Mohamad al-Khansa has a bold vision – to transcend notions of masculinity in Lebanon. And though his gender-defying performance art is breaking new ground today, the artist is just joining a long legacy of male belly dancers in the region.
Known by his stage name, Khansa, the Beirut-based artist is a male Lebanese belly dancer, and a relative anomaly in an art form that has long been dominated by women. Khansa says he is a multifaceted artist, using vocals, recorded music and performance art in addition to belly dancing in order to express himself.
Destinations Unlocked:Let our travel expert Stefano help you find your perfect Culture trip
Looking for an expert's perspective?Uncover my top 3 recommended places from each continent on the map.
1. GuatemalaAn express adventure for those with limited time off. Prepare yourself incredible experiences. You will hike a volcano, visit mayan temples and witness a ceremony and take in beautiful colonial Antigua.
2. BelizeA quick trip not too far away for those seeking a relaxing mini break. You will have plenty of free time to relax but also some awesome activities to experience the rainforest and the caribbean sea.
3. MexicoAn exciting mini trip exploring the lesser known colonial towns of central Mexico. This is hte perfect trip for someone with limited time off and still wants to turn on explorer mode and do something different.
1. EcuadorA remarkable 8 days adventure through the Andes and the Amazon rainforest. The best choice for adventure seekers wishing to visit the 2 most iconic areas of South America, in only 1 week and no flights.
2. PeruAn alternative itinerary to classic Peru, from Cusco to Arequipa. This itinerary is great combination of highlights Cusco and Machu Picchu with the lesser known Arequipa and Colca Canyon.
1. ItalyThe ultimate Italian experience from the vibrant streets of Naples to the breathtaking sceneries of the Amalfi Coast followed by Matera and down to Puglia with its golden beaches, intense flavours and fascinating destinations.
2. ScotlandEmbark on this great adventure starting from London all the way to Scotland with a true Scottish experience made of breathtaking sceneries, whisky tasting and ..lots of fun! Ideal for train lovers and explorers.
3. PortugalA wonderful train journey around Portugal, from the romantic city of Porto to the Douro Valley, to the beautiful Aveiro all the way to Lisbon and Sintra. The perfect trip to train, culinary and culture lovers.
1. South KoreaDiscover incredible temples, mountains and modern cities on this 10 day adventure. This trip is perfect for those seeking immersion in the cuisine, culture and natural wonders of South Korea.
2. ThailandFrom Bankgok to Angkor Wat to Ho Chi Minh City and everything in between - adventure through the heart of South-East Asia. Taste the delights, see history brought to life and unwind on a Mekong River cruise.
3. Sri LankaA fantastic adventure that showcases Sri Lanka's fantastic landscapes, wildlife and flavours. With 3 epic rail journeys, 3 UNESCO heritage sites and time to relax, this trip has loads to offer at a great price
1. MoroccoAn epic journey across Morocco: from Casablanca to Marrakech, through the blue city of Chefchaouen to the wonders of the desert and deep to the High Atlas Mountains - this trip has it all! Ideal for true explorers!
2. EgyptFrom Cairo to Aswan, this trip brings the land of the pharaohs to life. You'll visit the Pyramids, Valley of the Kings and Luxor Temple and cruise down the Nile in style. This is the perfect way to explore Egypt.
“The goal is to break many stereotypes of classical and traditional Middle Eastern values regarding masculinity,” Khansa says. He aims to express power and eroticism through his dancing, inviting a fluid interpretation of gender.
Born in Ghobeiry, one of Beirut’s southern suburbs, Khansa says he was interested in gender-bending performance from a young age, and was inspired by Arab stars like Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum.
“The earliest memory I have of myself performing as a child is during the fifth grade at the end-of-year performance,” he says. “At that time I was really influenced by female icons and divas from the Arab world, and I ended up impersonating one of them in front of an audience of parents.”
Khansa is part of a long tradition of the type of belly dancing that traces its origins to Egypt and today has distinct styles present there as well as in Turkey and in Lebanon. Having long fascinated European so-called orientalists in the colonial period, the dance today has become more of a folkloric tradition, especially in Lebanon, where it is known as a folk dance – raqs baladi.
Even though his gender-defying performance art is breaking new ground today, Khansa is far from alone if you look back at the history of the art form. For centuries, belly dancing was also performed by male dancers, or zenne, in the Ottoman Empire, and another related dance was performed by köçek, who were often young boys dressed in feminine clothing. One particular group who influenced Khansa were the khawal of Egypt – cross-dressing dancers who often performed at public ceremonies in the time before the 20th century.
Despite this history, the art Khansa performs today is still fighting modern gender roles and received definitions of masculinity.
“This existed a long time ago,” Khansa says, “and for some reason it doesn’t exist anymore, and there’s nothing shameful about it. The only shame comes from within the community itself.”
Today, Khansa is not the only male belly dancer in the Middle East, nor is he the only one in Lebanon – dancer Alexandre Paulikevitch has also made a name for himself in Beirut. Modern zenne have begun popping up in Turkey again, too, and male dancers have also been active in Egypt. Khansa says that part of his mission is to shed light on the history of gender fluidity in the Middle East, and to prove that what he is doing shouldn’t be seen as alien.
“Let’s go back in history and accept that this used to be celebrated, and the only people who stopped it were the [audience], who did not accept the fact that this made them feel something. This comes from people’s insecurities, rather than from the performer.”
Today, Lebanon, and especially Beirut, is a relatively progressive place for LGBTQ and gender non-conforming communities, when compared with the rest of the Middle East. In many ways, the momentum is working towards a freer, more open environment – in March 2019, the top military prosecutor in Lebanon handed down a landmark decision stating that homosexuality itself is not a crime, signifying a step in the right direction.
Yet, socially, the LGBTQ community continues to face harassment from the police and from a large segment of the public, and remains taboo in mainstream Lebanese society. Last year, the organiser of the Beirut Pride festival was detained, causing all associated events to be cancelled. By and large, LGBTQ rights in the country still have a long way to go.
Khansa himself says that he has experienced the effects of this as a performer in Lebanon. As a child in the Scouts, he regularly performed in drag, which was always well received. “Everyone was smiling and enjoying themselves,” he says, adding that many began to criticise the use of drag in his performances only once he became an adult.
And yet Khansa’s popularity is growing – videos of his recorded music have seen 100,000 views on YouTube, and he is set to embark on some live performances soon. His influence is harder to measure, but one thing is certain: he is not giving up the fight for a freer future.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.