The title says it all: Treat Me Like Your Mother. A plea to exist, to be respected, to be heard, a cry from the heart that speaks to past frustrations and pains, the fourth issue of the Lebanese magazine Cold Cuts presents a titanic work on those called transwomen, “tanteit” (from the French for “aunties”), “femme-men.” With the partnership of the NGO Helem, which works for the improvement of LGBTQI+ rights in Lebanon, Mohamad Abdouni wanted to interview for the issue ten women aged between 30 and 50: Kimo, Katia, Dolly Antonella, Hadi, Em Abed, Mama Jad, Nicole, Jamal Abdo, and Dana.
Some have been dancers, artists, and even celebrities. Today they live in precarious conditions, some being forced to prostitute themselves to be able to live in dignity. They tell their life stories, of happiness and despair, of the first time they put on women’s clothes, of the people who mattered the most in their lives, of memorable nights. The interviews are interspersed with family photos, archival photos and portraits of each interviewee, as well as portraits taken by Mohamad Abdouni who continues to photograph them, to put them on a pedestal, to idolize them in his images. Blind Magazine revisits their stories.
For Em Abed everything started when she was six years old: “I deliberately made a pass at my neighbor. It was summer, and he was bathing in a pool. I asked him what was under his shorts. He said it was candy and then told me to go play at home. I told him I wanted to taste the candy first. He turned around, so that no one would see us and showed it to me. I said, ‘Wow, it looks like a tasty candy.’ It was big, and I liked it!” As a child, Em Abed loved wearing her mother’s shoes even though they were too big for her. “I felt normal, just the way I do today. I never felt different from anyone else. When I was a child, I sat with the girls to play with them, never with the boys.”
For Em Abed, Beirut was much more beautiful back then. “It was completely different. Completely different. As different as the moon and the earth.” Em Abed’s words emanate a sense of freedom and joie de vivre as she tells the story of her adolescence and youth in Lebanon. Despite the fifteen-year civil war that has raged in the country, her early life appears free of care: this carefreeness has now disappeared, following an accident she survived in 2011.
Nicole grew up in Kuwait in a rather wealthy Lebanese family. By the time she was fourteen, she could already sense that her hormones were different. “I wore my mother’s clothes, and I used to go out a lot. I was the only boy at home.” When Nicole was about seventeen, she was invited to a party hosted by a transgender woman in her home. “It was amazing. Very extravagant. I arrived back home at 5:36 a.m. My father woke up and saw me, and asked me why I was wearing my mother’s clothes. I told him that I was at a costume party and had to dress that way. He told me that once he got home from work I would ‘get what I deserved.’ He had never hit me before, and I was very scared.”
Nicole stole money from her father’s safe, retrieved her passport and took off for Lebanon. “My sister tried to get in contact with me that night, and when she got through on the phone she put my father on. He bluntly said that I could continue my life in Lebanon, living with my older sister.” Her older sister enrolled her in a Catholic school. Nicole ran away and disappeared for months. Her mother sent her uncle to find her. He hit her. She ran away again while reconnecting with her sisters. Her parents were still living outside Lebanon. One day, they decided to fly to visit them and their plane crashed. They both died. Nicole currently resides in Beirut where she works as a hairdresser. Her partner has just been enlisted in the Syrian army.
The first man she was with was in the Lebanese army, he was close to her father. Dolly was a child then, spending her summer break with his family. “He would drink arak, and when he got drunk, he would ask me to come and sleep next to him. … He tore me, and he made me bleed. My back hurt, and my legs too—I was bleeding a lot. It was the first time that I was opened and that my asshole bled like that. I’m sorry if I’m speaking crudely, but that’s exactly what happened. He took me to the doctor and bribed him to shut him up. So the doctor said that I had fallen off a camel onto a rock, and that’s what tore me apart. He bribed the doctor in exchange for his silence.”
When Dolly went back to school, she had a crush on her math teacher. “His name was Wassim. He liked me back, and he started sleeping with me and giving me higher grades. The more he slept with me, the higher my grades were.” Dolly stayed at that school until she was sixteen, and then she started working “for magazines, in restaurants, in hair salons, as a housekeeper, and … in shops. [She] had all kinds of jobs.” One thing led to another, and she became a prostitute. “I didn’t save the money because I was afraid of losing it, so I would buy furniture instead.” But the house she lived in caught fire… And so it goes throughout Dolly’s interview, as she recounts very difficult episodes in her life but always with a certain lightheartedness: her will to live has always been stronger than the tragedies that befell her.
Cold Cuts: Treat Me Like Your Mother: Trans* Histories from Beirut’s Forgotten Past