TEL AVIV, Israel — His friends call him "The Bride."
This night, he was standing behind a storefront art-gallery window in a bloodied wedding dress. His face was ghostly, and he was clutching a large rock in his right hand.
A small crowd had gathered on a south Tel Aviv street as The Bride opened his mouth and began to sing — in Arabic. To be more accurate, The Bride was lip-synching the words of a political anthem by one of Lebanon's best-known divas.
"Let the jails' door be destroyed," he sang as bewildered Israelis on dates wandered by. "Let this madness be defeated, and let anyone who betrays us become stones."
The show was a public coming out for "The Bride of Palestine," a 26-year-old performance artist who's one of a new generation of gay Arab-Israelis struggling to define themselves, their sexuality and their political identity.
For most like The Bride, being gay makes them pariahs in their conservative Arab communities. Being proud Palestinians puts them at odds with the dominant Jewish-Israeli society. So they try to take a stand against bigotry in both societies without being firmly rooted in either one.
"My fight," said The Bride, who lives at home with his willfully ignorant Muslim parents, "is through my art."
In an effort to carve out a space for themselves, Palestinian drag queens gather every few months at a club in the heart of Tel Aviv to take part in underground shows. These parties offer a rare forum for them to explore complicated and convoluted ideas about sexuality, politics, nationalism, militancy and religion.
They're forging their identities at the center of what some consider an occupying power. The Palestinian nationalists among them recognize the irony in the fact that Israel has become their sanctuary.
"I didn't choose this place; it's the place that I found I could be myself in," said M. a 24-year-old Arab-Israeli woman with short black hair who's performed at the club. "That's my only refuge."
In some ways, gays and lesbians such as M. are lucky: While homosexuality isn't illegal in the Palestinian Authority, as it is in most surrounding Arab nations, gays and lesbians have virtually no place to express their sexuality in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Several gay Palestinians have been arrested, beaten by Palestinian Authority intelligence and forced to flee, The Bride and other gay activists said.
For most, though, there's no refuge. While West Bank Palestinians once could sneak into Tel Aviv easily, Israel's construction of a separation barrier between Israelis and Palestinians and tighter restrictions on travel have made that all but impossible.
The Tel Aviv shows, which draw a few hundred people each night, blend enticing belly-dancing numbers with overtly political performances. Most of the shows have taken place in a central Tel Aviv basement club not far from Israeli military headquarters.
Organizers don't advertise the shows, in an attempt to keep them under the radar. Security guards at the door screen club-goers. Most of the drag queens discourage photos of their performances out of fear of being unmasked. For the same reason, those interviewed asked not to be identified by their full names.
At one show last fall, M. starred as a butch militant in fatigues preparing to leave her lover for a suicide mission. The lover, dressed in a traditional robe, implored M. to stay. By the end of the song, M. had tossed aside her machine gun, abandoned the mission and run into her lover's arms.
The piece grew out of the pair's attempts to wrestle with being patriotic Palestinians growing up around Arab-phobic Israelis, and lesbians in a largely homophobic Arab community.
"It's not enough that I'm oppressed as an Arab in Jewish society, I'm oppressed as a queer in Arab society," M said. "The thing from both sides is difficult, but what is most difficult is to be oppressed by your own community."
One of the best-known young performers at the underground shows is "R," a.k.a. "The Bride of Palestine." With long, curly brown hair, hazel eyes and a lanky frame, The Bride hasn't opted for cosmetic surgery as others have to make their performances more authentic. But because of his political focus, "R" is one of the most popular.
Growing up gay in the mixed Arab-Jewish coastal town of Jaffa just south of Tel Aviv, "R" said, he was "not here, not there."
Though his parents have seen him perform in drag and have fought with him about getting married, for the sake of family harmony they never directly confront him about his sexuality.
In January, "R" took his internal conflict to the storefront art gallery.
His performance was a complicated exploration of identity. It challenged attempts to transform the quest for a Palestinian state into a conservative religious war. It questioned attempts to gentrify what "R" calls "occupied" Jaffa, a transformation that he considers a modern-day campaign to expel Palestinians from their land. And it sought to explore the world of gay Arab-Israelis.
With the audience watching from the sidewalk, "R" appeared in his bloody wedding dress as a wounded bride returning from a devastating war to her demolished home.
While lip-synching to the Lebanese diva's political song, The Bride handed a stone to a lackadaisical, defeated man (The Bride's alter-ego) in black slacks and a white button-down shirt.
The man took the stone and threw it at a picture of the Dome of the Rock, one of the most revered religious icons in Islam. The glass shattered, and the man soon began to rip The Bride's wedding gown to shreds, including a sash with the black, green, white and red colors of the Palestinian flag.
The Bride was left standing nearly naked before the curbside audience. The man helped The Bride into identical black slacks and white shirt. As their affection slowly grew, the speakers played a tune by an Israeli singer that's popular in the gay community.
"This is the way nature created you," the artist sang in Hebrew. "With a little imagination and free thought, so please let this grow from the start.
"Don't try to fight it. Don't try to change. Because it will always suddenly start again."