Louis Fishman
Last updated: 9 April, 2013

With Mashrou’ Leila from Haifa to Beirut, and back to Istanbul

Louis Fishman takes us on a journey through the songs of Mashrou' Leila; dancing elegantly between the worlds of food, music, religion, war and peace.

From the moment I heard that the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila was coming to Istanbul, I knew I was in for a great evening; I just never imagined how much this band, made up of former students from the American University of Beirut, could dish out.

Just a year ago, this group made its way across my Facebook feed, and it took only weeks before they became a part of my daily life, with a ritual developing at my home where I would share their music with friends coming over in evenings before going out to enjoy Istanbul nights.

What strikes me most about Mashrou’ Leila’s music, and its musicians, is that it seems to be very much a product of urban mixing, which I myself experienced both in Haifa and Istanbul. While their music offers a splash of Beirut, evident also in their Lebanese accents, it is rather a testament to a multicultural existence, which is not forced but natural; it is a dangerous mix of happiness and the backdrop of a much darker reality. Song after song, they offer a personal narrative of crossing borders, challenging existing cultural, social and gender constructs.

Personally speaking, their music took me back to my university days at Haifa University; Mashrou’ Leila songs reminded me of my friends in which our religious or ethnic makeup was not important. While we were Israelis and Palestinians, we were Jews, Muslims, Druzes, and Christians, and some atheists; we were liberals, leftists, and communists, all together. Many of us were naïve, peace was just around the corner, Beirut would have been our next destiny.

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In fact, we created an imaginary Beirut, one that perhaps never existed, but served as some type of forbidden paradise; it was a microcosm of us in Haifa. Yet there was that border that blocked us from arriving at that multicultural center, which even if it had suffered years of civil war between the numerous religious sects, it was also home to many who refused to give in to senseless bloodshed, refused to take sides.

We in Haifa had refused to fall victim to the Palestinian-Israeli divide, even though all around us was the reality of bloodshed and fear. Nevertheless, we were aware of the bubble we were living in and for the ones who could not live such a free lifestyle, some of Mashrou’ Leila’s songs reflect the reality of being confined to narrowly defined communities, such as Fasateen, which states “remember when you loved me even though I wasn’t of your religion… you took my hand and promised me a revolution… how could you forget me?” And, for those who dare to cross ethnic-national-religious lines there is plenty of gossip to discourage them, such as in the song Latlit (Gossip). 

A decade later, I found myself in Kurtuluş, a neighborhood in Istanbul, and until now my main residence. Here, Greeks, Jews, and a large Armenian community, reside among the now majority Turkish Muslim population. It is a place where one can find Jewish food together with Armenian mezze, and a six-decade old Greek meyhane (tavern). The imagery of food as a common factor connecting people is evident in Mashrou’ Leila’s song Raksit Leila, the Dance of Leila. The colorful video, which focuses on an eggplant, blends the kitchen with urban arenas, and reminds us of how food connects peoples despite their differences. However, the cultural differences in Beirut, are left as mere remnants in Istanbul, as reflected in the Turkish song, Yine Mi Çiçek, which uses food to personalize the forgotten past of Kurtuluş, and the adjacent Bomonti neighborhood.  

Of course, even if Mashrou’ Leila’s lyrics remind me of my years in Kurtuluş on numerous levels, it transcends out to Istanbul at large, especially in the way it tackles gender issues in such an unpretentious and subtle way. Songs such as Wajih, dedicated to a drag queen, and Imm al-Jacket, a narrative that challenges preconceptions about gender, or the beautifully melodic Shim el-Yasmine, and el-Hal Romancy, all are relevant to life in the urban setting of Istanbul, and create an important space for dialogue within the Turkish society.  

During Mashrou’ Leila’s two nights in Istanbul, they packed the Babylon night club, bringing together fans from all over the Middle East and Europe. In the audience, one heard numerous languages, Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, English, French, and German, and we all danced together. However, for me, my happiness was mixed with frustration. Once we dreamed that in Haifa we could have such a gathering, but the one hundred and twenty kilometers separating Beirut and Haifa seem as far as ever, as twenty-five years of occupation now have turned into forty-five years. 

It is with this intrigue, this fascination, that I understood that Mashrou’ Leila has accomplished to penetrate so many of their fans’ personal worlds, reminding us not so much of a nostalgic past, but throwing in our face a mixed present, and perhaps leading us together with them on a path that will just come head on with new tragedies. However, it could be within these wars, borders, neighborhoods, stories of love, where we find the true essence of what makes their music so refreshing.

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