The project of Mashrou’ Leila
The frightening power of a multi-layered politics

Lebanese rock band Mashrou’ Leila was supposed to perform at the Byblos International Festival in Lebanon on August 9. However, the concert was halted after a campaign led by the Maronite Church accused the band of insulting the Christian faith. Last month, a lawyer filed a separate complaint calling for the government to prosecute the band for insulting religion and spreading homosexuality. Online, there are various smear campaigns against the band.

On July 30, the band released a statement in response to the concert’s cancellation that described the series of summer happenings as “shocking events” and attempted to counter some of the lies and misrepresentations circulating around them. For example, some falsely claimed that their name, Leila, refers to the “the night of eternal oppression.” The band’s name, which for some brings to mind the name of Qays’ lover in old Arabic poetry, is said to date back to the night of the band’s first ever concert at the American University in Beirut in 2008. 

On their website, the band says they are born out of a nocturnal encounter. The band chose to spell their name as ‘Leila’ instead of ‘Leilah,’ the latter being the Arabic word for night, while the former, pronounced the same, is a female name. The name Leila is perhaps more romantic, but also more playful as it suggests different meanings. This playfulness will remain with the band and its growing sound. 

In the statement, the band felt obligated to provide an explanation for the meaning of two of its songs, asnam(idols) and djin ,from their 2015 album ibn al-leil (son of the night), which were removed in July from the band’s official Youtube channel. While the band didn’t explicitly outline the meaning lyrics to their 50-song catalogue, they noted the difference between literal meanings of words and how they can be read in the context of art. 

“Suffice it to say, and remind everyone, that works of art carry multiple meanings, especially when taken out of context, and that the nature of metaphor is to divert from words’ literal linguistic meanings. This is the reason for this uproar,” the band said in the statement. The seriousness of the accusations was shocking as were the misinterpretation of our songs, the lies that were told, and the doctored pictures. The orchestrated campaign culminated in direct death threats,” the statement added.

In parallel, activists from different walks of life launched a solidarity campaign in support of the band, calling for their music to be played in shops around Beirut and all over Lebanon on August 9, the same night the concert was supposed to take place. In the Hamra district in Beirut, a concert was organized under the title of “Music is Louder.” A hashtag for the concert read al-qamea mesh mashrou’(oppression isn’t legitimate). Besides being part of the band’s name, mashrou’ is a versatile Arabic word that can mean ‘legitimate’, as well as ‘project.’

A poster for the Music is Louder concert.

The cancellation of the Byblos concert was not the band’s first controversy regarding a performance in an Arab country. In July 2017, the Jordanian Interior Ministry canceled the band’s performance for fear that it would include “parts that would hurt the public’s feelings.” Two months later, the band played a concert in Cairo where some concertgoers were seen raising a rainbow flag — a symbol for LGBTQ rights. After the concert, police tracked down and arrested a number of fans who attended the concert, some of whom were tried and convicted with exceptional speed. After the concert, Egypt’s Musicians’ Syndicate issued a decree banning the band from any future performances in Cairo. 

The Cairo concert was not the only instance where fans raised the rainbow flag. Last June, fans waved the flag at the band’s performance at Mawazine Music Festival in Rabat, Morocco. However, there was no official response from the Moroccan authorities, who were perhaps more conscious about how such a response would be perceived on an international stage. 

But how did this turn of events make Mashrou’ Leila an artistic enemy of the Arab state? 

Over the years, Mashrou’ Leila has released music that has continued to deepen the affinity between the band and its ever growing fan-base.”People claim that we are a band that tells stories on politics and society. The fact is that we write stories we see in our lives, or in our friends’ lives,” the band’s lead singer and songwriter Hamed Sinno said in a 2016 interview with DW. In the same interview, the band’s violinist and composer Firas Abo Fakher said: “There are aspects of life in Beirut that you just cannot overlook, but Arabic music has avoided them. We are here to talk about these aspects, to sing about things we believe and want to criticize.” 

They do so by mixing the stylings of pop and electronic music, and what they call a “punch of stadium rock.” They also sing in Arabic, in contrast to most Lebanese rock, which is often sung in English, even though Sinno’s voice does not resemble those of traditional Arab singers. Thick and not without some dissonance, his exceptional voice challenges the sound of traditional Arabic tarab by banking on the power of emotionality and the influence of the music. 

The politics in their unique voice aren’t simple, which perhaps makes them all the more confusing to authorities.

In the DW interview in 2016, the interviewer started by showing the band’s music video for fasateen (dresses), and claimed that the song tackles the topic inter-faith marriage. Sinno interrupted him to explain that the couple in the song were not only from different religions, but also from different socioeconomic classes. Abou Fakher followed up by saying that the topics addressed by the band are more complicated than inter-faith marriage, suggesting that they approach matters in the same multi-layered, intersectional way they present themselves to us in real life.

When the Arab revolutions erupted across the region in 2011, the band released the song ghadan yawmon afdal (tomorrow is a better day,) dedicated to “the generation of the revolution.” It was released as a simple music video showing the songs creation, suggesting the song came out of a revolutionary whim of a moment. A play on the themes of hope and despair, action and inaction, the song reflects the conflicted spirit of an uncertain revolution, not celebrating its un-coming triumph while not being oblivious to its immense poetic power. Unlike other political music produced around the revolutions, Mashrou’ Leila’s doesn’t do politics in ways that reproduce the surface layer of an event or critique it in contemplative forms. Instead, their music hinges on some form of claim-making that is preoccupied with broader questions of modernity, power and freedom.

In Greek mythology, Daedalus and his son Icarus try to escape from Crete, where they have been exiled. The father and son make wings made of feathers and wax so they can fly. However, Deadalus warns his son against flying too high and getting close to the sun, but Icarus objects, and flies higher anyway. Mashrou’ Leila sings for Icarus and his quest to fly high. This is their brand of boundary-pushing politics.

And while we cannot be sure if tomorrow will truly be a better day, we were happy to hear that Mashrou’ Leila could be heard across Lebanon on August 9, even though they were supposed to only be heard in Byblos.

Here is a playlist with a selection of songs by Mashrou’ Leila:


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