I've been acussed of supporting “Devil Worshiping and Homosexuality!!”
I think there are a lot of similarity between Poland and Lebanon, even in terms of Mentality, the Polish people are closer to us than many other European countries (except Greece), it’s a good start, as it makes it a bit easier for the Lebanese to accept. On the other hand Poland passed through many similar things to what we are living now, and it overcame them. People in Poland faced a lot of corruption and censorship, I think we are desperately in need to get in contact with such countries like Poland because Lebanese lost hope, and consider corruption as something that they have to live with, so in my opinion Poland can give us hope that we can face corruption, and that we can rise up again.

About struggle with complicated system of censorship, freedom of speech, human rights, women's rights and subcultures in Lebanon tells the musician and activist Bassem Deaibess.

When for a first time you had problems because of censorship in Lebanon?

Since the end of the civil war in 1990 the Lebanese nation was under the Syrian occupation and we had a police state, so almost everything was censored in a way or another, but the censorship was usually focusing on political issues, and books and movies that attack Christianity or Islam or disagree with what the government say.

The first time I personally was affected was in 1996 when it was announced that some Hard rock music was banned. It started when an army General’s son who was a Rock and Metal fan committed suicide. The father blamed Hard Rock, Metal and especially Nirvana (because the lead singer committed suicide two years before that) and he directly went to the Christian religious authorities to persuade them to start a campaign against rock music using their TV stations. They did it and so the panic spread in the society, following that the Lebanese authorities under pressure from religious institutions placed a ban on some Rock music, and then the general security, police and even Army started capturing of the “followers of Nirvana and Hard Rock”, and I personally think they did that to show the public opinion that they are protecting society, and to hide the political facts of the Syrian occupation and prove to society that they are doing their work. Because they hardly knew the music they were stopping everyone who was wearing black and had long hair. I was one of the people who were caught on a police checkpoint in 1996 right in front of my university gate. I was taken for interrogation and was jailed for two days. Eventually they let me out after they made me sign a paper that I will not practice “Nirvana music” and I will not make anyone commit suicide, I won’t listen to Hard Rock and I won’t worship Satan! By 1999 things calmed down a bit, we had relatively a bit of freedom, but we always avoided police and army checkpoints. In 2002 a new wave of oppression started, this time the censorship was more oppressive. They linked Metal music to Satanism and Devil worship, and considered the suicide thing as a secondary threat. Many concerts were raided by the police and band members or even fans were taken into prison. In 2005 things started to cool down, especially when the Syrian occupation was over and the general security were pre-occupied by other things, and the political crisis overshadowed the “Devil Worshipers” issue. So we had a margin of liberty, but still the Censorship office always kept the ban on some bands or albums, and every Rock Concert is usually investigated, in 2007 I was interrogated for a second time because I owned a Metal pub and they considered that I was supporting “Devil Worshiping and Homosexuality!!” As well when Anathema and To Die For came to Lebanon, some religious authorities like the Catholic Council for Christian Schools, sent out a letter to all parents asking them not to send their children to such satanic concert! With other accusation like sexual immorality and drug use and selling! But the third actual attack came in 2011, when they caught 8 emo-kids in a mall, and created new panic in the society and mislead society to think that these are Metalheads worshiping Satan, but this time we didn’t stay without taking action, we went on TVs and we protested, though nothing much has changed on the censorship level, but the police now leaves us alone, because the country is going through other political crisis, but I am sure once the country becomes politically stable again, everything will start over again, as usual.

Was censorship in Lebanon all the time?

Censorship is old in Lebanon, in January of 1963 Johnny Halliday the famous French Rock singer came to Lebanon to perform a concert and was banned (Due to the interior minister back then considering that his shows was obscene because he gets “naked” on the stage, it was a shock to the Lebanese) And there is a long list of movies, TV program shows, books, artists that have been banned. We have special office in the General Security called the Censorship office, which regulates the matter, it’s main job is to check Lebanese made scripts for movies and theatrical plays, Lebanese books, and music (especially lyrics wise), as well it is responsible to take action when they receive complaint about anything artistic (movie, books, music, artists performing, etc.) Ironically the religious institutions from most Lebanese religious sects (we have 18 sects in Lebanon) have a representative in that office. It is important to note that there are different levels of ban, when it is banning an artist, no law is necessary unless it is a permanent ban not a single concert ban. In the case of Metal there is so called Black List (that contains songs, albums, and rarely Bands) in the 90’s the list had a full ban on Bands and music genres, but the list was edited during 2004 and now mostly there are Albums that are band, thus now Metallica are no longer band but some of their albums are mainly “The Black Album” and also Iron Maiden’s “666 Number Of The Beast” album, while some bands a fully band like “Cannibal Corps”.

You have just political censorship or also religious? Are there differences between them?

As I said, the Censorship office in the General Security works hand in hand with religious institutions, for example the main entity that was responsible for the ban of the book and movie “The Da Vinci Code” was the Catholic Information Center, many items that comes under censorship observation cannot be approved unless the Catholic Information Center accept, or other religious institutions depending on the content of the item. In Lebanon the clergy are part of the political system, the Church and the Mosque have a major say in matters, and censorship is no different.

The main Christian sect is called Maronite, who was unified church (not catholic nor Orthodox) this church is 1600 years old, and later, because of political reasons, it became part of the Catholic church. So the Catholic Information Center (which is Maronite) is very powerful, but any clergy can interfere, whether he was Maronite, Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, Protestant, Syriac, Armenian, Coptic, Sunni, Shiaa, Druze... as I said we have 18 sects so anyone can interfere, but definitely the strongest three sects are the Maronite, Sunni and Shia, and then comes the Druze and the Catholics.

Which areas of art are the most exposed for censors’ actions (cinema, TV, music, theater ) and why?

ALL areas, everything that is deemed bad for religion, or affects the public feelings is censored, without any understanding of artistic expression and freedom of speech.

How artists and NGOs try to fight with it?

With all what we can, many Artists were put in Jail, one of them called Zeid who was one of the main two members of the Alternative Electro band called “Soap Kills” was put in Jail because he made a song criticising the current president of Lebanon Gr. Michel Sulaiman. As well one citizen was put in Jail because he criticised the president on Facebook! But many people are fighting this, although most of the time hidden in the shadows, most artists who criticise censorship do it in a symbolic way, apart from some few Blogs on the internet there is no real movement against censorship. We do have few NGOs that work on human rights and in rare occasions the censorship issue is tackled. For that reason I have started my own NGO called “Independent Artists Movement” that tackles Cultural rights and freedom of Artistic Expression, and censorship is in the heart of it, and I have heard of another NGO that has just began working on the same issue but I have not much info about it.

You said that mixing politics and religions is not good for the country, how it involve on a casual live of people in Lebanon?

When religion is mixed with politics freedom becomes a simple religious point of view, because our set of values and morals becomes those set by religion, and not those set by human rights. Imagine that in Lebanon, a man has the right to beat his wife or even rape her as long as she is his wife, because one of the religions think it is right! There are many NGOs and activists, including myself, trying to change that law, but till now they haven’t succeeded, many in authority positions reply that Women’s rights are not their worst if compared to the Arab world, which is true, but what kind of a lame excuse is that? As well sex outside marriage is a felony punishable by law, although in practice this never happened, but according to Lebanese law even if you are having sex inside your house they have the right to arrest you if your partner is not your wife! And where that comes from?!

Religious values. I have friends who were caught having sex in their own car and were jailed for it. We are not talking about having sex with a minor here (that has a severe punishment) we are talking about adults having sex. Definitely many, if not most people, are having sex before marriage but imagine what kind of a civil society this is when the only way to have sex is to get married! What about the person’s freedom of will? You can throw that out of the window. Another major thing is that although our constitution guarantee the freedom of belief, the Lebanese society cannot understand “belief” being outside any of the three main religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Atheists are treated as criminals in Lebanon, although there is no law against Atheism, but when you are born you had to write your religion on your ID! This has changed only few years ago, but only on the ID, but when it comes to the Lebanese Citizen Personal Status Law, you are OBLIGED to belong to a certain sect. We do not have Civil marriage, because according to the government and the mentality of the Lebanese, a person cannot not have a religion, and in their opinion “those who call themselves Atheists are blasphemers”. Imagine that if a man rapes a woman, which is considered a felony not because it is forced sex, but because it is sex with someone who is not married to you, the way to solve it legally is for this man to get married his victim!

For a long time you were an owner of metal pub, now you are starting with your own NGO Independent Artists Movement what are the most important purposes of this organization and who will be members?

When I opened Cherry’s it was to keep a rock pub alive in Lebanon, I used to play in that pub before I took it and its owner decided to close it. So I took it, and it was a big place so I used it not only for Rock and Metal but also as a cultural pub (which is so rare in Lebanon), I used to organise expositions, and cultural nights with speakers and conferences, discussions and Debates. I had to close it in 2009 after a lot of harassment from the government and because financially it was impossible to keep it running, because very few people are interested in arts and culture or Metal music, they rather go to R'n'B pubs, or dance on techno music or oriental pop.

After the last wave of attack on Metalheads in 2011 and
after lately the clergy banned a Lebanese movie -that was initially approved by Censorship- because they couldn’t understand its artistic value, we were fed up, since 2007 Metalheads and Free artists used to gather at Cherry’s pub and we’d discuss how we can take action, but most of the time the political crises used to stop us, and I then decided that we need to get more organised and thus started the NGO, our main target as a beginning is to first make people aware that after 2004 the UN implemented within the Human Rights treaty the concept of Cultural rights, which is put there to protect minorities rights for their own cultural way of life, and for the support of artistic expression. So our first step is to make people aware of that, and start showing that when people or government discriminate against certain people that are a bit different in their cultural traditions and way of life it is against human rights, because till now, the Lebanese consider other Lebanese with different cultural heritage or way of life (like Atheists, sub-cultures etc.) to be bad, outlaws or simply dangerous and they attack them, it is time they start realising that this is a racist way of thinking.

You have so many NGOs in Lebanon they very often do more than public institutions so why are you not able to persuade the government to change the law?

The whole politics and social life in Lebanon is complicated, if I want to answer this question I’d have to talk about the Lebanese mentality, and way of life, and all the negative passivity of the citizens, who are more used to answer to religious and tribal parties rather than the civil movement. Just before this last government, very few things used to be discussed other than general themes, usually politicians only work before elections and mostly they either give money to people so they vote for them, or they repair some roads, etc. Apart from the people who are directly harmed by law or the absence of a protective law (like women, or homosexuals, or metalheads) few would really do any action, so those NGOs before they work on the law they have to work on spreading awareness within society, and that sometimes is a hopeless case. Other than that, the only laws that get fixed or implemented or put quickly are usually either laws that were demanded by the religious groups, or to serve some politician’s personal interest. So what we are facing before  anything is corruption, and it is not only on the level of the government but people got so used to it that it became so normal and they do not care. One of the strongest campaigns is the campaign that is demanding a law to protect women from domestic violence, with all the effort, some laws were being discussed in public but the Islamic clergy staid no and so it was a no! This is our case, doesn’t mean that it is always negative, but it is extremely difficult and needs a lot of hard work and sacrifice and perseverance in order to make things move a bit.

Could you define 3 the most important problems in Lebanon today?

1) The people’s Mentality, because of our Mentality corruption exist, and all of our other problems, you see when you talk to a Lebanese and tell him “this is wrong, this is corruption” he would reply “yea, what can we do, we have to accept it, and see how to benefit from it”!! such replies show that we have a mentality problem, I won’t get in depth about our Mentality because it is a long and complicated discussion, it is simply horrible and we need to reset it.

2) Religion is our second most important problem, not to mention that I believe religion can be very dangerous in some cases. But especially in Lebanon, because we have so many sects and so many different religions, and although when you meet people from different religions you will see that they all live together in a very beautiful multicultural harmony, but the fact that religious people have so much political influence, and since they censorship everything and control the minds of their followers, the people always pay when two politicians from different religions are arguing.

3) Education system, which is very important. It is too old and as long as it doesn’t teach critical thinking, the Lebanese people’s mentality will remain outdated. And I really believe that any NGO or even governmental organisation should work on changing the Education system and curriculum. Because even if we came up with laws to protect women, or to protect freedom of expression or any other form of law... it is very well known that in Lebanon corruption is so big that there is no enforcement of these laws, for example, there is a law against car speeding and against not putting seat belts, but no one abide by them and very few people ever get fines! So the solution, RE-EDUCATE THE PEOPLE!

Do you think that Polish activists and some NGOs could cooperate with Lebanese and try to find some solutions?

Yes definitely they can try, I hope they do not lose their minds in the process J But Lebanese people are always impressed by Europeans, and that might help.

You’ve met some people from Poland and worked with them. Do You think the exchange between us is interesting for Lebanese and what could we learn from each other? What did You like the most in working with Polish people?

Well I have worked with Polish Musicians, and there is always a pleasure in exchanging cultural arts, I think there are a lot of similarity between Poland and Lebanon, even in terms of Mentality, the Polish people are closer to us than many other European countries (except Greece), it’s a good start, as it makes it a bit easier for the Lebanese to accept. On the other hand Poland passed through many similar things to what we are living now, and it overcame them. People in Poland faced a lot of corruption and censorship, I think we are desperately in need to get in contact with such countries like Poland because Lebanese lost hope, and consider corruption as something that they have to live with, so in my opinion Poland can give us hope that we can face corruption, and that we can rise up again.

Bassem Deaibess - lebanese musician, leader of metal band Blaakyum, producer, activist, founder of the Independent Artists Movement, that fights against censorship.

author: Marta Górska, Wiosna Ludów


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