Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila say they won't stop singing for human rights

Lebanese band barred from performing in Egypt
Lebanese band barred from performing in Egypt

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  • Egypt cracked down after the band's Cairo concert in September
  • The band has previously been barred from Jordan

(CNN)It's been little over a month since Egypt banned the Lebanese indie rock group Mashrou' Leila from performing in the country, after a handful of fans raised a rainbow flag at their concert in Cairo. Despite that, the band remains defiant.

"We're definitely more steadfast about discussing how necessary it is to be tolerant of consensual actions between knowing adults where no one is harmed," said their frontman Hamed Sinno, a Muslim who openly identifies as queer.
Some 35,000 fans turned out for their Cairo concert September 22, in a night that passed without incident. It was pictures of the rainbow flag -- the universal symbol of gay pride -- that led to a state-backed media frenzy in the days that followed and the arrest of some 33 people, five of whom were forced to undergo anal examinations, according to Amnesty International. Other rights groups put the numbers much higher.
    Unlike some other countries in the region, homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt. However it is not widely accepted, either. Gays are often accused of other charges such as "debauchery" or "promoting sexual deviancy" and can face lengthy jail sentences.
    "We've been really freaking out about the people who are in prison. ... Also just knowing that your work has been perverted to justify that kind of crackdown and that a lot of people are going to suffer for a long time because of a government's homophobia," Sinno said.
    Asked for comment, Makram Mohamed Ahmed, head of the Supreme Council on Media Regulation -- the department that issued a ban on any representation of homosexuality in the media following the concert -- said:
    "Islam has defined the family as a union between a man and a woman. We don't accept any other definition to be imposed on us, the Muslim world. A woman and woman, a man and a man, that's wrong."
    Ahmed told CNN he was personally unaware of the arrests, but said homosexuality shouldn't be a topic for celebration. "It's a disease that should be treated."
    "Even if the reports of the arrests and convictions are true, then these people must have committed a crime," he said.

    Speaking out

    Mashrou' Leila has been synonymous with controversy since its inception nine years ago at the American University of Beirut. Besides featuring an openly queer lead singer, the band's lyrics frequently address subjects that are taboo in the Middle East: political corruption, women's rights, religion and, most taboo of all, homosexuality.
    Being a group that writes about homosexuality within a broadly homophobic landscape can be a risky endeavor.
    "It feels dangerous," Sinno said. "But it also feels necessary to have that conversation on a larger scale. I think so much of what made us make music was that we felt we couldn't really see ourselves in the music that we would find on Arabic radio or on Arabic music television."
    Egypt isn't the only country to ban the group. In June, Mashrou' Leila was barred from performing in the Jordanian capital, Amman, after the country's Ministry of Tourism claimed its music would be at odds with the "authenticity" of the site where the band was set to perform — the Roman amphitheater.
    "We had played there three times before, and this would be the first concert that we would have there with an album that was full of, actually, Greco-Roman mythology," Sinno said. "So, if anything, that was totally on point."
    The group's controversy has arguably made them even more famous, but while they take pride in how they speak out about these issues, they insist they're first and foremost musicians.
    "We're just a band who makes music. Our concerts are not thousand-person satanist orgies as they've been depicted. We have a history of defending people's right to have faiths, regardless of whether or not we have it," Sinno said.
    The band is currently spending a semester as artists-in-residence at New York University, teaching a workshop titled "The Great Gig in The Sky: Imagining the Soundtrack to Utopia," about the intersection of music and social activity.
    Asked about the connection between music and politics, Sinno said, "We're never really thinking of politics when we're writing. I mean, when we get into the studio we (are) sort of just thinking about our lives and, like, stories that have either happened to us or friends of ours or things we've been reading."
    "Music is always inherently political," he added. "People just have a tendency to make the facile distinction that music is only political when the politics of it are politics of dissent."

    They feel unsafe

    The group is also on its third US tour -- their first performing in America since President Trump was elected -- and members say they feel a palpable difference.
    "I think the morale has been really striking. People seem kind of defeated in a way that reminds me of Lebanon a lot," Sinno said.
    They say they feel unsafe, in light of President Trump's rhetoric toward Muslims and his controversial travel ban earlier this year.
    "We had to think twice about going to the (Halloween) parade" this week in New York, he said. "You kind of don't know if that's a plastic gun or a real gun."
    Group members admit they also feel unsafe in the Middle East, but in a different way, especially as music venues have become targets for terrorists. However, they remain determined to not let terrorists or repressive governments stop them.
    "The point of music is for people to know that there are people who think the same way, who have similar ideas about the world and how we should live," violinist Haig Paizan said.
    "At the end of the day, our safe space is in our studio. It's on stage where we perform music and where we write music, and when we're together, that's the part that keep us going and continuing with the band," he added.
    The band plans to write its next album when members get back to Lebanon at the end of the year. Their wish? That the world, especially the Arab world, keeps moving forward with basic human rights.