Yasmina Hatem

Censoring the play about censorship

A play by Lucien Bourjeily


Will it pass, or won’t it?, (or in Arabic Bebta3 aw ma bebta3) was the title of an interactive play written and directed by Lucien Bourjeily --“was” being the operative word. The title refers to the question writers (of plays and films) in Lebanon ask themselves when presenting their scripts to the Censorship Bureau at the General Security office. And in this case, it didn’t.


The play was about someone who goes to the Censorship Bureau to get his script approved – touching on the topics of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, artistic freedom, and the limitations of speech in public and in life. “It is strange that, as an artist, you have to go present your work to a military bureau,” Lucien Bourjeily tells NOW. “And in this play there was nothing from the usual sets of ‘taboos’ that could get censored – no sexual content, no violence, nothing like that. But the story itself criticizes the censorship bureau, and so they decided it was never going to get played.” Bourjeily explains that he presented the play for the usual censorship screening, and instead of taking the usual period of ten days, they got called back a month and a half later, requesting his presence at a meeting with the head of the Bureau. 


Together with Jad Ghorayeb, of the NGO MARCH, which was producing the play, Bourjeily went to the meeting expecting to negotiate. “Usually the censors tell you to remove a certain sentence, change a name, change a character… It’s not right, especially when it changes what you wanted to say, but we deal with it,” explains Bourjeily. “But this time there was no negotiating. They said this play was never going to happen. That there is a law that protects them and allows them to make this decision.” That was that.


The only possible way forward, apparently, is if Bourjeily and MARCH decide to take the matter to court and sue the Lebanese government. 


“The guidelines for the Censorship Bureau are so vague that they can basically make whatever decision they want,” he says. Take for example “inciting strife,” a category so broad it can be interpreted as covering whatever the censor wishes. There are no precise guidelines and so it is a very subjective decision. 


This has troubling consequences. “Any writer in Lebanon, even while he is writing, will probably censor himself, thinking of how this or that will pass through the Censorship Bureau. How can you let artists express themselves and create their art if you don’t let them talk about anything?”


The truth is that for hundreds of years theater has been a tool for discussing social and political issues, and creating debate amongst citizens. It is art, but like many forms of art, it comes with a purpose. “Unfortunately, theater is dying in this country, and this is just the last big blow. Do they want us to just all pack our bags and leave?” asks Bourjeily. 


He isn’t alone in feeling frustration, and being the victim of senseless censorship. In February 2013, NOW reported that Lebanese director Ziad Doueiry’s film The Attack was rejected from being sent to the Oscars and banned from being shown in Lebanon. At that time Doueiry told NOW: “as filmmakers we don’t get any help at all from the Lebanese government. And not only do they not help, but also put obstacles in our way.” This resonates precisely with Bourjeily’s experience and take: no funds, no government support, yet they also stop people from even showcasing their work.


Picture this: as an artist, a filmmaker, a playwright, you have to hand your work to a group of officers, captains, lieutenants; and they decide with no precise, official guidelines what can and cannot pass, what can and cannot be seen by adults. “We’re being treated like children,” says Bourjeily, “not allowed to see this or that. We need to talk about things that are bothering us, things that need to evolve and change, things like censorship, for example.” 

(Image courtesy of Lucien Bourjeily)

for hundreds of years theater has been a tool for discussing social and political issues