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.

 

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Habib Battah
Habib Battah is an investigative journalist and founder of the news site beirutreport.com. Battah has covered Lebanon and the Middle East for over 15 years and teaches journalism and media studies at the American University of Beirut. He is a contributor to Monocle, The Guardian, BBC World, Al Jazeera and others, a former fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University and two-time recipient of the Samir Kassir Press Freedom Award. Battah's investigative work was recently recognized for outstanding local reporting by the Columbia University Oakes Award for Environmental Reporting. Battah earned a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin and an M.A. in Near East Studies and Journalism from New York University.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent piece Habib. I’ve been thinking about this for a while and a national dialogue should be our main priority right now. I’d argue that it’s even more important than electing a President, which could be seen as a symbolic position more than anything else anyway.

    The relationship of the Lebanese with Public spaces is very damaging, to say the least. To put it bluntly, we don’t know how to accept the concept of a shared space that we must all equally respect. Whether it’s through constant littering on the streets when driving (who here does not see drivers throwing tissues or papers out of their windows every single day?) or obsessively wanting to raise the flags of our political parties everywhere, we don’t have a good record when it comes to public spaces. We have a tendency of wanting to ‘mark our territory’ in a very dog-like fashion – I compare the political flags with dogs peeing over their territory.

    That being said, I think Tripoli’s Salafist flags are a particular case that needs urgent attention (dealing with the city’s poverty is an urgent matter). Salafism isn’t on an equal footing with the rest of the ideologies represented in Lebanon. It is harsher, and much more threatening, than any other. A statue of Jesus can be used politically, but it isn’t necessarily so. The Salafist flag is by its very nature anti-coexistence and is a threat to any non-Salafi. My Muslim friends wouldn’t feel threatened by a statue of Jesus but most of us (Muslims, Christians and the non-religious) would think twice before entering a Salafist-controlled area.

    I have no sympathy with the Kataeb whatsoever. I grew up with them and I loathe everything they stand for. That being said, there is a genuine fear of Radical Islamism among the Christians of Lebanon and it is not a mere matter of paranoia. As an Atheist myself, I’m more threatened by Salafists than anything else. As a result, I *understand* the need to overdo it in some areas, but I don’t like it and I’m not defending it.

    The point I’m trying to make is that without a proper national dialogue, there will always be a fear of the Other.

    • Thanks Joey, appreciate the thoughtful comment. I do think many Muslims are still intimidated by the rightist and very violent politics of the war years– where religion was constantly appropriated–and to some extent those narratives continue today and for many, the symbols on streets are a legacy of that. I know people who still fear crossing the “green line” and that works both ways. The point is not to say who is worse during what period, but to look at how marking territory can also take “non-political” forms. I think the placing of religious statues and banners often has more to do with urban geography and the history of turf wars than it does with religious doctrine itself. Either way, removing flags or statues will usually lead to more tension or violence. I think we need to develop a more thoughtful approach to reconcile these deep seated post war issues and look at the reasons why communities identify with physical markers or feel a need to have them posted. If a Salafist has a legal right to practice his/her religion in Lebanon, how can we exclude the symbols that go with that, while other communities are allowed free reign? What I think we need to be more concerned with is the needs of communities and power struggles that lead to actual episodes of violence. I think we also have to be work finding ways to accept our differences yet also discussing our misgivings about each other and what stereotypes we have about what goes on in the turf of ‘the other’.

  2. Way too much importance was given to this campaign. Of course, removing illegal posters and banners should be done everyday, without giving it this importance, because it’s just about maintenance of the city. But, why dismissing the display of political content (whether on walls or on a billboard) as “political propaganda” that is very bad for our national unity? The walls and billboards of a city are made for the people to communicate with each other. Banning all political content from these supports puts on a same level narrow and lacking substance political slogans and ‘propaganda’ and murals or graffiti or posters carrying a political message that causes people to think a little.
    Besides, for the Tripoli affair, the roundabout facing Karame palace, was before the Tawhid took control of the city occupied by the statue of Rashid Karame. And today the object that is there is a representation the word Allah and under it, the following expression: “Tripoli the fortress of Muslims”. Knowing that prior to the war Tripoli had 33% of its population made up of Christians, and that Tawhid’s Islamists killed many of them, it was not appropriate to compare this with the religious symbol which is the Christ’s statue over Nahr El-Kalb; and it shouldn’t be compared even to a Muslim religious symbol, like the Omari mosque in Beirut for instance. This roundabout decoration carries only a political message, just as the Bachir Gemayel monument in Sassine square. They are both illegal but the second one doesn’t, along with its political message, which is not even very political as it simply commemorates the assassination of a political figure without any link to politics, which are the matter of live people, carry a sectarian and willingly offensive message. The Christian symbols that cover Christian regions, like the sanctuaries or little altars or statues, are not offensive in any way to visitors, as they simply are manifestations of the local faith and customs. Of course. the giant cross in Qanat Bakiche does not enter in this category. But Saint Mary’s statue in Zahlé, and the sculpted face of Jesus in the Cedars do. A Lebanese Muslim or Christian or Jew not feeling welcome in a Lebanese region only because he sees there manifestations of religious views he does not share is not Lebanese. He is Muslim or Christian or Jew period.

    The problem isn’t the political posters and banners claiming that a certain quarter is owned by a certain party or a certain man or a certain dog (let the dogs bark and go on, as long as they don’t force you into pledging allegiance to their masters). The problem is people’s mentalities, when they believe that muzzling the walls and billboards could muzzle the hate feelings.

  3. You are right, people do need an outlet for political expression and this expression should not be muzzled. But expression also does not need to be a violent form of marking territory and appropriation of public or shared space. I also don’t think you can define someone as “Lebanese” or not based on the fears and history they may have with certain places or symbols. If that is the case the Lebanese will be quite a few because most people emerging from such a violent period are conditioned by stereotypes they have of each other and how “annoying” certain sights or sounds of the ‘other’ may be. I think we need much more expression and genuine, community-based dialogue to deal with this, but paying young men to hang flags on street lamps seems more representative of elite political interests than an inclusive community discussion. Finally on your point about Sassine, I think commemorating a political figure is always linked to politics. And for those that lived through the brutal violence of that period, and especially those on the firing end of it, reminders can still be very harmful and traumatic.

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