In the past week, Lebanon’s media was flooded with opinions and stances on Mashrou’ Leila, the Lebanese indie rock band who after continuous pressure, had their awaited concert in Byblos International Festival, Jbeil, cancelled by the festival committee for safety concerns. Opinions varied among the longtime loyal fans and proponents of freedom of speech, the believers, notably Christians, who found the content of their music offensive but simply criticized them, and the new age Crusaders who, once again, took it as their mission to be the defenders of the faith and called for the ban of their concert, and among which were individuals who thought it was justifiable to threaten the band members and event promoters with violence and death.
In a culturally conservative region, Lebanon is considered to be a beacon of modernism and progressivism, where women can dress as they like, partying and drinking are normal parts of life, and other things that might be considered taboo in the rest of the Middle East would be socially acceptable. However, time and time again, religious authorities banning arts prove that reputation of Lebanon being a cradle for personal freedoms wrong. For us metalheads, censorship, or the attempts for it, is not a foreign phenomenon. Since the start and rise of the metal scene, local bands and artists were subjects to irrational interrogations and unjustified investigations. Many local events caught the eyes of the media under false labels like “Satanic rituals”, “Devil worshipping”, “encouraging delinquent behaviour and drug abuse”, to name a few, and caused an uproar among parents and conservatives. Some international bands were also banned from coming for scheduled concerts under claims of them being Devil worshippers or anti-Christians, the most recent one being Sepultura in April. This time, it was a local indie rock band, Mashrou’ Leila, who’s been around for 10 years, fronted by an openly gay man (Hamed Sinno), and who has gained international recognition, that has been under fire.
The uproar started when a resident from Jbeil found an article that Hamed (Vocalist of Mashrou’ Leila) had shared a few years ago, which included a p photo of an old Byzantine icon of the Virgin with baby Jesus that was photoshopped to replace her face with Madonna’s and called Jesus a fan boy. The band also had the lyric of their song “Djin” (which was released in 2015 and played at many concerts in Lebanon and abroad) twisted; the lyric in Arabic reads “رح غطس كبدي بالجن باسم الاب وابن”, which literally translates to “I will immerse my liver in gin in the name of the Father and the Son”; the band uses a lot of symbolism in their lyrics and their songs are very interpretive, but the consensus is that this one is about alcoholism (Djin is meant as Gin), and has a simple play on words with baptism. We’re guessing the confusion happened because of the similarities between the Arabic spelling/pronunciation for “gin” (the drink) and “Jinn” (the spiritual entity). The sexual orientation of the singer also appeared to be very problematic to people, who argued that his sexuality is sinful and against Christian teachings and must not be accepted and criticized the rise of Pride flags in their concerts.
Taking the photo and the lyric as a direct intentional attack on holy figures and sacred symbols, the band were quickly accused of being (you guessed it), Satan worshippers, anti-Christian and blasphemers. A riot started on the media and many were calling for banning the concert and penalizing the band, including some authoritative figures like Director of the Catholic Center of Information Father Abdo Abou Kassem and the Archbishop of Byblos, as well as ultra-Christian Facebook groups who threatened with death and violent protests on the observed day of the concert. The ridicule became worse with some religious figures started to come with mind-blowing conspiracy theories, pointing out that the band name (which translates to Night Project) actually is a reference to the demon Lilith (Leila – Lilith – Night – Darkness), and that their aim and that of other common pop artists’ is to deviate people from the path of Jesus and religion and take them down the road of rebellion, delinquency, feminism (what?) and homosexuality (again, what?).
The band issued a statement on their page to express their upset and clarify that their lyrics were taken out of context by being cherry picked instead of being taken as a whole, that the song in question was performed repeatedly in Lebanon and elsewhere without any backlash, that each of the members comes from a different religious background that they all respect, and they are united with their love for music and their use of it to highlight humanitarian issues and represent their country. In spite of that, due to the pressure they were subjected to, they ended up deleting 2 songs and some content from their page and their YouTube channel. The band was investigated with and stood in front of a judge, they were cleared and their concert allowed to take place, provided that they hold a press conference to publicly apologize to the Christian community. The press conference was never held, and the threats and condemnations went on and got more heated.
The festival committee eventually decided that it is best to cancel the schedueled Mashrou’ Leila show, fearing that the threats might actually turn into actions. While it is understandable to have safety concerns for the bands, staff and attendees, and to not want to cause instability in the area, it is very sad to know that no protection or security was ensured, and that despite the law clearing the band (albeit with less than fair conditions), the culture of threats, bloodshed and violence prevailed over that of art, beauty and freedom of speech. Our government has immensely failed us this time, and this incident is a significant warning to what may come next if we don’t all defend our rights to freedom of speech. The country has had enough of constant divisions, sectarian values over humanitarian ones and of holding belief systems at a higher status than actual people. It is scary that authorities let the threatening bigots speak up and launch their hateful, potentially violent, campaign and participated in silencing, censoring, and ignoring the safety of artists and their fans. Humans Right Watch researcher Aya Majzoub has condemned the cancellation of the concert as “a step back for Lebanon, which has always prided itself on embracing diversity and being a center for music, art and culture” and Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director Lynn Maalouf said that it was “the direct result of the government’s failure to take a strong stand against hatred and discrimination and to put in place the necessary measures to ensure the performance could go ahead”. It is unprecedented to have an act cancelled like this in Byblos Festival, but it may not be the last if religious fanatics are not put in place and if religious authorities are not held accountable for fueling hate, anger and intolerance. They are the ones who were actually unlawful, for defaming and damaging Lebanon’s image on international media sites and for threatening with bloodshed, but our government simply turned a blind eye against that; because beliefs and symbols are more important than individuals.
On a positive note, we do salute the few religious authority figures, and all the artists who supported freedom of speech no matter what, who called for peaceful criticism or boycott if one opposes the band’s views, and who suggested people gather for a mass prayer rather than violently protest on the day of Mashrou’ Leila concert. These few people give us a ray of hope in a hopeless broken system.
While the concert got cancelled out of fear of violence and instability, those who installed that fear are still running loose in the street, and it is only a matter of time before they jump at their next prey and forcibly silence it if they have opposing views to their “sacred” ones. Until next time, Crusaders.
A support event for Mashrou’ Leila will be held at the Palace Beirut, to protest the censorship and bigotry. Event Name: “Music Is Louder |صوت الموسيقى أعلى “
By Zena Ismail
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