How a Gay American In Iraq Found Solace In a Lebanese Band and Their Music

Burak Cingi/Redferns
Mashrou’ Leila’s Haig Papazian (left) and Sinno at the All Points East Festival in London on May 27.

In a dark industrial space outside Beirut, two young drag queens vogue like there’s no tomorrow. Around me, a youthful microcosm goes bonkers, exulting in both 1960s Arabic pop and Paris Is Burning death drops. I’m not one for clichés, but I think to myself: This ball is quite literally giving me life.

The next day, one of the party’s organizers is arrested on suspicion of “inciting immorality.” Behold: the ballad of being queer in the region I now call home.

Home these days is Iraq, where I work for a certain large organization in human rights law. I live about an hour’s drive from Mosul, where until late 2017 ISIS was throwing young men like myself off buildings and then stoning them for good measure. It’s a far cry from the tobacco farm in the American South where I grew up WASP, cis-male and gay. The crushing beigeness of my childhood left me starving for stimulation and endlessly curious about how it would feel to be another person (probably, at least initially, because I did not much like how it felt to be me). This is why I do what I do. And this is why the soundtrack of my time in the Middle East has been the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila. Like that vogue ball, Leila has been for me a sorely needed sign of community where none is really allowed.

Mashrou’ Leila is probably the most loved and most hated band in the Middle East. They’ve packed stadiums in Cairo, but Egyptian police have launched brutal crackdowns on LGBTQ people after fans have waved rainbow flags. The act has been banned in Jordan, but thousands of “Leila Holics” connect online across the Arabic-speaking world. Frontman Hamed Sinno is openly gay, and his four male bandmates seem like some damn good allies. In a video response to the Jordan ban (which came with death threats), a red-eyed Carl Gerges, who plays drums, looked straight into a camera, promising to “continue making our music the way it is and the way we are.” I’ve learned to drop their name as code: If the person I’m talking to doesn't recoil in horror, we can probably hang.

Mashrou’ Leila’s eponymous 2009 debut is fun and poppy, with touches of traditional Middle Eastern sounds. But I also hear a dose of the frustration that feels inescapable where I live. “El Hajez” captures the powerless rage of getting harassed by a hair-gelled prick at a checkpoint. “Shim al Yasmine” is an aching ballad of loss expressed by one man to another. It’s the reason I started paying attention in Arabic class: Like Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” and Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” it’s a song about comprehending love that’s so simple and beautiful, I can’t sing along without tearing up.

I’m often reminded that these songs aren't written for me. Even when translated, it takes a little work to dig into their themes of racism, desire, toxic masculinity and escapism. But that’s part of what I love most about them. My friends -- the mechanic in Cairo, the Algerian actor in Beirut, the Kurdish physician in Erbil, Iraq -- have their own identities. The members of Mashrou’ Leila know this, and decline to be the “voice of” anyone, but they help bring other voices forward. I finally saw Mashrou’ Leila live in London in May, and it dawned on me: The band will forever be the music of a time and place where, despite all the challenges, LGBTQ people managed to make a little space for themselves, and they let me in with love.

This article originally appeared in the June 15 issue of Billboard.