Sometimes it seems like you can’t please anybody. Recently, I was publicly called a fool by Christopher Hitchens, and now I’ve been smeared by As’ad AbuKhalil, a.k.a. The Angry Arab, who ironically enough linked to and quoted me a couple of weeks ago when I was writing about Hitchens in Beirut.
Lately, I’ve been working on an issue that came to my attention as one of the faculty advisers of the AUB book club. Each year, the club picks a theme, and the club’s new student president decided on biographies. For the first reading of this semester, she selected the Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. When she tried to order copies of the book at the university book storre, she was surprised and disappointed to find that the Lebanese Government had recently banned the book. I decided to investigate the issue further, and sent out the following two messages to the faculty list at AUB (please excuse the typos):
Sent: Thursday, February 26, 2009 1:59 PM
Subject: [aub-faculty] Censorship in Lebanon
Dear colleagues, I am one of the faculty advisors of AUB’s book club, whose student president decided to focus on biographies this semester. In keeping with this theme, she chose the Diary of Anne Frank for our first reading. When she tried to order some copies in English from the AUB bookstore, she was informed that it had recently been banned by the Lebanese government.
I later spoke to someone at Antoine who told me that all the English copies (although not French, for some reason) in the possession of the local distributor had been destroyed. I was wondering, then, if any of you could help me get a hold of a list of banned books and a copy of the Lebanese Printing Code or any other information about censorship here in Lebanon. I am interested in pursuing this matter and would appreciate any help than anyone can provide.
Sent: Tuesday, March 03, 2009 1:00 PM
Subject: RE: [aub-faculty] Censorship in Lebanon
I would like to thank everyone for their outpouring of support. I received many messages and apologize for not responding to everyone individually.
As for the issue of censorship, I went around to several bookstores and managed to come up with a few incomplete lists of things that are banned. DVDs that are banned include Schindler’s List, anything with Paul Newman in it, the television show The Nanny, The Life of Brian, Manhattan, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Clockwork Orange, Independence Day, Battle of Algiers and season 1 disc 2 of the Sopranos. The reasons given by General Security range from “homosexuality” and “sexual content” to “offensive to Arabs” and “offensive Christianity.” Apparently Paul Newman and Jane Fonda have become rationales in and of themselves. Otherwise, the most shocking categories are “sympathy for Jews” and “Jew content.” It is important to remark that there are separate categories for “sympathy for Israelis” and “publicity for Israel.” In other words, General Security is making a distinction between Israelis and Jews yet is nonetheless banning material like the Diary of Anne Frank and Life is Beautiful, because they might cause the Lebanese public to have “sympathy for Jews.”
As for music, much of what is banned is heavy metal, although Frank Sinatra albums are also on the list. I imagine that the reasoning behind much of the music ban is the witchcraft scare from a few years ago and offense to the Church. As is the case for other media, however, the bans are highly inconsistent. For example, most Metallica albums are banned, but none by Iron Maiden. The DVD version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall is banned, but not the album itself.
This weekend, I spoke to a contact in the Ministry of the Interior who has asked me to come up with a dossier on the problem so that it might me addressed by the Minster. I’m currently working on that, so if anyone has any information that they’d like to pass along, please feel free to do so. Before bringing publicity to the issue by writing an article or organizing any events, I’m going through the official channels of the Ministry, which under the current Minister is currently very open to initiatives from civil society. However, if this does not have any effect, I will pursue the issue through other means. In the meantime, thanks again for your support.
I received many messages from my colleagues at AUB, every single one of them supportive. So I was surprised when I saw that at least one of my colleagues had forwarded along the exchange to AbuKhalil, who then proceeded to dub me “the White Man at AUB,” all the while dishonestly and grossly misrepresenting what I’d written. (For the record, ya habibi, I’ve got more of a peachy-rose hue.) First of all, AbuKhalil doesn’t seem to understand the difference between a boycott and censorship by the state. As anyone with eyes can read above, I don’t mention the Arab boycott of Israel at all. What I do mention is state censorship that bans books, films and music for “Jew content,” “Sympathy for Jews,” and other dubious reasons. He also states, falsely, that censorship due to religious sensitivity or criticism of Arab governments doesn’t bother me. That’s just not true, and if he’d bothered to ask me before publicly pillorying me as a white man on a mission civilisatrice, he would know that. As an educator (and not as a “White Man,” incidentally), I’m against all forms of censorship. I am, however, particularly against racist censorship, first of all because it is disgusting, and secondly because it lends credence to the pro-Israel lobby’s claims that the only problem Arabs have with Israel is that it’s full of Jews. So when the sitcom “The Nanny” is banned for “Jew content,” and Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, the diary of Anne Frank and Sophie’s Choice are all banned for “Sympathy for Jews,” the Lebanese government is unintentionally bolstering the argument of supporters of Israel in the US and elsewhere.
Ironically, AbuKhalil takes me to task for questioning why movies starring Paul Newman are banned:
Paul Newsman starred in a lousy (and boring–ask my students when I subjected them to it once) movie of Zionist propaganda which instilled the denigration of the Palestinians in American minds. But I don’t get it: you were hired in Lebanon to teach English and you see it as your mission to tell the Arabs that their boycott of Israel (a form of peaceful cultural resistance) is rather absurd? What business is it of you?
So let’s see, Paul Newman was in the film Exodus, but rather than leaving it to the public to boycott that movie, which I doubt would have much of an audience in Lebanon anyway, AbuKhalil thinks the Lebanese need to be protected by the General Security, not just from that movie, but also from Cool Hand Luke and The Hustler. Even more ironic, he seems to think that his students in sunny California (to whom he showed the film) are intellectually able to handle it, but that the whole of Lebanon is not. So apparently a civil boycott of Israeli goods is not good enough for AbuKhalil; the state should impose a ban on anything and anyone who may have once been in the same ideological camp as Israel. And the General Security seems to agree.
Incidentally, I’d like to ask AbuKhalil whether Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine should be banned. It’s not, despite the fact that Pappe is Israeli. There are legitimate questions and room for debate about the forms that Arab boycotts should take. Is the boycott against individuals or a state? Should cultural products be subjected to the same boycott as other goods? Who is to make these decisions? These are interesting questions that ought to be discussed and debated, but I don’t think it is useful or even accurate to say that censorship and boycotts are the same thing. And I also don’t think it should be controversial for an educator to object to blatantly racist government censorship. If anything, I find it scandalous that an educator would be willing to defend it.
So to answer AbuKhalil’s question of who am I to care that there is censorship (much of it racist and absurd) in Lebanon: I’m an educator who lives in Lebanon. And as an educator, I don’t think that books should be banned. It’s as simple as that, and had AbuKhalil bothered to ask me instead of smearing me as “White Man Lee” who “traveled to Beirut to civilize the natives,” we might have been able to have an actual discussion about the issue. But he seems much more interested in sensationalist shooting from the hip, even when he ends up way off the mark. And by the by, I wonder if I was also “White Man Lee,” when he linked to one of my posts the other day.
There’s a disturbing undertone in AbuKhalil’s message that implies that since I’m not Lebanese, I shouldn’t be able to criticize Lebanon. I’m not Saudi or Israeli or Egyptian or French or Sudanese either, but I don’t think that means that I don’t have the right to criticize any of those countries, as I have on this blog plenty of times. Likewise, I doubt AbuKhalil would complain about non-Americans criticizing the US.
Finally, I’d like to ask my readers to perform a little thought experiment. Let’s say that someone from AIPAC had taken issue with something AbuKhalil had written and then decided to misrepresent him and call him out as the “Brown Man at California State University, Stanislaus” and imply that if he didn’t like American policies, he should just go back to Lebanon? What would AbuKhalil have to say about that?
We’ll see if AbuKhalil is willing to put up my response on his own site.