NEW YORK, Nov 18, (AFP): The symbol of solidarity brought a harsh backlash. As Lebanese rockers Mashrou’ Leila played in Cairo, fans hoisted in the air rainbow flags, the global emblem of gay equality.
The open-air festival on Sept 22 passed peacefully. But as pictures of the flags spread, Egyptian authorities launched roundups of the gay community, arresting dozens of people, with rights groups saying some were subjected to humiliating physical exams.
Mashrou’ Leila’s singer Hamed Sinno is openly gay and the band voiced outrage over the crackdown. Yet the group scoffs at being viewed as poster boys — for gay rights or also for what Sinno sees as facile Western narratives about the Arab world.
Mashrou’ Leila — which, with its unique blend of intricate indie rock and enigmatic Arabic poetry, has become one of the Middle East’s biggest bands — sees music as a goal in itself.
“I think the question of wanting to represent anyone other than our own persons is one that’s really troubling,” the quick-witted Sinno told AFP at a bar near New York University, where the band is leading a two-month seminar.
If Mashrou’ Leila ever speaks for others, those moments “have to be unplanned and accidental, and they have to be a byproduct of people just being able to relate to what you’re saying,” he said.
Laws in the Middle East banning gay sex date largely to Western colonialism. Egypt had no formal prohibition on homosexuality but its parliament is now considering one.
“The only reason that something like that would happen right now is because of, essentially, a very clear cultural tide moving towards greater acceptance. Otherwise there would be no reason to introduce a new law,” Sinno said.
In Egypt and other revolutionary states in the wake of the Arab Spring, an idea has emerged of “national masculinity as a form of dignity,” Sinno said.
But Sinno saw Egypt’s anti-gay campaign more as a political move by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, a former army chief who overthrew his Islamist predecessor and has clamped down hard on the Muslim Brotherhood, to woo skeptical conservatives before elections.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, Jordan last year barred a performance by Mashrou’ Leila. Nonetheless, Sinno said he saw growing strides on issues of gender and sexuality in Lebanon as well as Morocco and Tunisia.
Sinno is skeptical of the motives of Western powers and said it was complicated to decide how active they should be in promoting the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the Arab world.
“The West has had this history in foreign policy in the Middle East of treating human rights as though they were a Western legacy, which is obviously a joke,” Sinno said.
The United States, which Sinno sees as driven by oil, can justify itself by saying, “’We’re invading for the gays and the women!’
“But you’re also blowing up the gays and the women.”
Formed nearly a decade ago when they were studying at the American University of Beirut, Mashrou’ Leila stands out for more than Sinno’s sexuality.
“I don’t think we had any particular models,” said violinist Haig Papazian.
“One of the main reasons for our choice to sing in Arabic is that there were no bands — or, very few bands — who would sing in Arabic,” he said.
“It was either Fairuz and Umm Kulthum,” he said, referring to singing legends in the 1960s and 1970s, “or the pop stars. Nothing in between.”
With a style of chamber pop driven by melancholic violin melodies over toe-tapping, bass-dominant rhythms, Mashrou’ Leila produces multilayered songs with ample word-play.
Sinno’s verse touches on sexuality but has also tackled the curses of materialism and social strife, often with satirical twists.
The band’s latest video “Roman,” shot by Lebanese director Jessy Moussallem, features women in all-encompassing covers who break out into dance — a play on Western conceptions of female repression in the Middle East.
“Music has the ability to shape reality for people,” Sinno said, showing “there are others who share your politics, your language and other social categories.”
“I think that is where music is most powerful — not allowing people to entertain the idea that a tolerant reality is impossible.”