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Mashrou' Leila Performance Canceled At Lebanon Music Festival


The band Mashrou' Leila has built up a huge following in the last decade, especially in their home country, Lebanon.


MASHROU' LEILA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: The frontman and lead singer is gay, and some of the songs are political. In the past, that has caused problems in Jordan and Egypt. Now organizers of a music festival in Lebanon have canceled a Mashrou' Leila show, saying the festival is trying to prevent bloodshed after threats from Christian leaders in the country. Lebanon is considered relatively liberal. So NPR's Ruth Sherlock is with us now from Beirut to talk about what's going on.

Hi, Ruth.


SHAPIRO: First, you've spent time with these guys. You did a profile of them for NPR a couple of years ago. What are they like?

SHERLOCK: Well, they met as architecture students at the Lebanese university. And you really feel that when you meet them, you know? The lead singer, Hamed Sinno, was wearing glasses and a simple black shirt, so he seemed quite earnest. And he spoke to me a lot about how their songs are, in part, about celebrating diversity - everything from LGBTQ rights to gender equality - at the same time, rejecting stereotypes like of Muslim women as being not so empowered.


HAMED SINNO: Just come to one of our gigs, and you see all these women who are veiled, who are just, like, celebrating other people's diversity, who are clearly not without agency.

SHERLOCK: So this was around the time that their song "Roman" had come out. And in that video, you see this veiled woman that's breakdancing. I went to see them in Lebanon in 2017, and the crowds just loved hearing the song.


MASHROU' LEILA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHERLOCK: There was a real mix of ages in the audience, and people said that they saw Mashrou' Leila as being a kind of refreshing take in a region that spends so much of its time focused on war.

SHAPIRO: So these guys perform in Lebanon. They have a huge following in Lebanon. Why has their concert been canceled? Who's opposing them?

SHERLOCK: Well, they were meant to play in the Christian town of Byblos, and the Christian Maronite archbishop of that town has said that they violate religious values. Then Catholic organizations weighed in too, as well as some Christian members of parliament. They're, in particular, objecting to two songs. One called "Asnam" or "Idols" and "Djin," which is a Middle Eastern term for ghosts or spirits. Here's some of the music.


MASHROU' LEILA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHERLOCK: So the Christian groups are objecting to the line, I will drown my liver in gin in the name of the father and the son. But it's not really clear why they're calling for this now because these songs are from 2015. And Mashrou' Leila has played lots in this country since then.

SHAPIRO: Oh, so the song is playing on djin as in a ghost, like a spirit, or also gin as in booze, like a spirit. I mean, why are...

SHERLOCK: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: ...People now raising these objections when the band has played in Lebanon for years?

SHERLOCK: I asked that question to Ayman Mhanna. He's the executive director of the Samir Kassir Foundation, which works to promote freedom of expression. He says this is part of a pattern of growing repression in Lebanon.

AYMAN MHANNA: We've had many cases of online activists being summoned, detained, journalists being sentenced to prison to a long series of movies, books and bands, as well as cultural events related to LGBT rights, for example, that were banned or cancelled in the last few months.

SHERLOCK: So Lebanon canceled its pride event last year. And Mhanna says that the state isn't doing enough to push back against these many different religious groups, both Christian and Muslim. And so it isn't protecting the freedoms of expressions that, he says, are written into the country's constitution.

SHAPIRO: What's the response been from the band?

SHERLOCK: They've called the attacks a defamatory campaign. And they say that the words in the songs that the Christian leaders cited have been cherry-picked and taken out of context. They say they don't intend in any way to disrespect people's religions.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut.

Thanks, Ruth.

SHERLOCK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MASHROU' LEILA SONG, "3 MINUTES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.