By Mónica G. Prieto / Translation Blanca G. Bertolaza
- The Virtual Museum of Censorship promotes the knowledge of the cultural prohibitions in place in Lebanon to defend freedom of speech
- The organization in charge of banning works uses a law passed at the beginning of the 20th century during the French occupation
- “Politicians believe that declaring everything is taboo is the best way for them to remain in power”, explains Lea Baroudi, Museum manager
BEIRUT.- Some movies are never shown in Lebanese cinemas, even if they are available on the black market for one dollar. Some internationally-recognized artists never land in the country because the authorities have made out a link –close or far, real or imaginary- with Israel. Graffiti artists are arrested for expressing themselves on the walls, actors taken into custody for showing their underwear, singers jailed because one of their songs might refer to a politician…
In Lebanon, which until the regional revolts prided itself for being the only Arab democracy, freedom of speech is a vague concept and censorship an everyday problem. Cartoonist Mazen Karbaj said it best when he designed the cartoon that has become the flag of the MARCH movement, focused on promoting the citizens’ rights and obligations. In the drawing, a politician, a soldier and two clerics –one Sunni and one Shiite- hug each other smiling as they chant “yes to freedom of speech”. The small print reads: “Unless you talk about the State, Allah, the prophet, Jesus Christ, the president of the Republic, good manners, the Church, the Bible, the Koran, the Martyrs, the Resistance, the Army and its chief, the Pope, the Saudi King, the prophets, national unity, the civil war, confessionalism, friend countries and brother countries, the mufti, the patriarch, the prime minister, the Government, history books, the Palestinian refugee camps, and the origin of hummus”.
“It is one of our contradictions”, Lea Baroudi, MARCH founder, smiles broadly as she shrugs. Lebanese society is made up of a variety that can only be understood through huge amounts of tolerance and coexistence. “However, taboos are one of its most noticeable characteristics”, adds Lea. Anything that might disturb the status quo –not the stability, which is always absent- is seen by its leaders as a threat. And that includes from sex or domestic abuse to religion and politics.
MARCH’s fight is based precisely on promoting freedom of speech as a means to aspire to other fundamental freedoms. And also to live in peace. “We are a plural society, with people who think differently and we need to accept what others say”, Baroudi insists. However, the way the State has of dealing with these differences is hiding them. To that end, it has the Directorate for General Security’s Media and Theater Department, better known as the censorship office. They ban artistic works that, in this organization’s opinion, “threaten the peace”. Sometimes they make use of the armed forces, and too often, even if it is just for a few days, daring artists end up in a dark prison cell.
This summer, Khoder Salameh and Ali Fakhry were arrested when they were finishing a graffiti that read “Syria, the revolution continues”, along with a recycling sign. Ahmed Attar could perform On the importance of being an Arab in Beirut because he refused to take out references to the fall of Hosni Mubarak from the original script when Lebanese authorities asked him to. Musician Ziad Hamdan was even arrested a year ago for having written a song, General Suleiman, which according to the Media and Theater Department, slandered the president. The song in question was from 2008 and, as Hamdan explained to this journalist, was not inspired by anyone in particular but, in any case, it might have been inspired by general Omar Suleiman, former chief of the Egyptian intelligence system during the overthrown dictatorship.
To many, the worst is not the fact that the censorship office is working at full capacity thanks to laws that run back to the French occupation –between the 20s and 40s and, therefore, passed by an authority that no longer exists- but the lack of knowledge about the constant attack on freedom of speech by the political and religious authorities. That is why the MARCH association, created to “educate citizens about their civil rights” and behind the Facebook page Stop Cultural Terrorism, has set up the Virtual Museum of Censorship. It is a detailed review of all the cultural works that have been boycotted by Lebanese Security since the 40s.
Lea Baroudi got started by going to the Department in question to ask for help. “We asked them for the list of forbidden Works and they refused to give it to us. We understood that they leave no trace of censorship, in fact they deny censoring anything. They know it is illegal so they prefer not to leave proof of their work”. Which is why the members of MARCH took to the libraries, video archives and the archives of radio stations to create a database that is constantly being renovated thanks to its Report section, through which anyone can inform about the censoring of an artistic work.
A team of 12 people has worked in this Project for six months, and they have found “thousands of banned works”, says Baroudi. Some remain forbidden, others saw their ban lifted days, weeks or months after the initial veto. The criteria seem vague at best; judging from the ones consulted, they are non-existent and respond to whims and sheer chance.
The albums of bands such as Kiss, Nirvana, Metallica or Iron Maiden are not sold in Lebanon due to “witchcraft” or “offense to Christianity”. Music videos such as the one for Najwa Karam’s song Why do you emigrate?, dedicated to the local brain drain, were banned because they were “controversial”. The movie Independence Day was forbidden for a while because of the scene where Arab and Jewish troops join to celebrate the end of the aliens. Schindler’s List went through the same for showing a positive image of the Jewish people. In Showgirls’ case, the reason was its sexual content, while James Cameron’s True Lies underwent a temporary boycott because of its depiction of Arabs as terrorists…
A sort of intellectual guidance over the Lebanese people, denounces Nadim Lahoud, producer of Mamnou3, an online parody that makes fun of censorship by recreating life at the General Security offices. “Politicians patronize us, they treat the country as if we were children who were going to fight over anything. They do not believe people are capable of acting correctly”, says this young entrepreneur, convinced that irony is the best weapon against the Lebanese reality. “They have always been condescending, they think the country will be fine as long as we do not talk about its problems. They believe that if everything is taboo, if instead of talking about our differences and trying to overcome them, we hide them, it will be the best for their stay in power”, agrees Baroudi.
Khoder Salameh, known for participating often in civil initiatives and arrested for a graffiti, is even harsher. “Lebanon cannot be considered a democracy, it is a decentralized dictatorship. In other countries there is one dictator, here we have 18, one for each religious cult, and each one of them has his own military force”. His arrest, along with that of his partner Ali Fakhry, set off an unprecedented social mobilization. The case was unfounded since, in theory, graffiti is not forbidden in Lebanon, but they could be accused of altering public property. To keep them under arrest, the soldiers –who have been in charge for years of maintaining social order thanks to the virtual state of emergency that rules the country since the Israeli offensive in 2006- brought forth the finding of a philosophy book and a CD with the face of Che Guevara on the cover as irrefutable proof of their subversive activities.
The “threat to civil peace” is usually what the General Security argues to censor contents, but it is not the only one. “Obscenity, for sexual contents, issues that affect religious sensibilities, Israel…”, says Lea Baroudi. In the Jewish neighbor’s case, the cases of censorship are legion. Every Israeli artist, writer or author is automatically censored in a country officially at war with Tel Aviv, and nobody who shows an Israeli visa in their passport is authorized to land in Lebanon, including Palestinian artists. But this hostility often goes beyond that. Francis Ford Coppola was forbidden from landing in Lebanon hours before his scheduled arrival at Beirut, where he was supposed to inaugurate a film festival, because part of his private jet’s engine had been made in Israel, in one of the most extreme cases of local paranoia.
“His presence would have been quite an event in Lebanon, and it would have meant a good backing for the country”, regrets the MARCH manager. “The biggest irony is that he ended up landing in Syria”. For Khoder Salameh, the problem begins when the artist or the activist does not defend a particular political or religious group. If someone pronounces themselves in favor of a Lebanese personality, everything is fine, but if they push for for non-conformity towards the system, they are considered dangerous insurgents.
“If we had written about any other subject, if it had been in favor of a certain political party, there would have been no problem. Lebanese censorship acts out of fear of young people”, he explained to this media days after he was let go, towards the end of last April. His partner Ali Fakrhy agreed with him. “We cannot criticize Saudi Arabia, or Syria, or complain about the hike in bread prices. I mean, you can, but you’ll go to jail for it. If you break the wall of censorship in which we have been born and raised, you go to jail”.
Which is why MARCH is focused on breaking that wall. “Now you know, and knowing is half the battle”, announces the Virtual Museum of Censorship’s website. “Our goal is that people know what is happening. In MARCH we are focused on freedom of speech as the necessary step to reclaim every other right”. The next step will be action. “We need to be well informed to work on changing the censorship law”, explains Baroudi. “This law goes back to the French occupation and it should be illegal, since that authority no longer exists”.
The funny thing is that anything, from Frank Sinatra to Metallica can be censored. “In the 60s and 70s, it was anything that sounded leftist; in the 80s and 90s, everything related to the civil war, in spite of the fact that we were at war, and since 2000, anything that is related to politics or religion. They have gone so far as to censor sports books. But the Internet provides access to censored information, and that is unstoppable”, argues the MARCH manager.
The Virtual Museum of Censorship takes shelter on the Internet, just like Mamnou3, to avoid problems with the law. It is one of the system’s tricks. Lebanese rapper Rayess Bek can give live shows in Lebanon, but he can’t sell his music. “Every work of art must be approved by National Security before coming out. And they never tell you that they are going to ban your song, but they warn you that you are going to be in trouble if you sing something like that”, explained Rayess to this journalist. “And in the end, you are: the songs on the last album I recorded in Lebanon, Hazardous to Health, were full of beeeeps camouflaging censored words.
The members of the group Mashrou3Leila, or Leila’s Project, have not had problems with local censorship yet, despite the fact that their lyrics talk openly about sex, denounce social problems such as domestic violence, use foul language and tackle taboos such as homosexuality. “I’m sure that they don’t know we exist”, laughs Hamed Sinno, singer and author of the lyrics that appeal massively to the Arab youth. “We haven’t tried to export our music either”, points out Haig Papazian, violinist, reminding us that censorship acts mostly upon creative material imported into the country. “Our albums usually run out in concerts, instead of in stores”. The rest are purchased through their website.
Mashrou3Leila is considered Lebanon’s best new act: formed in 2008 by a group of architecture students and music lovers “as a way to vent the stress caused by politics and college”, explains keyboard player Omaya Malaeb, their music and lyrics ended up captivating and representing an entire generation. Thanks to the Internet, their product has crossed borders, and they have already played in Dubai and Jordan, with even prime ministers attending their shows. They work, however, with the weight of censorship on their shoulders. “The contract we were sent from Dubai already included that we could not use foul language. In Jordan, agents came to ask the same 20 minutes before the concert. But we did not have time to react”. So Senno’s trick was to stay silent during the swearwords: the public filled the silences with the original lyrics from the songs.
“In the 90s censorship was directed more towards music, now it is towards movies”, recalls Baroudi. That might be the reason why musicians recently feel safe from Lebanese censorship. In the case of films, the number of bans is on the rise, points out via telephone interview Ayman Mhanna, director of the Samir Kassir Foundation for Freedom of Speech. According to him, in the last year “14 or 15 movies have been censored” Mhanna reminds us that the General Security is advised by a civil committee made up of members of the five ministries in charge of approving the censorship of intellectual creations. “And both of them have less power than political parties or religious groups. When it comes to censorship, all religions agree. Most of the complaints come from religious temples”.