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Breaking the walls of cultural stereotypes: the case of Mashrou’ Leila

by Samantha Scarpa Ferraglio

Brief story of a Lebanese band who is tearing down the wall of silence, elegantly defying societal barriers for the LGBT community in the Arab world. A longer version of this article was published in the Maastricht Diplomat journal.

In the breeze of September, more than 35.000 people gather for a concert, hiding some alcohol from the policemen and taking selfies with friends. The night starts, and a 5-member band takes the stage, with the sound of its unmistakable drum kit and their skinny, black-leathered outfit. The singer of the band, a queer icon, starts singing some of his most famous lyrics, while the audience follows him and dances through the night, cheering and applauding the performers:

Others have tamed hurricanes to control the fate / But by a breeze we're blown away, and to ruin we abate /

And when you dare ask about the deterioration of affairs / They silence you with slogans

And then: Why bother being, instead of becoming? / all things live to die as a new tune / The difference between freedom and submission is agency / I made the choice. I permitted it. I said it. The vibes are incredibly good, everyone feels at home.

But this is no Glastonbury, nor Sziget: it takes place at the Cairo, in Egypt, and the singer is Hamed Sinno, frontman of Mashrou’ Leila. Following the Music Park Festival on September 22nd, 2017, Egyptian media and the public élites strongly condemned the event hat soon went viral on social networks. In the following days, more than 20 people were arrested for “deviant behaviour”. Mashrou’ Leila were strongly criticised by national newspapers for their “subversive messages” and the Egyptian Music Syndicate banned the band to perform in Egypt again. To all this, the band replied with a long and well-articulated post on Facebook, stating that “The amount of boastful ignorance, hate speech, and lies that have emerged in the press is unthinkable. We urge the Egyptian press to wake up to the catastrophe that they have generated and take responsibility for the inflammatory lies that they have published over the last 10 days. […] This is not a time for silence, nor is it a time for condescendingly discussing identity politics. Silence is consent.” At some point, two or three rainbow flags are raised from the crowd, waving to the rhythm of the music.

The history behind an “Overnight Project”

Mashrou’ Leila (in Arabic: the night project) is a Lebanese music band founded in 2008. They chose this name due to their habit to rehearse at night, being busy with university during the day. The members have all studied at the American University of Beirut and come from the middle-class Arab-American part of the society, the second generation of Middle Eastern that came back from the States.

This is a point Sinno wants to underline: “I don't think that expectation is really there when it comes to dealing with white artists. No one really goes up to a white artist and says, 'How do you represent your culture?' […] The Arab world is as complex and as diverse and messed up and great as anywhere else in the world".

This complexity is well expressed in their music. “Contamination” is the main feature of the genre they play, which ranges from a pop-indie sound to rock-alternative influences. Electric synths and a drum-kit goes along with the Arab touch of Haig’s violin and a warm bass line. In their four albums (Mashrou’ Leila, El Hal Romancy, Raasuk and Ibn el Leil) romantic ballads alternate with energetic manifestos.

In 2016, they took part in a project with Greenpeace, rewriting some of the lyrics and performing these unreleased versions aboard the “Rainbow Warrior”, a boat owned by the ONG that sails across the Mediterranean. In 2017, the band has followed the enthusiasm of the audience to speak about another huge social issue: female representation in the Middle East. Together with the video-maker Jessy Mousallem, they created a music video for the single Roman in which Arab women, wearing their traditional clothes – often with hijab or veils – gather around one of them who dances a contemporary choreography. The power of their movements and their look is the key to self-realisation, as the band claims. They wanted to deliver a vision through which "treating oppression not as a source of victimhood, but as the fertile ground from which resistance can be weaponised", as they told NPR.

Amman and the costs of speaking up

Their last album, “Ibn El Leil” (“Son of the night”) is inspired by the atmosphere of foggy nightclubs. According to Sinno’s explanation, the night bars are the place where, in Lebanon, politics and society finally merge. He compares them to the ancient Greek agora and speaks about how gay rights and gender equality have first found their voice in these places.“The fact that gay men feel more comfortable going out in certain places in Beirut and holding hands or making out on a dance floor says a lot. All of that is political negotiation in the absence of a structure that is doing that negotiation for you.”

Despite their huge success internationally, most of their music is not played by the radios nor are their videos broadcasted on TV. Despite their sold-out concerts on both sides of the Mediterranean – and the Atlantic – their personal lives and performances are always at risk. The most remarkable case occurred in April 2017, when they were supposed to play in Amman, Jordan. Hundreds of people from the entire region – and tens of buses from Palestine – were supposed to attend the event. However, the license to perform was withdrawn less than a week of advance. The formal reason for the decision was that “some of the songs contradict the values of Jordan’s society”, as the Minister of Tourism declared. Following the condemnation in international media – followed by newspaper such as Guardian or Libération – the ban was reverted only one day before the concert, making it de facto impossible to re-organise the big event. They planned another concert in June, which was banned again for the same reason. This time, the band knew for sure there were some conservative resistances within Jordanian authorities and it even received individual life threats.

But Mashrou’ Leila are not afraid to speak up in a resolved, yet elegant style, as they have been doing ever since the first album was released and Hamed Sinno performed in Beirut holding the rainbow flag about 10 years ago: “An in-depth reading of the band’s stances and our songs reveals our interest in various social struggles, questioning the nature of freedom, and addressing various issues that we cannot ostrich ourselves from, be they oppression, censorship, gun control, sexual repression, the patriarchal oppression of both men and women, or the difficulty of just being, when being is in a society that constantly extinguishes our aspirations. […] We will not stop defending the Islamic community on account of this. Nor will we stop defending the LGBTIQ community on account of this. Nor will we change anything about how we go about making and performing our music. We are not afraid of the various death threats we’ve received over the last few days. We refuse to be ashamed of supporting our queer bandmate. We are proud of our work. We are proud of our audience, as always. If anything, today we are ashamed of the decisions of the Jordanian authorities”.


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