Foreword from the Al Rawiya Culture and Heritage Team: “Our culture and heritage are so important because amid our division, they have the power to unify us.” This is how we first introduced the section to Nour. Starting the conversation lightly (you know, dabke, labne, and Rahbani), we inevitably came face-to-face with the identity crisis gravely influencing Lebanese culture.
So then, instead of trying to harmonize it we decided to shift our focus to embracing and reporting all of these diversities added together as a part of our shared identity through grassroots cultures and historical facts. From there emerged some important questions. Why is it so hard to unify, research, or write about specific cultural aspects, figures, and history in Lebanon without being controversial or inciting an argument? Where do the origins of this shared hostility come from?
By explaining the influence of sectarian politics on Lebanon’s culture and the subsequent hardships of political engagement, Hodeib offers us an answer to our initial questions and helps us push the boundaries of our cultural footprint beyond the superficiality of world-record-sized hummus and tabbouleh bowls.
“Who supports you?” a reporter asked me in 2010, inquiring about the support channels my band Wled el Balad (The Local Kids) received. “We are non-political. No one supports us, we’re just a group of young artists reflecting on our realities and grievances through music and poetry.” I was 20 years old. I went on to say, “We are not political.” As if political and artistic expression were irreconcilable. I keep returning to this memory, reflecting on the multiple layers of experiences that shaped it. Even though I considered myself and the band’s work to be explicitly political and socially conscious, claiming to be non-political implied rejecting the patronage of (sectarian) political parties. This does not surprise me today. The two concepts, political and sectarian, were almost inseparable in my head.
In post-war Beirut, we grew up in a setting where being political was essentially an endorsement of sectarian politics. In order to articulate an oppositional stance vis-à-vis sectarianism, I had neutralized any political implication of my work or existence. Perhaps I intended to stay impartial or non-partisan. The distinction is not purely linguistic, in fact it is emblematic of a broader tendency in post-war Lebanon to understand the term “political” exclusively on sectarian grounds. This conceptualization has been normalized in our understanding and is nevertheless historical and specific to Lebanon’s experiences. Therefore, it demands critical attention accordingly.
The emergence of a political landscape with inherently sectarian undertones is a product of the civil war’s violent history. Since the 1970s, intensifying violence on confessional grounds and the elimination of any potential alternative agenda together contributed to fortifying sectarian identities in all aspects of life in Lebanon. The terms upon which the civil war was concluded and the subsequent system of governance that was installed further reinforced sectarian identity as the primary political indicator through which individuals assessed their relationship with each other and with the state. This is not just a legal-social category, however, it has had clear implications for cultural realms. Back then, the term “cultural” was being constructed as an abstract concept encompassing anything that is not political. Now, any representation that does not fit the sectarian mold is almost mechanically depoliticized and reserved to the cultural world. Furthermore, in between the two terms, “political” and “cultural”, lies a minefield of neoliberal qualifications characteristic of a post-war Lebanon, as in much of the world during the 1990s, and surviving into our present day despite nuances.
In a space that’s charged with sectarian-political militancy and omnipresent experiences of violence like Lebanon, it is not surprising that many artists negate any political affiliation, stressing the unifying force of the cultural realm. By doing so, they seek out neutral grounds upon which to articulate themselves and their work. Perhaps they are attempting to bring people together, an approach that represents culture as a unifying power, away from the divisive implications of dirty politics, and that’s plausible. Neutrality serves that purpose, but this process is not arbitrary. It may be a strategy to navigate the logics of free-market economy and pressure to secure the widest audience possible. In all cases, it is understandable that many artists and writers on culture alike seek out the unifying aspects to propagate. Nevertheless, it is equally as important to recognize that this yearning is embedded in an underlying, percolating anxiety to bring out a national culture in a landscape plagued with division. This yearning for a sense of legitimacy on a cultural level seeks a unity that transcends sectarian divisions. More often than not it produces an incomplete and flattened understanding of culture as a neutral space. Additionally, it almost always reproduces “culture” as a category devoid of any political significance essentially reserving the political to its sectarian variations at the same time.
In the early 1990s, a general amnesiac attitude towards the war blurred out any possibility of revisiting it and/or assessing its significance and implications. This was partly, and justifiably, a general popular reaction to the suffering and trauma of violence. It was simultaneously a state-sponsored approach to block out further divisions and prevented any real accountability for the war’s atrocities at the expense of achieving any legal or popular closure. The solution corresponded to consociational agreements among sectarian militias who had fought the war. Concurrently, there was a conscious effort to block out any form of expression outside this formulation. The media and broadcasting law of 1994 aimed to regulate radio and television broadcasting in Lebanon through granting government licenses under Syrian patronage. Examining who received licenses, under whose patronage and, to whose interest remains an important question. Moreover, commercial media platforms were commissioned strictly for entertainment purposes. Both those categories were limited by a rather underexamined clause in the Taif Agreement of 1989, which addresses the implications of broadcast media as a tool for political-sectarian propaganda. Ironically, most of the so-called news stations that acquired licenses functioned under the patronage of warlords-turned-politicians in the post-war Republic.
Credits: Samir Kassir Foundation and Reporters Without Borders (RSF). (n.d.). Political Affiliations [Graph]. Media in the Political Maze.
The interplay of legal language and popular culture is significant inasmuch as it still shapes our attitudes regarding culture today. What qualifies as “cultural” is often assessed on the basis of its ability to be accepted by everyone; the “acceptability” is premised on the bypassing of normalized differences (like sectarianism). This is very much influenced by an overarching, neoliberal, understanding of culture as a civil (non-political) society. Think of the almost-obsessive manifestation of Lebanese flags during the 2019 revolution as a rejection of sectarianism. Think of the smearing campaign against Marcel Khalife when he refused to sing the Lebanese anthem in protest during the 2019 Baalbeck Festival. Think of how, when homophobic and hyper-religious aspersions against Mashrou’ Leila ousted them from Byblos Festival, much of mainstream media defended the band as “artists” who are not political (precisely because they are not sectarian). Think of all the “scandals” surrounding artists who voice out their political allegiance in the press.
This is nevertheless problematic because it fails to make space for alternative modes of political agency. Where sectarianism is constructed as the de facto category for difference, the divisive evil on the other hand, with which the terms political and sectarian are interchangeable, bypasses the difference through denouncing sectarianism while at the same time depoliticizing the self. What then qualifies as simultaneously cultural and political outside the boundaries of sectarianism? A nuanced conception of the cultural space can help transform it into a vessel for new political language that transcends the sectarian. Think of the of Lebanese flags during the revolution as a variation of patriotic non-sectarianism. Think of Khalife’s long history of radical partisanship as bringing perspective into an otherwise underquestioned nationalist patriotism. Think of how the Byblos Festival scandal became an opportunity for queer expression and dissidence in Lebanon. There are more politics in rejecting the political (as sectarian) than meets the eye.
Can we think of Lebanese culture beyond food and Fairouz? Can we recognize Fairouz and the Rahbanis as national figures without overlooking the political significance of their work? Can we remember Shoushou’s theatre without romanticizing Lebanon’s Golden Age, or without omitting from our memory the fact that “Akha ya Baladna” was censored by the Lebanese state?1 Can we critically reject the war’s violence without denouncing the countless peculiar forms of cultural expression that are a byproduct of the war? For many, the war’s militancy was a drive for cultural expression. For a great deal of others who rejected the war’s violence and the divisions plaguing Lebanon, the artistic, aesthetic, or creative spheres became spaces to express their discontent. Cultural expression was a means to perform their alienation, a liminal space where sectarian identity did not matter. What is remembered today and why we remember it remains a product of our present and the complexities that influence our outlook on the world.
A new generation of artists have brought about a fresh language of dissidence, and their works are achieving popular status, especially after the revolution. Whether in stand up comedy, hip hop, or alternative rock, artists like Shaden Fakih, El Rass, and Mashrou’ Leila articulate notions of identity, queerness, and critique. They challenge not only the preset definitions of what it means to be political, but also the multiple layers of censored talk, from state institutions to the level of individuals. Their work transcends sectarian categories in a manner that problematizes the modes through which they are critiques. It is no wonder that the grounds upon which they are condemned almost entirely emanate from a religious-sectarian perspective. The tendency to reject alternative attitudes in Lebanon almost always manifests in relation to devil-worshipping, atheism, or some other form of assault on religious traditions. Simultaneously, the reactions almost always fall into some sectarian rhetoric or another. But this new language has already slipped out of the discursive cage on which sectarianism imposes. Perhaps one achievement since the October 2019 Revolution is how new political discourses and spaces emerged and imposed themselves both conceptually and socially in Lebanon. We can only hope that in the future, dissidence on the level of culture takes advantage of this new language to conceive a new idea of the term “political”; the oppositional is just that. It is the most radical position on the political spectrum.
Another achievement could be that in this strict distinction between the political as sectarian and the cultural as benign, the non-political space has also been problematized. It may very well do us good to recognize popular culture as a space for perspective, which reinforces the much celebrated diversity that Lebanon boasts about whilst highlighting the limitations of understanding diversity purely as coexisting sectarian groupings. Even when it means struggle and clash, diversity, here, is at the very least, accompanied by creativity and not lethal violence. To seek a unifying approach creatively is important as a tool to help fortify reconciliation on a social level. However, it is equally important to recognize the slippery grounds of such an approach, and to be cautious of falling back into the dichotomies that the post-war regime had institutionalized as our reality. Earlier this year, stand-up comedian Nour Hajjar discussed on Sarde (After Dinner) how his work articulates daily life experiences. He foregrounds the influence of politics on even the most banal choices we make; what to eat, whether or not we can afford to eat, power cuts, whether or not to shower, how to park a car, the daily tactics of survival which had been consistently reinforced into our existence until they became second nature. Recognizing such nuances is in itself a political act.
If I were to go back in time to 2010 and answer that same question again, I would say, “No one supports us. They only support what they can tame. We don’t serve their purposes.” I would then go on to state that, ”We are political indeed. Our existence contradicts their rhetoric and transcends their binaries. We will exist despite them. We don’t need them, we need them gone.”
1 Shoushou’s song, Akh Ya Baladna (composed by Elias Rahbani) was allowed to be performed live but not allowed to be distributed on tape — Deeb, K. (2016). Tārīkh Lubnān al-Thaqāfī. al-Maktaba al-Sharqiyya. p.346
Nour Hodeib is a writer, artist, and scholar of culture and history. Beirut-bred, Brooklyn-based, he is currently pursuing a PhD in History at the City University of New York. His dissertation explores political militancy and cultural production during the Lebanese Civil War.