Lebanese Boy Band Mashrou’ Leila wins a Battle for Musical Freedom
But a concert initially banned by Jordanian authorities could not be rescheduled
Mashrou’ Leila is the hottest alternative rock band you’ve never heard of.
If you are in Brooklyn, Manhattan, San Diego, Washington, DC, Vancouver, Oslo or Paris, hurry up and buy tickets because Mashrou’ Leila, the immensely popular Lebanese boy band with whip-sharp lyrics laden with double entendres and leading edge visuals, is coming to a theater near you. You do not want to miss this show, one of the rawest and most professional acts around.
If, however, you live in the vicinity of Amman, Jordan, you’re flat out of luck.
Jordan banned a concert scheduled for last Friday by the five-man group on religious grounds, provoking a wave of criticism of the Western-allied Hashemite Kingdom that presents itself as an island of tolerance and liberality in a turbulent region.
Zizo Abul-Hawa, a “proud gay Palestinian-Israeli LGBTQ activist,” had tickets to the event. “The ban,” he told The Media Line,” “is very hypocritical. Mashrou’ Leila has appeared in Jordan many times, this wasn’t a first, and their pathetic excuses about the words of a song… Jordan prides itself on being enlightened but faced with a moment of truth it proved the opposite. Then it crumpled and cancelled its own ban. They are basically scared of just about everyone.”
Last Wednesday, Amman’s district governor, Khalid Abu Zeid, announced that the band’s material “contradicts” the beliefs of the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and offends the authenticity of the Jordanian capital’s ancient Roman amphitheater, where the band has performed numerous times to raucous, ecstatic audiences.
In fact, hours after the ban was announced, the band’s lead singer, heartthrob Hamed Sinno, who is openly gay, posted an image of one of Mashrou’ Leila’s previous concerts in Amman on his Facebook page, sarcastically adding “One of Mashrou’ Leila’s usual Devil-worshiping rituals in one of its concerts in Amman.”
The planned blockbuster concert in Jordan was supposed to be the first stop on the band’s global tour to promote its latest album “Ibn El-Leil” (“Son of the Night,” a cheeky play on the term “lady of the night”.)
The album’s haunting cover shows a man sporting wings and a wolf mask that some local Jordanian media condemned as Satanic.
Mashrou’ Leila, which means both Leila’s Project and Night Project, has a global following on the alternative world music scene for fiddle-inflected tunes with catchy Arabic lyrics that confront such divisive subjects as corruption, censorship, state violence and sexuality.
Jordan is one of the few places anywhere and the only locale in the Middle East where the band’s many Israeli and Palestinian fans can see their concerts.
Sara Qudah, a Jordanian music journalist, told the AP that “some forces in Jordan reject new and open cultures, and this stream is growing in our society.”
The Jordanian government declined to weigh in.
But Abu Zeid, who was apparently pressured by Muslim and Christian leaders to cancel the show, and appears to have been unaware of the colossal popularity of the band, badly miscalculated.
Faced with a wall of disapproval and public expressions of solidarity by Jordanian, Arab and Western artists, Abu Zeid backtracked within 24 hours and on Thursday announced that “the concert could go ahead,” but by then it was too late.
“They wanted to make conservatives happy and then make everyone else who slammed them happy so they said, ‘ok, we’re cancelling the ban,’ but they knew that by then it was irrelevant,” Abul-Hawa said derisively.
Governor Abu Zeid seems not to have known that Sinno’s mother is Jordanian, and it is a truth universally acknowledged in the Middle East that you do not want to pique the fury of any man’s mama.
Amid a maelstrom of support for the group, Albawaba, a website covering entertainment in the Arab world, published an item playfully entitled “Mashrou’ Leila’s Hamed Sinno’s Mama Comes Out Loud and Proud” that was a j’accuse by Mrs Sinno, who slammed contemporary Arab society that would censor her son.
“I am proud of what Mashrou’ Leila has dared to do,” she wrote. “I am proud of my son, I am proud of how clean this band is, I am proud of the courage behind every song that I have seen in the making over the years, knowing how much thought and reading was behind every word, knowing that they speak for a generation and a people.”
“Mashrou’ Leila I am proud of you,” she continued, “but for the first time in my life I am ashamed that my country, Jordan, has not appreciated that they should be proud that there is some Jordanian blood in Mashrou’ Leila. On behalf of Jordan, allow me to apologize to you Mashrou Leila.”
“Don’t mess with my mother,” Sinno posted, later tweeting, “My mother is a goddess.”
Planning a protest march in her native Amman, Mrs Sinno also produced T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “We want Leila in Amman.”
“Clergy and elected officials need to adapt to the mood, judgment and laws of our current reality, in which homosexuality and gender flexibility are integral parts of society, do not endanger traditional values and, to the contrary, contribute to the cultural wealth and social fabric,” Imri Kalman, co-chair of the Israeli LGBT Task Force told The Media Line. “Jordan’s youth, like the younger generation world-wide, is proving that in modern reality, when a government tries to silence LGBT people it only exposes its own irrelevance and isolation.”
“Those people have no future,” he added.
When the cancellation’s cancellation was announced, Mashrou’ Leila posted a thank-you note saying “we take pride in playing music for an audience like ours… We take immense pride in being part of a conversation that has played a part in harnessing popular attention to the subject of artistic and intellectual censorship, and freedom in the arts.”
They underscored that they hoped the governor’s U-turn “will be the first step towards securing the possibility of us playing in Jordan again in the near future, perhaps under more just conditions, even though we have no reason to know for sure at this point that this will be possible, as the approval is for tomorrow’s impossible concert.”
Mashrou’ Leila knows it has a significant fan base in Israel, but it may not know it is part of Tel Aviv’s very character. Kalman, who also owns the gay nightspot Mini Club, says that “the best show in town at the moment, and maybe our most successful initiative, is the Yemenite-Arab music series simply called ‘Leila.’”