Following the August 4th blast that devastated Beirut last year, Dayna Ash got on her moped and hand-delivered food and other essentials to those in need. In the face of disaster, sitting down to map out an action plan and her place within it is not how Dayna works. Instead, she moves, and keeps moving until her community has what it needs.
An unwavering force amongst the ever-changing cultural landscape of Beirut, Dayna is working to break the hold that subjugation has on life, on queer life. As an activist, writer, founder, and executive director of the non-profit arts organization Haven for Artists, she has proven to be a modern-day paradigm of what activism and feminism can look like.
“If you met me before 2015, allow me to reintroduce myself,” she laughs. “The feminism snaps into place after a certain age, and you wake up like ‘oh, I’m oppressed. I’m doing things I wasn’t aware I was taught to do,’” she says.
“It is still a growing and learning process. In feminism we have to constantly assume that nothing has been concluded because nothing has changed.”
Born in Lebanon and raised in the United States until the age of 16, Dayna relates to the common struggle for identity that many in the diaspora face, but through the years has formed her unboundaried and rebellious perspective of what it is like to be Arab, an immigrant, a woman, and queer.
“People misconstrue the concept of growing up in the States. You still grow up in an Arab household. If anything, parents are still very much holding onto tradition and abiding by rules that they think are customary to preserve culture,” she explains.
The grim reality of being forced to define who you are and what you will become at a young age is already a burden; made exhaustive on marginalized communities due to society’s inability to adapt to nonconforming identities.
“Arabs just get outed. I did a film about it called ‘Courage,’ and it’s based on the context of the ‘closet’ when it comes to the region and how it differs in every country. We don’t come out once or twice…we come out to every glaring eye, to every neighbor and overbearing aunt and uncle with a temper and a gun. We come out to something completely different.”
In the subsequent years, her rebellious streak left her with a culmination of tattoos and uneasy parents who believed that if she was not sent back to Lebanon they would lose her to the West. However, what she returned to was the melting pot of culture in Lebanon that gave birth to many of her nuanced realizations, including the nature of colonization.
“Growing up in the states, you have a very different historical imprint. History is written by the victors so you get to a point where you come back and realize that the country that you had assumed your identity to, which at that point was America for me – which I had connected directly to equality and liberty and happiness – was only that way because they oppressed the sh*t out of us.”
“They are only that way because they abused our resources and exploited our people, land, and labor. It was a very different awakening. When people say ‘culture shock’ I think what they don’t understand, at least when you come back to a ‘third world developing country,’ culture shock is actually against the other country that you just came from, not towards Lebanon.”
When Dayna turned 21 and was working as a bartender and waitress, she was tired of hearing the same music, and on her nights off she would want to go and see her friends performing, only to realize she was spending three days worth of tips on the logistics of a night out.
The prevalent monopolization of artists who rely on bars, cafes, and restaurants also meant that they were forced to appease the owners while earning next to nothing. “My friend gets the same amount no matter how many people walk into that space, and I don’t want to see Tina on one side of Beirut and Chris on the other side of town so I called them and said, ‘Do you wanna perform together?’”
This inspired Dayna to form a community collective, Haven for Artists, a collaborative, non-confrontational space for creatives. Haven held their first show under a staircase in a bar that Dayna used to work in, with 50 people in attendance and all the money going directly to the artists. The event grew through the months and years to accommodate various types of art and performers until they were traveling to festivals internationally.
“What makes it different is that our driving force is not queer themed, it’s queer people. Our driving force is not women themed, it’s women. Period,” Dayna quotes her dear friend and colleague Yasmine El Rifai. “We are not unapologetic as a concept, we’re unapologetic. We are not radical, we are reasonable.”
Over the past 10 years since founding Haven, the challenges they face have shifted with the socio-economic and political climate of Lebanon. “The challenges before were ‘How am I going to get 200 bucks to get sound?’ Now it’s ‘How am I going to get 20 grand to make sure the community has vaccines?’”
After Lebanon’s October Revolution, Haven for Artists went on strike and turned their community space into a civil society meeting spot where everyone was welcome. “You want to overthrow the government? Great, here’s a meeting space. Sit down, talk about it, come up with policies, push.”
The following August 4th blast, however, left Lebanon and Haven with devastating spatial loss, destroying their homes and public spaces. One of the neighborhoods that suffered the greatest damage was Mar Mikhael – famous for its heritage, old historical buildings, the vibrant artistic scene and the home of Haven’s community space.
“Every time you step outside you step on glass. Our trigger is the city itself, we don’t have a concept of being safe at home, they took away that concept. There is no safety, period.”
While the blast itself impacted all of Lebanon, for queer and marginalized communities, it was yet another injustice amongst the already brutal state violence and surveillance they face daily.
“To quote Yasmine again, ‘We are mourning a space that was never ours, it may have never truly contained us, it never embraced our existence wholly, only our monetary contribution. We are mourning a physical form of a system that we were meaning to dismantle ourselves.’”
“It was enough to survive a blast but to know you’re not really surviving anything because there was nothing there… Art spaces are destroyed, friends are dead, and you get to a point where you think, ‘If I do rebuild, for what? For who? For the next bomb? For the next assassination?’”
Haven turned their office spaces into shelters and became a distribution center for the LGBTQ+, women, and migrant workers. They also supported 149 people by paying their rent six months in advance so that the people could focus on their well-being instead.
“Medical emergency, shelter rehabilitation, rent assistance, cash assistance…basically Haven’s job is to pump money into the economy. We refused to be the organization that gets $80,000 for fundraisers for relief and then uses half of it for our salaries. That money goes directly to the people. Then we apply for separate funds to get our salaries, and if we don’t we still distribute it for free.”
Haven recently hosted the exhibit “Molding the Lost Space,” a digital exhibition that asks the queer and marginalized artists in Beirut to deconstruct the collective loss and reflect on their individual anguish towards the “‘after-effects of the blast on the spatial surroundings, the boundaries of the physical space and its impact on their identity.”
Dayna is heartbroken and aware of the checklist that calls for the attention of the international community. She encourages those in diaspora, those who are paying taxes internationally, involved in politics, institutional bodies, and voting to take action.
“We need to stop pretending that our government is strong enough to be a dictator on its own, that’s not a thing. They are supported, reinforced, funded, and legitimized by international actors so remove that legitimacy, remove funding for negative things.”
While it’s Dayna’s dream to live in a Lebanon that knows peace, the compounded economic, social and political issues that need undoing often feel mountainous.
“I hate the word resilience; it’s never empowering, it just sets up for more resilience so we have to navigate what is resilience and what is abuse,” she says. “Everything they took from us, we never gave up. We love the shit out of Lebanon but we want to burn it to the ground at the same time. We won’t stop until it changes.”
Follow Dayna on Instagram.
Photo credits: Mohamad Abdouni