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Jordan Bars Lebanese Band from Playing at Roman Amphitheater for Religious Reasons [UPDATED]

Members of Mashrou' Leila (photo by Ieva Saudargaitė via @mashrouleilagram/Instagram)
Members of Mashrou’ Leila (photo by Ieva Saudargaitė via @mashrouleilagram/Instagram)

Jordan’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiques has banned a popular Lebanese band, known for its largely politically and sexually charged lyrics, from performing at an ancient Roman theater on religious grounds. The five-piece alternative rock group Mashrou’ Leila shared a statement on its Facebook page yesterday noting that the decision arose after 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pressured certain political figures and triggered a chain of events that ultimately ended with our authorization being withdrawn,” the post reads. “We also have been unofficially informed that we will never be allowed to play again anywhere in Jordan due to our political and religious beliefs and endorsement of gender equality and sexual freedom.”

Formed from a group of former architecture and design students at the American University of Beirut, Mashrou’ Leila was set to perform in Jordan’s capital Amman this Friday as part of its tour of its latest album Ibn El-Leil. Initially, the written notice it received said the performance contradicted the “authenticity” of the site, which dates to the second century. Mashrou’ Leila has already played there three times and said band members had adhered to the same permit procedures as on previous visits. Today, however, Amman district governor Khalid Abu Zeid told the AP that the band’s material “contradicts” the beliefs of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

The decision illustrates the region’s increasing religious conservatism, a crackdown on a group celebrated for openly addressing the limits to personal rights in many Arab-majority countries. Sung only in Arabic, the band’s swearword-filled discography has included songs that recall chilling encounters at security checkpoints (“Al Hajez“), describe a war-torn environment (“Obwa“), and center on homosexual relationships (“Shim el Yasmine”). Lead singer Hamed Sinno is also openly gay.

The band also used the news of the show’s cancellation as an opportunity to champion freedom of expression, writing in its statement:

We denounce the systemic prosecution of voices of political dissent.
We denounce the systemic prosecution of advocates of sexual and religious freedom.
We denounce the censorship of artists anywhere in the world.

We apologize for having thus far failed at creating a cultural environment that allows our children to speak their minds. We believe whole-heartedly that we have only ever acted with the intention of making our world a more equal, and just place, even if “only through song.” We pledge to our audience that we will continue to place the integrity of our art as our foremost priority, and to never succumb to the pressure to compromise our message, or to waive our freedom to speak. We promise to continue to write out of love, and with the desire to spread love. We will fight, as we have always done, for our right to freely play our music and speak our mind.

We urge our fellow musicians and artists across the world to continue to produce work that challenges any unfair status quo, despite the difficulties confronted.

Fans in Jordan are organizing a protest in response, to occur on the day of the concert.

Update, 4/29: Jordan’s Ministry of Interior has now reversed the decision and authorized the performance in an issued memo. The approval, however, arrived too late for the concert to actually happen, “as it was issued after the Ministry of Tourism was closed, meaning the organizers would not be able to possibly secure the venue in time, let alone reorganize the entire event in 24 hours,” as  Mashrou’ Leila said in its most recent statement:

We would like to congratulate the Governor of Amman for taking a first step towards us, by sending us this letter of approval from the Ministry of Interior, that was signed with his extension of respect. We appreciate that he is doing this, despite having told CNN two days ago that there would be no retraction, as ‘policy is not a soccer game.’

The letter also does not retract, or even apologise for, the unfounded smear campaign that has been waged against the band in the media for the last few days. We hope this letter will be the first step towards securing the possibility of us playing in Jordan again in the near future, perhaps under more just conditions, even though we have no reason to know for sure at this point that this will be possible, as the approval is for tomorrow’s impossible concert.

Past all of that, congratulations to the people of Jordan. You have taught us all a very valuable lesson.

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