% of GDP; 2015):                   2.2
Military Expenditure (% of GDP 2008):                  2.3
Adult literacy rate (% age 15+; 2015):                  97.3
Internet Users (/million; 2015):              2.039 (92.9%)

SAUDI ARABIA

Population (2016):                                       28,160,273
GDP ($US trillions 2016):                                      1.731
GDP Per Capita ($US billions 2016):                  54,100
Health Expenditure (% of GDP; 2014):                   4.7
Military Expenditure (% of GDP 2015):                13.5
Adult literacy rate (% age 15+; 2015):                  94.7
Internet Users (/million; 2015):              19.32 (69.6%)

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

Population (2016):                                       5,927,482
GDP ($US billions 2016):                                     667.2
GDP Per Capita ($US billions 2016):                67,700
Health Expenditure (% of GDP; 2015):                 3.6
Military Expenditure (% of GDP; 2014):              5.66
Adult literacy rate (% age 15+; 2015):                93.8
Internet Users (/million; 2015)              5.274 (91.2%)

YEMEN

Population (2016):                                     27,392,779
GDP ($US billions; 2016):                                    73.45
GDP Per Capita ($ US billions; 2016):                2,500
Health Expenditure (% of GDP; 2014):                  5.6
Military Expenditure (% of GDP; 2014):               3.97
Adult literacy rate (% age 15+; 2015):                  70.1
Internet Users (/million; 2015):              6.711 (25.1%)