Mashrou’ Leila, Lebanon’s controversial music band
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.