I’m in a thick crowd of people with a couple of friends, waiting impatiently for Mashrou’ Leila to get on stage. My partner is sick and I’m exhausted from a long day of work, but still, we’re excited. I see a few friends scattered across the concert and text my friend T on the other side of the packed venue.
I text them jokes about all the tetas and 3amtos (grandmothers and aunties) in the crowd, a surprising twist given my own assumptions that older Arabs would not be interested in a queer-fronted band — one founded in my own lived experiences of homophobia and transphobia while visiting Lebanon. All around me, I see so many people that look like me, people that I didn’t believe could co-exist so openly in such proximity. It’s a lesson in recalibrating my assumptions.
That was 2017, two years after I first discovered Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese rock band started in 2008 and fronted by a gay singer. I really wanted to like them more than I did. While I usually give music the chance to grow on me, this felt more important — I had never heard of a queer-fronted Arab band.
And I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about them. I was lukewarm at best about the sounds, found some of the buildups corny, and sometimes the words were so stretched out I couldn’t understand them. I played them for my mom and even she didn’t understand the lyrics right away. As someone who prides themself on speaking fluent Arabic, who considers this a big part of their identity, it was a blow to my pride.
I went to an Arab school and spoke Arabic to my friends, merchants on the street, cashiers at Spinneys and chicken vendors at Tico Tico. I sang the songs of Fairouz and Wael Kfoury on the stone benches of my primary school Dar El Hadara in Lebanon, pretending to be a contestant on Star Academy. These days, I live in Canada, speaking to my friends in English or French and speaking mostly to my mom in English. It’s a weird existence.
But if I slowed the music down while reading the lyrics and looking at each word, I realized I understood more than I didn’t. It wasn’t me losing my Arabic, but rather, a necessary lesson in patience and trusting myself.
As I gave the music another try, the smooth vocals of the lead singer Hamed Sinno left me swooning. I was enraptured by Haig Papazian’s violin playing. I felt seen in Mashrou’ Leila’s play with gender pronouns — the Arabic language is often very gendered — as they try to find some genderqueer middle ground.
While there is no neutral pronoun in Arabic (yet), Mashrou’ Leila attempts one version of trying to neutralize the language by switching back and forth between using female and male pronouns in their song “Kalam.” We are left imagining this person as someone on the gender spectrum, someone in between, or someone very genderqueer in their presentation. The lyrics in the Arabic of my youth, mutating into the queerness of my present, gives me a spaceless, borderless home.
Mashrou’ Leila’s music reflects ways in which I, like other queer Arabs, am allowed to exist; the ways in which my country, like many Arab countries, is not actually against us; the ways in which borders like those of Israel contribute to ideas like: “queers Arabs don’t exist.”
Even though no one has ever explicitly told me this, I’ve felt the presence of this idea in my personal life. There are multiple factors at play: there’s my family’s inability to use the word gay, let alone understand me as queer. There’s the lack of representation of queer Arabs in queer spaces and media and any kind of Arab representation beyond the angry terrorist or indistinguishable Arabic speaker. There’s the constant reminder by Arab leaders — Muslim and Christians and Jews alike — that queerness is a white and western implant in the Middle East. And this idea, that queer Arabs don’t exist, informed my own coming to identity, whether I like to believe it or not.
If asked about Arab queers, many straight Arabs, particularly older straight Arabs, will say, we don’t have that here. That’s a western thing.
When it comes to Arab communities, toxic masculinity and strict gender roles reinforce heterosexuality and gender binaries. In Lebanon, there are existing colonial laws such as article 534 of the penal code — put in place by French mandate in the early 1900s — prosecuting consensual same-sex conduct. Have Arab histories of homosexuality and gender non-conformity been erased? Have we lost our memories of bodies like mine? Like those of queer Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) I consider family?
Mashrou’ Leila is part of my own re-discovering. For me, Arab music is embodied: I often came to Arab culture through music and food. As a nine-year-old in Lebanon, I used to love going to restaurants with my large extended family, often dragging my cousins by the arms onto the dancefloor to the music of Nancy Ajram and other contemporary Arab musicians. Music was a way I came to myself, was the way I overcame some shyness as I sang in front of others, the way I experience my Arab cultural identity, listening to the music of Oum Kalthoum when I miss home.
In that vein, Mashrou’ Leila and other queer Arab bands create space for my queer Arab body. They make ground-breaking change through their overt politicism and their international success, being unapologetically queer on many Arab stages, Mashrou’ Leila allows me to find proof of queer Arab belonging in my own existence.
Back at the concert: despite pains in my feet, I start to feel the rhythm of the music in my body as we get closer to the stage. The pain eases slightly as I watch Hamed Sinno dance, his moves so intensely feminine, his moustache present, his skin brown and glistening with sweat in the different coloured spotlights, and I know a new piece of home. He bounces on stage and we all bounce with him.
In between songs, Sinno talks about those arrested for holding Pride flags during their show in Cairo with passion and anger. We are all left in tears, cheering so loudly the venue vibrates. We sing for those persecuted for being like us.
Mashrou’ Leila’s music sounds like no other Arab music I’ve heard: a new combination of sounds, a political act, queerness seeping through their words. Sometimes I think their music sounds like me. And in these moments, I know queer Arabs truly exist.