The Fate of a Joke in Lebanon



In Lebanon, home to the most liberal press in the Arab world, the editors of a comic magazine tested the limits of free speech.
In Lebanon, home to the most liberal press in the Arab world, the editors of a comic magazine tested the limits of free speech.

In the spring of 2010, three Lebanese comic-book artists were ordered to come to the Beirut headquarters of the Directorate of General Security, where the country’s censorship authorities are located. Omar Khouri, Hatem Imam, and Fadi (the Fdz) Baki were in their early thirties, and had known one another since they were kids. (I’ve known Khouri and Baki since then as well.) In 2007, they founded Samandal, a trilingual comic magazine based in Beirut, which became an important platform for Middle Eastern comic artists. “When we were first called in, we had no idea what was going on,” Khouri said. “We assumed that there was a problem with our publishing license or some missing paperwork.”

The three were told to sit on a bench and not to speak to one another. Then Imam was ushered into an office.

“There was a group of men inside, some in uniform and others in plainclothes. They started shouting at me and asking me what my religion was,” he said. “Then they started asking about comics. I was confused.”

Sitting outside, Khouri and Baki tried to make sense of the racket. “Every time the door opened, we could hear the General Security guys yelling at Hatem while he tried to explain to them what a comic book was,” Baki said.

It eventually emerged that the officers were upset about a couple of images that had appeared in the seventh issue of Samandal, published a few months earlier. The issue was a collaboration with a Belgian publishing house, L’employé du Moi, and included comics by European and Arab artists on the theme of revenge.

One of the offending entries, “Lebanese Recipes for Revenge,” was drawn by Lena Merhej, an editor at Samandal. It illustrated a series of common oaths in the Levantine vernacular, equivalent to quaint expressions like “to hang someone out to dry.” One of the expressions was the phrase “yahriq deenak” (“May [God] burn your religion”), a saying that usually telegraphs exasperation rather than sectarian abuse. Using the same literalist style of the other “recipes,” Merhej illustrated the expression with a scene of a priest and an imam doused with gasoline and lit on fire.

The second comic that caught the attention of the censors was drawn by a French artist named Valfret. It was about a Roman centurion in ancient Palestine who has sex with a legionnaire after a night of drinking and then kills him in shame and self-loathing. Seeking to pin the crime on someone else, he leads the Roman army in a revenge attack against a group of locals who belong to the nascent Christian sect. The comic ends with the centurion beholding one of his crucified victims, beneath a thought bubble that reads, “C’est toi qui est PD.” (“You’re the queer.”) The comic was titled “Ecce Homo.”

“I was totally shocked by the news of the Samandal case,” Valfret said. “In Europe, you can say whatever you want.”

In Lebanon, you can’t say whatever you want, at least not about religion. The country may have the most liberal press in the Arab world, but, given Lebanon’s diverse sectarian makeup and volatile politics, journalists and artists tend to treat the subject of faith carefully. During its first few years of publication, Samandal did not publish much art dealing with politics or religion, but Baki told me that this stemmed from the sorts of submissions it typically received, not the fear of censorship.

“Honestly, we were more concerned about nudity than religious material,” he said. “Our first issue was basically all tits and ass. But the censors didn’t say anything.”

When Baki was called into the office, the General Security men presented him with the two comics. “They were hung up on the concept of ‘revenge’—the theme of the issue—and they kept asking whether this was our way of taking revenge for the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, from a few years back,” Baki said. “It was really dumb.”

The three editors were sent home. A few weeks later, they learned that the Lebanese public prosecutor had charged each of them with “inciting sectarian strife” and “denigrating religion.” They were ordered to appear before the Court of Publications, a special tribunal devoted to handling cases of defamation and slander (which they were also accused of), publishing false news (another charge), and a range of free-speech issues.

“Right from the start, we knew that we could have had the charges dropped by using a political connection,” if one could be found among the magazine’s supporters, Khouri said. “But we all felt that we should go through the legal process and try to set a precedent.”

Nizar Saghieh, a prominent human-rights attorney who has campaigned extensively to defend the free-speech rights of journalists and artists, signed on to represent them. After a lenient judge was assigned to the case, the Samandal editors were cautiously optimistic.

In recent years, the Court of Publications has overturned the censorship authorities in a few high-profile lawsuits involving religion. In 1999, the Lebanese singer Marcel Khalife was accused of blasphemy and sued by Dar al-Fatwa, the country’s highest Sunni authority, for singing verses from the Koran. The court acquitted him on the basis of the distinction between an act that may “violate a religious provision and that which is actually contempt for the religion.”

In 2007, a landmark ruling emerged from a case against a journalist, Joseph Haddad, who had written an article titled “The Kidnapped God,” which took aim at religious fanaticism in the region. According to a study co-authored by Saghieh, his sister Rana Saghieh (also a lawyer involved with the Samandal case), and Nayla Geagea, the judge ruled, “perhaps for the first time in Lebanese jurisprudence, that secularism is not only a legitimate individual freedom but is also a succinct group of notions and beliefs, and even a faith embraced by a group of people that represent a segment of Lebanese society.” Given the recent judicial track record, there seemed to be a good chance that Samandal would receive a fair hearing.

According to Rana Saghieh, there was reason to hope that “the judge would dismiss the case completely, because it was very irregular.” It was unusual that the suit was directed against the editors, rather than the artists. Khouri said he suspected that this was motivated by the fact that one of the artists, Valfret, was a foreign national, and the other, Merhej, was the daughter of a former minister. “I think they probably just looked at the names of everyone involved and decided who could be sued without any hassle,” he said.

It was also surprising that the suit was being prosecuted by the government, rather than by a private group that found the comics offensive. Ayman Mhanna, who directs the Skeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, told me that the plaintiffs in these cases are almost always private individuals or organizations. “I can’t think of another recent case where the Lebanese state itself sued someone for a publications-related offense,” he said. “But, whenever religion is involved, things become more complicated.”

According to documents provided by Samandal’s lawyers, the suit against the three editors originated with a letter sent by the minister of information, Tarek Mitri, to the minister of justice, Ibrahim Najjar, in early 2010. In the letter, Mitri informed Najjar that he had received complaints from some Christian figures, “expressing their disapproval concerning the publication of some comics … that are offensive to the Christian religion.” He urged Najjar to take “the necessary measures required by law.”

When I spoke to Mitri about the case, he said that he had no recollection of it, and that he had never pursued a policy of censorship while at the Ministry of Information. In a previous government, as the minister of culture, Mitri had persuaded General Security to overturn bans on several plays and films, and had developed a reputation as an advocate for artistic freedom. Yet here was a letter signed by him, asking the Minister of Justice to take legal action against a comic book.

“Frankly, I have no explanation for what I did,” Mitri wrote to me after I sent him a copy of the letter. “Had I wanted to be responsive to the Catholic religious leadership, I could have stopped the distribution of the magazine or withdrawn its license.… But I wrote to the Minister of Justice instead. Why? I do not know. In hindsight, I do not see the reason for having sent such a regrettable letter.”

Mitri’s letter does not name the source that lodged the complaint against Samandal, but requests for censorship on religious grounds (as in the cases against Khalife and Haddad) are common. Mhanna told me that this was part of “a general pattern,” with most objectionable material being flagged by representatives of the country’s many religious groups, rather than the censorship office itself. One frequent source of umbrage is the Catholic Information Center, a watchdog organization that has succeeded in having several books, films, and records banned, including Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code” and the Lady Gaga album “Born This Way.” The Catholic Information Center did not return requests for comment on the Samandal case.

The Lebanese government’s susceptibility to pressure is not necessarily a bad thing. Several progressive initiatives related to the separation of religion from politics have gained traction in recent years because of pressure exerted by activists. In February, 2009, Ziad Baroud—a prominent member of Lebanon’s civil society who had become the minister of the interior—released a memorandum permitting citizens to remove the statement of religious affiliation from their civil-registry documents. In 2012, a group of activists with the Civic Center for National Initiative argued that the memo required the establishment of a civil-marriage law, pointing out that the individuals who had removed their religious affiliation from their I.D.s were no longer subject to the laws of their sects. Since early 2013, dozens of couples have used the loophole to get married in civil ceremonies, and the government has been forced to consider the legality of the unions in court.

Like the civil-marriage activists, the instinct of Samandal’s editors and attorneys was to trust the legal system rather than try to circumvent it. They argued that the precedent set by the Haddad case required the Court of Publications to respect the secular views of the defendants. They even proposed that the figure on the cross in Valfret’s comic was not necessarily Jesus Christ, as the Romans crucified many of their victims.

The judge at first seemed sympathetic to Samandal and a bit bewildered by the government’s case. “Our lawyer would stand up and make these very powerful arguments, and then the government’s lawyers would stand up and say, ‘We object to all of that,’ and sit down,” Baki said. “We were thinking to ourselves, ‘We’re so going to win this.’ ”

Samandal’s lawyers, however, prepared the editors for a disappointment. According to Khouri, their attorney had told them from the beginning that “we were three guys without political connections versus the Church, and the judge was not listening.” On April 28th, after five years of legal proceedings and a failed appeal, Khouri, Imam, and Baki were found guilty of denigrating the Christian religion and were ordered to pay a fine of twenty thousand dollars. Samandal has been shuttered while its editors contemplate their next move.

“Our biggest mistake was not going public earlier on,” Hatem said when I asked him about the future of Samandal. “But now we feel that, since the lawsuit was launched on behalf of ‘the people,’ then the people have a right to know about it.”




8 responses to “The Fate of a Joke in Lebanon”

  1. ““In Europe, you can say whatever you want.””


  2. 5thDrawer Avatar

    “Honestly, we were more concerned about nudity than religious material,” he said. “Our first issue was basically all tits and ass. But the censors didn’t say anything.”
    Always said, Nature can’t be repressed … :-))))

    But then,anyone can find ‘a reason’ if they want, to kill someone and do the ‘power trip’….
    “complaints from some Christian figures”… right … just pick one.

      1. 5thDrawer Avatar

        Yup yup … and as they say, … “The Internet squealed in delight after the story broke”. Voila.

        1. Hind Abyad Avatar

          The grapes are sour..HaHa!!

          1. 5thDrawer Avatar

            That’s the ‘Finnish’ story. :-))))

          2. 5thDrawer Avatar

            What’s all that crap in between the stories and the comments?? Has that always been there?? OMG. I updated a ‘browser’ … I see I am going to need to go over the ‘settings’ for sure … there’s stuff popping up all over, slowing this down, and causing aggravation.

  3. 5thDrawer Avatar

    Naturally, and once again, it’s ALL about Education. The total LACK of, just leads to garbage.
    “we could hear the General Security guys yelling at Hatem while he tried to explain to them what a comic book was”

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