Mashrou‘ Leila, a Lebanese indie band of international reputation, is scheduled to hold a concert in the town of Byblos on August 9.* However, a controversy that has exposed Lebanese sociocultural dynamics threatens to derail that event.
The band is outspoken on social issues and has taken public stances in support of LGBT rights in the Middle East. Nor does Mashrou‘ Leila shy away from introducing political messages into its music. A recent example was the music video for its new single “Cavalry,” which appears to pay tribute to Palestinians fighting Israel’s occupation of their lands. Two years ago, Mashrou‘ Leila played a private concert in Beirut, organized with Amnesty International, in solidarity with global refugees. The band has performed in Byblos twice before, but vocal opposition emerged recently to its show of early August.
This opposition, which has been amplified by a social media campaign, began when a Facebook page posted several images that Mashrou‘ Leila’s lead singer, Hamed Sinno, had shared on his own page. One of the images, allegedly posted by him in 2015, is a painting of Jesus and the Virgin Mary with her face replaced by that of the pop star Madonna. Online campaigners have also referenced two songs, “Djin” and “Asnaam,” from a 2015 album by Mashrou‘ Leila. Critics felt that the lyrics, which make reference to crucifixion and the Holy Trinity, are insulting to their Christian faith.
Denunciation of the band did not stop there. Some critics are planning a protest in Byblos on the day of the concert. National religious organizations have called on the authorities to prevent the concert altogether. In an official statement, the Maronite Archdiocese of Byblos not only condemned the lyrics of Mashrou‘ Leila’s songs but also described the band’s “goals” as harmful to Christian beliefs.
Attempts at censorship and the explanations for it are hardly new in Lebanon. Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code was banned by the General Security Directorate in 2004 after the Catholic Information Center complained that the book “harm[ed] Christian beliefs,” according to the center’s director Father Abdou Abou Kasm. The sale of the Lady Gaga album Born This Way was banned in 2011 following protests from the same center. Usually, General Security is the main institution that imposes censorship. Works with religious references are routinely transferred for review to religious institutions such as the Catholic Information Center, the Sunni Muslim Dar al-Fatwa, or the Druze Dar al-Tayfa. On July 24, another intelligence apparatus, State Security, interrogated Mashrou‘ Leila and requested that the band delete several of its posts on social media outlets as well as music from their social media channels.
It would be a mistake to presume that the calls for censorship are merely about song lyrics. In an interview with Al-Nahar newspaper, Abou Kasm stated that appeals for canceling the concert were because the band “encourages homosexuality” and the state knows what “must be done.” Hamed Sinno is openly gay. Mashrou‘ Leila was banned from Egypt following similar accusations, after attendees raised a rainbow flag at a concert in Cairo in 2017. The Jordanian authorities also cancelled concerts in Amman in 2016 and 2017.
Despite threats of violence, the band plans to continue with the Byblos concert, stressing that their goal is to raise “the name of Lebanon in the world” through their art. Their concert is part of the annual Byblos International Festival, which has hosted pop star Lana Del Rey, who has dressed up as the Virgin Mary more than once, and Elton John, an outspoken defender of LGBT rights, who performed at the festival in 2017. That these concerts passed without much fuss begs the question: Why Mashrou‘ Leila? Why today?
One might speculate that the social media campaign against the band spun out of control, perhaps forcing a reaction from the religious authorities and certain politicians. However, as is usually the case in Lebanon, the issue was multilayered. That Mashrou‘ Leila is a Lebanese group performing in Lebanon helped drag the band into the country’s domestic dynamics. Moreover, Sinno is a Muslim, giving certain Christian political figures and groups an opportunity to appeal to a sense of communal victimhood and flex their muscles to appease certain elements among their base of supporters, all the more so as Byblos is a majority Christian town.
Though the Mashrou‘ Leila affair brings to the forefront illiberal elements in Lebanon, it still demonstrates the possibility of a cultural conversation, and negotiation, in the country. The pushback among many Lebanese against censorship and in defense of the band has shown that a space for free expression still exists in the country, even if it could be shrinking. In contrast, Mashrou‘ Leila can no longer perform live in Egypt and Jordan. Furthermore, one cannot but pause at the fact that ten or fifteen years ago addressing issues touching on religious and sexual freedom could not have taken place in Lebanon so openly as is happening today.
A month ago, Sinno described the group’s new single as “a song about showing up to a fight that you know you’re going to lose, and going for it anyway.” Perhaps the long-term success of freedom of expression in Lebanon requires a number of such battles along the way, which at given moments will appear to be losing ones.
* Since this article appeared, those holding tickets to the concert in Byblos have been notified that it has been cancelled.