The out lead singer of the Lebanese rock band Mashrou’ Leila says their career has been “a constant battle for breath.”
“Singing is an act of intentional breathing,” Hamed Sinno told the Washington Blade on Dec. 11 during an exclusive interview after they spoke at OutRight Action International’s annual OutSummit that took place virtually this year. “We just haven’t been able to find space.”
“We’ve had these weird moments where there’s space by exception, where we got to play for a few years in one country before getting banned and then for a few years in another country before getting banned, yadda yadda yadda, but it’s always been a case of exception.”
Mashrou’ Leila formed at the American University in Beirut in 2008.
Sinno — who came out when they were a student at the university — in 2010 waived a rainbow flag during a concert at Lebanon’s Byblos Festival.
Lebanese Christian groups in 2019 successfully pressured festival organizers to cancel a Mashrou’ Leila concert that had been scheduled to take place. The Jordanian government has also prevented Mashrou’ Leila from performing in the country.
Egyptian authorities in September 2017 arrested Sara Hegazy, an LGBTQ activist, after she raised a rainbow flag during a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Cairo. Hegazy was tortured in prison before an Egyptian court in January 2018 ordered her release on bail.
“No one who grows up on our side of the world is under the illusion that things will be easy, but that level of injustice is really difficult to imagine,” Sinno told the Blade as they discussed Hegazy. “Obviously when we were on stage we saw the rainbow flags, but really it was a beautiful moment. I don’t think anyone was thinking that what happened would happened.”
Sinno noted Mashrou’ Leila publicized Hegazy’s case when she was in custody “because we were getting stories about the kind of abuse she was being subjected to.”
“There’s no need to go into details, but it was just brutal and it made it really difficult for me not to focus on her,” said Sinno.
Hegazy after her release asked for asylum in Canada.
Sinno said he “very briefly” met Hegazy backstage after a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Toronto.
Hegazy died by suicide in June. Sinno in a lengthy tribute to her on their Facebook page told their young LGBTQ fans that they are “God’s creation, as much as anyone else is. You are perfect. You are beautiful. You are loved. You deserve better.”
Sinno during the interview further reflected upon Hegazy’s death.
“It’s not about me,” Sinno told the Blade. “What happened to Sara is very much about her.”
“I guess part of it is this strange relationship that you imagine having with your audience … where even if these people aren’t part of your life you feel invested in their well-being because you know that they’ve been invested in ours,” they added. “I don’t know how to qualify the nature of that bond, to be honest, but it’s something.”
Sinno added “being part of that moment where that flag was raised, understanding the courage that it took for her to do that because of my own history, and being in that moment and sharing in that joy, and then seeing it dissolve and turn into misery over the course of the weeks that followed and for the three months after made it such a huge part of our lives as a band and made it a huge part of everyone’s life in the Middle East.”
“The majority of the LGBT community was implicated in that, but then for us the whole experience of that concert in Cairo, it’s sort of been downhill from there,” they said.
Lebanese LGBTQ group ‘big part of my coming out journey’
Sinno spoke with the Blade roughly four months after a massive explosion in Beirut’s port killed more than 200 people and devastated large swaths of the Lebanese capital.
The blast nearly destroyed the offices of Helem, the country’s oldest LGBTQ advocacy group, and left several staffers injured. OutRight Action International launched a fundraiser to help Helem and members of Lebanon’s LGBTQ community recover from the blast.
Sinno in their OutSummit speech said the explosion is the result of “the criminal negligence of the Lebanese state,” but they declined to comment further to the Blade. Sinno did note, however, they continue to support Helem and its work in Lebanon.
“Helem was a big part of my coming out journey,” Sinno told the Blade, noting they volunteered at Helem when they were 18.
“A lot of what I guess I’ve been trying to do over the last few months is just to amplify their fundraising campaigns through my own social media platforms,” they added.
Sinno told the Blade they are “very good friends with everyone at the center, those people in the center when I was 18 and those people that took over afterwards.”
Sinno has publicly discussed their struggles with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder and their sobriety. Sinno during their interview with the Blade also spoke about the stigma around mental health in the Middle East.
“The stigma around people who are read as presenting masculine sharing their struggles with that is ridiculous and toxic and counterproductive,” they said.
“I know that a lot of my issues come from having to deal with shared problems that I know a lot of (my) audience will also have to face, so I think it matters to be transparent about sharing that with those people,” added Sinno. “There’s little more than I can do in my position to be honest as a musician. There’s not much we can do. We’re pretty useless. We shake our asses on stage, but it’s just how we navigate that relationship with an audience is all we have.”
‘Exhausting being here’ in U.S.
The OutRight summit took place a month after President-elect Biden defeated President Trump in the U.S. election. The coronavirus pandemic and the continued fallout over George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in May also overshadowed it.
“There’s always going to be a lot of reasons to be cynical and my default modus operandi is to just want to be that cynical,” Sinno told the Blade when asked about their experience living in the U.S. right now. “There are also a lot of reasons to be optimistic right now.”
“There is a fierceness in people who are much younger than I am that I have never experienced before and that’s just not in the U.S., but back in Lebanon as well and it really is cause for so much optimism,” they added. “Seeing the way people came together after the assassination of George Floyd is not something that we can dismiss. Seeing prison abolition become a conversation that is not deemed too radical by a large segment of a population is not a little feat.”
Sinno also said “what we are witnessing in terms of the fruits of the labor of Black activists and Black trans activists who are in the history of this country is incredible.”
“We’re seeing it, hopefully, come to fruition,” they said. “If we manage to create more space for that community that inevitably means better things for everyone.”
Sinno admitted it is currently “exhausting being here” in the U.S. Sinno also said he has begun to examine how they have benefitted from systemic oppression.
“I’m not Black, I’m an Arab and I have to explore my own complicity in various systems of oppression, anti-Blackness, and examine how I benefit from those systems as well,” they said. “None of it is easy … it’s been an exhausting few months for everyone here, I think, but I’m inclined at this moment that maybe things are exhausting because we’re all growing, at least I really hope that’s the case.”