A hurricane has swept through Lebanon over the past few days. Social media are quivering with fury, the government is wringing its hands and doesn’t know what to do, the Maronite Church has come out with swords swinging and believers in liberty and freedom of expression have manned the virtual barricades. On August 9, the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila is supposed to perform at the Byblos International Festival in the city of Jbeil, and the whole country is waiting with bated breath: Will it or won’t it appear?
The storm began when Jbeil’s Maronite bishop published an open letter demanding that the performance be canceled because the group “undermines the values of religion, culture and history.” This unprecedented outcry came after the band’s Facebook page published a picture of the singer Madonna altered to resemble the original Madonna, the Virgin Mary, which the church termed an assault on the Holy Trinity. Moreover, its repertoire includes “Djin,” a song from 2015 that the church claims has an antireligious message.
The head of the Catholic Media Center, Abdo Abu Kasm, who goes off like a rocket every time he thinks someone has offended the Christian community, added another reason for demanding that the performance be canceled. He accused the band of encouraging homosexuality, saying its songs are full of homosexual content and that its talented lead singer, Hamed Sinno, is openly gay.
Abu Kasm wants the government to put the band members on trial under a Lebanese law forbidding LGBTQ activism. Its five members were in fact arrested for questioning, but were released after saying they have no intention of offending religious values.
Their lawyer said an agreement was reached in negotiations with the prosecution under which the band will remove content that might be considered offensive from its Facebook page. Sinno, who has long since left Lebanon due to persecution, even said he’s willing to delete his Facebook account entirely.
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Even before then, Sinno had published a long article insisting that he wasn’t responsible for the picture of Madonna or the other ostensibly offensive content. Someone else posted them to the page, he said, and they have already been removed.
Banned in Egypt, shunned in Jordan
Mashrou’ Leila is one of the most innovative bands in the Arab musical world. It’s admired by millions of fans around the world (including in Israel), and its unique, indie rock style has become a prominent means of expressing social protest, support for LGBTQ rights and a desire for freedom of expression.
The band was founded in 2008 by four students at the American University in Beirut. They invited other musicians who were sick of pressure from the university and Lebanon’s political instability to join them, and seven new members soon did (though some later left).
In 2009, the band participated in an annual competition sponsored by Radio Lebanon and won first prize. But even then, the content of their songs sparked controversy.
In the original Arabic spelling of its name, Mashrou’ Leila roughly meant “One-Night Project,” highlighting its temporary nature. But due to its huge success, the band changed the final Arabic letter of the name, which now means Project Leila. Whether in jest or in earnest, it explained the new name by saying it planned to dedicate its earnings to a needy girl named Leila, though nobody knows who she is.
The band's innumerable performances worldwide and the thousands of albums it has sold haven’t helped it deal with furious Arab governments that fear its “harmful” influence on the public. Egypt forbade its musicians’ union to host the band after members of the audience waved Gay Pride flags during a Mashrou’ Leila performance in 2017 to show solidarity with Sinno. One year earlier, Jordan also banned a Mashrou’ Leila performance, although they revoked the ban just two days later.
One of the band's songs, “Shim el Yasmine,” has served as a permanent pretext for decisions to ban its performances. The song describes a homosexual relationship between two men who have parted ways.
“Smell the jasmine and dip the grape honey in tahini,” its lyrics say. “Remember to remember me, brother; woe to you if you forget me, my love and my fate. I wanted you to stay close to me, to introduce you to my parents and unveil my heart to you, to cook your food and clean your house, to spoil your children and be your housewife. But you’re in your house and I’m in another house. God, how I wish you hadn’t left. Smell the jasmine and remember to forget me.”
You might find a song like that or other such sentimental phrases in the emails and Facebook pages of members of the LGBTQ community. But it’s rare to find them performed publicly.
Righteous outrage and politicking
Mashrou’ Leila has performed elsewhere in Lebanon countless times, which is why the church’s opposition to its upcoming performance and the smear campaign church leaders have waged against it are so surprising. Moreover, the festival’s schedule has been known for weeks, and the band’s lyrics are no secret, either.
“Can we expect a similar assault on Elton John if he decides to appear one day at the Byblos Festival?” asked journalist Diana Skaini in an angry article in the Lebanese daily An-Nahar. “Have the guardians of the walls of morality not noticed that the current festival is meant to honor a very important rock singer, Freddie Mercury, who publicly announced his sexual orientation? Have they studied the young, social, moral and oppositional margins from which the band Queen, whose performances have reached thousands of Lebanese, arose?”
The ones in need of treatment aren’t the band members, Skaini continued, “but the groups that spread terror against Lebanon's cultural foundations.” In this context, she also mentioned the ban imposed by several Christian towns in Lebanon on selling or renting homes to Muslims.
“If the coercion of an Islamic lifestyle has to this day prevented these kinds of songs and loud music in many parts of southern Lebanon, and is considered to provide ideological nourishment for assaults on wine shops, the adoption and dissemination of fundamentalist discourse by the Christian community is a dangerous sign in and of itself,” she warned.
Zeinab Hawi, who covers culture for Al-Akhbar, asked, “Have we turned into Egypt or Jordan, which in the past prevented performances by Mashrou’ Leila? ... Is this really a belated religious 'awakening,' or just an attempt by priests and politicians alike to find any excuse for righteous concern? We are definitely living in a period of fundamentalist ‘awakenings,’ and there’s no more source of light in the Levant, which continues to drown in a sea of darkness.”
What might be most surprising about this article is that it was published in a paper that generally reflects Hezbollah’s positions. One would therefore have expected it to join in condemning the band and its songs and close ranks on this issue with pious Christians.
But Hezbollah has other considerations, both political and economic. Not only does it not oppose festivals, but it makes sure to keep the peace during the Baalbeck International Festival, because it brings good money to the Bekaa region’s Shi’ite residents.
It is also engaged in a permanent rivalry with Christian movements that present themselves as the protectors of Lebanese Christians’ political interests. The bishop of Jbeil is very close to Lebanon’s Christian president, Michel Aoun, and by attacking Mashrou’ Leila, he is portraying himself and his political base as ultra-conservative. Hezbollah can only rub its hands in glee.
The loss of the 'Lebanese idea'
The venomous verbal exchanges between the band’s supporters and opponents are an inseparable part of the battle over Lebanon’s social and political identity. Many Lebanese lament the loss of the “Lebanese idea,” which rests on multiculturalism, equal civil rights and freedom of expression. As in Israel, so too in Lebanon, and in other countries as well, official attitudes toward the LGBTQ community are seen as part of the state’s brand – either liberal and Western, or benighted.
“The problem isn’t Mashrou’ Leila and Hamed Sinno, but the meaning of Lebanon,” writes Skaini. “We must not treat the problem superficially or as a passing issue. Either we sanctify the essence of preventing the performance and the sovereignty of populism, in which case we’ll be praying for the soul of the last remnants of tolerance, or we stand up against the wave of tyranny that is plotting against the values of the constitution, which said that Lebanon is a diverse country with immutable freedoms.”
Artists in many Arab countries are mobilizing against this social and religious tyranny. They have increasingly been talking about LGBTQ issues as part of their battle for freedom of expression and as a protest against the conservative elites, both religious and political, which hold a monopoly on defining the bounds of what is permitted.
One of the most daring examples is Syrian actress Sawsan Arsheed, who released a song this month by her homosexual brother, Mega Arsheed, which bears the English title “I don’t give a fuck.” For this, she was subjected to curses and death threats.
Nevertheless, when asked on a television show whether she is for or against gays, given that “religion forbids this,” she answered, “Religion forbids many things that our societies don’t observe. Our societies accept marriages between 80-year-old men and underage girls, and they accept marriages between 80-year-old women and teenage boys. They agree that a man can beat his wife because he can’t manage to have sex with her without beating her. Yet they don’t accept homosexuality.”
In any case, tickets are still available for Mashrou’ Leila’s show, and anyone who gets to the festival the week before can also enjoy a performance by “the world’s most successful” DJ, Martin Garrix.
The fact that Garrix performed in Israel a year ago evidently doesn’t bother Lebanese opponents of normalization with Israel or BDS supporters. That, too, is a protest.