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Mashrou' Leila
Mashrou' LeilaPhotography Tarek Moukaddem

A day with Mashrou’ Leila, the new face of Middle Eastern pop music

They sell out stadiums, and their frontman has been hailed as an LGBTQ+ Arab youth icon – but the four-piece band still think they’re misunderstood

Mashrou’ Leila were not meant to last. Their band name, which loosely translates to “overnight project” in Arabic, reflects how temporary the four-piece expected all of this to be when they first formed at the American University of Beirut in 2008. Today, though, the band play to tens of thousands at sold-out shows across the world, and have been lauded by critics and fans as the face of Arab and Middle Eastern alternative pop music today.

“I think we all recognise that it’s miraculous for a band to make it to ten years,” says lead singer Hamed Sinno, sipping on his tea to nurse his tonsils. “It tends to be, like, three years, and you’re breaking up by the second album.”

We’re sitting alongside the rest of the band members at the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch a day after their sold-out show at London’s Roundhouse. Mashrou’ Leila has seen members come and go over the past decade (at its busiest, seven members were on-stage at any one time), but today, they’re made up of drummer Carl Gerges, lead singer Hamed Sinno, violinist Haig Papazian, and multi-instrumentalist Firas Abou Fakher. Sinno, the most political and academically spoken of the four, is bullish in his approach to answering questions, while Papazian is a direct contrast: softly spoken, shy, and elusive in his answers, if he does say anything. Gerges is lively, Sinno’s foil in the manner they bounce ideas and topics off each other, while Firas waits, patiently, for his turn to talk. And, despite the appearance that he may be the quietest of the quartet, his passion comes through when he has the floor to speak.

Mashrou’ Leila’s music has evolved over their decade of existence, from their debut albums indie, folk, and pop roots, to the polished electro-pop of their most recent album, 2015’s Ibn El Leil, and this year’s single, “Cavalry”. Their lyrics are inherently feminist and progressive (“Fasateen” tackles attitudes towards marriage, “Shim el Yasmine” addresses sexuality, while “Maghawir” describes a club shooting), but since lead singer Hamed Sinno came out and has maintained prominence as an openly gay entertainer, a rarity in Lebanese culture, he’s been compared to Freddie Mercury, and lauded as a role model for young, queer Arab youth.

Still, while LGBTQ+ rights in the Middle East is a cause that Sinno is happy to champion, he’s wary of the entire group being reduced to a ‘queer band’. “It gets tiring,” Sinno confesses. “It’s so frivolous. Honestly, ten years into this and we’re still answering questions like, ‘Yes, gay rights should be okay.’” He admits that Mashrou’ Leila don’t take their “platform in the public eye lightly”, and aim to give back as much as possible, but there is a reductive element to their actions if they get tokenised by them. “It creates this weird sort of dynamic within the group,” Sinno acknowledges. “I’m one-fourth of this band. It kind of makes me feel like an asshole, but it’s not something I’m doing by design.”

Mashrou’ Leila have had their share of problems in the past. They’ve been banned in Jordan, twice, for Sinno’s sexuality, and they’ve had key band members leave over the years. But it wasn’t until 2017 that the group faced their biggest challenge. With rainbow flags appearing at their last concert in Egypt at Cairo’s Music Festival, the Egyptian government cracked down on concert-goers. Several people were arrested for “promoting sexual deviancy”, part of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s suppression of homosexuality. One attendee was sentenced to jail for six years, while the number of people arrested grew to 65; some of those arrested were subject to anal tests to test for ‘gay sex’. Mashrou’ Leila were also banned by the Egyptian government from ever playing in the country again. Despite remaining publicly defiant in the face of injustice, Mashrou’ Leila started cracking from within.

“It gets tiring... Honestly, ten years into this and we’re still answering questions like, ‘Yes, gay rights should be okay’” – Hamed Sinno, Mashrou’ Leila

“We were acknowledging the fact that we’re banned from Egypt and Jordan and we can’t play to our biggest audiences,” drummer Carl Gerges explains. “There were a lot of things that we were doing,” adds keyboardist and guitarist Firas, “and we just kept on doing them, because that was the way they were moving and we didn’t have the proper time to fix things.” Tension was fraught. By 2018, it finally broke into a huge fight. Words were spoken, an email was sent, and Mashrou’ Leila were no more.

For nine months last year, the four-piece band had accepted that this was the end – until time saw them gravitate back towards one another late last year, healing wounds. “I think with any relationship at some point, you learn that there are things that you just need to leave,” Sinno acknowledges. “We’re trying out a system where we don’t step on each other's toes with certain things and we step on each other for other things.” Their current tour and recording process is an extension of this system; to see whether they can work together again after their biggest obstacle.

Middle Eastern and Lebanese queer scenes have existed for years, yet there is a hyper-focus on Mashrou’ Leila being leaders in the Arab queer world. Gerges echoes Sinno stating, “We’ve been advocates of environmental issues in the Middle East, women’s rights, political movements that are happening in Beirut that have directly affected our lives. I feel like everything is shown under this umbrella (of queer rights), even our music.”

“To focus on that is kind of bigoted,” Sinno implies. “To only place value on male liberationism, to look at four brown males, go, ‘Oh, they’re queer,’ and focus on that and ignore everything else, like the three other people in the group, is definitely orientalist.” Firas adds, “I think it plays into this trope of difference, of trying to plaster on sentiments over here onto the Arab world. Like saying, ‘Wow, Arabs are just now starting to realise that being gay is a thing that we should do’.”

The quartet, all of whom are self-proclaimed “music geeks”, bemoan the lack of focus on the music itself. “The last two albums that we’ve done, and the recent music that we’ve released, is something I’m really proud of,” Firas, a talented multi-instrumentalist, proudly points out. The band don’t have a permanent guitarist, instead using a violin as a prominent instrument, while their drums are always watertight, allowing Sinno’s voice to soar. They also started to embrace the studio as an instrument, having recorded from Montreal to France, and are obsessed with analogue synthesisers, like the Roland Juno 106, Moog Little Phatty, and the Prophet-5. Nowadays, they’re incorporating more of an influence from electronic music: Raasuk had elements of drum & bass, while Ibn El Leil recalled 1980s synth-pop. Their lyrics, too, have been provocative and challenging, most notably on “Tayf (Ghost)”, where Sinno sings, in Arabic, My life spent; with rights mortgaged off to your sentiments / My history erased from our books like they were yours to claim.”

Still, they know there are certain realities they have to face as a band: they’re from the Middle East, they don’t sing in English, and they get put in a box having an openly queer lead singer. “It’s changing slowly, but it has been this way for a long time,” Firas says. “(Last summer) we were one of two or sometimes the only non-English speaking band on stage. The outlets for non-English music are still very slim.” But in a world where artists like Rosalía and BTS can become global stars without making concessions to English-speaking audiences, Mashrou’ Leila hope that in the future they can find themselves on equal footing. With the band shut off from their large audiences in Egypt and Jordan, this is essential for their survival, too. “I think, at this point, career goals for us aren’t just getting Arabic music to chart anymore,” Sinno says. “It’s being a band that charts while being unmistakably from the Arab world.”

The band have made the decision to start singing in English, with tracks on their upcoming unnamed album due to feature English-led songs. It’s a decision that was years in the making. As a final note before they leave, multi-instrumentalist Firas lays out the band’s future ambitions, choosing his words very carefully. “One of the goals is to have people saying that this music, that this band, is relevant not necessarily because of where they’re from or what they’re saying or what it sounds like, but because it has some value to it intrinsically outside of that.” Despite the obstacles they’ve met so far, Mashrou’ Leila are determined that this is just the beginning of their journey, not the end. So much for being a one-night project.

Mashrou’ Leila’s The Beirut School gets a vinyl release on June 7