intellectual discourse


In the 1990s, when the Lebanese civil war was still a fresh memory, cultural products accused of “disturbing civil peace” began to disappear from the Lebanese scene. It proved to be a very flexible and useful category that included almost anything that touched on the war. I remember Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation disappearing overnight from Beirut’s bookstores. Many blamed it on Syria at the time, but the heavy hand of censorship continues to strike today in Lebanon, the Middle East’s “only breathing space.”

This year’s Beirut International Film Festival promised to be the event of the year for film buffs. It kicked off with no less than Francis Ford Coppola coming to Lebanon to launch his latest film, Tetro. But the atmosphere soon soured when General Security prohibited the screening of two of Paolo Benvenuti’s films. The reason: they offend the church of the Middle Ages. The church here being the Catholic church, of course, because General Security based its decision upon consultation with the notorious Catholic Center for Media (المركز الكاثوليكي للاعلام), also behind the banning of Da Vinci Code.

But the story goes beyond the Catholic Center. Using the worn-out weapon of “safeguarding civil peace” — as if we needed the cinema to whip things up — General Security is now undermining the work of a promising young talent, Simon al-Habr. They have censored a crucial part of his documentary Samaan bil-Day`ah, which deals precisely with the memory of the civil war — a war we are allowed to commemorate but not to allowed to remember. The director has put the censored bit on youtube, so you can see for yourself how threatening it is (includes English subtitles).

In today’s al-Akhbar, Pierre Abi Saab rightfully points out the hypocrisy of the so-called “liberal” “intellectuals” in Lebanon who were quick to jump the gun when the censorship concerned Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, but remained silent about the undermining of local works such as al-Habr’s documentary and Mark Abi Rashid’s Help.

But I think there is another side to this. This censorship, like most censorship, is not only about the content. It is more about who is allowed to do the utterance. For what is utterly ridiculous about censoring al-Habr’s documentary in the name of “safeguarding civil peace” is that the censored recollection of the mountain war is nothing compared to the venom regularly spewed by Lebanese politicians when they evoke the civil war. And those politicians who wield violence, ironically (or not), seem to have more right to the molding of a collective memory of the war. What this kind of censorship effectively does is strip only us, the citizens, of this right.

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For some reason, some native intellectuals insist on adopting the reductionist model of backwardness vs. progress to explain politics in Lebanon today. The latest incarnation is an op-ed by Hazim Saghiyah (not to be confused with the nephew, Khalid) published in Meow Lebanon. Referring to an electoral speech delivered by Jubran Basil, Saghiyah explains:

This distinction between “the materialism of the West” and “the spiritualism of the East” is not new, nor is it monopolized by the Lebanese. What is new is that it is now emanating from a political party [the Free Patriotic Movement] that continuously expresses its attachment to modernity and to “reform and change.” But Hizballah has already, in its last electoral program, announced “fighting vice” as one of its points […]

[…] There are therefore, regardless of the election and its results and away from politics in its daily and common conception, signs of a cultural alliance, one might say, between the two parties of Mar Mkhayel [signatories of the memorandum of understanding]. And the direct enemy of this alliance is: freedom and progress.

For an intellectual, Saghiyah is incredibly ignorant of Middle Eastern intellectual history. The distinction between the materiality of the West and the spirituality and values of the East is not meeting its modernist and reformist counterpart for the first time. It is precisely the product of a modern condition and a modern reorganization of knowledge that attempted to shore up and define a disempowered “East” against a politically, economically, and militarily powerful “West.” A counter-Orientalism, if you will, belonging to the time of al-nahdah (late 19th century Arab “renaissance”).

But what is more interesting is the political expediency to Saghiyhah’s intellectual musings. By branding the Free Patriotic Movement and Hizballah as the darkest relics of the past, their opponents emerge as champions of “freedom and progress.” On what he means by that, he explains: “[…] the most important foundations and characteristics of Lebanon, as in opening up to the Arab and western worlds, as well as in its economy and prosperity.” When defined in this truncated manner, one is tempted to follow up with the conclusion that Gulf states are beacons of freedom and progress!

This watered down definition eschews — perhaps unwittingly — more common and fundamental aspects of “freedom and progress” such as democratic practices and representation, freedom of the press and the media, a redistribution of economic opportunities, a structure of rights and duties, etc… etc… Naturally so, because if Saghiyah were to highlight these instead, one would be hard pressed to find a place for March 14 in their midst. But the only way to grant March 14 the cultural legitimacy and civilizational mission that it claims for itself — without questioning it or questioning the regional power structure behind it — is to cast its opponents as partners in an anti-modern, cultural alliance.

Though these cultural claims to civilization are not new in Lebanon, they have persisted over the past few years in a very bare and highly politicized form. Today, however, there were hints in the Lebanese media of a possible reshuffling of alliances that is to take place in the coming weeks. If this reshuffling were indeed to happen, it would be interesting to watch where leftists-turned-liberals such as Hazim Saghiyah will turn to next.