Transvestite takes on Arab TV

Bassem Feghali given gameshow

BEIRUT — The Arab world’s most famous cross-dresser has a show of his own this Ramadan season. Airing every night during the Muslim holy month, the program is a comical, music-infused spin on the age-old “One Thousand and One Nights.”

Complete with outrageous outfits, plenty of hip shaking and even a few whip cracks, it is probably the closest thing to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” that Arab audiences have ever seen.

But instead of a “transvestite from transsexual Transylvania,” as played by Tim Curry in the 1975 film, Arab viewers are treated to the antics of Bassem Feghali, a Lebanese artist who has earned a reputation for his sarcastic and often racy portrayals of Arab female pop stars.

In the game show, broadcast throughout the region on Lebanon’s LBC, Feghali plays the story-telling muse of King Shahryar, dressing up and performing each night as raucous Arab songstress.  Dubbed “One Thousand Tragedies in One Night,” viewers at home are asked to participate by calling hotlines to guess which star is being impersonated.

Feghali wears at least a dozen elaborate costumes and wigs in each episode. Many of the characters have oversized breasts and exaggerated lips, while recent scenes include a choreographed dance with syringe-wielding plastic surgeons. 

But pop divas are not the only victims of Feghali’s sharp-tongued brand of parody. He also takes aim at oil-rich Gulf Arabs who are seen as treating Lebanon as a playground.

In one show, Feghali plays free-spirited Mariam Nour, a grandmotherly new wave Lebanese talkshow host who criticizes the portly Shahryar for thinking “only of women and rice.” She asks the buffoonish King to close his eyes and meditate to solve the evening’s riddle, but then snaps at him for peeking. “Don’t look at me! Who do you think I am, Haifa?” she blasts, in reference to the seductive Lebanese singer Haifa Wehbe.

Another Feghali character portrays a headdress-wearing Gulf man, singing madly as he soars through the Dubai skyline on a magic carpet.

Yet effeminate men are nothing new in the Lebanese broadcasting scene. Feghali, whose double DVD set is now available in Lebanese stores, has been a guest on countless LBC shows in the past.

Meanwhile the channel’s local rival, Future Television, runs a reality-type fashion show based on the format “Project Runway,” in which contestants are mostly young male designers from across the Middle East.

But Christian-owned LBC, which plays Koranic verses during Ramadan, remains the most daring. It is the only station in the region to successfully air a reality series where single men and women live together under one roof with its “Star Academy” skein. 

And while Feghali remains farcical, another recent LBC program was anything but. Earlier this year, the station aired a TV drama that sympathetically followed the story of a Lebanese transvestite who was killed by his conservative father.

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