Jordan has banned Mashrou’ Leila—again.
But the people most affected by this ban aren't always the people you expect.
The popular Lebanese band has performed in Amman five times, each concert bringing in larger numbers of people, the last of them in 2015. Leila’s grown since its inception in 2008: grown to play prestigious venues in Beirut, yes, but also grown to international fandom. On its current tour, the band will play London, New York, Toronto, Germany, Morocco, Tunisia, and Massachusetts. But not Amman, a city 219 kilometres away from the band’s hometown.
The Jordanian government itself seems divided on the issue. The Ministry of Tourism approved the 2017 concert; it’d even listed itself as a “strategic partner.” But it was the Ministry of Interior that implemented the ban, following pressure from a group of Jordanian lawmakers and a rumour-filled, largely misinformed social media campaign.
When an Arab country cancels an event, it usually points at one of two issues. Egypt, for example, likes to ban novels, music, and films for “promoting terrorism.”
Above: The band's first, eponymous album. (Mashrou' Leila)
Jordan takes the other route: it combats the controversial by stating things do not adhere to “our customs and traditions.” It’s what the Jordanian government said to justify its ban of Mashrou’ Leila in 2016, it’s what the Jordanian government said again in 2017, and it is, no doubt, what the Jordanian government will say to ban again in the future.
Mashrou' Leila responded with what I can only call grace: "Over the last 3 years of playing in Europe and the Americas, we have repeatedly leveraged our position in the public eye to be particularly vocal about defending the Arab and Islamic community in the face of US and European aggression, misrepresentation, and stereotyping.
It is disheartening to see a few members of that community trying to pit that very same community against us. We will not stop defending the Islamic community on account of this. Nor will we stop defending the LGBTIQ community on account of this. Nor will we change anything about how we go about making and performing our music. We are not afraid of the various death threats we’ve received over the last few days. We refuse to be ashamed of supporting our queer band-mate. We are proud of our work. We are proud of our audience, as always. If anything, today we are ashamed of the decisions of the Jordanian authorities."
I, personally, have learned to be suspicious of that expression: "Our customs and traditions." It encourages cognitive dissonance. And nothing tempts investigation like cognitive dissonance.
At its heart, the ban is undoubtedly homophobic. Hamed Sinno, the vocalist, is gay.
But the manifestations of this homophobia are more interesting than the dominant narrative. One person, speaking off the record, suggested that the ban is, in some way, a fight back against US foreign policy: the Obama administration pushed for better LGBT+ rights in the region, Mashrou’ Leila has been depicted as an “LGBT band,” and some local ministers, likely homophobic to begin with, caught-on, rejecting what they viewed as overreach by the American government. That homosexuality is not illegal in Jordan is irrelevant in the face of attitudes. It is not of “our customs and traditions.”
An article published on Foreign Affairs discussed the issue, arguing that the Obama administration’s attempts were counterproductive. This is a variation on something Joseph Massad has discussed previously, of which a counter-argument exists here. When contacted, the U.S. Embassy in Jordan declined to make a statement.
Another theory suggests that the threat of a terrorist attack played a role. A quick investigation of social media will show that the threats to “shut down” the show arose after the hubbub created by a campaign of misinformation: suggestions that band members were lewd, would freely engage sexual activity with each other, or were—of course—Satanists. The threats do not precede the hubbub.
I decided to do a little investigation of my own. Does Mashrou’ Leila indeed break the “customs and traditions” of Jordan? Does the Jordanian government’s decisions on what is “acceptable” truly reflect the views of everyday Jordanians? How did people feel about the cancellation of the show, if they cared for it at all, and what did the band mean to those who knew about it?
I took my phone—no camera, no fancy recording equipment, just me and a hello and a would you be interested in this interview?
To do this interview, I took to eastern Amman. See, Amman is really two cities. The west side is more affluent, clearly influenced by the outreach of globalism; as a rule, people are more liberal than their eastern counterparts, who are more conservative, more traditional, and perhaps more religious. The two cities, though seemingly worlds apart, are separated by a single flight of stairs on Rainbow Street.
Everybody talks to western Amman; western Amman has access to Twitter and Facebook and YouTube. Eastern Amman is trickier. It's offensive to try to talk to women without a female companion, so I limited eastern Amman interviews to men. Some gave predictable, traditional responses. Female LGBT members I tried speaking to mostly declined, saying they were annoyed the concert was cancelled.
Others took me by surprise. The last boy I spoke to, in particular, stood-out from the rest. He had no shame. He had no qualms. He just cared, and was proud to care.
In total, I spoke to twenty people who refused to go on the record; four of the eight of those above 30 years of age found the band distasteful, two were indifferent, and two were supportive. Of the twelve teenagers and young men I spoke to, only one outright hated the band; ten liked it and found themselves connecting with it; one had never heard of it but was amused by the lyrics I showed him.
As for the others, these are their words.
Part 01: Eastern Amman: Older Men (aged 30+)
The interviews took in this part took place in Arabic and were translated by yours truly into English.
Interview #01: Salah
Above: Salah, one of four interviewees who agree to be photographed. (Al Bawaba)
Salah worked at a clothing store in downtown Amman. He was in his thirties. (Al Bawaba)
How did you first hear about Mashrou’ Leila?
I first heard about them through Facebook.
And what was the first thing you heard about them? That they were barred, or did you hear about them from before, or?
I heard they were barred. I’m not sure if it was the Minister of Tourism, or—I’m not sure who it was that supported Mashrou’ Leila.
According to what you heard, what was it that barred them?
I’m not sure.
But what did you hear?
That they were barred. Not sure by whom. But there was a Minister they interviewed who supported Leila.
Before we started recording, you told me "the band is homosexual.”
And you’re against this?
Even if I said, "Well, there are these Arab figures and writers who were gay?"
Firstly, let’s not make this racist. This is an Islamic country. Our religion bars homosexuality completely.
Regardless whether old Arab poets and writer were gay?
I don’t care if kings and leaders were gay. It’s still against the religion.
Interview #02: Osama
Osama was a street sweeper in downtown Amman, resting against a railing. He's older—somewhere in his 50s or 60s. He refused to be photographed, but he was charming and friendly, leaning against his broom and rubbing his chin to think. We spoke more off the record than we did on it.
What do you know about Mashrou’ Leila?
They’re a Lebanese band who were supposed to play here last month. But the government cancelled the show, and the Minister of Interior barred the band from performing in the country. And I know they were cancelled last year at the same date.
Do you have any idea why they cancelled it?
From what I understood...they promoted policies which don’t really take here in Jordan. That one of them is gay. I expect that might be the reason.
Are you against this or do you consider it irrelevant if he’s gay?
If he’s gay, that’s up to him. To us, as an audience, it’s unimportant.
Interview #03: Theeb
Above: Theeb. (Al Bawaba)
Theeb worked at a clothing shop in downtown Amman. He was in a bad mood, but talking seemed to lighten him up a little. He knew nothing of Mashrou’ Leila.
So supposing I tell you that Jordan barred a Lebanese band named Mashrou’ Leila from playing.
What are they called?
And according to what the government said, the band leader is gay, which is against Jordanian principles. Are you against [homosexuality] or OK with it?
Even knowing that we have a lot of gay people in Jordan?
Look, everyone knows themselves best.
What about if a band member was good and their music wasn’t controversial, but it just so happened that one of them was gay? Would you let your kids attend something like that, just listen to music and go home, or no?
The problem is from their side: they said he was gay.
You think because they said he was gay it became a problem.
Are you against homosexuality even if, historically, there have been gay Arabs and Muslims? Like the poet Abu Nuwas.
Abu Nuwas was gay?
Yes. Does that change your perspective at all?
To be honest, I’ve noticed there’s been a lot more of it [homosexuality] here in Jordan.
But on the down-low.
And if it was out in public? Would that be OK with you, or no?
It’s up to people themselves, really.
(At this point, we were forced to go off the record for a few minutes. He questioned me about the incident and why I was talking to people about it. He was obviously uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality, but throwing subtext here and there. After a few minutes’ discussion, I asked him if we could go back on the record.)
The government said the band had something which went against Jordanian “customs and traditions.”
The band is Lebanese, right?
Look. To be honest, we’re different to Lebanon. Our customs and traditions are very different to Lebanon’s.
From the perspective of – ?
From all perspectives. In Lebanon, a while ago, a bunch of songs came-out, like “Goal” and others. Generally, they’re different. Intellectually, aesthetically, religious-wise...well, not so much religious-wise, but they have a bit too much freedom, very different to Jordanian customs and habits. You and me, and any other Jordanian living in this town would find that these habits don’t exist here. We’re not used to them, we don’t accept them. Personally, for me, Lebanese customs and habits and circumstances, for me, personally: no. They’re, honestly, not compatible with Jordan at all.
But what if I said these things were in Jordan, but happened on “the down-low,” like you said.
We do have things on the down-low. It’s on the down-low everywhere. The Gulf, Jordan, any country...it’s there. But out in public? It’s difficult. It’s hard for anyone to accept it, to be honest.
I have two other questions. Firstly, Jordan has let Mashrou’ Leila play here three times before. What do you think changed from 2015 to now?
Look, if they were here before and they sang this stuff...well, different governments have different policies. Policies change. You get me. Perhaps it used to be viewed as OK. But I’ve heard—and this is separate from the Lebanese [culture] issue—lots of singers come to Jordan at the country’s expense, and they’re paid very highly. They come, I don’t know, to the Dead Sea or Petra. Is it policies, governments, corruption? I don’t know, exactly.
And knowing that the band frontman is gay, which is why they said it was banned, despite this being public information known previously...for you, as a fan of music, does his homosexuality affect you at all?
Look, both in Lebanon and outside it, stuff like homosexuality and transsexuality, these things have become real in the world. And they sing, and they have their private lives. But for us, I don’t know, I suspect it wouldn’t be acceptable. Maybe there it’s not acceptable, either, sometimes. I don’t know. It’s freedom, in the end. For governments and politics.
And personal freedoms maybe?
And personal freedoms. Maybe. But generally, a singer being banned for homosexuality is...it’s possible. Yeah, it’s possible.
Interview #4: Hamzeh
“Hamzeh” was an old man sitting in the street. He was very suspicious of me and pretty much everything I did—off-the-record, he became angry, thinking I’d lied to him. He refused to tell me his name, so I started the recording by giving him one.
Above: The band's second release was an EP: El Hal Romancy. (Mashrou' Leila)
Your name is Hamzeh. Have you ever heard of Mashrou’ Leila before?
No. I saw them on Facebook at 6 am yesterday, I saw “Mashrou’ Leila”...the show was cancelled and I was reading what people were saying. I clicked on the link and I find a picture of gays. Two kissing in...let’s call it Islamic clothing. I don’t get until now, though, what’s Mashrou’ Leila?
It’s a Lebanese band, the singer of which is gay. Jordan used to let them play here, but barred them this year and last year.
They came this year?
They barred them this year. They came here three times. I have a question. Can you read the lyrics to this song (“Kalam”) for me? Reading these lyrics, would you be OK with your kids going to this concert?
No. Impossible. No way.
Would you say this band is against our customs and traditions?
Not at all. Our religion bars them. We’re spared from them, if this is who they are.
What about old Arab poets?
They were never this filthy. I’ve read Abu Qais and Abu Nuwas. I’ve read the classics, when I was curious to see what these people were saying. But they were never this filthy.
Not all their songs are like this. This is one of their most controversial ones.
It’s absolutely filthy. I can’t imagine anyone decent being OK with their kids listening to this.
You’re for the ban, then.
But there are people who just go to these concerts to have fun, watch these shows and go home. Would that change your position?
Listen. Nobody can listen to a song without living the part. So this song would cause a lot of travesty.
Last question: if only the singer is gay, then –
I don’t care if the singer is gay or not. I just saw the picture. This is gay. This is...flamboyant. It was gross...I support the ban.
Part 02: Eastern Amman: Younger Men (aged: 15-29)
Interview #5: Mahmoud
Above: Mahmoud. (Al Bawaba)
Mahmoud worked at a popular shop in downtown Amman. He was young: early 20s at the utmost. He seemed busy, but also grateful to take some time out of his day to talk. He knew nothing of Mashrou’ Leila.
Jordan recently banned a band named Mashrou’ Leila from performing here. I want to show you these lyrics to one of their songs and get your opinion on it.
Reading these (the lyrics to "Kalam"), are you OK with, I don’t know, seeing your little siblings go to this concert or seeing your kids or?
Yeah, it’s fine.
(Reading more of the lyrics) Yeah, it’s fine.
Now, the band was banned because they said the lead singer was gay.
Gay. He said this spreads...immoral ideas. Stuff that’s against customs and traditions.
Well, that’s a definite. If he’s gay, yeah, it’s not part of our traditions and customs to go to such concerts.
But then if his personal life doesn’t affect the concert...if most people went, danced, and went home, do you still stand against it or is it OK?
His personal life is his. But people here, Arabs, due to customs and traditions, probably wouldn’t go to such a concert. Others will tell you it’s his personal life. Everybody’s got their own way of thinking, get me? We all have different opinions. We don’t all share one opinion.
Knowing that the singer is gay, you’d let your brother go to the concert?
Yeah. It’s his personal life. What do I care?
And if you had kids, or whatever?
If he’s happy with what he’s doing, why should I oppose it? He’s free. I go to concerts. [If the music is good], I’ll take my kids and friends. It’s normal.
Knowing that there were old celebrated gay Arab and Muslims poets and writers, Rumi—
Yeah. They were gay.
Do you still think these aren’t part of our customs and traditions?
You’re talking about a long time ago.
It exists today.
Yeah. It does. It’s part of our tradition. But...Arabs today, subhan Allah, everybody’s got their own way of thinking. Your thinking is different to mine.
And this is old stuff. Yeah, it exists today. It’s OK with me. If he’s a gay singer, that’s up to him. I’d just want to go to a concert and have fun.
Interview #6: Mohammed
Mohammed served a popular food in downtown Amman. He was young—a late teen to early 20s. He was a skinny guy with carefully slicked back hair, and had generally put more care into his appearance than others. He refused to speak to me initially, then shyly asked my own thoughts on the matter and asked me about bands I liked. It was obvious he loved Mashrou' Leila. He liked my responses, nodded, and agreed to do a quick interview, since customers were pouring into his shop.
Above: The band's second album, Raasuk. (Mashrou' Leila)
Are you for or against the ban?
I’m against the ban and with Mashrou’ Leila. People kept talking about the band without knowing anything about it. They don’t know that the band sings for country, for example, that their songs are meaningful and with purpose. But people started threatening they’d attack the show, because they thought the entire band was gay and a bunch of Satanists. I urge [anyone reading this] to look-up the band and see what they have to say and then decide. Listen to their lyrics.
Do you think their music goes against the “customs and traditions” of Amman?
No. On the contrary, they have their own way of communicating an idea and in a very simplified way. That’s what makes them exceptional.
Do you like the band?
I love them.
Off the record, we spoke a bit about the band. Mohammed let me know he was excitedly looking forward to seeing Autostrad, a popular Jordanian band, play soon. "I just wish," he said, when I was departing, "that they'd let in other acts, too."
Interview #7: Mouawiya
Mouawiya was a young man standing in the street. He looked like a bit of an anomaly—a Western Ammani, if his clothes and their cleanliness was any indication. After we started talking, two of his friends joined us. My guess, as it turned-out, was partially right; Mouawiya flitted between Arabic and English, a hallmark of Western Ammani speech, but also interjected his speech with traditional, tribal pronunciation.
I interviewed two of the group separately.
Have you heard of Mashrou’ Leila before?
Do you like them?
I just don’t find their music especially good. Their form...his voice...the lyrics…the music. But it just kind of exploded. Like a…
Yeah. It’s just trendy. People listen because it’s trendy. But does anyone actually like the band? No, I doubt it.
(Everybody, including myself, laughs at how much vitriol he puts into this.)
Are you for or against their ban?
I’m for it. Their lead singer, uhhh…
Hamed Sinno. Whatever his name is. When he comes out and says, “I’m gay.” People like him. He becomes a role model to people. And I don’t want a role model in Jordan who is gay.
What about gay people here in Jordan?
It doesn’t mean we accept this. If you see a gay in the street, are you OK with this? To be honest, he should be executed. That’s what we need, gays in the street.
Do you think homosexuality is against our customs and traditions?
Of course. Jordan has never had these gay idols. Do we have to follow them?
Even if, I don’t know, there were gay Muslims and Arabs throughout history? Abu Nuwas, Rumi?
Do you believe this rubbish? Abu Nuwas, gay?
Yeah, he was gay.
Fine, if he was, that was a long time ago. But we’re in Jordan. This is a tribal country. This is a conservative, Islamic country. I refuse to have people here who spoil the new generation of Jordanians to be gay.
And what about people who just want to have fun, who—
Look, the very concept of the show is an issue here because it’s going to be debauchery. Men will be going down there to ogle at women. And women are just happy with this gay guy who’s a role model to them.
His friend: He means prostitutes.
(They all laugh.)
Interview #8: Yousef
Yousef was Mouwaiya’s friend. Like Mouwaiya, he was well-dressed, and seemed more at ease with himself than other interviewees. He had a more local accent than Mouwaiya.
Do you like Mashrou’ Leila?
I don’t even know them. I learned about them from the hubbub which came out.
This year or last one?
This. I went into YouTube and heard a few songs. They weren’t appealing. I don’t know anything about the band or its members. I saw a few interviews on a channel: CBN, CBNC, something like that. That’s it.
Do you care if Hamed Sinno is gay?
Look, I...he’s free. Whatever he is, he’s free, I won’t disturb him. But if he comes to a conservative country like Jordan, and he’s barred because of his background...I think he should respect that. This is a conservative country with its own customs and traditions. It’s an Islamic country. He needs to respect this decision. If he created buzz because he came out and said he was gay and that Jordan had gay people….gay people don’t make-up a lot of Jordan. It’s not part of our customs and traditions. It’s a new thing. It’s strange for Arabs.
Some people would disagree with you and say, well, Jordan isn’t a conservative country. Some areas are one thing, others another. Rainbow Street is a different world from here.
Not that much. Even Rainbow, if you look at it, there are people there who want to be like the West, but...ultimately, this is still Jordanian society.
So what you’re saying is there isn’t a gay movement in the Arab world, or that they don’t have their own, separate identity?
No, there are. But they’re sporadic and rejected by Arab societies.
Mashrou’ Leila have played three times in Jordan before.
I don’t know about that. I just heard recently about them.
But my point is that they didn’t ban them in 2015, but they did in 2016 and 2017.
I can’t know. But I suspect somebody went against them. Like misattribution, maybe. Something new must have happened that forced the Ministry of Interior to stop them. Something behind-the-scenes. But the ban must have happened because someone felt the show would in some way pose a risk or negatively affect Jordanian society.
Part 03: Western Amman: The LGBT Community
"Basel" (pseudonym) is a 25 year old Palestinian-Jordanian. He is gay, and has identified as gay for at least five years. A sharp intellectual who speaks three languages, Basel sent me his thoughts on the issue via audio note.
"What happened was, the first time Leila was banned, I was in [Europe]. A while later, like a month later, I went to see them in Munich. During the concert, they dedicated 'Djin' (off Ibn El Leil) to the Jordanian audience, because that was the song Father Bader [who initiated the 2016 ban] used to say the band was Satanic and whatnot. Afterwards, I met with Hamed and expressed how disappointed I was that the Jordanian authorities banned the concert because I find what they stand for very empowering for people like me.
"They more or less speak in voice, one way or another. As for the band itself, whether or not the government was going to ban whether Hamed is openly gay or not. The thing is, I don’t think it’s exclusively about Hamed himself, but rather the message that Hamed and the other boys are adhering to. So as long as they’re outspokenly pro-LGBTQ, as long as they’re openly against the police, openly against open carry in Lebanon, like one of their songs, 'Mughaweer' which talks about this...the message that they try to get across is very intimidating for authorities. So, yes, the identity of Hamed does play a role, but it’s not the only role.
"I remember one of their old songs, 'Al-Hajez,' basically talks about a conversation on the Lebanese border. It has no direct references to police or armies, but it portrays the people on these borders, how they intimidate and bully. Plus the song was controversial because it contained swear-words. When they performed it live, Hamed would direct his microphone at the audience during these portions so they sang it, not him. Not always, though. He sometimes sang these parts himself.
"Plus 'Shim el Yasmine.' A love song, but it’s considered controversial because a man is talking to his lover. It’s very obvious from the wording that a man is talking to another. 'I would have liked to keep you near me/Introduce you to my parents, have you crown my heart/Cook your food, sweep your home/Spoil your kids, be your housewife.' Hamed said it was based on a failed relationship he was in."
Interview #10: Azza
"Azza" (pseudonym) is a bisexual Arab woman. She’s young, is an atheist from a Muslim background, and has identified as bisexual since she was 16.
Above: Ibn El Leil, the band's fourth, and most recent, release. (Mashrou' Leila)
Do you like the band?
Did you want to go to the concert?
I support the band doing what it wants to do, but I wasn’t going because I’m not the biggest fan of their music, I guess.
Do you consider Mashrou’ Leila to be an LGBT band?
No, no. I mean, they have a lot of—let’s not say controversial, but a lot music that reaches for different kinds of aspects of life. I mean, LGBT being one of them, but that’s not the only one, and it’s not the main one.
What other aspects are you referring to?
The first is being political. No?
Well they are political, yes. Most art is political. But do you think that’s why the Jordanian government banned them? Not because they’re LGBT?
No. That’s not entirely why they banned them. Of course, LGBT being [one reason]...but they bring to the table many controversial issues. Like the song "Djin"...They talk about alcohol, different aspects of [social issues], just aspects that the government does not want people to open their eyes to, I guess. Not just LGBT people, no.
Don’t you think that’s a little crazy? Because Jordan has liquor stores now on every corner, and bars, and people openly date and –
That is true. But I think, like everyone else, Jordanians can be very hypocritical.
Part 04: A Seeming Anomaly
If there is an antithesis to the stereotypes listed above, Shaheen is it. I did not go into eastern Amman expecting to find Mashrou' Leila fans, but I did. Most spoke off the record; I was a stranger claiming I was conducting interviews, and they didn't trust strangers. Some of them, Mohammed told me, must have thought I was against the band and trying to portray them in a bad light.
But then there was Shaheen. He was eighteen years old. My first impression of him was that he was shy. When I popped my head into his book stall, he seemed confused, as if wondering why I was bothering to say hi to him.
But then I mention Mashrou' Leila. He lights-up. He peeks out of his shell and confidently—in fact, immediately—says he wants to do the interview. He starts-out a little shy. And then he keeps going.
Interview #11: Shaheen
Above: Shaheen. (Al Bawaba)
Have you ever heard of Mashrou’ Leila?
Mashrou’ Leila for music. Yes. I’ve heard of them.
Did you hear they were banned in Amman?
They were banned in Amman, yes. Because the music is related to jinn. That’s what I heard.
Because it’s related to jinn?
Because it’s related to jinn. That’s what I heard. But...I think it’s beautiful music. Mashrou’ Leila is a very successful project. In Lebanon, in Jordan, especially. It’s a great musical work. I would love to see them live in Jordan. I wish they’d come to Jordan and do more concerts. Especially like before. I wish the government would withdraw the things it was saying, that they would accept the band’s ideas. And I would love to see a concert of theirs, in Lebanon or in Jordan.
You’ve never seen them before?
Me? No. But I listened to them and I memorised all their music. I love it.
Why do you think Jordan changed its mind from two years ago, and now they’ve banned them twice?
Why ban them? Here in Jordan, when non-Jordanian music evolves and becomes, you know...it becomes a racial issue.
Then why talk about jinn?
The jinn was the trope they used in their song. They also play rock. It’s associated with America and seen as promoting conspiracies and jinn and that sort of thing.
Last question: knowing that Hamed Sinno is gay, does that bother you at all?
Never. Besides, this is art. This is Arab art. It is new, and it is deep. For Mashrou’ Leila to say what they say and for this discourse to exist between Arabs...it’s a point of pride for us. That we Arabs excel at something so...global.
As I was leaving, he called to me. That band means a lot to me, he said. It means a lot to all of us.
Why they cancelled it, he added, I wish I knew.
Written by Karim Anani
* This article was edited from its original form. The original post stated the band had performed three times in Amman. The actual number is five.
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