Last summer, when Lucien Bourjeily submitted a play about censorship to the Lebanese censor’s office, he didn’t exactly expect it to be rubber-stamped and handed back with a smile.
As a Beiruti writer and director he’s been through the process many times before, piecing together how the system works along the way. On his first few attempts, Bourjeily found himself missing a crucial piece of paperwork and would have to go away and start the whole process again. When his works were submitted, some pages would get cut and other changes solicited. What is deemed “acceptable” seems to change from day to day, Bourjeily says, depending on the “mood of the country” and the individual officers in charge.
“People think that Lebanon is the land of freedom of expression and it’s not,” he says, a sentiment that seems to be evidenced by personal experience. When Bourjeily applied to put on a Chekhov play, he found a line about an officers’ club changed on the grounds that it was “degrading” to officers. On another occasion he tried to get a permit for an improvised work without success. No theater would risk closure by putting on an unauthorized play, so he staged it in unexpected places instead: on a rooftop, at a train station and out on the street.
So in response to these experiences in 2013 Bourjeily wrote Will It Pass Or Not?—a farce about writers having their work hacked to bits by bumbling officers, produced by the NGO March. It toured Lebanese universities in spring 2013 owing to an exception to normal censorship rules for educational work shown to students. “We’ve had to do quite a lot of work on it and it’s got a bit shorter,” an officer tells a writer at one point in the play, “but it’s turned out great…”
The plan was then to take it to a commercial theater in the autumn. In August, however, Bourjeily handed over the script and waited for a response. Perhaps predictably, it didn’t go down well.
The process, which usually takes less than a week, dragged on for months. Government officers ridiculed the writing on morning TV, hauled the production team into their office more than once to be shouted at, and ignored requests for written documentation relating to the ban.
Censors are legally entitled to cut material with the potential to stir up religious or political strife, but Bourjeily maintains that the play was free of anything controversial in this sense. “We wanted to show that [the censors] can manipulate the law as much as they want, and this is the biggest proof. They say ‘We’re protecting people,’ but they are only protecting themselves.”
The reason for the rejection, he was told, is that the play isn’t an accurate representation of the system. So he’s now working on a documentary-style follow-up, replacing his fictional story with a real-life account of his experiences. The officers’ real names will be used and transcripts of the TV spots will be quoted verbatim. He’s planning on submitting it to the bureau later in 2014.
Understanding the limits of the freedom of expression is the first step towards expanding them and it’s crucial, Bourjeily stresses, that we do. “Our fight with censorship here in Lebanon is a long fight,” he says. “A society that doesn’t talk about taboos is a society doomed to make the same mistakes.”
Click on the graphic below to find out how to stage a play in Lebanon.
On 21 March, Bourjeily posted a message to his Facebook page saying that his passport had been confiscated by the Lebanese government, along with the below photograph.
Here is the full text:
“As I am going to represent Lebanon with a play entitled “Vanishing State” next month in the The LIFT Festival in London, the Lebanese General Security today (May 21, 2014) Confiscated my passport and refused to renew it, which means i’m no longer allowed to leave Lebanon to perform in the festival: the reason? – They categorically refused to give me a reason… I pleaded for an answer but they kept refusing to give the reason… they said that we will revert back to you in the coming month or month and a half and they hinted “you should know why… something that happened in 2013″. – No SIR I don’t know why; I’ve never been convicted of a crime, I’m not a convict, nor a thief, nor a murderer, nor a warlord, nor a corrupt official, and I’ve never been in a courtroom in 2013 nor before and I’ve had a clean record since I was born (Sijil 3adleh)… I’ve travelled in and out of Lebanon for every month since years ago and I’ve never had a problem at the airport… so you tell me why….
“Why one month to one Month and a half to get an answer or any kind of response?? Why the “no reason”? Why the “you know why” attitude??? Why the total disregard for my basic freedom and rights as a human being?? As a citizen?? As an artist???
“Yes indeed now I know why….
What a high price we have to pay as Lebanese citizens for Freedom of Expression and in our fight against corruption and censorship….”
On 23 May he posted again:
WE FINALLY WON ONE BATTLE… BUT THE FIGHT IS NOT OVER ..Giving me back my passport in not enough, we should keep on lobbying and raising our voices for anyone in the future who will be detained in Lebanon based on his thoughts and his writing, including foreigners.. and most importantly keep on fighting for such violations not to happen again, and March and myself are working actively with NGOs and government officials to get to a permanent solution.