Artist facing jail time: “Freedom of expression is a myth in Lebanon”

Graffiti by Semaan Khawam
More than two decades after Lebanon’s civil war ended, it remains a very touchy subject for the government there. Case in point: Semaan Khawam, a Lebanese artist, was charged Wednesday with “disturbing the peace” after having spray-painted graffiti of soldiers resembling those who took part in the civil war between Muslims and Christians.

Khawam, who has spent years spray-painting Beirut’s streets, made his first piece of soldier graffiti in 2011. Though graffiti art, which is widespread in Lebanon, has never been officially outlawed, his soldier series may cost him a million Lebanese pounds (about 500 euros) or three months in prison, if the courts side with the prosecution.

“My graffiti is about Lebanon’s civil war and soldiers, one of the country’s touchiest subjects”

In the past, Lebanese authorities have censored certain graffiti, notably messages of support for the Syrian uprising, a movement that the majority of the country’s government opposes. However, up until now, they have simply censored the messages with a coat of paint.

Khawam should be handed his verdict on June 25. In the meantime, graffiti artists from around the Arab world have expressed their support for his work.

A drawing by the Egyptian artist Ganzour. The text reads, "Who is going to win?" Image published on Semaan Khawam's Facebook page
In his own words

Back in September 2011, I was spray-painting graffiti on a wall specifically dedicated to this purpose when two men from the military’s secret service came up to me. They asked me what I was painting, and I explained I was painting soldiers. They asked me to stop, and left. But moments later, as I was still working, the police came to arrest me. At the police station, they interrogated me and forced me to sign a statement promising not to do any more graffiti. Of course, I disobeyed. So they asked me to come to the police station two more times. The third time they asked, I refused to go. And then one morning, in February, I received a letter ordering me to go to court.

“The old ghosts of sectarianism are back”

The state has accused me of breaking the law, but I don’t understand which law. My lawyer’s argument is that there is no law in Lebanon that says graffiti is illegal. In fact, graffiti is all over the place in this country! Some of my friends suggested I just pay the fine so that the authorities would leave me alone, but I said no. I refuse to give in to this bullying and want to push the authorities until they admit they are censoring me.

The name of my graffiti series is “Do not forget.” I painted soldiers armed with machine guns but without any other identifying details, so you can’t tell if they are Muslim or Christian. I did this to show the shared responsibility of both sides in the war.

One of Semaan Khawam's paintings of soldiers.
I thought it was important to remind people of this because for the past several years, we’ve been seeing the old ghosts of sectarianism – which prompted this war – popping back up again. Since the 2005 elections, which were marred by violence [there was a wave of sectarian attacks and political assassinations, which notably cost Prime Minister Rafik Hariri his life], the vocabulary of the civil war has made a comeback: people talk about East Beirut and West Beirut [during the war, the Lebanese capital was divided between East Beirut, which was mainly Muslim, and West Beirut, which was mainly Christian].

Weapons have begun circulating again, too. Specific zones of the city are reserved for people of one faith and closed to others, such as the southern suburbs of Beirut, which are controlled by Hezbollah, and where non-Shiites cannot go. In short, people are reduced to their faith and it’s once again become impossible to simply be Lebanese.

The reason this graffiti is bothering the authorities more than the graffiti I’ve done in the past is because I’m not only taking on the touchy subject of the civil war, but I’m also talking about the army, which is a major taboo in our society. Before me, a graffiti artist named Ali had depicted police officers and written “I love corruption” next to them. His graffiti art was quickly covered up with paint. Depicting soldiers, however, draws even stronger censure from the authorities.

My case is only one among many other cases of censorship in Lebanon. Freedom of expression is a myth here, since three major taboos remain: politics, religion, and sex. This censorship is always religious in nature. Each religious community tries to impose its own values. [Lebanon’s population is 59 percent Muslim and 39 percent Christian, with a small Jewish minority population. Power is attributed based on religion: the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister must be a Suuni Muslim and the head of parliament must be a Shiite Muslim].

“Freedom of expression is a myth here in Lebanon”

Our society suffers from this sectarianism. Today, it’s impossible to talk about the army, the president, Hezbollah, or the revolutions in the Arab world without running the risk of shocking one community or another. People need to understand that nothing is sacred and that we must have the right to criticise everything. However, this will only be possible in a secular state.

Photo published on the Facebook page Stop Cultural Terrorism in Lebanon.

France 24

  • FadiAbboud

    More power to freedoms of expression and speech without legal persecution.

  • FadiAbboud

    More power to freedoms of expression and speech without legal persecution.

  • Fauzia45

     ¨¨If the freedom of speech is taken away,then dumb and silent we may be led like sheep to the slaughter ,¨ George Washington.

  • Fauzia45

     ¨¨If the freedom of speech is taken away,then dumb and silent we may be led like sheep to the slaughter ,¨ George Washington.

  • MeYosemite

    I would vote for semaan. We need more folk like him, daring and outspoken.

    • 5thDrawer

      Yes Yosemite – but most who found they had neither freedom or free speech left the place, and still do. In a sense more daring, because that unknown world is a fearful place. Even in countries where ‘freedom of speech’ is in a constitution, there are societal restrictions – which is probably a good thing as some would promote hatred and anarchy if they could say whatever silly thing they wanted. (although ‘speaker’s corner’ in London allows anything to be said – a place for the idiots to spout.)
      The best ‘freedom’ is to be able (allowed) to vote – a form of silent speech which protects the individual’s rights and yet allows expression of thought. The one being voted for has spoken freely, and the people judge the value of the words, without having a running street battle over what was said.
      Of course, ALL the people need to accept the outcome of such things. If they don’t like it, they can say so – at next election time. (Hauling out guns immediately because someone didn’t win a vote is rather primitive.) But that 4 or so years allows them to see the value in the words spoken by the elected. Sometimes, they are pleasantly surprised that there actually was value in the THOUGHTS of the majority who voted a person into office, when the general outcome was good for all in the society. Indeed, that person might get elected again.
      The problem here is that dialogue and opinion need to always be couched in terms acceptable to various religious precepts, and things even of a technical nature cannot be ‘discussed freely’ without reference to which ‘faith’  a person who said them belongs to … and (for example) then thinking that if wasn’t ‘your’ faith-leader who said a hydro pole needs to go in a certain place to carry wires for electricity it therefore cannot be right. So haul out a gun for that too.
       Did the people vote for electricity – or for a person who had a religion but no-one around him who knew anything about the subject? Was his opponent allowed to express that fact without being thought of as against the religion of the one who knew nothing? If the technical aspects were not allowed to be spoken of without reference to religion, then what form of ‘freedom of speech’ could ever accomplish electricity?

  • MeYosemite

    I would vote for semaan. We need more folk like him, daring and outspoken.

    • 5thDrawer

      Yes Yosemite – but most who found they had neither freedom or free speech left the place, and still do. In a sense more daring, because that unknown world is a fearful place. Even in countries where ‘freedom of speech’ is in a constitution, there are societal restrictions – which is probably a good thing as some would promote hatred and anarchy if they could say whatever silly thing they wanted. (although ‘speaker’s corner’ in London allows anything to be said – a place for the idiots to spout.)
      The best ‘freedom’ is to be able (allowed) to vote – a form of silent speech which protects the individual’s rights and yet allows expression of thought. The one being voted for has spoken freely, and the people judge the value of the words, without having a running street battle over what was said.
      Of course, ALL the people need to accept the outcome of such things. If they don’t like it, they can say so – at next election time. (Hauling out guns immediately because someone didn’t win a vote is rather primitive.) But that 4 or so years allows them to see the value in the words spoken by the elected. Sometimes, they are pleasantly surprised that there actually was value in the THOUGHTS of the majority who voted a person into office, when the general outcome was good for all in the society. Indeed, that person might get elected again.
      The problem here is that dialogue and opinion need to always be couched in terms acceptable to various religious precepts, and things even of a technical nature cannot be ‘discussed freely’ without reference to which ‘faith’  a person who said them belongs to … and (for example) then thinking that if wasn’t ‘your’ faith-leader who said a hydro pole needs to go in a certain place to carry wires for electricity it therefore cannot be right. So haul out a gun for that too.
       Did the people vote for electricity – or for a person who had a religion but no-one around him who knew anything about the subject? Was his opponent allowed to express that fact without being thought of as against the religion of the one who knew nothing? If the technical aspects were not allowed to be spoken of without reference to religion, then what form of ‘freedom of speech’ could ever accomplish electricity?

  • 5thDrawer

    Somewhere in the strange ‘Confessional Parliamentary-Republican Democracy’ of Lebanon ….
    CONFESSIONAL BOX

    A guy goes into the confessional box after years being away from the Church.
    He pulls aside the curtain, enters and sits himself down.
    There’s a fully equipped bar with crystal glasses, the best vestry wine, Guinness on tap, cigars and liqueur chocolates nearby, and on the wall a fine photographic display of buxom ladies who appear to have mislaid their garments.
    He hears a priest come in:

    “Father, forgive me for it’s been a very long time since I’ve been to confession,
    and I must admit that the confessional box is much more inviting than it used to be”.

    The priest replies:
    “Get out, you idiot. You’re on my side”

  • 5thDrawer

    Somewhere in the strange ‘Confessional Parliamentary-Republican Democracy’ of Lebanon ….
    CONFESSIONAL BOX

    A guy goes into the confessional box after years being away from the Church.
    He pulls aside the curtain, enters and sits himself down.
    There’s a fully equipped bar with crystal glasses, the best vestry wine, Guinness on tap, cigars and liqueur chocolates nearby, and on the wall a fine photographic display of buxom ladies who appear to have mislaid their garments.
    He hears a priest come in:

    “Father, forgive me for it’s been a very long time since I’ve been to confession,
    and I must admit that the confessional box is much more inviting than it used to be”.

    The priest replies:
    “Get out, you idiot. You’re on my side”

  • 5thDrawer

    From BBC report … one for Dab. 🙂
    “Officials in Tunisia say two bloggers have been jailed for seven years after posting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad on the internet.
    Activists have criticised the sentences and voiced fears that they could herald a clampdown on free speech.
    The Ministry of Justice said the men had put naked caricatures of the prophet on their Facebook accounts.”
    Ewwwww …. hihihihihihi
    But there’s a great example of why you should not be letting everyone see your facebook …

  • 5thDrawer

    From BBC report … one for Dab. 🙂
    “Officials in Tunisia say two bloggers have been jailed for seven years after posting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad on the internet.
    Activists have criticised the sentences and voiced fears that they could herald a clampdown on free speech.
    The Ministry of Justice said the men had put naked caricatures of the prophet on their Facebook accounts.”
    Ewwwww …. hihihihihihi
    But there’s a great example of why you should not be letting everyone see your facebook …

  • De

    It does make quite a difference if you are making art,
    or like Semaan Khawam and other “artists” are deliberately offending
    and insulting people.

    An image of police officers with the text “I love
    corruption” is clearly insulting all police officers as there is no
    discrimination in the artistic expression between “good” and
    “bad” cops).

    Art can never be an excuse for deliberately insult, defaming
    or attack people. Freedom of speech has its boundaries, as has art. Apart from
    bad taste, which you could apply on the “art” of Semaan Khawam (Yes,
    this is my opion! Freedom of speech!) it would be good for “artists”
    like Semaan Khawam to know that it is not needed to point out differences
    between the several communities in Lebanon. It would be better to acknowledge
    the common ground.

    As a matter of fact it is complete nonsense to say
    that certain areas are normally not possible to enter just because you are a
    member of a certain religious or cultural community. (And yes, I bear in mind
    than now and then – like recently in Tripoli – differences between communities
    arouse clashes)

    I hope that people can distinct between real artists
    and people who are just up to insult and exaggerating things, especially for a
    western audience, to create themselves a name as an “artist”.

    Being from Western Europa and living in Lebanon, I
    consider Semaan Khawam not an artist but an “agent provocateur”.

  • De

    It does make quite a difference if you are making art,
    or like Semaan Khawam and other “artists” are deliberately offending
    and insulting people.

    An image of police officers with the text “I love
    corruption” is clearly insulting all police officers as there is no
    discrimination in the artistic expression between “good” and
    “bad” cops).

    Art can never be an excuse for deliberately insult, defaming
    or attack people. Freedom of speech has its boundaries, as has art. Apart from
    bad taste, which you could apply on the “art” of Semaan Khawam (Yes,
    this is my opion! Freedom of speech!) it would be good for “artists”
    like Semaan Khawam to know that it is not needed to point out differences
    between the several communities in Lebanon. It would be better to acknowledge
    the common ground.

    As a matter of fact it is complete nonsense to say
    that certain areas are normally not possible to enter just because you are a
    member of a certain religious or cultural community. (And yes, I bear in mind
    than now and then – like recently in Tripoli – differences between communities
    arouse clashes)

    I hope that people can distinct between real artists
    and people who are just up to insult and exaggerating things, especially for a
    western audience, to create themselves a name as an “artist”.

    Being from Western Europa and living in Lebanon, I
    consider Semaan Khawam not an artist but an “agent provocateur”.