A few minutes ago I was taking this picture when a policeman shouted at me.
Cop: “Hey, stop, stop! What are you doing?? Don’t you know photography is forbidden?”
Me: [Pointing to intersection] “Photography is forbidden here?”
Cop: [Looking exasperated] “Of course. It is illegal to take photos, not just here, anywhere in Hamra! Even anywhere in Beirut!”
Me: Are you serious? What does it matter if I take a picture?
Cop: Yes of course I am serious! Don’t you know about the terrorism? I can call this in and they will come here and pick you up and take you away. There is a jail sentence!
Me: Is this a new law, what law is it?
Cop: Yes. It’s a law, I don’t know what it is called! I didn’t say anything after the first or second photo, but then you took two or three! But you seemed like a nice guy so I will let it slide. Just don’t take any more, okay?
Me: Do you know what you are saying? Do you know how many people you need to arrest to enforce this law? Do you know how many buses you need to arrest everyone taking photos today in Hamra or the rest of Beirut?”
Suddenly our conversation is interrupted by a loud police siren. A big black suburban with black tinted windows comes careening into the intersection in front of us and hangs a left onto Hamra street. Inside are two college-aged boys. The license plate has only three numbers.
Me: Why don’t you arrest those people? They are not police, they are kids and they have a police siren?
Cop: [wry smile] Oh no, I can’t touch them. Every number in 600 (i.e. 600-699) belongs to Berri. (A senior parliamentarian.)
(The plate actually began with number 1)
I then point to a car with no tail lights, a motorcyclist without a helmet, the traffic lights around us, each one illegally festooned with a flag of a certain Lebanese political party that has claimed this intersection as its territory. See red circles:
Interrupted panorama shot. I couldn’t get a better one because of the new “law” against photography
Me: So all this illegal stuff is going on right in front of you, every minute, and you want to stop me for taking a picture of it?
Cop: Listen. [Pulls out tiny folded up piece of paper from his pocket] You see this? It says here my duty today is “traffic management.” I can’t issue tickets until after this shift is over tonight.
(I didn’t think of it at the time, but why then was he trying to arrest me if technically he had no right?)
Cop: Let me tell you a story. Once I stopped this guy who was harassing a woman. He was Syrian, he had no ID papers. I got a phone call from headquarters. They said release him immediately. You see people have “wasta” (connections), there are people you can’t touch.”
I bid the cop farewell, wishing him more success at his job in the future.
Of course, I have been harassed for taking photos before, but ironically the police once actually tried but failed to help. I’ve also been physical assaulted for taking photos, not by authorities, but by private developers and political hooligans. Flags are also routinely hung by all parties in Lebanon as I documented in Zalka, Ain El Mreise, Ain El Remmaneh and elsewhere. But this is the first time I am told there is an actual “law” prohibiting photos on public streets.