Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
The gay, Muslim lead singer of Beirut’s Mashrou‘ Leila spoke out against simplistic statements on Islam and the LGBT community.
The Beirut-based alt-rock band Mashrou‘ Leila (“Night Project”) just happened to be on a U.S. tour when the shootings at a gay nightclub in Orlando took place last week. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the very existence of Mashrou‘ Leila and its lead singer, Hamed Sinno, who is both Muslim and gay, became a source of interest in the U.S. media.
It started when Sinno spoke out in the wake of the incident, telling a Washington, D.C. audience: “There are a bunch of us who are queer who feel assaulted by that attack who can't mourn because we're also from Muslim families and we exist. This is what it looks like to be called both a terrorist and a faggot.”
By his own account, Sinno is not looking to represent an entire people—Muslim, gay, or otherwise. He told CNN he was surprised at how much he and his bandmates have been asked to speak for Arabs and Muslims. “No one really goes up to a white artist and says, ‘How do you represent your culture?,’” he said. He also told the Washington Blade that he merely wants American audiences to enjoy his music and “not be so simplistic about the Arab world.”
Yet Sinno’s public presence and Mashrou‘ Leila’s body of work, which in part focuses on LGBT issues, has made him something of a symbol of LGBT Muslim activism in Lebanon, the wider Middle East, and now in the United States. Some of Mashrou‘ Leila’s songs discuss challenges facing the LGBT community in Lebanon and beyond. In “Shim el Yasmine” (Smell the Jasmine) Sinno sings about wishing he could introduce a male lover to his parents, and “Tayf” (Ghost) recounts a police raid on a gay club near Beirut.
Tarek Zeidan, an activist with Helem—the Arab world’s first official LGBT rights organization, formed in 2004 in Beirut—warns that looking at Mashrou‘ Leila solely through the lens of Sinno’s sexuality and religion risks simplifying what the band represents. “Mashrou‘ Leila is about so much more than homosexuality and Islam,” he tells CityLab. “Its songs deal with issues that many Lebanese, particularly young people, are rising up against—issues like censorship, corruption, police brutality, and everyday Arab politics.”
Yet Zeidan also finds it almost providential that Mashrou‘ Leila happened to be touring the United States when the tragedy occurred. “This band acts as living proof that many identities overlap and coexist within Arab and Muslim cultures,” he says. “As an indicator of this reality, Mashrou‘ Leila is worth paying attention to.”