“This is what it looks like to be called both a terrorist and a faggot,” Hamed Sinno told a sold-out crowd in Washington, D.C., on Monday night, less than 48 hours after a Muslim man (who may or may not be gay himself) killed 49 people inside a gay nightclub in Orlando.
Sinno is the singer of Lebanese indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila, whose poetic, violin-steeped songs were born from jam sessions (the band’s name literally means “overnight project”) at a music workshop at the American University of Beirut in 2008 and have since traveled around the world.
Sinno is also Muslim, Arab-American, queer and proud. Another band member is also gay, making Mashrou’ Leila — and their lyrics, which speak openly about sexuality, artistic freedom, gender identity, politics and more — the target of hate speech, death threats and, in the case of the country of Jordan, an outright performance ban, which prevented them from playing a show in the Jordanian capital of Amman in April.
Friday night, Mashrou’ Leila will play a free show in downtown L.A. as part of Grand Performances' summer concert series. The band was invited to perform nearly a year ago, when no one could have predicted that Donald Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric would help make him the Republican presidential nominee, or that a Muslim American would perpetrate the worst mass shooting in American history.
“The U.S. has a history of creating these simplistic stories about how degenerate and backwards the Middle East is,” says Sinno, who, besides being a powerful rock frontman, is also eloquent about complex issues of social and racial representation. “There are so many communities in the Middle East — some are crazy liberal and super-progressive — but those aren’t the people you see in Western media. The radical Islamic terrorist continues to be the prototypical Middle East individual. It’s pretty crazy.”
Contrary to what Sinno calls the “problematic mono-narrative” that’s been perpetuated by media in the West, the Middle East is a vast place; chaotic, diverse and comprised of more than a dozen countries, each with its own unique set of political, historical and social issues.
Lebanon is, arguably, the most permissive Arab country in the Middle East, long known for its boisterous nightlife and cosmopolitan culture, which spawned decades of activism and organized campaigns for women’s and LGBT rights long before the so-called Arab Spring — another term invented by Western media to make sense of all the disconnected political eruptions that took place simultaneously in the Middle East. “The only thing they have to do with each other is that we’re all brown,” Sinno says.
But while the corrupt Lebanese government might not always regulate homosexuality as virulently as is done elsewhere in the Middle East, Lebanese society continues to do much of the work for them, attaching social shame to sexuality and creating a culture of fear that’s much stronger than any written law.
Sinno has never given in to this fear.
“I can’t imagine myself looking someone in the eye and lying to them about my sexual orientation. I just can’t access that mindset,” says Sinno, who identifies more as queer and agender than gay. “Of course I’m afraid when we start getting crazy threats from Islamists in Jordan. But the idea of doing things any other way doesn’t even register to me.”
The same courage goes into Mashrou’ Leila’s music, which confronts taboo subjects like gay relationships, political corruption and the intersection of racial, social and identity politics with a globally appealing soundtrack. Western media have called the band everything from Arab pop to “the soundtrack to the Arab Spring,” but their sound comes from a far wider berth.
Sinno, who was born in the United States and retains citizenship, and his bandmates — Haig Papazian, Carl Gerges, Firas Abu-Fakher and Ibrahim Badr, all upper middle class boys from Beirut — grew up watching MTV, downloading Nirvana songs on Napster and getting lost in Beirut’s Virgin Megastore. They would listen to Kurt Cobain rage against existential angst for hours on end, then turn on Arabic radio and hear pop songs espousing hetero-normative love they cared little to attain.
Guitar-driven studio albums like 2013’s Raasük and last year’s potent Ibn El Leil have earned the band musical comparisons to Arctic Monkeys, The Strokes and, at their more electronic, Radiohead. And while it’s true that, if not for their Arabic lyrics, Mashrou’ Leila could just as easily have been created in a garage in Silver Lake or a warehouse in Brooklyn, really, the band is the sound of young people negotiating their place in today’s global village, where the personal is political is personal again.
“We come from so many different backgrounds musically. We’re all omnivores but our sensibilities are messy,” Sinno says. “We avoid genre almost actively. I don’t like writing a blues song or jazz song or using only street sound samples. I like what happens when you try to avoid those lines.”
One song on Ibn El Leil has taken on an even greater significance in the days after the Orlando massacre.
“Tayf,” which means “ghost,” starts with a haunting violin riff backed by a single plucked bass line. A soft drum beat comes in and Sinno’s deep voice begins to sing of the night in 2013 that a popular gay-friendly bar near Beirut was unexpectedly raided and shut down by local law enforcement, its patrons arrested and humiliated at the police station. Ghostbar was targeted, supposedly, for “promoting prostitution, drugs and homosexuality,” according to the mayor of the suburb where it was located.
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"The mushrooms have started to grow/Tomorrow we inherit the earth," Sinno sings in Arabic on “Tayf.” "For now we still have songs/Sing with your highest heels on."
Mashrou' Leila perform Friday, June 17, at 8 p.m. as part of Grand Performances' summer concert series. Admission is free.