Firas Nabulsi remembers dancing in drag under a rain of glitter, rose petals cascading from beneath his wig, the Beirut nightclub crowd cheering as he lip-synched to a Whitney Houston song.
Now he doesn’t have anywhere to dance, anywhere to work or anywhere to live.
The blast destroyed his home in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael, along with the queer-friendly clubs in the city’s most accepting neighbourhood.
Mar Mikhael is where Beirut earned its reputation as the Middle East’s capital of hedonism, a thriving, bohemian cultural centre that defied Lebanon’s religious divides and history of sectarian violence.
But with most of its homes, restaurants and bars damaged in the explosion at the adjacent port on August 4, people like Firas have lost their refuge.
The blast was triggered by a fire in a warehouse that stored 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.
The huge explosion is believed to have killed about 200 people, injured thousands more, and damaged about 70,000 homes.
The emotional shock waves of the blast continue to devastate the former residents of Mar Mikhael.
With nowhere else to go, Firas was forced to move back in with his parents in the Sunni Muslim north, even though they had kicked him out two years before for being gay.
“The first time that I had to leave my parents’ house before the explosion … it was super hurtful for me,” he said.
It wasn’t long before his parents kicked him out again.
“The second time it hurts more. After everything that happened, after I was so close to losing my life, the only thing that my parents cared about was me being gay,” the 23-year-old said.
“It didn’t make sense for me … I was emotionally destroyed when it happened.”
‘This is my blood here’
Drag performer Andrea Najarian is still recovering after several surgeries for the injuries he received in the blast.
He had to have more than 100 stitches all over his body.
“This is my blood here,” he said, pointing to the wall in his family apartment which is just 300 metres from the now-shattered Beirut port.
The home his mother grew up in is a mess of fallen beams and shattered glass.
A student and fashion stylist, Andrea used to work at the popular club AHM.
The venue, which was like a second home to him, was also destroyed by the blast.
“I used to perform here in drag, so it’s the first time I see it this way,” he said upon revisiting.
“It’s kind of overwhelming.”
Beirut’s queer community loses ‘comfort zone’
Sandra Melhem, whose gay nightclub was closed by the pandemic and then damaged by the explosion, wants to help people like Andrea and Firas.
She has set up a charity appeal to pay medical costs, repair homes or help with relocation costs.
“Most of my friends and I live in these areas,” she said.
“The safe spaces that we have in the country are few [and] the areas affected [by the blast] were the residential areas for these people. The clubs that were affected were all queer friendly.”
No-one expects things to return to the way they were, but residents of Mar Mikhael want to try to rebuild what was one of the few safe spaces for queer people in the Arab world.
Until recently, homosexuality was a criminal offence in Lebanon.
A court decision in 2018 ruled homosexuality was a “practice of fundamental rights” but gay sex should never be seen or heard by others or take place in public.
Sandra Melhem believes her community will have to take care of itself.
“We need to start from the premise that we don’t have a state or a government to look after anyone,” she said.
Andrea is hopeful Beirut’s young people will want to restore the area so they have a place to express themselves.
“This neighbourhood consists of today’s youth, which made it much more available to today’s queer community and was definitely a big refuge and comfort zone,” he said.
“We can only be hopeful to see it become [that] again,” he said.