Egypt’s recent crackdown on LGBTQ people, activists, artists and allies — including recent laws punishing them with prison time — all began on September 25 after seven people were arrested for raising a rainbow flag at the concert of Mashrou’ Leila. A Lebanese band whose name means “A Night Project” in Arabic, Mashrou’ Leila’s lead singer, Hamed Sinno, is openly gay. Sinno recently spoke with Rolling Stone about their feelings on the crackdown and whether they feel responsible.
“The concert itself for us was just magical. It felt like such a loving, happy audience,” Sinno said. “It’s been really difficult, sort of hitting that high and then having it get perverted into what it is now.”
For a couple days after, I really started to question everything we’ve been doing for the last 10 years. A big part of what we do … is about trying to create sort of a cultural roster for people to identify with and feel emboldened by. And it felt like for a few days, we had to doubt whether we were actually doing that, or if we were just feeding the trolls.
According to Rolling Stone, the band formed in 2008 at the American University of Beirut and has “long been outspoken about LGBTQ issues in their music and public statements,” tackling gender, sexuality and politics in their work. One of their songs, “Tayf” (“Ghost”), is a “solemn but defiant” song referencing a Beirut gay bar shut down by Lebanese authorities in 2013.
Here is Mashrou’ Leila performing their pro-gay song “Tayf”:
Mashrou’ Leila is one of the most popular rock bands in the Middle East. But despite the band’s over 500,000 Facebook followers and millions of YouTube views, Mashrou’ Leila has faced online haters, cancelled performances and death threats just for their openness to sexuality.
While homosexuality is mot explicitly illegal in Egypt, police will sometimes get gay and bisexual men to trade sexy personal pics on social apps and then bust the men later for “publishing online debauchery.” Suspected gay and bi men are sometimes subjected to sexually humiliating, torturous and medically inconclusive anal exams before trial to “prove” their homosexuality.
The LGBTQ community experienced a short period of open living in Cairo amid other musicians, artists and socially engaged young people following the overthrow of the Egyptian government in the 2011 Arab Spring, writes Peter Holslin.
But after the 2013 overthrow of Egypt’s elected leader by the country’s military, the current ruler Abdel Fattah al-Sisi began targeting gay citizens in raids and arrests. Around 70 people have been arrested since the flag incident, according to Dalia Abdel Hameed, gender and women’s rights officer at the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and 27 have already been convicted to six months to six years in prison.
“Do I get that feeling of responsibility? Yes and no,” Sinno said. “I realize completely that this has nothing actually to do with the band. This is essentially about our governments being regressive and refusing to stop taking away peoples’ rights that are their rights. This isn’t about the band at all. But it still feels like it is.”
The amount of hate that you would be able to see on social media is a testament to how necessary it is to constantly have that conversation in the public domain. We’re talking about victimless actions between consenting adults, and this kind of hate is completely irrational. So on the one hand, that debate obviously needs to be happening. But on the other hand, it’s also really important for us and for the LGBTQ-plus community to have access to images of itself that are self-authored, that are not coming from a place of hate and condemnation, that are just about people having their lives and doing their work and surviving.
The band issued a statement about the arrest of the flag-holders at their concert and the anti-LGBTQ crackdown that followed via their official Facebook page:
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