Jordan ends ban on Lebanese band with gay frontman

Despite reversal coming too late for planned Friday concert in Amman, politician says cleric-backed embargo on Mashrou’ Leila is lifted

A still image taken from the music video for Mashrou’ Leila's hit song Fasateen (Dresses), which challenges the traditional role of marriage. (screen capture: YouTube).
A still image taken from the music video for Mashrou’ Leila's hit song Fasateen (Dresses), which challenges the traditional role of marriage. (screen capture: YouTube).

Jordan is lifting a ban on popular Lebanese indie band Mashrou’ Leila, which tackles issues of sexuality and politics and whose frontman is openly gay. The ban came amid claims the group’s songs promote religious and sexual freedom that violate local customs and religious beliefs.

Khalid Abu Zeid, a regional politician who initially announced the ban against Mashrou’ Leila, or Leila’s Project, said in a new statement that “we don’t mind if this concert takes place.” He didn’t elaborate.

The band said in response that the reversal was too late for the Jordan show to take place as scheduled on Friday.

The initial ban sparked criticism of Jordan, which presents itself as an island of relative tolerance in a turbulent region where religious fundamentalism is on the rise.

The group’s detractors apparently included both Christian and Muslim clerics and officials.

The five-member group shot up from the underground music scene in Beirut to fame across the Arab world for its smooth sounds and provocative lyrics. The songs tackle issues mainstream Arab artists would not dare to, including gender roles, the sanctity of marriage and religious freedom, and have been called “the soundtrack to the Arab Spring.”

The band was slated to play a large concert in Amman’s Roman Amphitheater on Friday — a show that was also to be attended by fans from Israel and the West Bank. But it received an official letter from the Department of Antiquities on Monday, denying its request to use the venue because the performance would “clash with the heritage of the historic site.”

Mashrou’ Leila has previously performed three times at the ancient venue, a fact noted in a tweet by the group’s violinist, Haig Papazian.

In September 2012, Mashrou’ Leila canceled its opening act for the Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ concert in Beirut, in protest of the LA group’s subsequent Tel Aviv performance.

The Lebanese band announced the Jordan cancellation to its fans on Tuesday, in a long Facebook post in Arabic and English.

“We have been unofficially informed that the reason behind this sudden change of heart, few days before the concert day, is the intervention of some authorities. Our understanding is that said authorities have pressured certain political figures and triggered a chain of events that ultimately ended with our authorization being withdrawn,” the post said.

The post also said the band was “unofficially” banned from playing anywhere in Jordan due to its “political and religious beliefs and endorsement of gender equality and sexual freedom.”

A 2015 US State Department report on human rights found that while Jordan is one of the few Middle Eastern countries to decriminalize homosexuality, discrimination is still widespread. A 2015 Pew Research poll found 97% of Jordanians still reject homosexuality.

Dov Lieber contributed to this report

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