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