Flags of Our Fathers

The following column was published in last month’s issue of Bold Magazine. I thought it would be appropriate to republish it today as we commemorate 40 years since the start of the civil war and think about the many challenges that lay ahead.  


By Habib Battah

Just south of Beirut along the Khalde highway, a giant green flag that had fluttered for years was lowered and wrapped up by a group of young men before television cameras. The oldest among them proudly announced that he was happy to abide by a new agreement to remove partisan signage from city streets. The men were not identified but the party colors–those of Amal Movement– would be clear to anyone familiar with Lebanon. One of the cameras belonged to the party’s mouthpiece, NBN. The acronym stands for National Broadcast Network and not, as it is commonly misidentified by Western journalists, for Nabih Berri News, which would conveniently reflect it’s main patron, the current speaker of Parliament.

It was speaker Berri that announced early last month that Beirut would be ’clean of all posters and slogans’ affiliated with Amal, its ally Hezbollah and their rival Future movement — as part of ongoing ’dialogue talks’ to reportedly defuse tensions between the parties. However despite the widely publicized removal of Amal and Hezbollah paraphernalia, a billboard campaign celebrating the life of late prime minister Rafik Hariri–the proverbial figurehead of Future movement– was plastered on dozens of panels across the country, often in double or triple displays, lining the highways and rooftops, even lit up on electronic displays. So why was this allowed? Is paid advertising not also a form of political propaganda?

Will Hezbollah and its rivals also be allowed to lease billboards for their events and propaganda? It’s not even clear if money was involved. Future movement maintains its network of friendly advertisers in central Beirut and the northern suburbs. Similarly, Hezbollah and its rivals have their own ad networks, in the southern suburbs and other neighborhoods where they are popular. Paid or unpaid makes little difference to the political elite who rule towns and neighborhoods in more ways than one. A better question may be to ask who are the unidentified men on the ground that put up these posters, the street operatives that grease the political machines that dominate political power in this country?

When it comes to power-sharing and reconciliation, one wonders why Christian parties–some of the most influential in Lebanon — were seemingly excluded from this truce of sorts. While posters honoring Shiite martyrs were brought down in some neighborhoods, giant posters celebrating Christian martyrs still hang in the streets of others, draping the Kataeb party headquarters in central Beirut for instance. In fact, the mere suggestion by one member of parliament that Christian symbols be brought down in unison with Muslim ones threw the country into a sectarian-infused panic.

In Tripoli there were attempts to remove black flags containing Islamic scriptures because the flags are seen as representing the city’s radical Islamist movements. Akkar parliamentarian Khaled Daher had led a protest against them, challenging the state to also remove Christian symbols in public spaces, alluding to the twelve meter Jesus statue that towers over the main coastal highway on a hilltop Keserwan, its hands outstretched like its counterpart in Rio De Janeiro. The comments sparked outrage among Christian pundits and members of parliament and, under pressure, Daher was suspended from Future movement just two days after the comments were made. The MP has since apologized, but he now faces criminal charges for ’anti-Christian’ remarks. Yet is it anti-Christian to point out the obvious inconsistencies of this truce campaign? And in a country where one party uses a cross shaped dagger as its symbol, can we always distinguish between political and religious imagery, be it Muslim or Christian?

In fact, Lebanon’s physical landscape is covered in Christian symbols. Statues of Mary and a multitude of other Maronite, Catholic and other saints can be found in shrines large and small, along major and minor roadways, on platforms or multi-storey towers such as the one in Zahle, looking out over a wide swathe of the Bekaa Valley. Giant crosses dot the mountain tops across Mount Lebanon, clearly letting hikers, skiers and picnic goers know which territory they are traipsing through. The image of Jesus has even been sculpted into one of the ancient trees at the Cedar forest, the country’s most prominent national symbol. Do Lebanese Muslims feel at home or even welcome in these places?

Of course the marking of Christian territory is not restricted to religious icons but also includes statues and sprawling memorials to the leaders of rightist Christian politics, often erected in town squares and traffic circles. The most prominent example that comes to mind is Sassine Square, one of the country’s busiest intersections featuring a black and white print of the late Kataeb leader Bachir Gemayel. The Kataeb, one of Lebanon’s oldest political parties, also maintains other memorials throughout public spaces in Achrafieh and in village squares across the country. The sculptures are usually in the shape of a triangular cedar–the party’s appropriated symbol–which is also often engraved into entire concrete facades of the party offices across the country, transforming entire building blocks into beacons of propaganda that can be seen from miles away. Such structures would be seen as an affront to zoning regulations in many countries, but even more disturbing is the notion that public spaces can be appropriated by the parties without consent of local municipal councils and the residents that are forced to stare at them everyday. The same can also be said of towns in south Lebanon, where Hezbollah and other parties have erected their own memorials, often using captured Israeli vehicles as a centerpiece to hang flags and posters.

Proponents of the new ban may argue that change must begin somewhere. But it should also open up a broader discussion on the appropriation of public spaces, not only through flags and banners, but also by way of permanent structures–both religious and political–without focusing on the actions of some parties while ignoring others. Such a discussion should be mindful of the violent and chaotic circumstances that have brought those memorials and structures into being but equally mindful of the many citizens who were not consulted in their construction, the voices that remained silent, often out of fear, as militias took over the collective commons.

At the very least, if we are to accept these measures as a form of progress, we should also realize that this is not the first attempt and ask why such initiatives have failed so miserably before. As recently as 2008, another agreement to remove political signage from the streets was reached following armed clashes that year. At the time, much of Hamra was covered in red-stenciled graffiti bearing the logo of the Syrian Socialist National Party, which had claimed the neighborhood, despite its mixed political constituency. Meanwhile in North Lebanon that year, two people were reportedly killed over the hanging of a poster.

As we look forward, one wonders if several years from now, yet another agreement will have to be reached to clear yet another outpouring of street posters. Without having a serious discussion about why this keeps happening, and what can be done to prevent it, bringing down flags before cameras will be little more than a well-staged publicity stunt, prolonging the life of an aging political elite, desperate to sustain an increasingly precarious grip on power.