On April 25 , two young Lebanese actors, Edmond Haddad and Rawya Al-Shab, appeared in the Criminal Court in the Palace of Justice in Beirut. Their trial was presided over by judge Freial Dalloul. The two actors were charged with “breaching public morality and inciting debauchery.”
Several artists, journalists and activists were present for their hearing. Haddad said that his only crime was making people laugh at a stand-up comedy benefit, held at Café Leila in Gemmayzeh back in 2009. Proceeds from the show went to the Brave Heart Fund, which helps children with heart disease.
The judge listened to the two actors’ testimonies in a public hearing attended by many lawyers. The actors were tried alongside common criminals accused of theft and embezzlement. Half an hour after the trial began, the judge ordered that the hearing would actually be private. Artists and actors left the courtroom in protest, holding signs that simply read “Shame.” According to Nizar Sarkis, Haddad and Al-Shab’s lawyer, the court postponed the appeal hearing to May 30.
The scene in the Lebanese courtroom was painful and frightening. It symbolizes the tragic demise of freedom in Lebanon and its repressive way of dealing with art as a threat to national security.
Haddad and Al-Shab were tried for taking part in a stand-up comedy show, where they demonstrated their talents on stage by dancing and amusing the audience. The proceeds from the play went to the Brave Heart Association, so to further entertain the audience and raise more money for the association, Edmond Haddad unzipped his pants and flashed his underwear.
But what actually brought Haddad to trial was a newspaper article entitled “Young Lebanese up for Auction,” which was included in the case file. The article described the comedic play as “an evening show at Café Leila where young Lebanese were put up for auction.” Sarkis denied these allegations, saying, “We submitted a video of the entire play to the court, without editing any of the scenes. But the video has not been seen yet!”
Other artists awaiting the trial’s commencement were visibly shocked. According to artist Zeid Hamdan, “This trial reflects the suppression of freedom in our country. We feel like we need an artist resistance movement in order to preserve our simplest rights as artists.” Activist and artist Alexander Bolekivch said that “acting is part of life, so how can it be immoral?”
Haddad and Al-Shab are not the first victims of excessive Lebanese censorship. A few days ago, activists Khader Salameh and Ali Fakhri were arrested for spraying graffiti in Beirut. They were released two days later, and are currently awaiting trial. “It is clear that we do not enjoy any democracy. We have become the victims of an ambiguous law under which we are arrested for different reasons and judged according to the judge’s jurisprudence,” said Salameh. Prior to this incident, painter Semaan Khawam was arrested for “drawing on the walls.” He is awaiting trial, scheduled for June 25.
Khawam was at yesterday’s hearing. “Who determines whether a work of art is immoral or not? How can breaching public decency be our only problem, when we face greater problems like corruption, theft, sectarianism and murder?” he asked angrily.
“What is happening is shameful and a disgrace to freedoms and the art of acting. The ongoing wave of censorship of play scripts leading to trial is unacceptable,” said actor Joe Khdeih.
Haddad and Al-Shab’s trial raises many questions. Will every writer, actor or artist be treated like a murderer or thief? Aren’t artists supposed to have the freedom to express their opinions? Haddad himself answered this question on his Facebook page, where he wrote: “Mr. Judge, I promise to perform actions that transcend social norms. I am an artist; it is my role and my right. It is the artist who should hold the state accountable, not the other way around.”
The Arab world underwent major transformations during the Arab Spring, and freedom of expression was its greatest achievement. Lately, many Arab and international artists have united against suppression. Alia Mehdia and Iranian actress Golshifteh Farhani posed nude. Yet Beirut, the capital that boasts about how it distributes books which are banned in the rest of the Arab world, is experiencing a bleak autumn.