In the ongoing social dialogue between the conservative and liberal views in the Arab world, various debates, arguments, and mutual influences emerge and flourish across different axes and areas of life. Over the past few years, personal rights and freedoms have come under spotlight in the Arab world, a phenomenon that has been reflected in the various music scenes, through songs that address society and all its segments and groups. Subsequently, a number of artists have used music as a participatory space to shed light on stories featuring issues related to homosexuality, gender, and personal freedoms. These are some of the most popular examples.
Shahrazad - Therese Sleiman
Perhaps the most famous song by Palestinian artist Therese Sleiman is Shahrazad. She went up on stage, danced and sang barefoot while an anklet jingling to the rhythms of gypsy melodies. The song is about an intense love affair, and Sleiman recalls with nostalgia the rain that carries the fragrance of a woman's body.
"When our hands meet, my lips on hers, what's left but the world but winter, winter, winter…”
In her latest album, Sleiman reprises the same theme with Shahrayar in Classical Arabic, striking the same tone in glorifying love and women.
Shim El Yasmine - Mashrou' Leila
Mashrou’ Leila have reached a high level of popularity for their rebellious songs and melodies, often calling for the recognition of the rights of minorities and freedom of speech. In their song, Shim El Yasmin, the band's lead singer, Hamed Sinno, sings about a former relationship between a young man and his boyfriend, who walked away and left him alone. The lyrics are filled with an anguished desire for the couple to be able to live a normal life in a society that stands against homosexuality and punishes those who practice it. He nostalgically recalls the relationship, sorrowfully beseeching his former love to “remember to remember” him, and “never forget” him.
Imm El Jacket - Mashrou' Leila
In another Mahrou' Leila song, the band sings about a short-haired girl, who wears a cap and goes out with no makeup, in stark contrast with the typical style prevalent among women from her society. She supposedly looks so different that she is mistaken as male, especially as she does whatever she wants, with no regard for the opinion of other—a freedom that is often perceived to be the privilege of men alone. The song celebrates the idea that every human being is free to look and behave as they wish.
B’hebbik - Jame3 Taksir and Rola Azzar
As part of an initiative by the Palestinian association, alQaws for Sexual & Gender Diversity, in support of polyamory and LGBTQ rights, the Ghanni A`an Taa`rif project sings about the life of homosexuals and trans individuals living within communities that are antipathic to change. B’hebbik is a song about a young woman who confesses her love for another woman. It goes on to describe their relation, which was full of passion since they were little. The girl is so deeply in love, she screams in out loud at the barrier wall separating Israel and Palestine, without fear nor shame.
Al-Qasida al-Shareera - Jame’ Taksir
A rendition of a poem by celebrated Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, the song is about a sexual relationship between two women. The lyrics describe the relationship, and the passion they share.
Zamzam - Jame’ Taksir
The lyrics tell a story of a young man whose behavior, looks, and lifestyle are “different”, who grows up with expectations of becoming like other men, within the framework of the traditional definition of “manhood”. He becomes depressed, and develops a sense of not belonging. Finally, he finds someone who supports his unique character and encourages him to be who he wants to be, and not change himself to comply with the standards imposed on him the society.
Ana Hurra B’hali - Maisa Daw
The song is about a girl who is fed up with discrimination from society, when she meets a girl with similar feelings. Together, their perspective on the world changes, and they feel love for the first time. The lyrics argue that people’s different orientations do not make them less human.
Manakir - Haya Zaatreh
The song describes the stereotypes imposed on all segments of society, and the limited paths available for those who wish to be different. The female protagonist revolts against these stereotypical views imposed on her, refusing to walk with the herd.
Ghanni A`an Taa`rif also includes a song called Thalath Qasa’id (Three Poems), with lyrics by Shahd Issawi and performed by Riyad Sliman. The song is inspired by the Greek philosopher Plato’s philosophy on love.
Tayf - Mashrou' Leila
From their album, Ibn El Leil, the song Tayf recalls a nightclub that was closed due to the sexuality of its frequenters. The words illustrate the status of gay and transgender people in closed communities, as well as the extent of humiliation and violence exercised against them by security forces, and the marginalization and persecution they are subjected to by the surrounding society. The lyrics criticizes the exclusion homosexuality from official historical accounts, noting—in one of the strongest lyrics of the song—that no matter how much intellectual and moral degeneracy proliferate, there will still be those who will fight for their rights to be different and free.
Ji’t Ela Ahli - Ghanni A`an Taa`rif
The song is about a homosexual man who comes out of the closet and confronts his family with his sexual orientation, but they do not accept him. He is forced to leave his hometown and live with his longing for his family. The mournful song expresses the alienation many homosexuals are exposed to when they confront their families, but are not accepted.
El Haram - Dina El Wedidi
The young Egyptian sings about the concept of the loves and the lives of women in the Arab world, especially in the communities where women cannot live their lives as they may wish. She confronts those negative thoughts with lyrics about the beauty of love and art, which are neither shameful nor haram (sinful).
Hayamtni - Ghalia Benali
Tunisian singer Ghalia Benali is famous for her songs for and about women. Although the songs are not directed at a particular gender or sexuality, Benali is very popular in the LGBTQ community, due to her lyrics in support of love in all its, particularly addressing the women in many of her songs. The most prominent of these songs are Hayamtni, Lamouni Li Gharou Meni, and Awaddu.
These songs expose various aspects of personal freedom, as well as on the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, as well as the queer community. Through her songs, Benali creates a space to reconsider the position of LGBTQ communities in the Middle East, taking a step toward changing the laws that limit their rights and freedoms. Benali's songs contain different stories and messages, but the recurrent theme is respect for differences and the expansion of the spectrum of freedoms.