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.