BEIRUT: Three artists from the MENA region received international recognition for their work to advance freedom of expression this month, including Lebanese playwright Lucien Bourjeily.
The other artists nominated for Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Awards are Egyptian musician Mayam Mahmoud, Turkish playwright and writer Meltem Arikan and British playwright David Cecil – nominated for his work fighting homophobia in Uganda.
“The idea is to award people across different categories who have ... contributed to promoting freedom of expression,” IOC’s Head of Arts Julia Farrington told The Daily Star by telephone, “particularly in areas where there is hostility to freedom of expression and where personal courage and creativity and commitment is required in order to see their work through.”
IOC launched its Freedom of Expression Awards 14 years ago. More than 300 international figures – working in journalism, digital activism, campaigning/advocacy and the arts – have been nominated for the 2014 awards. Four nominees were shortlisted for the arts category. The winners will be announced March 20 in London.
The proliferation of regional candidates this year may reflect, in part, particularly restrictive censorship laws. “It’s true there are constraints on freedom of expression in the Middle East,” Farrington conceded, “and I think artists are at the forefront of that, but it is also a coincidence ... We try for geographic spread and gender spread across all the awards and I think there was just a cluster of very strong candidates [from the region] this year.”
In her music, Mahmoud (who made it to the semifinals of “Arabs Got Talent” last autumn) tackles such issues as gender inequality and sexual harassment, expressing her views via male-dominated rap.
In the wake of Turkey’s Gezi Park protests last year, Turkish politicians accused Arikan of inciting demonstrations with her play “Mi Minor.” A hate campaign launched on social media sites left her fearing for her life.
Arikan’s 2004 novel “Stop Hurting My Flesh,” about women traumatized by rape and incest, had previously been banned for, among other things, “arousing sexual desire” and “using a feminist approach.”
Bourjeily has worked extensively with NGOs and theater organizations championing artistic freedom in Lebanon and abroad. He is known for introducing improvisational and immersive theater practices in Beirut, challenging the country’s censorship laws – which stipulate that scripts be approved by General Security’s censorship bureau before being staged.
The playwright made headlines in Lebanon last year with his interactive play “Will it Pass or Not?” The title reiterates the question Lebanese playwrights and filmmakers ask themselves before, during and after they write a script.
The play, which was produced in collaboration with March, an anti-censorship NGO, was about a filmmaker who goes to General Security’s Censorship Bureau to get his script approved, only to find it has been rewritten and cut from 120 pages to 20. When Bourjeily submitted the play to the bureau it was promptly banned.
“We managed to show it five times in universities before we submitted the script,” he recalls, “because if you’re playing inside the university for university students you can do it without the authorization of General Security ... Nobody was offended. Then we send it to General Security ... They don’t even tell us, ‘OK, let’s remove one line. Let’s remove one sentence. Let’s remove one page.’ They ban it.”
It’s unusual for a script to be banned outright, he explains. Usually the censors make suggestions for changes, effectively co-authoring the script to make a play less offensive. Bourjeily was told his only option was to spend two days observing the work of the censors and then write a new play, which would be submitted informally for approval.
“It was like, ‘You [unofficially] submit it before you submit it and we’ll check it together,’” he laughs. “‘Then we’ll let you do the play and it will become a very nice play about General Security. And at the end of the play ... the [audience] will chant: ‘We want censorship, we want censorship!’”
When he refused his only option, Bourjeily recalled, a bureau representative appeared on Lebanese TV to explain that the play had been banned on the basis of the assessment of four anonymous theater critics, who had determined that the play was poorly written and didn’t merit being staged in Lebanese theaters.
“They actually used art critics to stop a play,” Bourjeily says. “Why? Because it’s about them – this is why it was banned ... Usually they say: ‘We are [censoring] to protect you from bad politics. We are protecting you from bad religion. We are protecting your children from nudity and sex.’ Who are you protecting us from in this play? By being censored it actually proves all our points.”
Bourjeily has a lively sense of humor and is quick to acknowledge that the censors at General Security are not ill-intentioned. They probably hate reading scripts all day, he laughs, just as much as he would resent being put in charge of the country’s security.
Nevertheless, “you don’t run a country by silencing everybody,” he says, “because not everybody’s actually against you.”
The Daily Star contacted General Security to include the censor’s perspective on Bourjeily’s banning. A representative replied that the body would comment on the matter only after first receiving a written request.
Bourjeily is adamant that censorship is a threat to creativity, causing artists to compromise on their messages and vision.
“Censorship and art don’t go together,” he says.
“Censorship is like the anti-art ... Art is supposed to be free. If it’s not free, it’s not art anymore.”
Restrictions increase in line with the country’s deteriorating security situation, he says. “ Lebanon has always been the beacon in the Middle East in terms of freedom of expression,” he argues, “and we’re fighting to remain this way ... I know that Lebanon has more freedom than other countries in the Middle East, but that’s not going to be the case in two or three years if we continue on this path ... The government is [equating insecurity and] freedom of expression.”
Bourjeily is currently working on a sequel to “Will It Pass or Not?”
“One of [their] arguments ... was, ‘It’s not real to life. It’s a fiction.’... We thought, ‘Okay, let’s follow your suggestion. Let’s do kind of a docu-play about what happened with us and this play.’”
“We’ll channel our frustration into the second play,” he laughs. “If that gets banned, we’ll channel our frustration into a third play, and maybe one day the 10th sequel of “Will It Pass or Not?” will be accepted and then we’ll throw a great party.”
To read an English extract of Lucien Bourjeily’s “Will It Pass or Not?” please visit: www.indexoncensorship.org/2014/02/going-dark-play-lucien-bourjeily/.