From Mashrou3 Leila To Our Freedoms: Religious Censorship in Lebanon Is Killing The Country

Picture this, a song released over 3 years ago is suddenly noticed by the collective praying masses, and crucifixes are drawn. Picture this, a meme posted on a Facebook page lands you in court. It’s not a meme you even did.

This is what is happening with Mashrou3 Leila, the top Lebanese band that has been the prime representation of Lebanese indie music all around the world. They’ve been on world tours, selling out arenas across the world. Their latest highlight was a show at the prestigious Olympia in Paris, where people like Fairuz have performed before.

Except now, ahead of their August 9th concert, Mashrou3 Leila are not welcome in their own home country, on the very same stage of the Byblos Festival that helped propel their career forward around a decade ago.

I know I haven’t blogged in a while. But this is something that I felt is important enough for me to resurrect this space in order to shout, to whoever would listen or read, that this persecution of Mashrou3 Leila, in the overall bigger picture of our freedoms in this country being killed off on the daily, is a precedence we should not stay silent to.

The song in question, Djin, from their last-released LP, Ibn El Leil, references a baptism with gin in the name of the father and the son. That’s it. The meme in question was posted on Hamed Sinno’s personal facebook page was that of an icon in which the face of the Virgin Mary was replaced with singer Madonna. Hamed Sinno did not make that meme. He is not the first human on the face of this planet to make memes out of religious iconography, but for the Maronite archdioceses as well as Christian political parties, he might as well have been the first ever visionary.

It is to the background of a song and that meme that calls for bans of the band started up, and like an avalanche they kept rolling, with support from certain media figures and politicians. Even the Maronite Archdiocese of Jbeil had to weigh in with a statement of condemnation.

I believe the Christians’ problem with Mashrou3 Leila is not just about a song or a meme, which they want you to believe. It is inherently about the values that that band and its members represent. Hamed Sinno is the first openly gay artist of the entire Middle East. The band has been a forefront in LBGTQ representation in the region, and a view into the lives of Arab queer artists to the world. Their songs have been a representation of a Lebanese current that is not beholden to Christian or Muslim establishments. They represent a youth that is atheist, loud, proud, and trying to change a status quo that religious authorities are not comfortable with.

There, herein, lies the main problem. It is the threat that a band like Mashrou3 Leila poses to religious hegemony in the country that is so frightening to them, so they call to ban it. It’s in the same vein of a show being banned because a Muslim clerk decided it mis-represented the prophet. It’s in the same vein of the calls for bans that rise up every now and then for political reasons in the country. Haven’t you ever wondered why they keep happening often, and why we are hearing about these bans more and more these days?

I wonder, if Lebanese Christians are SO offended by a song or a meme, what would they do, for instance, if they are exposed collectively to a show like The Handmaid’s Tale, a post-apocalyptic Christian theocracy, where those same beliefs they hold so dear are challenged in the form of gross misinterpretation that turns anyone who is not male and white into a third class subordinate, where women are raped in the name of God and procreation, and where their fingers are cut off if they even read?

The even more baffling entity among all this is the sheer silliness and hypocrisy. I remember during the 2009 elections, one of the FPM’s main politicians posted a picture to Facebook with an icon of the Virgin Mary and in her heart, instead of Jesus, was Michel Aoun. Both iconographied-memes are in the same vein. Except one of the two will never face repercussions for his actions.

The amount of silliness does not stop here. The following is an actual post, by a priest, who decides that Leila in Mashrou3 Leila, in reference for night, is a satanic reference. He even uses a book he wrote as a reference. Of course, homosexuality is also ridiculed in the priest’s post, further reinforcing the point that the band’s queerness is under prosecution here too:

Even Carla Haddad, your favorite weather girl, decided to weigh in:

And – because this is the go-to insult for everyone these days – the band was even accused of being a Zionist propaganda machine, even though their latest song and video are clear condemnation of Israeli occupation of Palestine:

All of this is happening to the background of actual physical threats facing the band, and those who decide to attend the concert.

I think the culmination of it all was when Mashrou3 Leila were dragged to court because of a lawsuit filed against them for “offending religions.” While the judge dismissed the suit, she did not do so because it is Mashrou3 Leila’s right to sing whatever they want, or because the lawsuit itself was so silly. She did it under the condition of the band members meeting with priests, sheikhs, political officials from the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement, for them to issue an apology and to stop performing their “offensive” songs.

Today, the song Djin is no longer on Mashrou3 Leila’s official YouTube station. Of course, you can still find it online if you need to. After all, it is still 2019 even if some Lebanese mindsets are stuck in 1345.

But it is the precedence of this judge deciding that a band better be trialed in the court of public opinion that is harrowing. Our laws are not even made to protect us, our freedoms, and our voices. Instead, the judge allowed four young men whose talents have shone across continents, to be scrutinized by religious bearded men of the cloak whose boundaries have not extended beyond the 09 region, and by political figures whose names are not even relevant. Why? For the sake of sensibilities that are all too sensitive.

You see, at the end of the day, it’s all quite simple. If your religion and belief cannot withstand something as trivial as a song, a meme, or a pop culture moment, then that says more about your beliefs and faith than about what you’re offended of.

I salute those very few priests who know that, once upon a time, Jesus said to turn the left cheek to that who hits your right. I salute those religious people who know that their Christianity is not offended by a lyric or a meme. I salute those who know that the true act of freedom is to voice a counter opinion, not to silence those you disagree with.

Irreverence is a sign of modernity. With every ban, every example of the Lebanese state failing us, every call for censorship just because someone is upset, I am convinced day in and day out that the country I left years ago is in full blown reverse gear and heading backwards, as far from modernity, as possible. Our country is being killed every single day by these religious men who are offended at everything. How long will it be before our breathing space is further extinguished, I wonder?

It is 2019. راح غطس كبدي بالجن بأسـم الاب والابن has caused a national crisis in Lebanon. Oh how far we have come.

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Mashrou’ Leila’s Ibn El Leil; Ab: Beit Byout; Film Ktir Kbeer: When Lebanese Art Is Great

Amidst the very dismal situation in the country, of which I’ve written and nagged your head about plenty, there are currently three emblems of Lebanese art shining bright of which I think we should all take notice. The three acts/events I’m about to highlight have not paid me to support them and probably don’t need my support anyway, but I’ve found their offering to be so impressive that I think it should be highlighted.

Ab: Beit Byout:

Ab Beit Byout

Ab: Beit Byout is the Lebanese take on August: Osage County, the award-winning turned-movie play, which you probably know because of both Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep who received Oscar nominations for their roles.

It’s the story of a very dysfunctional family meeting around their matriarch at the event of the disappearance and eventual death of their father. What ensues is sheer acting brilliance, a mouthful of dialogue that is as biting as it is seething with anger, regret, sadness and joy.

The adaptation to a Lebanese audience is great. It manages to carry enough of the punches of its American counterpart without feeling like a word for word copy or a subpar rip off. There are enough Lebanese aspects to it to make the play feel very relatable, very “I’ve seen such a thing take place in my hometown.”

Catch it at Babel Theatre in Hamra.

Film Ktir Kbeer (Very Big Shot):

Film Ktir Kbeer Poster

Nothing about this movie encouraged me to watch it. The title didn’t make sense. The poster felt like yet another Lebanese action-movie-wannabe. Confession time: I was extremely wrong.

Film Ktir Kbir is the kind of movies you’ve been wanting Lebanese filmmakers to make but as they were too busy making “Bebe” and movies about the civil war or about Christians hating Muslims and vice versa.

“Very Big Shot” is the story of 3 siblings who, after growing up in lower socio-economic standards, find themselves in deep trouble after getting involved with a drug lord, causing them to devise an ingenious way to save themselves.

There’s plenty of curse words, plenty of “every day” banter, and few cliches that are mostly spun as jokes. The acting is great. The script is extremely tightly written albeit the ending felt a bit rushed. It’s a movie that is equally fiction and equally a criticism of Lebanese society and politics.

Keep an open mind to it and give it a shot. I bet you won’t be disappointed.

Mashrou’ Leila’s “Ibn El Leil”:

Ibn El Leil

The opening song of Mashrou’ Leila’s newest album “Ibn El Leil” is an ethereal, mostly instrumental track called Aoede and it sets the tone for an album that is both more mature, more cohesive and more sonically impressive than anything they’ve offered before.

If you’re a fan of what they’ve done before – their song “Lil Watan” is excellent – then this album will be right up your alley. If you’ve been iffy about this Lebanese band, give this album a shot: there are some tracks there that are so nicely done they might change your mind.

After launching this album at London’s “Barbican,” The Guardian wrote about how this Lebanese band might be on the brink of finally exploding and filling stadiums instead of smaller venues. Perhaps that will happen one day, but what is sure for now is that “Ibn el Leil” is one hell of an album filled with songs that not only defy Arab and Lebanese stereotypes, but are eons above and beyond anything that is offered musically in the region.

In their latest offering, Mashrou’ Leila are breaking the confines of what Arab music was allowed to say. It’s a joy to listen to.

 

 

Listen to: 3 Minutes; Kalam; Tayf; Ashabi; Marrikh.

Welcome To The Republic of Cheap Controversy

We, as Lebanese, sure know how to breed controversies. We love it. We adore it. We feed our need for gossip off of it. And it happens so often without it becoming redundant.

We have a need for it.

The latest:

Yes, you guessed it: Mashrou3 Leila’s decision not to open for RHCP.

The discussion regarding Mashrou3 Leila nuclear bombing themselves by giving up their opening gig for the RHCP took a turn that I didn’t foresee. It became less and less about how they got to their decision and more about whether their decision was correct or not.

Of course, the debate isn’t about supporting the Palestinians or not. It’s not about hating Israel or not.

Were they bullied? Or did they reach their decision out of conviction? And it is here that I believe is the issue’s main question.

Mashrou3 Leila signed to be the RHCP’s opening act a long time ago. They knew RHCP had a concert in Israel and yet they still signed the contract. To say they didn’t know about the Israeli concert would infer they are massively ignorant, which they are not. So for all matters and purposes, they didn’t care about the next stops on RHCP’s tour.

And they canceled their gig. Were they bullied into it? Well, speaking from experience, the anti-Israel crowd have a knack for making anyone who doesn’t play for them feel as if he’s an accomplice to killing all the Palestinian children.

You’re not with us? Then you’re a traitor and I hope you can sleep at night knowing the blood of Palestinians is on your hands and knowing that you are also stealing their land. 

It is the same Bush-era logic that they love to hate: you are either with us or against us. You can’t be in between.

Select Lebanese bloggers know how it is when you don’t write in agreement with them. They will bash you. They will threaten you. They will call you names. They will make you feel as if you’ve done something wrong which you perfectly know you didn’t. And if you’re tough enough, you won’t budge.

Mashrou3 Leila budged. And the ripple that they caused was deafening. For instance, BeirutSpring, a renowned Lebanese blogger who doesn’t address all issues that happen in Lebanon and when he does, he addresses the issue with one short and straight to the point post, wrote not once (click here) but twice (click here) about Leila. That second post has a ton of comments, some of which are proclaiming exactly what I alluded to before. Treason and then treason and then treason some more.

The BDS people should be proud. Commenting from their awesome new Macbook.

Another controversy:

We might also be the only country in the world where enforcing a smoking ban is met with a wave of anger and disgrace and people throwing around brilliant logic to justify opposing the ban. You want a taste of that logic? Click here.

Has any other country in the world caused so much controversy by simply applying a law straight out of the 1980s in 2012? Definitely not.

But in Lebanon it did. A smoking ban became an issue of national debate even though it shouldn’t. Smoking somehow morphed into a basic human right, which it isn’t. Some restaurants are even opting not to follow the law – and they’re proud of it (click here).

Some people have said: “the smoking ban supporters preach. The restaurant owners speak facts. The former need to rest their case – they’re not making sense.” Our need for controversy transcends our ability for logical reasoning. So we go with the flow of beautiful rhetoric that pleases our brain cortices and tickles our enthusiasm. Scientific studies? The hell with that. For reference, this is a British case study that shows a positive economic impact for smoking bans (click here).

Previous controversies:

The Lebanese Olympic squad and its Israel-related incident may or may not have happened. But it sure has caused a frenzy. I even asked this simple question: wouldn’t it be a greater victory if we play and win? Wouldn’t it be greater if we debate them and put them where they belong?

All hell broke loose. Because expressing your opinion is frowned upon – unless your opinion is mainstream. Getting called a traitor? It’s become my favorite pastime lately.

The Republic of Cheap Controversy:

When you realize that two of those controversies happened within a week and the third one happened within a month of the other two, you get three national “debates” that have led nowhere except have people go at each other’s throats in such a short timeframe. That’s also without taking into consideration Michel Samaha, the Mekdads or Myriam Klink or anything else that happened in the past couple of months. The republic of cheap controversy unfolds in front of you.

It’s not a republic of shame as LBC wants you to believe. It’s not the republic of anarchy as I’ve told you before (here). It’s another face of Lebanon, one that we don’t notice because it has become so deeply engrained in the fabrics of our society that we don’t notice it anymore – we don’t even notice how often we do it.

Our controversies address deep issues sometimes but more often than not they simply scrap the surface of far deeper problems without diving in. We live off of that – discussions that give us something to talk about while steering clear from more “pressing” issues (the election law comes to mind). Sometimes the discussion is cheap and shallow. Other times, the “discussion” takes a dangerous turn when the allegiance of others and their moral values come into play.

And people are interested in reading and talking about it because it gives them a sense of participating. And we write about it because it makes us feel important – that we are heard and some people want to know what we have to say. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. We’ve all done it.

When will the next controversy take place? I would say it’s a 50-50 chance for next week. Do we love it? Maybe not. Welcome to the Republic of Cheap Controversy.

 

Adonis: A New Lebanese Band

Adonis is the latest band to grace the Lebanese music scene, after the successes of Meen and Mashrou3 Leila. After wanting to and not being able to go to a concert they had at Beirut’s new “it” place Dictateur, I wanted to know what Adonis was: what their sound resembled and if they were worth the hype that reached me through word of mouth. I only got exposed to their music today through their second music video, for the song “Ma Kan Mafroud,” which features Tina Yamout.

The band started last year when lead singer Anthony Khoury and a friend of his, Joey Abou Jawdeh, the band’s guitarist, got together and decided to put some music to Anthony’s lyrics. Soon enough, Anthony’s brother Fabio Khoury, the bassist, and his friend Nicola Hakim, the band’s drummer, and Vladimir Kurumilian on piano. Slowly things started happening for Adonis. They wrote more songs, met musicians with whom they collaborated and from whom they learned. Then they started recording and doing shows here and there. During 2011, their reputation started growing around Lebanon as they appeared in many festivals and had a music video out, as well as an album called “Daw el Baladiyyi.”

The inspiration of their name comes from the small town of Adonis in Mount Lebanon. For lead singer Anthony Khoury, the dullness of this town gave him inspiration for the songs that he wrote. Or as he describes it:

“I started finding magic in the smallest and most fleeting of details, like a street light under which I had my first kiss, or a rooftop on which my childhood friends and I used to hang out on hot summer nights, or a sidewalk or a water tank or or or…. These things and places became solid anchors around which stories, memories, characters are built and given life. The name Adonis evokes in our local imagery the small town as much as the myth, the dull as much as the magical. And it’s precisely in the flickering boundary between these two, the dull and the magical, the ordinary and the poetic, the common and the sacred, that our music is weaved.”

Their sound is very folky. It’s more Mashrou3 Leila than Meen but it’s quite dissimilar from Mashrou3 Leila as well. Lead singer Anthony Khoury describes their sound as one “based on lyrics. We shape our music around texts that generally deal with belonging and identity conflicts, in a sometimes light, sometimes darker and more nostalgic tone, [while] we stay away from direct social commentary and parody.”

And it shows. If anything, their song with Tina Yamout and the fusion they create reminds me of a folk American band I have come to appreciate very recently called The Civil Wars. That is without a doubt a compliment to the sound of this band because The Civil Wars are stunning.

Also, lucky readers, it so happens that I know one of the people who’s part of their most recent music video, for  “Ma Kan Mafroud,”  a song which deals with the theme of loss and the natural instinct to eventually move on.

The video was shot in one night in Sin El Fil and it tells the story of four characters: one that had a miscarriage, one that lost a sister, one that had her country stolen and one who lost a lover. Each one of those characters has a sad story and is seeking catharsis. This salvation will happen through their journey in the bus. The music video, directed by Robert Cremona, depicts the bus ride, where we find Tina Yamout and the band as omniscient narrators, to the backdrop of the characters as they express their grief and their desire to move forward with their lives.

Check out the new music video:

As well as their Facebook page and website.