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Indie Lebanese band voices hopes of Arab youth

By Diaa Hadid

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Sept. 23 2012 1:10 a.m. MDT

Suggestive of their popularity, one music video has been shared on fan websites and amassed an estimated 250,000 hits. Mashrou Leila was even slated to open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers in Beirut this summer. But the Lebanese band canceled the gig after outrage from pro-Palestinian activists who were angry because the Red Hot Chili Peppers was also to perform in Israel.

Still, the band's successes are small compared to mainstream Arab pop stars who have millions of YouTube hits.

Stereotypical Arab pop divas dress lewdly, get plastic surgery to shrink their noses and swell their breasts, suggestively gyrate in luxurious settings, and are unusually pale in a region of olive-skinned people. Their muscular male counterparts frequently sport stubble and broody gazes.

Mashrou Leila began four years ago as a university jam band in the liberal Lebanese capital Beirut and adopted influences from Balkan melodies, American folk music, and mainstream pop. The six-member band of twentysomethings — which includes one woman — spread its music and swelled in popularity through friends, Facebook and YouTube. The group's fan base mostly appears to be young people who have been inspired by the Arab revolutions, as well as some of the social and cultural changes the uprisings produced.

But not all of the reforms achieved through the Arab Spring have been embraced by the young music enthusiasts. The revolutions also led to the election of Islamic governments and empowered ultraconservative Muslims called Salafis, dashing the hopes of some youths who sought liberal change.

Fan Jeries Ballan called Mashrou Leila "the real Arab Spring."

"What's the Arab Spring really about anyway?" said Ballan, 24. "It started out one way, and took a different direction."

A key indicator of the differences between Mashrou Leila's fans and older generations — not to mention conservatives of any age — is the attitudes toward Sinno's openly stated homosexuality.

At the Amman concert, Mashrou Leila fans said they didn't care. Gay fans said they saw Sinno as a role model.

"It's something we've come to accept," said concert-goer Lina Matar, 24, wearing a Muslim headscarf.

Sinno said he wanted the band's music to inspire Arab gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual fans "to forge for themselves a sense of belonging to the region, in spite of the incredible repressing they have to live through."

Outside the Roman amphitheater where the band performed, many Jordanians said they were offended by the Western-sounding music. An agitated elderly bearded man, flanked by a group of younger people, harassed the police and demanded to enter — presumably to cause trouble. They left without going inside.

"Couldn't they protest against that film that insulted Islam? Isn't that more important than a concert?" grumbled day laborer Mohammed, 43. He was referring an amateurish anti-Islam video that Muslims say insults the Prophet Muhammad. The video sparked weeklong violence earlier this month that targeted U.S. and other Western embassies and left more than 30 dead in seven countries, including Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

But another woman standing outside the amphitheater said Mashrou Leila's lyrics seemed to reflect her life as working class black woman better than most Arab music.

"I like what I'm hearing," said Dima Hamoud, a 19-year-old of Sudanese descent.

Follow Diaa Hadid on Twitter at https://twitter.com/diaahadid

Mashrou Leila: http://www.youtube.com/user/Mashrou3Leila?feature=CAQQwRs%3D

Youssra El Hawary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4oMi4pWv9o&feature=related

Tout Ard: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K1L35xwASbM

Oka-Ortega: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70SNIrxhxgY

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