Music lovers and freedom of speech-defenders across the Arab world were up in arms this week over the Jordanian government's last-minute decision to cancel a concert by Lebanese alternative indie-rock band Mashrou' Leila, raising questions about growing censorship in one of the region's most liberal countries.
The hugely popular band, whose songs tackle taboo subjects such as political oppression and LGBT rights and whose lead singer is openly gay, were scheduled to perform in Amman's historic Roman Amphitheatre this Friday. That was until Tuesday, when the band said they were told the license to perform had been revoked because their performance would have been "at odds with what the Ministry of Tourism viewed as the 'authenticity' of the site," despite the fact they had played there three times before. They have also been told unofficially that they will never be allowed to play in Jordan again.
In comments to the media, Amman Governor Khaled Abu Zeid was more frank about the reason behind the decision, which came down to religious and political pressure, saying that "some of the band's songs contain lyrics that do not comply with the nature of the Jordanian society." Speaking to the Associated Press, he added that the band's material "contradicts" the beliefs of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The controversy surrounding the band's concert, which is part of a global tour to promote their new album, Ibn al-Leil (Son of the Night), appears to center on a song called Djinn about the ancient bacchanal ritual of going into the forest and getting drunk. It involves word play about evil spirits — called djinns in Arabic — and the alcoholic spirit gin, as well as references to pagan traditions and, in one line, Christianity.
"Drown my liver in gin / In the name of the father and the son."
As a result, the band said at a press conference in Beirut Thursday that they are now facing accusations of promoting devil-worshipping, in addition to the usual criticisms over their outspoken approach to sexual liberties, gender equality, and political freedom.
"This is at best bad cultural criticism and at worst an undemocratic smear [against] the ideals and the ideas of the band," said Firas Abou Fakher, the band's guitarist. "Any deeper and slightly more profound reading of our work would reveal that topics we deal with are actually topics that include struggle against silencing powers… and any oppressive forces."
Fakher said that the song segment was taken out of context in a "severe distortion of the band and our beliefs."
The band's no-holds-barred approach to airing these beliefs in a region that is struggling to find a balance between the conservative mores of the older, ruling generation and the progressive desires of many young people is exactly what has made Mashrou' Leila so popular. The video for "AOEDE," their latest song, for example, opens with a young woman talking about police brutality.
"This is intelligent Arabic music that we can all connect with," states an online petition demanding the government retract its decision that has nearly garnered 2,000 signatures. "Previous concerts have seen thousands of people dance to the beautiful creativity of youthful critique."
Mashrou' Leila's song "Lil Watan."
As a result, the outpouring of anger over the cancellation has been palpable on social media for the last few days, with Arabic hashtags such as #We_want_Leila_in_Amman and #Support_Leila trending.
"Censorship is nothing but a regime's lack of confidence in itself," Lebanese director and writer Cyril Aris wrote on the group's Facebook page. "With your art, you expose their weaknesses. The cancelation [sic] of your show confirms you are pulling the right fight. Some day, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but some day, we will prevail."
One person on Twitter likened the decision to something American presidential hopeful Donald Trump would do, while others expressed their disappointment that censorship was still so prevalent, pointing out that the band had just performed in Dubai and Cairo with no problem.
Blogger Naseem wrote on the Black Iris blog: "We've seen this all before. This has always been the general attitude conservatives possess in Jordan, resorting to the knee-jerk "customs and traditions" mantra as a way to ban or censor any type of media they see as being at odds with the mainstream."
In a show of support, a Facebook event has been set up calling on people to gather in Amman's Roman Ampitheatre on Friday night anyway and listen to Mashrou' Leila music together. It currently has more than 1,000 people down as attending.
Not everyone disagrees with the decision, however. Father Rifat Bader, director of Jordan's Catholic Centre for Studies and Media, praised the move in a Facebook post that has since been deleted but is quoted in a Jordan Times article.
"It is a smart and wise decision that is aimed at safeguarding Jordan's reputation; no investment or tourism is allowed at the expense of morality, culture and respecting religions," the priest said in the posting.
The censorship of Mashrou' Leila is just another worrying part of a wider trend in Jordan, explained Nassim Abi Ghanem, programs coordinator at Lebanon's Skeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, which monitors infractions in the country.
Although Jordan does allow for some modicum of expression and freedom of speech, it's still a very conservative society, with a powerful intelligence and security apparatus that can quickly clamp down on speech deemed socially or politically unacceptable or dangerous.
Abi Ghanem said that "the double standard [in the country] is immense, and has reached unprecedented levels recently."
"There is a lot of oppression happening that people don't know about," he added. "Journalists, cultural people, and intellectuals already know that they will be under pressure so often they would rather not speak out at all. When it comes to stifling freedom of expression, this is huge."
The crux of the matter is that if Mashrou' Leila's music about freedom of speech, sexuality, politics and religion clashes with Jordanian values, then what does this say about Jordan?
"We deal with topics that are very real and are very sensitive in the Arab world, but they are… basic human rights," said guitarist Abou Fakher. "If this is at odds with Jordanian morality and ethics then it's a very problematic thing for us."
Update: Amman's governor granted the band permission to play in Amman, but the band declined. Here is their statement from Facebook:
"Dear fans, we were informed by the Governorate of Amman at noon today, Thursday April 28, that they have granted the security approval to hold Mashrou' Leila's concert in Amman tomorrow. While we appreciate this step, it came too late, as we did not get a confirmation from the Department of Antiquities to use the Roman Theater, in addition to the impossibility of bringing back a concert this big in less than 24 hours."
Watch Daily VICE's interview with Mashrou' Leila: