by Yasmeen Adin
Gasping loudly was the only response my body was capable of when I listened to Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebenase indie rock band, for the first time. I mean, how would a 15-year-old Saudi questioning kid listening to someone singing “[translated from Arabic] The masses (literally: herd) accuse you of treason when you demand change in the motherland” react otherwise? I remember listening to this song, Lil Watan, over and over again, while gasping as if it was my first time listening to it. These gasps were fueled by the reality that freedom of expression was never fathomable to me -- how could Mashrou’ Leila, an Arab band led by openly queer singer and violinist, risk being arrested or assaulted as they sang publicly and unapologetically about topics ranging from the Arab Spring to LGBTQIA+ rights? Although I have found the answer to this question that accompanied me while listening to their albums that I’ve known by heart since 2015, I could not help but gasp as I saw the band I grew up with perform live last Saturday at The Regency Ballroom. I was, and I still am as I am writing this piece, in absolute awe.
A group of students at the American University in Beirut in 2008 decided to gather regularly to make music as a way to help them destress and practice. They decided to call themselves Mashrou’ Leila, which loosely translates to “a project of one night,” thinking their music would not survive, not knowing that they would be touring worldwide in 10 years. They are one of the pioneering Arab musicians who were not afraid to tackle taboos, even if it meant sacrificing their personal safety, receiving death threats, or being banned in some countries, including Lebanon. These sacrifices were natural and expected for a band whose music, in and of itself, is a revolution against the norms and cultures of the people they write and sing about. To be a band that discusses gay sex, transphobia, feminisim, AND in Arabic and not only survive, but also flourish, is something that has seemed surreal even to them. But it did not seem surreal to me. Their survival and success was a must.
When the representation of certain marginalized groups, especially within Arab communities, is nonexistent, any glimpse of representation, in whichever form it may take, feels refreshing and unprecedented. But those labeled as ‘pioneers’ may bring disappointments to the groups they are representing due to their unavoidable problematic nature. My bias and admiration of Mashrou’ Leila may be clear here; however, they do deserve the platform they were given and show commitment to amplifying the voices they represent. When discussing sensitive topics, such as trans bodies, that do not necessarily relate to some of their experiences as cisgendered men, Mashrou’ Leila has never claimed that they have given those communities voices. Everyone has a voice, but our queer, trans, nonconforming voices are marginalized, policed, and tortured. They just amplify those voices through their art, and they do it magically. Being exposed to this magic at the age of fifteen seemed frightening yet liberating and empowering as it accompanied, and partially ignited, a lot of unlearning and healing I underwent to thoroughly accept the fluidity of my body and emotions. Whether listening to Inni Mneeh and experiencing the disappointment and solitude coming with loving one’s country while hating its fucked up government, or listening to Shim El Yasmine and being introduced to the first ever gay love story in Arabic, this band creates a space, for a few minutes on Spotify or two hours on stage, where my existence is validated, acknowledged, and celebrated.
The preparations of their two-hour performance began three months ago and was preceded by a crying session before purchasing the ticket, a crying session after purchasing the ticket, and a crying session in between. Beyond regular crying sessions, the preparations extended to borrowing and choosing outfits with friends (shoutout to Nadia!), showering at midnight while revising their lyrics and ensuring I knew each one by heart, and telling every stranger I meet for the first time that Mashrou’ Leila’s upcoming concert will be my first concert. And was all of the anticipation and the physical and emotional effort poured into it worth it? YES. AAAAAAAHHH. It took my brain a few seconds to process that I was seeing them live when they came from backstage. When Hamed Sinno started reciting a poem, Haig Papazian held the violin, Carl Gerges stood behind the drums, and Firas Abu-Fakhr played a few keys of the piano, I reacted the same way I reacted when I listened to Lil Watan -- I could do nothing but gasp. My body moved involuntarily as they played the first song; it was finally in the space that it longed to be, where it could dance, move, and jump carelessly and unapologetically. For two hours, it was able to exist in a space and be whatever it wanted to be as it mourned as they performed Marrikh and almost exploded with joy as they performed Radio Romance. The scene capturing my movement was actually rare. To be queer, dancing joyously AND publicly and share these moments with complete strangers who only bonded with you over trauma AND feel safe? What a concept! But beyond sarcasm, this is how I felt, how we felt, during the few moments we were inside the Regency Ballroom, where I gasped endlessly.