Jordan bans Lebanese rock band after furor over queer frontman
A popular Lebanese rock band has been barred from performing a concert in Jordan after lawmakers objected to the lead singer’s sexuality, a Jordanian politician told CNN.
Jordan’s Interior Ministry canceled the Mashrou’ Leila gig, which was scheduled to take place in Amman later this month, following a petition from members of Jordanian Parliament and a widespread local media campaign protesting the concert.
Interior Minister Ghaleb Al Zobi could not be reached for comment, but Tourism Minister Lina Annab confirmed that the cancellation order was issued due to opposition “that could not be ignored.” The Tourism Ministry had initially approved the performance, listing itself as one of the event’s “strategic partners.”
Hamed Sinno, an Arab-American and the band’s frontman and main lyricist, openly identifies as queer. Jordanian MP Dima Tahboub told CNN Thursday that this was “exactly” the reason why she and a number of Jordanian MPs called on the Interior Ministry to cancel the concert.
“Most of the Jordanian people had a firm say on not hosting such a band in Jordan,” Tahboub said, adding that the band’s opinions and lyrics about sexuality were “against the religion and norms of the country.”
Annab told CNN that although the government didn’t necessarily endorse the reasoning behind the lawmakers’ call for a ban, “matters escalated quite quickly to the extent that we saw that it is probably better to cancel at this time.”
“The cancellation of the concert was simply because (opposition) escalated in a very quick manner at a time when there wasn’t enough time for anybody, especially the organizers or the group, to be able to dispel any of the misperceptions and any of the misunderstandings about what this group is all about,” said Annab.
“Obviously, there’s a misunderstanding about what the group’s message is,” said Annab.
It’s not the first time that Mashrou’ Leila, an indie rock outfit that has performed across the world, has been barred from playing at an Amman concert. The band was also briefly banned in 2016.
Sinno told CNN that the band had received death threats in recent weeks. The singer has also been the target of a widespread local media and social media campaign in Jordan calling for a ban.
“I don’t think anyone could wake up to an endless stream of death threats and insults without taking it to heart,” Sinno said.
A regional hub for the band’s fanbase
Mashrou’ Leila, whose name translates to “The Night Project,” was formed at the American University of Beirut in 2008 and rose to fame across the Middle East during the Arab Spring.
The band considers Jordan a regional hub for its fan base, because crowds at Amman concerts tend to come from the West Bank, Syria and Iraq — countries the group cannot perform in because of political unrest.
“At the end of the day, we’re musicians. We want to play shows. We want to continue writing music. This is our job,” Mashrou’ Leila violinist Haig Papazian told CNN.
“So when you have a whole country that bans you from playing your music, it’s like a slap in your face.”
“They don’t know what this band is”
Papazian said he was taken aback by the “aggressiveness” of the media campaign to get the band banned.
“If you read all the media statements that have been coming out from Jordanian press, they’re assuming that the whole band is gay and trying to promote gayness or homosexuality,” Papazian told CNN.
“It’s as if the people are going to come to this show, listen to the music, watch the performance and turn gay. They don’t know what the band is,” he added.
The band boasts four albums of alt-rock music with Arabic lyrics that tackle social issues, corruption, sexism and sexuality.
In a 2010 concert at one of Lebanon’s most preeminent venues, the band performed a song that chastised government corruption while Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri sat in the audience. Hariri left shortly after.
The band was featured on the front cover of Rolling Stone Middle East and has toured in Europe and the U.S.. The Financial Times called the group “the Arab world’s hottest indie band,” and the Guardian predicted that stadium-sized gigs in the future “seem not only possible but imminent.”
The band sees its growing international profile as an opportunity to fight back against rising Islamophobia in the western world.
“Over the last 3 years of playing Europe and the Americas, we have repeatedly leveraged our position in the public eye to be particularly vocal about defending the Arab and Islamic community,” the band wrote in a statement about the canceled Amman concert.
“It is disheartening to see a few members of that community trying to pit that very same community against us.”