Beirut Graffiti


In the land of the cedars, it’s all about how far you push the envelope

Talk about the censorship in Lebanon is looming large these days, after a string of issues which took center stage on the Internet, via social media. What is interesting about these debates, discussions, and comments, is that they seem to be distant from the ‘offline’ lives that most people seem in Lebanon to be living.

Only rarely does the online community’s zeal translate on the ground, such as when a homophobic article appeared in the American University of Beirut’s official newspaper, Outlook, which forced the Editor-in-Chief to issue a public online apology for the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender) community after the major furor it caused among the internet-savvy stakeholders of the affair.

However, this is exactly the point; because all the actors of the drama were internet-oriented, the whole incident was played in a totally different sphere than in the arena where the effects of censorship usually take place.

As is often the case, more traditional media are the playground of such affairs. It was because of television personality Tony Khalifeh and his show, Lil Nashr (which translates both to ‘for immediate release’, as well as ‘to expose dirty laundry’ in Arabic slang), that director Joe Bou Eid had to have his movie re-appraised after its release due to censorship, after eventually compromising to take out one scene and re-release the movie.

The scene in question was an act of sexual intercourse, which took place inside a church. The irony here, is that Khalifeh apparently never even watched the movie, which he himself admitted. As well, it is worth mentioning that had Bou Eid been a sexy female filmmaker – such as Nadine Labaki, for instance – none of this, in my opinion, would have happened, as the scene wherein goats are shown in a place of worship in her movie, W Halla’ La Wayn (And Now, Where To?) did not cause anyone – including Khalifeh – to even raise an eyebrow.

The winner who emerged from this debacle was none other than Bou Eid himself. According to sources who prefer to remain anonymous, when a member of the crew was in a restaurant, he asked the waiter to raise the sound of the television to be able to hear a report about a ‘banned movie’, the waiter’s immediate reply was, ‘Oh, you mean Tannoura Maxi by Joe Bou Eid?’

The other immediate effect of the incident was that Bou Eid (who owns a production company more or less specialized in the lucrative Lebanese film industry) soon had a plethora of artists with whom he had never collaborated before knocking on his door seeking his talents – and the pre-established media frenzy that goes along with it – to direct their next outings on the airwaves.

It was also amusing to see – or rather, not see – Danielle Arbid’s Beirut Hotel being banned as well. Taking into account that ARTE (the French television channel) broadcast the movie several days later within its programming, and that almost every other Lebanese house has a pirated satellite subscription, many people ended up seeing the movie anyway, albeit from the comfort of their own armchairs. However, considering that filmmakers enjoy a small proportion of ticket sales in Lebanon, Arbid never stood to lose too much money from the banning anyhow.

Beirut graffiti

Naturally, funnier things have happened when politics, morals (or supposed morals) and ethical codes become a volatile mixture of criteria in determining what gets aired and what does not in Lebanon. When De Gaulle Eid’s movie, Chou Sar? (What Happened?), about a massacre in his own village in the North, which took the lives of his relatives was screening at the Beirut International Film Festival in 2010, it had still hadn’t received an acceptance or refusal. When Pierre Sarraf, one of the directors of the festival, addressed the audience, he remarked that because the movie was classified under the ‘Sensitive Issue’ category, the matter of its screening was even more ‘delicate’ than if it had been issued an official denial.

However, this excess of zeal is not only limited to the Censorship Bureau. When the Association for the Promotion and Exhibition of the Arts in Lebanon (APEAL) organised the first comprehensive exhibition of Lebanese contemporary art at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington D.C. that same year, just as the works were about to be shipped through customs, a Lebanese official saw a photograph inside the package, depicting a distorted statue of the Virgin Mary.

Knowing how far to push the envelope is perhaps what determines whether an effort is accepted or rejected by censors

The artist in question – who was alluded to as ‘the son of a prominent Lebanese painter’ in the press – was questioning the relationship between iconography, faith, pop consumerism, and the values of a conservative society. However, this did not appeal to the customs officer, and the artist in question even found himself in jail for a brief period of time.

Later, it was revealed that the artist’s studio was next to a factory, which made cement statues of saints, and which disposed of its moulds over time. Subsequently, the artist salvaged these moulds – which were now distorted – to produce works such as the one in question.

Furthermore, the story of Zeid Hamdan being thrown in hot water – and also briefly in prison – parallels the above incident. His song, General Suleiman – a light-hearted number with minimal lyrics about the Lebanese president, had already been released on YouTube when his predicament occurred. Oddly enough, it was only when Gigi Ricotti, the director of the video, sent his show reel to an advertising agency by post that once more the infamous Censorship Bureau intervened (as all CDs must be checked for content prior to entering the country), and the song attracted the attention of officials who later accused Hamdan of defamation.

Had Ricotti used the Internet to send his material, I believe the ensuing drama would not have happened. After all, Lebanese censorship laws are still unable to deal with online material. As well, only rarely have actors of been harassed or detained via their online activities, mainly because they largely pass under the radar for the moment. For instance, the film, One Man Village: Semaan Bel Day’ia, by Simon El Habre, already had had five minutes censored at the time of its screening, although moviegoers were all texted a YouTube link of the missing segment as soon as they entered theatres.

Permits for screenings have to be issued by the General Security when shooting a movie. The amusing part, however, is that one can apply for the permit in retrospect, after a movie has been shot, although only if one wants to show their ‘effort’. In other words, if the movie ends up on some social media platform, such as YouTube or Vimeo, there is no need to have such a permit. This, then, begs the question: why does such a permit exist in the first place if it can be bypassed digitally, and applied in retrospect, making it practically useless once the material has been shot and in certain cases, broadcasted?

When one of my students was writing a thesis about censorship in Lebanon, we found out that the former General Censor in Lebanon was the aunt of another student. Accordingly, an interview was set up, and I told the student to ask the woman in question if she applied in her own household, and on her own children, the same rules and regulations she applied to the general populace.

Surprisingly, we learned that the former head of censorship was a spinster, and therefore never experienced the dilemma of the duality of such an act in her own backyard. One look at her age immediately informed us that she was the product of the 1950s education system in Lebanon, which was – and in many ways still is – strict, religiously-oriented, and replete with words such as haram (lit. ‘forbidden’) and ayb (lit. ‘should not be done’), among others that a good little Christian girl should obey to preserve her honour, and comply with the rules and expectations of society, which she will ultimately perpetuate.

Yet, for all the problems it causes, censorship is not always negative. It is known for a fact that limitations tend to stimulate the mind creatively, just like – to quote that British advertising man – ‘a well-defined brief’. If the brief did not include things never to be said, mentioned, portrayed, or spoken, it would never force him to consider bypasses, or other ways of expressing his thoughts, albeit obliquely.

One such example of the benefits of such limitations relates to the story of an advertising agency in Saudi Arabia called Links. Faced with the dilemma of having to advertise a brand of men’s underwear in a country that does not accept social nudity in ads, and where images of exposed flesh in international magazines are given to prisoners to censor with thick black markers, the agency shot the model and ‘censored’ him itself. As such, the ad came out full of black marker, with the tagline ‘So hot, it should be censored’.

Another example included the launch of Cialis (a medication for erectile dysfunction) in the same society. Whereas a Viagra ad showed the hand of a locally attired woman to be approaching that of a man in a full tunic as a direct implication that the ‘blue pill’ would do wonders for men, Cialis ingeniously used the phrase ‘Yakoum bi ma ya’jaz ‘anhou al akharoun’ (meaning, ‘it does what others cannot do’, and ‘stiffens what others cannot’). The clever thing to note, in this instance, is that the ‘m’ sound in Arabic is represented by the letter meem, which has a long, protruding tail, which the ad agency simply elongated to serve as a metaphor.

For all the problems it causes, censorship is not always negative

Moreover, a local example from Lebanon is the Aizone (the luxury fashion brand) campaign, Vote, with one of its billboard ads showing a gang of several young men and women dressed in the trademarked colours of the opposing Lebanese political parties (e.g. yellow, orange, green, blue, etc.). The genius of the ad was that it distracted viewers (as well as those at the Censorship Bureau, who approve billboard campaigns) at first-glance into believing it was an ad to vote for tolerance in a political sense. However, at second glance, it becomes apparent that some of the men and women in the ad are looking with eagerness and tenderness at each other, or are closely touching members of the same sex. In reality, the ad was about sexual tolerance, although the envelope was ‘pushed’ in the right direction, such that the censors overlooked its implications, yet attentive consumers noticed the undertones.

In fact, knowing how far to push the envelope is perhaps what determines whether a particular endeavour is accepted or rejected by censors. In Morocco, for example, where any expression related to the King is immediately considered a crime de lèse-majesté, the famous French caricaturist Plantu personally told me about one artist who braved the censors and avoided infamy by simply depicting a finger with a huge ring, rather than the King himself.

Perhaps a lasting testimony of the censorship procedure and its relative futility at times – apart from stimulating creativity – is the outcome of the Marie-France tights campaign in Lebanon. When posters were strategically placed on the inter-lanes across the highways, they were one day ripped and torn to pieces, leaving the Lebanese people wondering as to who committed the acts. It later transpired that ultra-conservative right-wing Christians were behind the incident in a feeble attempt to, as one of them later confided to me, ‘stop the ethical rampage of the religious values we uphold’.

Unfortunately, for the right-wing Christians, a campaign aimed exclusively at a certain portion of women suddenly started being talked about by everyone; so much so, that Marie-France’s distributor ended up calling Sawt Loubnan (Voice of Lebanon), one of the country’s most popular radio stations, to say, ‘I’d like to personally thank everyone behind this act; never before did we enjoy so much free advertising’. Indeed, afterwards, the name Marie-France suddenly catapulted into the national conscience, even among men who hadn’t the slightest interest in the brand, and who might have only looked at the models while driving on the highway.

These examples aside, the one incident that stands out more than any other in my mind takes me back to my high school years. As were in the midst of discussing Rousseau with our French teacher – a witty man, if there was one – we heard a major slam. Naturally, all the teachers were alarmed, and went to the Principal’s office to see what the commotion was about. Upon his return, the French teacher simply told us, ‘There are many ways to say the same thing. You don’t tell a father his son is stupid – you might as well say, ‘your son is not very sly’. Otherwise, you will get a slap on the face’.

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