Outrage spread across Jordan and the Middle East this week after Lebanese rock band Mashrou’ Leila were forced to cancel their Friday concert in Amman. Jordan’s Ministry of Tourism withdrew the band’s license to perform in what seems to be a blatant censoring of Mashrou’ Leila’s outspoken support of gender equality, gay rights, and religious freedom.
In a statement from the band, the Ministry reportedly justified their move by claiming the government was concerned for the performance space, Amman’s Roman Amphitheatre, and questioned whether Mashrou’ Leila could maintain the “authenticity” of the site. Only problem is that the band has performed in that location three times already, and followed all the necessary procedures that had worked in the past.
Amman has been a major hub for Leilaholics, not just from Jordan but throughout the region. Fans in Palestine are known to take buses into the city while many others fly in to join the sold-out crowds. Their fans are nothing short of -holics, loyal to the band who changed the discourse on gender equality with their music. In one fan’s recording of an Amman concert, lead singer Hamed Sinno’s voice is barely audible in “Wa Nueid,” an anthem that captures the frustrations leading up to Arab Spring and asks to push onward. His voice is drowned out by the crowd screaming every lyric like a battle hymn, and it just so happens to take place in the very amphitheatre whose “authenticity” the government feels it must protect.
Despite the Ministry’s official reasoning, Sinno explained to VICE Canada’s Simon Coutu how conservative authorities influenced the government’s change of heart. Mashrou’ Leila were informally told that because of their progressive stance, conservative religious figures pressured city authorities. The band didn’t cancel the concert right away because they believed Jordan’s government would eventually come to their senses and grant the license to perform. “They kept making us wait,” Hamed explained, “but then a parliament member, someone from the ministry of interior, and a clergyman all started making statements that they support the ban on Mashrou’ Leila, and they think our music is at odds with what they define as Jordanian morality and customs and tradition.”
Not only were they forced to cancel, but they were told that the censorship was permanent. According to their statement, they are forever banned from performing in Jordan due to their “political and religious beliefs and endorsement of gender equality and sexual freedom.”
Mashrou’ Leila are no strangers to controversy, thanks to their politically charged lyrics and advocacy of gay rights. But in their interview with VICE, they pointed out that it is not just Islamic fundamentalism that has censored their work, but Christian conservatism as well. Recalling an earlier situation in Lebanon, Hamed said, “Someone on the municipality said that because of our endorsement of LGBT rights, we should not be allowed to set foot in that city because that city should be the ‘beacon of Christian righteousness.’”
Jordan has joined the list of otherwise-functioning governments that continues to cave to right-wing bullies in their ranks, most notably from conservative religious sects. The pandemic of censorship is by no means exclusive to the Middle East, and with it comes more and more cultural boycotts and creative resistance. It’s hard not to compare the disappointment of Jordan’s leilaholics to music lovers stuck in North Carolina, after several artists boycotted the state’s own discriminatory policies. Sure, Mashrou’ Leila didn’t have much of a choice in canceling their show, but it yielded the same result: a government that bends to religious conservatism alienates the creative class.
For Hamed, the biggest problem facing the cultural sector—not just in Jordan but increasingly in the Middle East—has to do with the way the political class is quick to pander to the religious fundamentalism around the region. “Wherein other places you can make the distinction between the political class and the religious elites, the Middle East is not a place where you can do that very comfortably.”
Fans can at least take some solace in knowing that Jordan’s decision to censor the band backfired royally. The backlash was so abundant amongst fans, artists, and LGBT activists that Mashrou’ Leila showed a little sympathy for Jordan, hoping they’ll change their mind. But if the Hashemite Kingdom continues on the path of bowing to the religious right, censorship can only drive out the musicians, authors, and other artists to the point of cultural irrelevance. “They’re trying to pass off the monoculturalism as some sort of ‘authenticity,’” Hamed explained. But that kind of authenticity can stagnate even the most vibrant cities, condemning them to a homogenous hell. If Jordan’s Ministry of Tourism wants to censor expressions of sexuality and religious freedom, artists will have no choice but to take those conversations elsewhere.
Masrou' Leila Tour Dates
May 31—Brooklyn, NY: Music Hall of Williamsburg
June 3—Chicago, IL: Logan Square Auditorium
June 4— Detroit, IL: Grenadier Club
June 6—Boston, MA: TBD
June 9—Boston, MA: TBD
June 13—Washington, D.C.: The Hamilton
June 15—San Francisco, CA: Great American Music Hall
June 17—Los Angeles, CA: Grand Performances, Watercourt Stage
June TBD—San Diego, CA
June 24—New York, NY: (Le) Poisson Rouge
June 27—Vancouver: Biltmore Cabaret
June 29—Montreal: International Jazz Festival
July 2—Toronto: Pride Toronto Festival
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