Mashrou’ Leila, Lebanon’s controversial music band

Sunday 22/05/2016
Hamed Sinno (R) and Ibrahim Badr of Lebanese alternative rock band Mashrou\' Leila perform in Bourges, central France, on April 26, 2015.

Amman - Controversial, beloved, rebellious and scandal­ous are terms that best describe Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, which was barred from performing in Jor­dan in April, a decision that was reversed when the band’s fans re­acted in an uproar.

Mashrou’ Leila is a collective of five musicians whose music is a fu­sion of pop and politics represent­ing the voice of disenchanted Arab youth. Band members owe their popularity to a bold transgression of traditional boundaries, with lyr­ics focused on sensitive issues such as homosexuality, premarital rela­tions, the institution of marriage and political instability.

Having a gay lead singer was seen as one of the reasons Jordanian authorities cancelled the band’s scheduled April 26th performance in Amman, prompting fans to pro­test what was perceived as a cul­tural ban.

The incident gained traction and Mashrou’ Leila’s supporters in other countries, including Egypt and its native Lebanon, came to the band’s defence.

“We had no idea we would get that kind of international sup­port. It’s really very humbling to be reminded of the power of an audience. It’s also beautiful to see a band’s audience mobilise and transform into a political body that way,” the band’s lead singer, Hamed Sinno, said.

The band had explained that the official justification given for the ban was that the performance would have been at odds with what the Ministry of Tourism viewed as the “authenticity” of the site, de­spite the fact that the group had performed at the same venue three times previously.

“We also have been unofficially informed that we will never be al­lowed to play again anywhere in Jordan due to our political and re­ligious beliefs and endorsement of gender equality and sexual freedom,” Mashrou’ Leila said in a statement.

As there was no physical mani­festation of the audience’s protests, some may call it a case of “arm-chair activism” or more quaintly “slacktivism”, to designate internet activism.

The incident received ample in­ternational media attention. While the headlines were eager to use the lead singer’s sexual preference to pique interest and frame the story in that light, some fans were ready with a rebuttal.

One such fan, Raja Farah, took to Facebook to write: “I’m happy that Mashrou’ Leila are getting the cov­erage they deserve regarding the Jordan fiasco but it really angers me to see how eager Western media is to cover stories of homophobia, portraying it as something foreign and barbaric, without any kind of self-criticism. The Jordan decision is homophobic, true, and it should be covered as such. But it should not be covered as something that only happens in the Middle East. It happens absolutely everywhere in the world, unfortunately.”

It was due to the uproar and the support of international media that the Jordanian government over­turned its decision two days after the initial cancellation.

“I don’t think it has directly to do with us as activists or musicians. I think it was the context. We’ve seen censorship and control on the rise across the entire region. I think this was just one incident that broke the camel’s back but it’s definitely not isolated,” said Sinno.

Sinno explained that Mashrou’ Leila faced similar challenge in Lebanon. “Someone from the (Bei­rut) municipality tried to cancel our show on the grounds that ‘deviants’ should not be allowed to perform,” he said. “We played the show any­way.”

With increased restrictions im­posed on young people and their communication channels, it is be­coming increasingly difficult to analyse what trajectory the region is taking, said Dina Matar, asso­ciate head of Media Studies and senior lecturer at London Univer­sity’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

“At a time of serious political turmoil in the Middle East, some of which is caused by a lack of un­derstanding and acceptance of the other, due to differences over race, identity, religion, sect, etc., ban­ning alternative cultural products and efforts to give voice to margin­alised communities sends a wrong message to populations. The risk of further segregation through this governmental decision and those like it are a threat to the Arab popu­lation,” Matar said in a Skype inter­view.

“Such a message would suggest that it is permissible to continue the ‘marginalising’ process, which makes it even harder to tolerate dif­ferences. In addition, in places like Jordan where patriarchal systems are the norm, these policies can only serve to institutionalise and normalise marginalisation.”

As proved by the outcry behind Mashrou’ Leila, more Arab young people are moving against the grain imposed upon them by govern­ments. This incident of “slacktiv­ism” turned activism shines a new light on the Arab population with the hope that it continues to strike through against the ever-growing darkness of censorship.