If Graffiti Could Change the World: Lebanon's Controversial Wall Art Case
The verdict in the case of Lebanese graffiti artist Semaan Khawam was postponed Wednesday morning until June 25. This case is yet another example of the Lebanese military’s intolerance of criticism no matter what form it takes.
Just when you think that censorship in Lebanon has reached the highest level of absurdity, it is surpassed by yet another infringement on the freedom of expression.
The latest chapter of Lebanese censorship was on display in Beirut’s court of justice on Wednesday morning. “The country of freedoms” wanted to prosecute an artist in the name of the Lebanese people…for drawing on walls.
Semaan Khawam was caught “red-handed” in broad daylight drawing a mural on the wall of an old train station in Karantina last summer.
Khawam was painting images of soldiers, rifles, and boots. The scene caught the eye of two army intelligence officers who asked Khawam to explain the odd images he was creating.
Khawam did not flee. Instead, he explained his art to the officers: “This is to chronicle the civil war and its crimes,” he answered. At that point, the two contacted their senior officer and, accordingly, asked Khawam to continue what he had begun.
Shortly afterward, an internal security forces (ISF) patrol arrived and took the graffiti artist to a nearby police station for questioning.
That was the beginning of a series of interrogations that ended with him being summoned to court in February for charges of “violation of administrative regulations” and “vandalism.”
“The charges are practically void as they lack any explicit accusations,” explained defense attorney Adel Houmani to Al-Akhbar, indicating that Khawam appeared in court without knowing the crime he has committed.
“It is our right as the defense team to clearly know the offense they say he committed,” he said.
“If Khawam is violating regulations, there are no articles in the law that explicitly refer to the need to obtain a permit to draw graffiti, especially since there is a lot of graffiti around Beirut,” Houmani added.
“If this artistic work is vandalism,” he argued, “then what do we say about the photos of leaders that are posted everywhere, in addition to all the random posters and ads?”
At first glance, an observer of Khawam’s drawing will not find anything provocative or anything that calls for prosecution.
There are many images on the capital’s walls, including politicized graffiti and random sketches, that may be interpreted as offensive, but none have prompted legal action by the authorities.
However, when someone draws “a helmet, boots, and rifles,” that is considered an explicit violation of a national taboo, criticizing the military.
It is enough to remember what happened to the ohibbu al-fasad (I love corruption) graffiti by Ali, a Lebanese graffiti artist, a few months ago
Ali painted an ISF officer unbuttoning his shirt on a wall in Hamra in collaboration with Egyptian graffiti artist, Ganzeer. On his chest, the artist placed the words: “I love corruption.” A few hours later, the image was blacked out.
“Moral oppression is being practiced against me. This is not my issue only,” Khawam said after some friends advised him to back away from his refusal to pay a fine, as the law does not permit him to paint on public property.
“I am crazy. I want to write on the wall. The street is my newspaper,” he insisted.
Away from Khawam’s case, the art of graffiti remains restricted in most countries, like the work of British artist Banksy, which pokes fun at the establishment. It is for this reason that many graffiti artists insist on keeping their real identity secret.
Even in the local graffiti scene, one may hear stories about artists who prefer to paint at night, in order to remain anonymous.
It is perfectly natural then that graffiti remains outside the framework of legalization since originally it is an art outside the law and against the mainstream.
Khawam’s case began to circulate on social media websites, especially after Egyptian artist Ganzeer announced his solidarity with his Lebanese comrade.
At a time when the youth of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and Palestine are converting their walls into tools of the revolution, somebody in Lebanon decided to…try graffiti.
By Sanaa Khoury
What do you think? Freedom of speech remains a hot topic in the Middle East. Should graffiti artist Semaan Khawan have been arrested? Is the Lebanese government's judegement justified?