Over the past year, Hamed Sinno has emerged as the most prominent defender of gay rights in the Arab world. As the frontman of the Lebanese indie band Mashrou’ Leila, the Lebanese-American singer has long written about his experience as a gay man. In one haunting ballad, he alters traditional Arabic tropes about marriage to vocalize his desire for an old boyfriend. “I would have loved to keep you near me, introduce you to my parents, have you crown my heart,” he croons. “Cook your food, sweep your floors, spoil your kids, be your housewife.”
In 2017, however, two Arab governments decided they had heard enough. Jordan banned Mashrou’ Leila from playing in the country for the second time, after pushback from lawmakers who claimed that the band offended the country’s “customs and traditions.” Egypt, meanwhile, let a concert go forward — and then, after several fans waved rainbow flags at the event, rounded up dozens of concertgoers for “committing debauchery” in the days that followed. At least one detainee was sentenced to six years in prison in September as a result of the crackdown.
In October, the band hit back hard, saying in a statement that the anti-gay crackdown was just part of “the suffocating atmosphere of fear and abuse experienced by all Egyptians on a daily basis.” But Sinno also sees a glimmer of hope amid the state-sponsored bigotry; to his mind, the Egyptian government’s extreme reaction is a sign that it realizes it is losing ground in the public debate.
“I think that general public opinion is increasingly — obviously not predominantly — moving in the direction of increased tolerance,” he says. Sinno lives openly as a gay man in Beirut, and he hasn’t been afraid to tweak the Lebanese political elite: In a concert attended by the prime minister, he performed a song about how the ruling class had destroyed the country.
No other figure in the Arab world delivers such a message to an audience as large as the one Sinno commands. During a recent tour in the United States, his concerts drew sold-out crowds of hipsters and Arab expats — and he used his megaphone not only to critique the faults of Arab regimes but also to strike at the American preference for pithy stereotypes of the Arab world over the hard work of understanding it in all its complexity. The video for the song “Roman,” for example, inverts stereotypical images of Arab women to suggest that feminism is in fact organic to the Middle East. “I don’t intend to swallow your lies,” Sinno sings. “The words would sting my throat.”
That’s Sinno’s strength: He’s willing to speak truth to power, whether it’s bigoted Arab leaders or self-styled Western “experts,” who he believes underestimate the complexities of the Arab world.
“I still think there is this tendency to try to paint the Middle East or the Arab world with a broad brush, in one way or another,” he says. “There’s a tendency to discuss these grand mononarratives about what the Middle East is, or what Middle Eastern youth is, as if we weren’t a community like any other, with all its contradictions.”
David Kenner is Middle East editor at Foreign Policy.
The band’s name, which translates as “One-Night Project,” is a reference to the late-night jam sessions that initially brought together its members.
Despite its popularity, Mashrou’ Leila remains unsigned by a major record label, as the band members have pushed back against attempts by studio executives to manipulate the band’s image or change the sound in ways that they believe contradict their message.