General Suleiman, reggae & defamation

Speaking to Zeid Hamdan

CultureRights & dissent This article is part of the series Censorship

On the old white door to his apartment, there’s a note from the neighbors saying “Welcome home”. But friends and family are not the only ones relieved to see Zeid Hamdan out of jail. Only a few hours after the Lebanese musician was detained on Wednesday for “defaming the president” in his 2010 song General Suleiman, word had spread across Lebanon and beyond. Out of jail since three days, Zeid met with Mashallah News to talk about the detention, censorship, and his message of love.

What happened on Wednesday?

I was asked already the week before to come to the General Security office to explain things about my song General Suleiman. They asked about the lyrics, about who shot the video, who’s in the band, all sorts of details. Then, they called me again on Tuesday and told me to come in on Wednesday. When I did, they handcuffed me. I was with my lawyer, so I told him to let people know that I was getting jailed for this.

“When I wrote the song, there were no revolutions. The Arab world was still asleep.”

Then, a few hours later, I got out. I had no idea that everything had grown so big. I feel very grateful about that. I owe it to so many people that I’m free today. I didn’t do anything: it was all the people who took on my case and made noise about it. Lebanon is a small country, and when people start contacting their contacts, there’s soon a lot of noise. I think that’s why I got released the same day. Because it’s not very coherent to lock me up in the morning and then let me go in the evening, without an explanation.

Why did they call you now, one year after you made the song?

The director of the video sent a dvd with General Suleiman to an ad agency. That’s how the authorities found out about the video and contacted me. But it sounds like some sort of mistake. The song is really the wrong thing to target.

Tell us about the song?

I was inspired by Guinea, not Lebanon, when writing the song. I was in Guinea in 2008, when there were clashes in Beirut with the military involved. At that time in Guinea, General Lansana Conté was still in power, and there had been problems with the military too. The song is making a parallel between African nations, where armies have accessed power through using weapons, and Lebanon, where the military man, General Suleiman, in fact was the one who didn’t resort to weapons when he handled two rival factions.

“The song is actually a metaphor for a man of peace.”

So the song is actually a metaphor for a man of peace. The lyrics say: “General Suleiman, you’re a miracle man” and they describe how beneficial his role was for pacifying the country. The song ends with a “Go home!” as a message to the military in general. Once your job is done, you should go back to your barracks and don’t interfere in political life any more.

When I wrote the song, my friends told me: “Don’t release it, don’t do it. You’re going to get in trouble.” There’s a Lebanese law saying that you can’t insult the president. When I was detained, they told me that the song goes against that law. But I wasn’t insulting the president, I was saying that military and political power should never meet. And I think that it’s a major mistake when making music, especially in a delicate region, to censor yourself. You must stay honest.

“My friends told me: ‘Don’t release it, don’t do it. You’re going to get in trouble’.”

Also, at the time when I wrote the song, there were no revolutions. The Arab world was still asleep. Today, it’s totally different. And the trend is, that every time the military sides with the revolutionaries, the revolution succeeds. Then we have another very difficult problem: for the army to accept handing power back to society. The military never wants to do this. They want to keep control. They get drunk with the power. Therefore, my song is more essential than ever.

How do you feel after having been released?

I’m almost embarrassed by all this attention. Because I have friends who went through much harder things: going to jail or hiding from torture. And they don’t have anyone to help them out. So yes, in principle my story is important for freedom. But on a personal level, I just feel very lucky. And spoiled. Friends in Syria are jailed and beaten for doing much less than what I did, or for nothing at all. I feel ashamed to talk about me going to jail for seven hours while my brothers in Syria, Libya and other places are suffering so much more.

“I had no idea that everything had grown so big. I feel very grateful about that. I owe it to so many people that I’m free today.”

How is the climate in general for debate and free speech in Lebanon?

We have so many communities, and they have all gone through very hard times. They’re all hardheaded, and they need to express themselves. But they need to coexist as well. Unfortunately, no one here accepts the role of the state. That’s why we have so much chaos. We live in a state of debate, but that means that we also fight. So to avoid that, we have to avoid creating frustration. Because we have to live with each other.

And really, we’re an amazing country. In the region now, the Syrians are being tortured, the Egyptians are getting beaten up. The king gags the Jordanians, and in Saudi Arabia they act like it’s historical times. Seeing all this, Lebanon is heaven. And in comparison to the US, Canada and the European countries too, Lebanon is a beautiful place to be. We raise essential questions about humanity.

“I feel ashamed to talk about me going to jail for seven hours while my brothers in Syria, Libya and other places are suffering so much more.”

In Europe, that’s not really done any more. The worry is about the end of the month, about getting the newest phone, about money. Concerns that aren’t human. In Lebanon, our debate is essential. It’s human. So they had their fights, their revolutions. They reached this level which is wonderful. I don’t criticize the West, I think it achieved amazing things. But young people, we have this thing that we should change the world. In societies like Lebanon, there is a possibility to work and change things. That’s why I stay.

Will everything that happened impact on your artistic work?

A lot of people have asked me that question. But no, it won’t. Maybe people have the impression that I’ll become a very engaged political songwriter after this. But the thing is, I’ve always been. And – very naïvely maybe – I’ve never sided with any faction. I’ve always wanted to share messages that are common to everyone. Not only to all Lebanese, but to all human beings. Very elementary things: the freedom to love and be loved, to live, to accomplish dreams and to be free. To work, eat, and express whatever you want to say. This is what I fight for.

“In Lebanon, our debate is essential. It’s human.”

What will happen next?

I don’t know. It’s all very fresh. I hope they’ll let me leave the country, because I’m traveling tonight. If they don’t, I have to fight on a personal level. Either way, I’m sure that this song will have an echo. With all the noise about my detention, it gained popularity. Hopefully it’ll send the message to people that they have the power to change things. I feel grateful that I’m able to express myself, and that people listen to what I say. I’m proud if I can carry messages that people believe in. And if I can shed light on other people who get arrested and treated badly. If I had a chance to re-orient the attention that I got, this is where I’d orient it.

Photo by Tanya Traboulsi.

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