Three men block the road. White tank tops, bulging muscles, motorcycles, their gaze fixed on Sako Sislian.
“I could feel their bad energy right away,” he says. “I saw them make two phone calls, and I started to have doubts.”
Sislian, who manages the bar Riwaq in Mar Mikhael, watches them from behind his bar window; they're only a few meters away. A car stops, flashes its headlights at them, and one of them turns around. After a dark glance and a brief jerk of the chin, the three men finally step aside.
Since the attack on a Drag show in Om last month by the hardline Christian group “Soldiers of God,” there have been two instances where suspicious men have been seen scrutinizing Sislian’s establishment.
He has remained vigilant, fearing the worst, which fortunately has not happened.
“I’m twice as cautious now,” he confides. Some friends have even advised Sislian to wear a cross around his neck, just to show that he means no harm to any potential zealous “Soldiers of God.”
“I know, it’s absurd,” he says with a bitter laugh.
Staying under the radar
Just a few minutes’ walk from Om, Riwaq Bar is renowned for its inclusivity and tolerance towards LGBTQ+ individuals. On the entrance door, a sign sets the tone: “If you're sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, or an asshole, don’t come in.”
The attack in Om shook them. On the very same evening, Sislian and his staff gathered to discuss the situation.
“I briefed them, told them to be cautious,” he says. “I also suggested letting things settle and run their course without organizing any overt events.”
By “overt,” he means visibly LGBTQ+.
Looking somewhat uncomfortable with his words, Sislian adds, “Of course, we will continue to support the community.”
“But we don’t want to provoke a tragedy,” he says. “Imagine if 15 guys show up, what do we do?”
His priority is to remain discreet for the sake of safety.
The same sentiment echoes in another bar in Beirut where LGBTQ+ couples often come to relax.
It’s a safe space where the community doesn’t have to hide.
“Please don’t quote me or mention my establishment for the safety of our customers,” the manager says upon seeing the journalist’s notepad.
Then, with a hint of regret in her voice, she continues, “We still have many people coming despite what happened.”
“But gay couples are showing less affection, they’re less open about it,” she adds.
A bartender overhears the conversation and chimes in, “When the attack happened, I was on duty. Customers started paying quickly and leaving; we were all shocked."
Then, she mechanically serves two drinks to a waiting customer. “Life must go on...”
Drag show postponed, constant vigilance
The attack in Om has had direct, tangible consequences on the life and activities of the LGBTQ+ community.
A show by Narcissa, a Lebanese Drag queen who has been active since 2018, was scheduled for the week after that when the “Soldiers of God” carried out their assault.
"We had to postpone it for security reasons, something that had never happened to me before,” Narcissa says. “It was a tough but necessary decision.”
Narcissa readily admits that she is still anxious. The stress of the night of Aug. 23 remains tangible.
The messages from her friends, the immediate terror, and learning that fellow Drag queens Latiza Bombé and Emma Gration had to remove their makeup in secret all had a profound impact on her.
“My heart sank,” Narcissa says. “I felt nervous and restless.”
But immediately, she started thinking about a response. Narcissa assures that her show is only postponed, and she is working diligently on “new content” that will be shared soon.
Om’s staff are also silently trying to move beyond the shock.
When contacted, none of the bar’s management wished to speak, preferring to forget the Aug. 23 attack.
In the early evening, the tables are sparsely occupied, and the faces of the servers show signs of weariness.
However, there’s no question of allowing sadness to prevail. The DJ responsible for the
“Oriental night” that evening makes his entrance as usual. Om’s vibrant atmosphere is restored.
At a table, customers Raed and Omar sip their cocktails as if nothing had happened. Visiting Lebanon for a week, these two Jordanians chose Om for their first and last night out.
"We arrived on Friday, two days after the attack,” Raed says. “We had a drink here and came back a week later.”
“It doesn’t change anything for us,” he adds.
“Some of our friends didn’t want to come, but we’re here,” Omar says, proud to support the establishment. Both of them hope to soon attend a Drag show here, as they have never seen one before.
There will be shows, Narcissa promises. “As an artist, I have always used and will always use Drag art as a kind of response to everything that’s happening.”
If they have to keep a low profile for now, Lebanon still has its Queens and the extravagance that comes with them, despite the intimidation.
“This too shall pass, like everything in life, nothing is constant or eternal,” Narcissa says. “As long as we are strong and determined.”
Narcissa prepares herself in front of her mirror, finishes her makeup, and feels beautiful. Just like all the others.