In Lebanon, no offense allowed even if none is taken

Several photos at an exhibit by Lebanese filmmaker Jocelyne Saab have been removed because they were considered too controversial by the owner of the exhibition space. 'Fear is the worst kind of censorship,' says Saab's spokesperson.
nasrallah barbies.jpg
The 'offending' Nasrallah picture, and two others that were removed from the Jocelyn Saab exhibit.

BEIRUT, November 12, 2008 (MENASSAT) – It wasn't long after Jocelyne Saab had toasted the opening of her first photo exhibition – Sense, Icons and Sensibility – that problems began to arise. The exhibit illustrates Eastern and Western concepts and Arab perceptions of the West in a catchy, and to some quite kitschy or even distasteful way.

The morning after the exhibit opened last week at Beirut's Planet Discovery, an event attended by over 200 people, including diplomats and representatives from Lebanon's Ministry of Culture, the venue owner demanded that the artist remove images thought too provocative.

The image that sparked most controversy, Saab’s spokesperson Nasri Sayegh said, was a photo titled "American-Israeli playground", which shows Christ on a crucifix surrounded by photos of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and undressed Barbie dolls in the background.

Sayegh stressed that it was not official censorship but a "private decision" by the owners of the gallery that led to the removal.

An official from Solidere, the Lebanese real estate company, told AFP that the company had sought to avoid any political or religious controversy.

"Politics and religion are two very sensitive issues that we don't want to undermine," Joumana Naquib said.

But, according to Sayegh, there had been no complaints about the exhibit from either the Shia or the Christian communities.

Fear, said Sayegh, "is the worst kind of censorship. It's just something we must face and handle."

Solidere's (self-)censorship was not limited to the picture featuring Nasrallah and Jesus Christ either.

"They started by taking down the two images of the American-Israeli playground, and then continued to take down more. In all, they took down nine photos,” said Sayegh, pointing to the empty spaces on the walls.

Some of the censored pictures were "French Can Can in Baghdad," which shows naked Barbies wrapped in Iraqi currency with the image of former dictator Saddam Hussein on their foreheads; and "Arab Christ," which depicts a Christ figure wearing Arab headdress.

Naseygh said that although "something was expected" due to the controversial nature of the photos, no one was expecting outright censorship.

"We were working here for several days in a row until the early morning hours before the opening, hanging the photos on the wall. The venue owner saw them.  They didn't ask us to take down images then. And at the opening, no one said anything either," he said.

Saab herself says she never intended to shock anyone. 

"I wasn't looking to provoke or shock anyone… They removed them to show that they are sensitive to the feelings of all the communities… Artists, writers and intellectuals are a means for this nation to vent steam and they are committing a serious error by tying our hands and trying to muzzle us," she told AFP.

The controversy is reminiscent of the temporary banning, earlier this year, of the animated film Persepolis for fear that its portrayal of Iran's Islamic Revolution might offend Lebanon's Shia community – even though no complaints had been made.

A veteran filmmaker, 60-year-old Saab is no stranger to controversy.

Her latest movie, Dunia, sparked uproar and debate in Egypt for bringing up the taboo topic of female genital mutilation, a practice still common in Egypt as well as a number of other Arab countries. 

In an editorial, the website Now Lebanon has called on the country's Ministry of Culture to step in and reinstate Saab's photos.

Jocelyn Saab's "Sense, Icons and Sensibility'" can be (partially) seen at Planet Discovery in downtown Beirut. A second show of Saab's more abstract work opened on November 6 at Agial Art Gallery in Hamra, Beirut.