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19. juni – 28. juni 2020

The Road to Reality - Frida Marida

Hani Assaf, better known as Frida Marida, is a relatively new name on the drag scene in Oslo. We met at Kaffebrenneriet at Rådhusplassen to talk about escapism, multiculturalism, and the meeting between the personal and the public.

Text and translation by Lee Kvåle
Pictures by Abhijit AnkaAnil

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While we wait for our coffee, he begins telling me about the thought process behind the promotional picture for his new show. “Stop high heels,” it says on the Facebook version. Originally, the plan was to make a show about the harmful things we do for respect, but he ultimately felt the quality wouldn’t be good enough in such a short amount of time. The ideas were too many and too grand.

Life was difficult for Hani in the period after he came to Norway, he tells me. He didn’t have residence papers, for instance. But he did have the idea that would turn into Frida Marida. That hadn’t been there before.

– It just felt like the right place to do it. At one point I felt like I needed to leave Norway. I didn’t want to apply for a family reunion, and I’d broken up with my boyfriend, and I thought, okay, I have to take this opportunity before I leave.

But it wasn’t necessarily the desire to do drag that motivated Hani.

– I wanted to sing and perform for people, but hadn’t felt able to do it before. I didn’t feel I had any charisme as myself, I felt too shy, but when I performed as Frida for the first time I felt so powerful. I had the wig, I had the makeup, and I felt both covered up and like the real me.

Picture from Frida's promotional material.

It’s not important to him whether his performance technique is flawless, he says. Frida allows him to do things his own way. This is the most important thing, being able to remain unique. And Frida is unique: to Hani, she is a superhero, one who doesn’t need to worry about being elegant or fancy. This idea works well with the description of Frida on her Facebook page, where she is, among other things, described as a phoenix born out of a dramatic life. A survivor.

– Frida was the only light in my life at that point in time. I was doing something I loved. I had experienced abuse, and felt like I’d been replaced with someone else through that. I didn’t feel like anyone would appreciate me, but then people started appreciating Frida.

He is conscious of his own need for attention, but is adamant that this isn’t a case of being an attention freak, it’s being human. It’s important to feel like you’re worth something, that you are something. Feeling like he possessed this talent, he tells me, is one of the reasons he didn’t just give up. To him, his talent is something he has a responsibility to share.

– People came up to me after my first performance, and told me I gave them goosebumps. I’ve never experienced that before.

When he performs as Frida he lets go of something, and lets himself be vulnerable through femininity. It’s this vulnerability that connects with people in that way, he thinks. Making mistakes is not dangerous, because these mistakes make Frida unique.

– Do you feel like Frida is a type of escapism for you?

– I don’t know. Maybe it takes me to my reality? I don’t know if I was stronger before, but I had another outlook. I worked as a director, I was free, but maybe this version of me is the strongest, the most real. I thought for a while that I wanted to change my sex, and be Frida all the time, but I’ve discovered I’m fine the way I am. Frida is a way for me to express concentrated femininity.

But gender expression is not the only unique thing about Frida, her performance is also coloured by Hani’s cultural background, and has strong multicultural traces. This is a conscious choice for Hani, who believes that first and foremost it’s a good business decision. It’s not just about being authentic.

– Of course it’s a part of me: I’m from the Middle East, I’m from Lebanon, and this has made me more comfortable with Arabic songs. At the same time, songs in English, French, Spanish, and Greek are things I have to learn in order to communicate with my audience. They don’t necessarily understand Arabic.

After Hani came to Norway he also became aware of a patriotism he hadn’t felt before. It has therefore become important to him to express the rich cultural capital he and others from the Lebanon have access to. He brings up that he was able to go to a French school, has travelled a lot, and so has met a big variety of culture within Lebanon. At the same time, he’s aware of the strongly conservative elements in Lebanese culture. This is a mix you can’t find in Norway, he thinks.

We also talk about how he experiences being met by prejudice in Norway, and how he can break these stereotypes through Frida. This has given him a new perspective, he says; he didn’t need to explain every part of his identity in Lebanon.

– For instance I would never share my religious background in Lebanon. It wasn’t something I cared about then, but that I have to think about now. There are currently a lot of refugees coming into Norway from Syria, and it might be because of this that when people meet me, they assume I’m Syrian. They also think I’m Muslim and a refugee. I don’t want to protest these assumptions, because there’s nothing wrong with being any of these things, but they are not right. I’m Lebanese. I’m agnostic, but I don’t want to go around sharing this with random people I meet.

There is an obvious and complicated relationship between the private and the public in Frida. When I ask Hani about this, he tells me that this relationship has been very stressful at times.

– Sometimes I go out dressed in drag, and when I reach my location, I feel like, “What the fuck am I doing?”

He’s had a hard time separating business and private life, and with knowing whether he’s being himself or someone else as Frida. The response he’s gotten has made it easier, he says: success has allowed him to look away from the question of what it is, and instead focus on art, and creating commercial success from this art. There is also a motivation to improve as a performer.

There’s only one thing he feels holds him back from this success: his family.

– I still love my family, even though they’re not comfortable with my sexuality. They know I’m gay, but they don’t know I do drag.

A lot of time and energy has been put into ensuring that news of Frida will not reach his family: Hani has blocked instagram accounts from Lebanon and limited the reach of his Facebook page to the Oslo area. He doesn’t want to risk them finding anything before he is ready.

– I have a friend who films every gig I do. There’s a song I always dedicate to my family, and when I feel like I’m successful enough that they have to be proud of me, I hope they get to see those clips. I hope they get to see that I was thinking about them the whole time.

Hani only expresses joy and excitement about the future – he believes this is the best period in his life, and says he can’t wait to share his performance with people.

– I think I’m the best performer in the world.

Frida Marida performs on the main stage in Pride Park on Wednesday 19th June at 17:30.