This interview was published by the Diken (an independent online news site) before appearing on my website:
A country that was invaded by it’s neighbours, saw the bloody civil war and still has some sort of balance among ethnic, religious minorities letting societies to live together: the Middle East’s beatiful country Lebanon’s rising star indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila will be on the stage of Salon İKSV on September 30.
The band which created an uproar in the ME, was banned in Jordan, but at the very same time is being invited by the festivals in the West, Europe and the U.S. is a political figure, too. Before their Istanbul concert I talked to their vocal Samid Hinno and guitarist Firas Ebu Fakher about their music and political stance.
Erdem Arda Güneş: The music you make is drawing attention from the Middle East, Europe and the U.S which is not easy for an “Arab band” in today’s international music market considering the difficulties one faces when they do not belong to “the western world.” What do you think is your secret / chance / opportunity / difference?
Hamed Sinno: On some level, perhaps for the sake of sanity, I have to believe that we’re good enough to have made it thus far, but then again, I don’t think success in the music industry as an independent artist is particularly easy for anyone, regardless of where s/he comes from. The difficulties are obviously made much more severe for artists from the arab world, but it’s difficult either way.
I think we happened to be in the right place at the right time, quite often, and in the priviledged position of being at the cusp of various discourses that are being pitted against each other.
You are brave, you sang a very critical song in front of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, “al Hajiz” (the Checkpoint) there were lyrics like “you fucker,” Isn’t there any political repression on you, like politicians criticizing you?
H: of course there is. We recently got banned from Jordan; weve had various censorship attempts in Lebanon and the middle east. We’ve had our rhetoric exploited to further orientalist stereotypes about the middle east. I could go on for quite some time about the various forms of political, social, and cultural pressure we’ve faced, but then again I think everyone has to suffer through various versions of that, and at the end of the day what matters most is trying to create in spite of that.
Firas Ebu Fakher: There’s also the idea that art, once it allows uncritical political or social agendas to influence it, starts to transform into propaganda, the danger there is huge. We attempt to be critical in our writing and in the claims we make in interviews or whatnot.
Love between two men is the theme of one of your most popular songs, Shim el Yasmine and Tayf is also about a gay club in Beirut called Ghost… and there others. You openly defend gay rights in a country where homosexual activies can be prosectued. (Article 534 Isn’t it hard to deal with homophobia in your country and in your region (like Jordan banned you in April.)
H: It goes without saying that it’s difficult, but it isn’t easy trying to describe why, as we’ve only ever experienced our own career trajectory. I guess these things become more obvious when you try to look at a cross section of the industry, and realize that the subject continues to be almost completely erased by the culture industry, except for instances where representation comes married to a horribly oppressive gaze. Again, I guess the only thing that matters is to continue to create in spite of that. There is an urgency about addressing the way hetero-patriarchy shapes the culture around us, that should not be compromised by the impediments created by that very system to deter people from dissent.
You had a crowd funding campaign with the tag #OccupyArabPop trying to create a space for alternative voice in Arabic music; do you think you are being successful for being alternative?
F: From our journey so far, I think it’s hard to claim that being alternative and being successful are correlated, the spine of success is long and varied. Also, we were growing up trying to create a space for ourselves first, and realized along the way that that space was not easily attained. You have many questions about our success, I think it has to do with many factors, first, the diversity and difference in character between the 5 of us, this relationship provides a strong dialectic and forces us to keep improving individually to satisfy the rest which creates a strong positive group work dynamic. Second I think it has to do with our education as designers, who are interested in all forms of art, film, photography, literature etc. This allows us to draw from a vast array of work and ‘see’ or ‘recognize’ common paths and divergent paths, which allows us to shape our sounds and words. Third, I think we are relentless people: we consume culture obsessively, every waking hour is devoted to something that will somehow enrich our work, which is one main thing that sets this kind of career apart from so many, namely, that there is no ‘work hour’ and no ‘ self hour’ the two are one and the same, which can be terribly exhausting. The list goes on really, we are extremely critical, we value methods of work the produce originality and an engaging feeling over a quick thrill, we have a circle of social acquaintances and families that encourage us and critique our work honestly, etc etc.
The civil war in Syria is affecting Turkey and Lebanon the most following Syria itself of course. These two countries are hosting millions of refugees more than any country in the world. Turkey 3 million and Lebanon nearly 2 millions… Syria has been affecting Lebanon politics for years… And Turkey had many concert cancellations after the terror attacks and a military coup attempt in the country, world famous bands singers refuse to come Turkey for concerts… How is the situation in Syria affecting you?
H: For the most part, it’s a daily source of heartbreak. It’s entirely destabilizing to see such destruction wrought against an entire country, while the world continues to do very little. It affects me by making me feel incompetent, and helpless. Past that, despite the horror of the circumstance, it has been a privilege to meet so many people from Syria in Lebanon, and I always feel the need to apologize for the racism that has emerged as a backlash from within the Lebanese community. To see how victim-blaming operates that way, has been very eye-opening, and extremely disappointing.
What do you think of the so-called Arab Spring? Did things really change in a better way? Or is it more chaos, more wars?
H: I don’t think the results of a moment in a long process of political change can be evaluated that way. It’s too soon to tell.
Your tickets are sold out for your Istanbul concert in Salon İKSV, you have a serious fan group among Turkish youth, how was your Bursa concert and what do you have to say for your Istanbul fans?
F: Bursa was great, we were happy to see a crowd of young active people coming to support music from across the world, the festival team was extremely professional and it was a pleasure working and playing.
H: We can’t wait to get there and be reunited with our supporters in Turkey.