A “Neo-Christian” Victory Over “Mashrou’ Leila”

Hazem El Amin
Lebanese Writer and Journalist

Welcome to the era of Gebran Bassil, Lebanon’s Trump.

The major Byblos Music Festival has canceled a performance by the country’s “Mashrou’ Leila,” succumbing to tremendous pressure from Bassil’s followers, his neophytes, the “neo-believers,” who threatened to attack the concert if it went ahead. 

Lebanon’s foreign minister may have remained quiet about the incident, but his fingerprints are all over it. The brutal backlash we have just witnessed against the rock band is a perfect illustration of the “New Order” Bassil has established, in which his Christian constituencies are dwarfed into a monochromatic bloc, with self-aggrandizing feelings of so-called “genetic superiority.” Bassil has awakened a new type of Christian in their hearts: some sort of a “neo-christian,” subscribing to their leader’s racist discourse, and reciting his old, bedraggled motto: “I am racist for my country’s sake.” 

Even amongst Bassil’s Christian political foes, the Lebanese Forces, few have been able to dodge the spell he cast. His “Aounist” movement instigates. The others follow in its footsteps. The offensive against Mashrou’ Leila is only another offshoot of the Aounists’ hate-filled rhetoric. Their machinery of bigoted, anti-immigrant discourse, had incited a similarly harsh onslaught on Syrian refugees a couple months before. In both episodes, the Lebanese Forces were quick to join the attacks. Not to mention Christian lawmakers’ retreat into a narrow-minded, extremely reactionary politics, in total disregard for universal values that Christians had for a long time been the torch-bearers; values which alone hold the key to inclusion in the modern world and the future.

Watching Lebanon’s Christians plunge into such depths of imbecility and backwardness, one gets a sense that ISIS has awakened, amongst them, its heretofore dormant peers. The crusade against Mashrou’ Leila has unveiled a new face for Isis. 

In the Gebran Bassil era, Lebanese Christians have forfeited their long-standing role in enhancing their country’s relationship with the rest of the world. 

Gebran is the Donald Trump of Lebanon. Just like Trump “sings” and the crowds chant behind, so does Bassil, like a zajal “poet,” improvise hate-filled verses and the homologous chorus of his men and women repeat his refrains. 

Bassil’s own variation of Trump’s populism is worming its way into every area. One need simply notice, for example, how Lebanese artists turned a blind eye to the vicious defamatory campaign against Mashrou’ Leila. And how the dozens of them who made themselves heard did so by joining the Bassilian zajal chorus, rehashing blasphemy accusations against the band and vying revenge with “fire and fury.” The reference to zajal becomes even more to the point if one recalls that this semi-improvised, semi-sung declaimed poetry, adopts a colloquial language that has always mirrored to a large extent the ethnic and sectarian fragmentation of this country. 

Gebran is the Donald Trump of Lebanon. Just like Trump “sings” and the crowds chant behind, so does Bassil, like a zajal “poet”

We are racists for our country’s sake,” is a phrase you might normally expect from a zajal poet, not the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and the most powerful Christian leader. 

The analogy with zajal is further grounded in Bassil’s tactics of continuous “regional” visits, his participation in “common” daily activities, as well as in spurring his supporters into action by his rajaz poetic speeches and tweets. With his spasmodic meters, Bassil is trying to reignite a spirit of old glories, long dead, if it were not for some local singers, like Zein el Omar and Fares Karam, or TV presenters, like Carla Haddad and Charbel Khalil. 

This backward spirit comes with a set of reactionary ideas and values that are unbecoming of the Christians’ social and cultural status in this country: “genetic superiority,” chauvinism and misogyny, fear and hatred of refugees, and “racism for the sake of the country.” With all that, Christians have been too weak-kneed to stand up for their own artists, whose only fault is that they use art to explore new vistas, different ways of seeing the world. The same Mashrou’ Leila who, since the year they were formed, had been rocking the country’s (and the world’s) stages from Baalbeck to Byblos itself, before the Bassilian demon cast his spell. 

Bassil is pushing Christians to relinquish the very values they fought hard for and were the first to adopt. The violent homophobic comments directed at the band’s gay lead singer and his supporters, are out of whack with what Beirut’s Muslim LGBTQ+ community has always deemed a “Christian safe haven” for them. 

Christians need to rescue themselves from Bassil’s demon. 

If this demon succeeds in his project, the result will cast an all-out darkness over Lebanon, not unlike the oppressive cultures the neighboring Arab region is reeling under. 

If Bassil wins, Christians will be reduced to a bare demographic. A number, pure and simple. And an insignificant number at that. They will lose. We will all lose with them. 

Byblos Music Festival capitulated in the face of the “Christian Scarecrow” and pulled Mashrou’ Leila’s gig. Back in 2016, the boys in the band stood on that very stage they are now banned from. They played and filled the air of Byblos with their music, to the applause of an adoring crowd. 

But today is different. Today, Gebran Bassil is here. 

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