Beirut's Mashrou' Leila: the Future of LGBT Advocacy in the Middle East

Lebanese indie rockers Mashrou' Leila

Lebanese indie rockers Mashrou' Leila

Written by: Jibril Ali 

Beirut—“The Impossible City”— is both difficult and easy to describe.

It has survived war, terror and political uncertainty for decades, and its identity is scattered among the people who choose to leave it, and those who cannot help but come back to it. Perhaps for this reason alone Beirut is best reflected in the faces of Mashrou’ Leila, an indie rock band formed in 2008. Amidst their dreamy, trance-rhythm and romantic lyrics, one can also expect to find fierce advocacy and dissent.

The Lebanese band is known for addressing subjects that “traditional Arab” societies aren't comfortable with. Mashrou’ Leila touches on LGBT rights, misogyny, classism, and violence in their music. With the band’s vocalist, Hamed Sinno, being openly gay and outspoken about his experiences, he and his bandmates have been the subject of hateful and defamatory vitriol in an attempt to stifle their work since their humble beginnings. Undoubtedly, controversy surrounding the group has brought them a kind of publicity they did not expect--though Sinno rejected the idea of using controversy to gain fame in an interview with the Guardian. Despite the imminent danger they face, the band’s latest album Ibn El Leil doesn’t shy away from their longstanding message.

When discussing “Shim el Yasmine,” a song about the breakup with his boyfriend, Sinno once said in an interview he expected “a tomato or gunshot or something” whenever performing the song. The song introduces the dilemma of Sinno's relationship with another man, and utilizes the masculine pronouns in Arabic, almost defiantly, to express his grief of a relationship that could have been.

Mashrou' Leila performing "Shim El Yasmine"

 The band, made up of architecture and design students from the American University of Beirut, formed after growing tired of the contemporary music scene in the Middle East. Sinno, on an interview with CBC, states the biggest record labels and their partnered multimedia companies in the Middle East hold a monopoly on the type of music being recorded and distributed; most of it being over-refined and contrived pop that the majority of the younger demographic in the Arab world do not have an interest in.

In addition to his outward identity, Sinno is also Muslim. He has been staunchly opposed to the western critique of Islam’s “inherent hostility” towards the LGBT movement, the struggle for human rights, and deferring back to Islam as the root cause of abuse.

Sinno challenges this notion using the band’s experience of performing in a predominantly Christian township in Lebanon where the locals protested their pro-LGBT inclination. According to Sinno, there exists broader conservative and patriarchal attitudes that predate (and exist outside of) Islam which contribute to volatility towards the most vulnerable in Arab/Muslim societies.

This analysis prescribed to Islam can additionally be considered invalid due to its erasure of LGBT Muslims and their intra-faith criticisms of the traditional and conservative elements of Muslim communities throughout the world.

Certainly, the roads traveled by Mashrou’ Leila have led to fierce condemnation from some of the most powerful, repressive and homophobic world bodies.  In early June; Jordanian officials have banned Mashrou’ Leila from performing in Amman for the second time within the span of a year and a half. This time the ban comes after several Jordanian officials petitioned against the pro-LGBT band on the grounds of “preserving traditions and beliefs”, despite having performed in Amman three times before. The interior ministry  revoked their approval and licenses well before they were supposed to perform on June 27th.

 Mashrou’ Leila has responded on their social media channels, condemning the ban and apologizing to the fans who were eager to attend the show. The response from fans has been unanimous with the criticism targeting the destructive values championed by Jordan’s government. Several fans have also criticized Jordan’s willingness to ban Mashrou’ Leila, but not the new Wonder Woman film led by Israeli actress and former IDF soldier Gal Gadot, an action taken by neighboring Lebanon.

 (In addition to Mashrou’ Leila's advocacy for LGBT rights, the musicians are proponents of Boycott Divest and Sanction Israel. In 2012, Mashrou’ Leila refused to open for the Red Hot chili Peppers in Beirut after they refused to withdraw their performance in Tel Aviv. After Mashrou’ Leila’s decision to withdraw their opening set from the RHCP performance, article after article described how the Leilaholics could breathe a sigh of relief after their decision to protest. They’re Lebanese, what did you expect?)

Mashrou' Leila performing "Fasateen"

 Jordan is often seen as one of the more “progressive” Muslim majority countries in the region, and while being gay isn’t outwardly illegal, you would be hardpressed to find anyone in a position of power that isn’t blatantly homophobic. This fact is reinforced with the steps taken by Jordanian officials in banning Mashrou’ Leila--not only once, but twice.

 The outcry against Jordan’s Interior Ministry banning Mashrou’ Leila speaks to an evolving demographic in the Middle East--one that’s not only tolerant of the LGBT communities around them, but one that is  welcoming and willing to advance their rights. Mashrou’ Leila has become the flag bearer for this movement, whether or not this was their intention. The next wave of youth to emerge from the MENA region have a difficult road ahead with respect to the struggle for LGBT rights, but with the example of Mashrou’ Leila's success and their perseverance in the face of unthinkable resistance, the future, however uncertain, remains hopeful.


Mashrou' Leila performing Maghawir in tribute to the victims of the Pulse nightclub tragedy.

For more information regarding this article, contact Jibril Ali @jibrilalpha



A devoted fan base and a massive collection of work were left behind by Bryn Jones, more popularly known by his following as Muslimgauze. Having died at 38 in January of 1999, Jones was resolute in his support for many people in the “Muslim world”. Using that term loosely, he was staunchly against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and Western imperial interests in the region. These are only a few of the views expressed in his music regarding issues rarely discussed by western musicians at the time, and something just as unlikely seen today. 

Jones developed Muslimgauze in response to Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Since then, he began research into the political histories of many of the countries in the region and formed stances that gained him heavy criticism throughout much of his music career. His intrigue with many predominantly Muslim countries and regions such as; Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan to name a few, was borderline obsessive. Muslimgauze became a staple to anyone who was enthusiastic about ambient and experimental music. His main label, Staalplaat, commented that at one point, Jones was sending in a new album once every week, consistently. Even having a number of LP’s, EP’s, and singles released well after his death. His work ethic is something to be admired, along with his devotion to many of the topics he named song and album titles after; Izlamophobia, and Hamas Arc.

His entire body of work under the pseudonym has no lyrical content outside of the vocal samples he uses from music written in Arabic, Hindi, and other Middle Eastern and South Asian languages. Underneath the thought provoking song and album titles named after cities and religious movements, there lies music laced with repetitive percussion and vocals that closely resemble distant humming. The sounds are hypnotic and faint at times, and callous and violent at others. His music, at the very least, is gripping and almost intoxicating. His devotion is refreshing, although his unyielding support of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah can be seen by some outside of the Muslim world as misguided.

The delicate part about being a fan of Jones, comes with the concern of his identity and who he was--or rather who he was not. He never converted, never learned Arabic or Farsi, and never visited any of the countries he had such strong opinions about. He was a white man from Manchester, England and there was an undeniable privilege in what he was doing. Some rightly criticized him for making a career out of struggles that didn’t affect him, which is something he seemed to have been well aware of himself. His authenticity came into question as well, whether he was genuine with his solidarity or just another artist seeking a new edgy and different trope. There lies a very blurred line between acting as an ally and taking advantage of causes that don't inherently belong to you. No one outside of his closest friends can say for certain where Jones resided past that line, or where he would have been if he were alive today. Those that were closest to him did describe him as a shy and enigmatic character, but one that was steadfast in his political beliefs. He often dismissed criticisms made by Westerners about the fact he never did actually step foot in the Middle East.

As for the people that follow him, the truth remains the common theme among his fans is the motivating force that prompts them to research and form their own opinions of the topics Jones vaguely explores with the titles of his works. This is something that is welcomed when the narrative is commanded by conservative, and even liberal, media in the west. An example being, one could hear the album “Vote Hezbollah” and would in turn drive them to learn about Lebanon's history following Israel’s creation, and learning why the overwhelming attitude among the Muslimgauze following, are critical of the Israeli state.

The first few songs I heard were Jerusalem Knife, Arafat’s Radio, and Zindabad from Hamas Arc. I was engrossed in something completely foreign to me, I felt a really strong attachment to it almost immediately. The more I listened, the more comfortable I felt in being Palestinian. The truth is, I didn’t need a white man to validate me, although there was solace in knowing that there were people that saw humanity in the Palestinian cause. This meant a lot more to me at the time considering the people who claimed to care about Palestine were either incredibly anti-Semitic or would persuade me against claiming my identity, let alone how pro-Israel all white conservatives are in the south--which remains the staggering majority even today. This is not to say liberals were better in this regard. I can't say I totally found that in Muslimgauze either, at the least I found music I was very into during the later part of my formative years.

Surprisingly, there’s not much of a critique on Jones or his music from those in the region he had an interest in. I can only speak for myself as someone whose father is Palestinian, and as someone who was born and raised in the United States. Racism, Islamophobia, ethnocentrism; are all things people in my position are dangerously too familiar with. Bryn Jones' stance on many of the issues concerning a people he doesn’t come from is valued to an extent, and his massive body of work is more than impressive to say the least. Knowing what I do, my fascination and caution with Muslimgauze is equally met. 

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