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Amidst political pressure, intimidation and blackmail related to “normalization” with Israel, many Lebanese artists find their freedom of expression threatened. Despite being a cultural jewel of the Middle East, the Land of the Cedars seems to be sinking into a repressive spiral aimed at silencing any critical or dissenting voice. This dangerous slide into obscurantism threatens to ultimately suffocate one of the region’s most dynamic and committed artistic scenes.

Lebanon, the land of Khalil Gibran, Ounsi el-Hajj and Feyrouz, has always been a hub of vibrant creativity and intellectual fervor in the Middle East. But behind its image as a cultural beacon lies a darker reality. Many artists in the Land of the Cedars face pressure, intimidation and smear campaigns, often under the guise of combating normalization with the Israeli enemy.

The latest episode is the Wajdi Mouawad affair. In April 2024, the playwright had to cancel at the last minute the world premiere of his new play Wedding Day at the Cro-Magnons at the Monnot Theatre in Beirut. The reason cited by his detractors: alleged funding from Israel for his previous shows.

These serious accusations were made without concrete evidence by entities claiming to be part of “the resistance.” Mouawad, who has always denied receiving Israeli funds, saw a complaint for collusion with the enemy filed against him in military court. Facing threats to his troupe and the theater, Mouawad opted to throw in the towel and return to France, where he directs the La Colline theater.

His case is far from isolated. In 2017, director Ziad Doueiri found himself in turmoil just before the release of his film The Insult in Lebanon for having shot some scenes of his previous feature The Attack in Israel in 2012—regardless of the fact that the film’s topic, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, required for scenes to be shot on location. Arrested upon his arrival in Beirut, he was dragged before a military tribunal for “collaboration with the enemy,” a “crime” punishable by prison, before the proceedings were eventually dropped due to procedural flaws.

The Mouawad and Doueiri cases are not the only ones of their kind in the Land of the Cedars. In recent years, the number of artists targeted has increased, blurring the line between the “red line” not to be crossed and sheer obscurantism.

In such a context, many artists end up self-censoring, refraining from addressing the most sensitive subjects for fear of reprisal. A terrible waste for Lebanon, which thus deprives itself of its vital forces when it needs critical perspectives and imaginations to envisage its future the most.

Behind the noble motives brandished by their accusers often lie personal vendettas, petty jealousies or dark political calculations. By waving the flag of anti-normalization, some are actually seeking to silence any dissenting or critical voice. An identitarian reflex all the more absurd as many of these artists make the country proud abroad and contribute to its cultural influence.

Meanwhile, Lebanese artists continue to create and hope for better days, despite the leaden cloak. Because they know that without freedom of expression, the whole society slowly suffocates.

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