The Rhapsodic Elegance of Sultana of New York

Hadi Moussally’s short film “Sultana’s Reign,” which is produced by My Kali, starts with a shot of New York-based artist Samer Ridikkuluz sketching Sultana of New York, who is reclining on a bed in a Paris hotel room. The first image of the New York drag persona we see is Ridikkuluz’s sketch where she’s depicted in the same liminal state that he rendered into paint in “The Girl” (2021), an oil portrait that has since been exhibited at the Institut de Monde Arabe in Paris for Habibi: Les Révolutions de l’Amour.

The film starts its journey with the painting, but it’s pushed in another direction by telling a story that comes from a clear sense of intimacy. That objective is suggested at the beginning by the way we see Ridikkuluz linger on certain parts of his sketch, looking, and looking again, and sharing the sense of ease that comes from trust. The roughly 9 ½-minute film relays the contours of a life lived fearlessly, all as Sultana — who uses both he and she pronouns — contours her own face while telling us about her life as a Palestinian with a Jordanian passport, who lived at times in Cairo, Amman, and later Beirut, after she was kidnapped by the Jordanian army during Black September. Each moment is embodied by the figure of Sultana, relating what at times sounds like a charmed life that quickly veers into a ditch. Yet she always pulled through, because she’s had no choice. When the Lebanese Civil War started in 1975, she left that magical bubble and luckily landed in New York City.

Sultana talks about being the only belly-dancing drag queen in 1990s New York, but only after discussing her own difficulty confronting her father as a gay man. She shares the experience of going to American therapists to stop being gay, but, as expected, it was, in her own words, “… a total waste of time. I became more gay than before, after seeing the shrink.” Her direct humor is refreshing, but also tinged with the weight of a life during which she was repeatedly forced to forge a new path.

Scenes from “Sultana’s Reign” (Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Moussally allows Sultana’s elegant nature to come through by giving her space and a microphone. His filmmaking, like Ridikkuluz’s sketching, lingers and pauses, letting us believe we are seeing something they may have missed, but in reality we’re following the breadcrumbs they’ve left for us. 

Sultana’s a natural storyteller, explaining “I’m fighting to show … my complexity …,” but she’s doing so while slaying in a ball gown as she looks at a magazine rack or browses wine at a Middle Eastern grocer — it’s all visually wonderful.

Sultana of New York reminds me of many older queer people from across the Eastern Mediterranean. Her francophile airs, constant stream of wisdom, the way she easily careens from a horrible geopolitical tragedy to more mundane tasks, and all come across with the same breathless or deadpan tone that comes from a life lived, fully, and sometimes against one’s own will. “Sultana’s Reign” is a lovely portrait of queerness, Middle Easternness, and Palestinianness … a beautiful multitude.

When she leaves us at the end of this cinematic postcard, she does so with the glamor of a 1960s French New Wave starlet ascending a metro escalator. “I don’t try to explain myself anymore,” she says. “I would like to be remembered as a performer. As an artist expressing himself or herself to a lover of life. Lover of the party. I always need a little party in my life. There’s always a little party inside of me. J’aime la fête.” 


YouTube video

Hadi Moussaly’s “Sultana’s Reign” (2023) premiered on Tuesday, August 29 on My Kali’s Youtube channel.

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