Photographs by Yousef Iskandar.
The transgender creates 'the woman' in their mind, so they are artists," Maggie explains in broken English. We're sitting at the back of Sudblock, a queer cafe in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin, under a series of disco balls. "The art gives you power to go on your journey -- to cross the borders," she adds, flipping her hair back.
I notice that she has changed her blonde box braids out for purple and red ones, but she looks just as enchanting, artful even. Maggie, or Diva Maguy, as she is known in Berlin, is a trans artist and activist who has been living in the city as a refugee for the past year. Looking at her soft skin and smile, it's hard to imagine the hardships she's endured. But her identity as a woman has been denied throughout her journey from the Middle East to North America and back to Europe. Resilience is a part of her artistry.
When she was a child in Tripoli, Lebanon, Maggie's family wasn't bothered by her femininity as she lived a life similar to those of her three sisters. Instead of playing soccer with the other boys, she would often be found dancing on their balcony, giving their neighbors a show. They thought that she was just sensitive and into fashion, but when she began experimenting with makeup and more feminine styles at the age of 15, they took notice. They reacted as negatively as one would expect in a remote, religious town, and so she moved to Beirut at 18 to pursue a career in fashion and makeup. She also worked as an entertainer, living as a woman part time at night, mainly for parties or performances.
"I discovered Maggie in Lebanon -- this was the nice thing. I discovered my woman spirit as a performer, as everything," she says. "We had a few gay clubs and bars, so I was 'diva' famous everywhere. I did performances and shows. It was very nice. This is what I remember: Diva Maguy in Beirut."
During one of her shows, a reporter in the crowd recorded the performance with a spy cam, and the footage appeared on New TV (now known as Al Jadeed), a national television network, along with a report that condemned queer culture. The report also revealed her birth name. After that, anytime there were "gay problems" in Beirut, the police would call Maggie to investigate. "I was crazy in Beirut. Problems, problems," she says, explaining how the government informed her that she could no longer dress as a woman because it conflicted with her recorded gender. "I'm an artist, I'm a performer, so I packed my stuff. I had money, I had a tourist visa, and decided to go to America to search for a job."
When she arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport, an officer went through her bags and found her CVs. She explained that she was visiting a friend and applying for work, adding, naively, that she may move to America when she visits next. The officer informed her that this was illegal and suggested that she was seeking asylum. "Yes, I'm gay, even if I come for asylum," she exclaimed, so the officer advised that she apply at the airport. Although she followed his advice, she was taken to a detention facility in New Jersey.
"Suddenly I find myself in a jail. It's not a camp. And I told them, 'Sorry, but look at me. I'm gay, I'm transgender,' " she says. "And they put me with 42 men."
She'd heard that some of those men, many of whom were criminals, had been in there for months, and she was unable to endure such living conditions for that long. When she finally saw the asylum officer a week after she'd been detained, she told him to cancel her application. Two weeks later, Maggie was deported back to Lebanon. "It was weird for me to live three weeks with men all around me. I had no privacy even to act like a woman. I was acting 'normal' because I wanted to communicate. I wanted to live."
Traumatized by the experience, she didn't feel like a woman anymore. She cut her hair and decided to live as a man. She soon traveled to Turkey to apply for asylum in America through the UNHCR, but within a month of arriving there, the shock of her detainment and deportation wore off. She couldn't deny her art and embraced her true female identity again: Maggie returned. "I started to take hormones then," she explains.
Although she was still determined to live her dream in America, after she had been in Istanbul for more than a year, the authorities postponed the next required interview for her asylum by at least a year. Unwilling to wait any longer for acceptance from the United States, she went into a souk and purchased a boat ticket from a smuggler, who would take her from Turkey to Greece. She had new aspirations to live in Berlin. Two weeks later she was on a motorized rubber boat full of tens of refugees, leaving the shores of Bodrum at night.
When they got out to sea, apparent Turkish security forces tried to stop the boat. Having failed that, they attempted to capsize the raft, presumably so they could take the passengers back to Turkey. "I don't know why I was not scared when I was on the boat," Maggie says, explaining that she didn't even bother wearing a life jacket. She placed it between her legs instead. "When I went on the boat, I told myself, I will die in the sea or get my dream."
After two attempts, the security forces were unable to capsize the boat. Maggie arrived successfully at the Greek island of Kos. Next, she traveled from Kos to Athens, from Athens to Rome, then to Milan, and finally to Berlin on May 1, 2015.
She's been in the city for about a year, working hard to prove herself as an artist. It's been difficult for her to obtain a permanent residence permit because she's Lebanese and not Syrian.
Lebanon is not currently at war, she explains. Still, Article 534 of Lebanon's penal code states that sexual acts that "contradict the laws of nature" are punishable by up to one year's imprisonment, so she's at risk. Despite these obstacles, she's prevailed with her art, having performed at such major festivals as the Carnival of Cultures, MyFest, and the Berlin Art Film Festival. She's also performed at the famous Gorki Theatre. "Berlin loves me," she proudly says.
Some of her shows include segments in which she belly dances in a black burqa to Arabic music. This act always ends with her removing the cloth to reveal herself as a trans woman. "The people will deny you. People don't see you," she says of those who have attempted to repress her female identity in the Middle East. "They start talking to you in a man way. How can you talk to a man who has nails and makeup? How? So they just put a black thing on you. It's like a burqa."
Maggie's plans are to stay in Berlin for a few years if she gets a permanent residence permit, but once she has her German passport, she plans to continue her journey as an artist to the United States to study acting.
"This art is a big power," she says, flipping her hair back again. "I wanted to make her. I wanted to make Maggie, and I have made her more than I ever imagined."