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Meet the openly gay frontman of the Middle East's most progressive rock band

Mashrou' Leila singer Hamed Sinno talks sex, racism and the persecution of gay men in parts of the Arab world.

2018-02-21

This article first appeared in Attitude issue 291, January 2018

Mashrou’ Leila have had an exhausting few months. In June, the five-piece Lebanese alt-rock group were banned from performing in Jordan, a year after a previous ban was overturned.

In September, a concert in Cairo turned sour as the authorities launched a crackdown on LGBT+ people after two concert-goers waved rainbow-emblazoned flags in support of Hamed Sinno, the band’s gay lead singer.

When I speak to him on the phone, the group have just come to the end of a six-week tour in the US and Canada where they packed concert halls in San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and Montreal, with songs from their third album, Ibn el Leil (which translates as Son of the Night). Over the past few months, the schedule has been packed and the pressure intense.

“I kind of just woke up right before your call,” Hamed admits. “I’m so sorry if I’m ranting and incoherent. I forgot what I was on about. OK, what were you asking me? Right, Cairo.”

Cairo. It’s undoubtedly the most serious subject the band faces at the moment; their concert at the Egyptian capital’s Festival City Mall in September sounded the starting gun for a programme of police entrapment of gay people, with at least 60 arrests logged since then and reports of victims being subjected to forced anal examinations — classified as torture by Human Rights groups.

It sounds horrifying, but 29-yearold Hamed seems relatively unfazed.

“It was pretty bad. It still is very bad, it still is something that I’m always thinking about — I mean we haven’t had a single show over the past two months where we haven’t brought that up on stage, and we’re still trying to do whatever we can.

“But at the same time it’s just so profoundly unsurprising. I can’t pretend to be surprised by the appearance of heteropatriarchy.”

He almost laughs with despair. “It’s always been there. This is just another incident where queer brown bodies are used to justify a government’s agenda. It’s basic homonationalism.”

As for the band members themselves, it’s easy to see why they’ve become something of a cultural flashpoint. With the backing of Haig Papazian on the violin, Carl Gerges on drums, Firas Abu Fakher on guitar and Ibrahim Badr on bass guitar, Hamed sings exclusively in Arabic, but the group’s sound is a kind of indie rock that doesn’t feel at all unfamiliar to Western listeners.

It has the melodic lines you’d expect from the best bits of The Killers, the more anthemic parts of Coldplay, or the rock-facing electro of groups such as Hurts. But when I ask Hamed if he’s tempted to experiment with a more obviously “Middle Eastern” sound, he quickly dismisses it.

“That’s such a motivated writing of history, to do away with the things that we deem ‘inauthentic’, as though cultural exchange necessarily means colonialism.”

He adds: “I would just like to see a world where Arab musicians in general could be treated as musicians and not as ‘Arabs’ first and foremost. When I wake up in the morning I’m thinking about writing and lyrics and chord progressions, and that really is my entry point to the world. That’s what I want to do: make music.

“I wish people would ask us questions as though they understood that our individual experiences could not possibly reflect an entire region. People ask us questions such as: ‘What’s it like being gay in the Arab world?’

“I have no idea how to answer that because it seems to me to be absurd to go up to someone in the US and ask: ‘What’s it like being gay in America?’ What state, what class, what ethnicity, what age, what city even? We just assume that we can paint over the Arab world in a broad brush.”

 

For Hamed, the interest his sexuality often generates can overshadow the equally interesting stories that the other members of the group have to offer. “I often feel what ends up happening is that the sensationalism around my sexuality ends up almost pushing their equally valuable narratives out of the picture. The idea of four, privileged, heterosexual males having to live through homophobia because of their politics as allies is something that’s fascinating to me.

“I find it interesting that people would stick around for 10 years and still stand behind me on stage and agree to this. Who the fuck wants that shit?”

Hamed even goes as far as to say that he doesn’t feel he fits within the LGBT+ community. By his own description he’s a queer, brown, Arab, femme, loud, shallow person, and that poses challenges.

“So often people don’t understand that our experiences as, say, gay men are not uniform. The experiences of a white gay person are so different to the experiences of a gay person of colour and so often those differences are ignored.

“I can’t deal with going on dating apps and seeing people talk about their racial preferences. I have no patience for it any more.

“I don’t know how to say this without sounding crass,” he continues. “Let’s just put it this way: every now and then I find myself in bed with someone who repeatedly insists on reminding me of my ethnicity and I find that fucking strange.”

The prejudice can be absurd, too. “One person came up to me at Pride in Toronto last year and called me a ‘terror bear’,” he reveals.

“While trying to start a conversation with me, he calls me a terror bear!”

Turning to an experience in London, Hamed adds: “This Israeli guy kept trying to make out with me and would keep bringing up the Arab-Israeli conflict as though he was trying to solve it through our sex life, which was also fucking weird.”

 

Returning to the band’s music and the question of where they go next, Hamed says: “I have no idea. When we wrote the album, we thought that it would be way too alienating for anyone to relate to.

“In a lot of ways, it was about my experience of mourning my father’s death. And I thought that wouldn’t resonate with anyone.

“Then I realised I was thinking about my father and being in clubs all the time with one song being about toxic masculinity, another about language and gender, and one being about the government raiding gay clubs, and so on. I didn’t think it would resonate with anyone, but it did.

“So, I have no idea about how the next album will function. I know we’re preoccupied with the current global situation — and people retiring to rather tired nationalisms around the world, be that in the UK or the USA or the Middle East. I’m sure that stuff will find its way in there.”

‘Ibn el Lei’ is out now.