Growing up in Amman, Jordan, the influence of western culture made it “cool” to dislike Arabic music. It wasn’t until high school that I discovered the Arab indie scene and heard the song “Fasateen” by Mashrou Leila. Their gracefully-composed songs, which weave references to Arabic traditions into electrifying melodies, grasped my attention and caught the ear of both Arabic and non-Arabic listeners around the world.
Mashrou Leila, meaning Leila’s Project in English, is the Middle Eastern alt-rock/indie band that dominated the global music scene through its witty, political, and ironic melodies. They became both one of the world’s most adored and most despised bands by defying modern Middle Eastern taboos.
Before Mashrou Leila turned into a global success, the band was a temporary experiment by a couple of students at the American University of Beirut in Beirut, Lebanon. Members include vocalist Hamed Sinno, violinist Haig Papazian, drummer Carl Gerges, bass guitarist Ibrahim Badr, and keyboard and guitarist Firas Abou Fakher.
Mashrou Leila is unique because of their commitment to making music that advocates for LGBTQ+ representation, political progression, and intersectional feminism, both within and beyond Middle Eastern borders.
Fronted by a proudly gay, male-identifying lead singer, the band uses haunting lyrics to portray social and political oppression in the Arab region. In the Middle East, the representation of queerness is not only considered an act of bravery, but also an audacious stand against traditional values that proves the needed social progression of our culture today. Internationally, they’re recognized for taking a leap of faith before a largely conservative audience.
While controversial in nature, the themes discussed in their work are relatable to people across the Middle East — from political oppression, the suppression of women’s rights, the enduring bourgeoisie class, and the hidden presence of the queer community. Mashrou Leila holds an unapologetic stance towards their craftsmanship, with the lead singer daring to use he/his/him pronouns in the band’s lyrics. As heard in “Shim el Yasmine” (Smell The Jasmine) a ballad describing the experience of leaving a gay lover for a heterosexual marriage, “Maghawir” (Commando) a song about the shooting of two lovers at a Beirut nightclub during their birthday, and, my favorite, the overwhelming lyrics of “Bahr”(Sea).
The band has put themselves in a prominent position by vocalizing their social and political beliefs. They point that most of the Arab youth advocates for gender equality and freedom, which puts me in awe. Despite the fame, Mashrou Leila was banned from two of their biggest fan base countries, Egypt and, my country, Jordan. Although they have previously performed there, they were banned because of their beliefs — causing an uproar in the Jordanian community and public outrage in Egypt, where people have been arrested for suspicions about their sexual orientation. Jordan has referred to the band’s beliefs as “immoral” in respect to traditional Arab religious views however, the band’s vision for the future is shared by youth across the region because of their radical point of view and Arab cultural representation.
Despite political backlash, the overflowing positive reaction from fans speaks to how music can articulate the dire social and political change needed for securing the freedom and safety of the LGBTQ+ community and non-cisgender individuals in the Middle East. Their music has inspired their fans to become advocates for this change. As demonstrated when the audience raised an LGBTQ+ flag during one of their shows in Egypt, the band’s followers are also not afraid of taking a stand towards their rights, beliefs, and the future of the Arab culture.
Through their persistence, this band has become what the Middle East fears, loves, and needs the most.
Mashrou Leila has taken a hard stance on LGBTQ+ representation and social change — they opted to perform the day after the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, and vocalist Sinno eloquently articulates what it means to be both Arab and queer in the world today. Through their persistence, this band has become what the Middle East fears, loves, and needs the most.
In reflection of the band’s successes and hardships, it’s critical to state that an Arab band, with a queer stance and feminist perspective, advocating for gender equality and sexual freedom on a global scale is an absolute win.
As a Jordanian, I have high hopes for what my country and culture can achieve, and Mashrou Leila makes these aspirations a possibility in regards to the bittersweet reality of the current state of the Middle East.
No matter where you’re from, whether you understand the Arabic language or not, I encourage you to listen, say, and be proud of what you believe in — and Mashrou Leila should be the first artist on your playlist.
Header Photo Source: Google Images, Mashrou Leila on Twitter