Tonight I got to experience something I wrote on my bucket list ever since I returned home after studying abroad in Jerusalem, and that is, I saw Mashrou’ Leila in concert. Mashrou’ Leila are a one of a kind indie band from Lebanon whose musical themes explore sex, sexual identity, politics, and other issues often deemed “controversial” since being based in the Middle East.
Their lyrics exist as reactions that create reactions within the generally conservative political framework of the Arab world and music scene. The lead singer, Hamed Sinno, is everyone’s dream husband, including mine.
Just look at him honestly.
I discovered them through an Arab girl I met in Jerusalem, a friend of a friend. I asked her to share Arab music with me and they were the first band she played for us. They were the band she was most excited about and as I continued listening to them and discussed them with other Arab friends, I understood why. They sing for the dreams of the modern Arab youth and their music, message, and poetry reflect the modern mindset that seeks higher purpose and equality in the Arab world. They evoke musical complexities, painting multi-dimensional states of being that smash cardboard stereotypes of what it means to be an Arab according to Western perspectives. They are quite simply, my favorite band that hails from the Middle East and perhaps my favorite indie band to date because of what they represent. Their spirit clangs with the rebel inside me. Their beats, their coos, their rhythms stimulate a feeling of rebelliousness and adventure. Unfortunately, their violinist Haig, was not available to join them because of crappy visa issues. He will receive his visa in time to perform for the rest of the tour dates however.
Tonight was their debut U.S. performance which took place in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism as part of a conference entitled Alternative Narratives of the Middle East. From the website:
“The premise of the conference is that the primary western narrative concerning the Middle East often casts those who live there as simply perpetrators or victims of violence. This immense oversimplification can have significant impact on both foreign policy and the treatment of diaspora communities.
The event will highlight best practices and offer guidance to journalists and journalism students on covering the people of the region in ways that move beyond the recurring conflict motifs to reveal the diversity and complexity of world views and lived experiences of those in the region.”
I RSVP’ed to the morning conference but ended up only going to the evening panel + concert instead. It was really grounding and motivational to hear the band speak with such grace and awareness about the effects of their music. Hamed may be the most intelligent lead singer I have ever seen or heard. He spoke with all the cues of an academic, social justice advocate mixed with nervousness and an unforgettably cute and dorky quality unique to him. At one point, the moderator of the evening panel, Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, said “it must take balls to write and sing about sex the way you do, especially being in the Middle East” and Hamed responded “or a really kick ass pair of ovaries.” Snaps, claps, shouts around the room. He is also an awesome and honest feminist. The most endearing part of the show was when Hamed said “I want to play in Palestine.” My heart melted, because of course, my heart always melts for Palestine, since many of my friends are Palestinian. The band went on to say that they tried performing in Syria in 2011, but things started getting bad, and they tried performing at the border of Syria and Lebanon but they sadly lost contact with the person who was organizing it. They hope to eventually play places like Syria and Palestine and bridge their fans in the Arab world.
Now on to the concert. Unsurprisingly, many of the attendees were Arab, but there was a surprising amount of people that were not. I saw whites, asians, some blacks, most likely people who were aware of who they are and what they do. They played so many of their amazing songs including Lil Watan, which he dedicated to his close friends and family that were in the audience tonight as well as all the Lebanese in the house.
They played their newest single 3 Minutes, which reminds me of an Arabic Justin Timberlake record.
Their own version of Get Lucky.
And even an Arabic version of Toxic by Britney Spears. When they announced their last song, it really was their last song. We all called for an encore and shouted “Leila, Leila, Leila.” But when they returned to the stage, they said they really couldn’t play more songs because it would be a disaster since they were having technical difficulties. Hamed’s earphones were broken so he couldn’t hear himself or the music, and the left stage speaker was going in and out. So we all reluctantly left, but with smiles on our faces.
At the end of the show, I looked around at the audience to gauge whether some of them were trying to stay and see if they would come out and meet their fans– One of my friends who saw them in Italy told me to wait after the show because the band meets with their fans. However, it didn’t look like it was going to happen so we just left. My sister and I followed some girls through what we thought was an exit, but happened to be the backstage area where the band was staying and preparing, and obviously retreated to after the show. We were stopped by one of the employees who said we were only allowed back there if we had bracelets, which was news to me because I never read about special backstage bracelets on the website or event page on Facebook. When we turned around to go through the regular exits, I looked back and saw a girl with a painted t-shirt, sneak back into the backstage area. I hope she got through. We on the other hand, left the building and decided to eat pizza. Outside of the building, I asked a Columbia security guard about the nearest pizza place and he told me how to get to Coronet. Before heading there, we decided to walk around the Columbia campus and almost immediately after we passed through the gates, on our left was a man standing outside of what obviously had to be the Miller Theatre where Mashrou’ Leila just performed, still wearing his stage outfit and distinct red jacket. It was Hamed Sinno. He called out to us from across the grass pathway and asked if any of us had a lighter. I remember meekly saying “no” in response. Then Micah told me she had matches and I asked her if she thought we should go to him. He was standing with an older man by the door, a back entrance to the theatre, surrounded by absolutely no one. The opportunity was ripe, the answer was obviously yes. So we went around the long grass pathway and Micah got her matches out to hand to him. As we approached him, the older man who was with him went back inside and now two other girls were standing with him while I was thinking of what to say beyond hello. Micah extended her matches towards him and he thanked her and told us that his cousin was walking around with a lit cigarette and that he didn’t need her matches anymore. After we said hello, he reached out his hand and said “Hello, I’m Hamed.” I shook his hand and said my name, clearly in awe of his presence. I told him how amazing he was and how much I loved his music. I told him that I was wondering if he was going to come out and meet his fans after the show, because that’s what my friend told me who saw him in Italy, and he sort of laughed and said “That’s a thing?” I felt I was getting uglier every second that passed standing in front of him. I said that I loved his moves, that he can dance. I told him that he is the ultimate package: that he can sing, he can write, he’s intelligent, he can dance, he has style, but I was too shy to say he was beautiful as well. Then another larger group of 7 or so people came and chatted for a moment. A woman who was clearly the leader of the group led the conversation with Hamed and told him to stop smoking. When the group left, I asked for a picture with him. Micah took a couple, then I said to make sure the lighting was good. I asked him if he didn’t mind taking more just to make sure, and he didn’t. So we turned around and angled ourselves and I put my arm around him as he just stood there with his hands in his pockets– classic Hamed. “Wait, this is awkward because I’m touching you and you aren’t touching me,” I joked. Eventually he put his arm around me and we took more photos. Then I asked one of the girls to take a picture of me, Micah, and him. After all the photographs, I said “I’m sad you didn’t play Shim el Yasmine. It’s my favorite song.” He said that it was his favorite song too and that they will play it in the upcoming shows. He asked if we were coming to any more and I said I was going to the one on Halloween. Soon enough, he expressed he wanted to go back inside to spend time with his family. We thanked him for meeting us, for the pictures, and the beautiful night of music. Thank you so much Hamed and the rest of Mashrou’ Leila. You are so incredible, incredibly superior, lovely, phenomenal. ❤
Mashrou’ Leila might be a one night project, but Part II happens Oct. 31.
Check out my favorite song by them, Shim el Yasmine, or Smell the Jasmine.