by Chloé Benoist

Samandal is a pioneering comics magazine in Lebanon, known for its diverse contributions, creativity and daring cartoons. In 2010, three editors were sued for two comics, deemed to insult Christianity. Five years later, they lost their trial and got one of the highest fines a Lebanese publications court can demand. This is how it happened.

This is a story about comics. It’s also a story like many others about bureaucracy, and Lebanon. But above all, perhaps, this is a story about who owns language and who controls it.

The birth of Samandal

“It started in 2006 and I basically just wanted to make comics, but I didn’t know where to publish them,” Omar Khouri remembers. An artist with dark-rimmed glasses and a thick mustache, Omar had been producing visual art for a while before deciding to explore the world of comics as more than a reader. Hatem Imam was the first person to join Omar on the adventure, followed by others who shared the same desire. By December 2006, Samandal was born.

Another person who joined the team during the early days of Samandal was Fadi Baki, also known as Fdz, a facetious 30-something with salt-and-pepper hair. “I love comics, essentially it’s that,” Fdz says of his decision to co-found the project. “I grew up reading comics. I studied French because all the comics you find here were [in French]. We all love comics, so the idea was to tell stories about here in comic form.”

“It started for Omar during the July 2006 war, when everything was so polarised between March 14 and March 8, and he thought, ‘I’m neither, and I want to tell stories that are neither,’” Fdz adds, laying the ground for Samandal as a fertile ground for alternative storytelling in a politically divided Lebanon.

As a passion project, Samandal started with a loose structure, relying on enthusiastic volunteers. But the publication quickly gained a small but loyal following over the years, as readers started contributing with their own comics on both lighthearted and serious topics and joining as editors.

An interrogation

In early 2010, Omar, Hatem and Fdz were summoned together to General Security, one of Lebanon’s intelligence and security agencies. “We had no idea what we were being called in for; we thought it was about the magazine license, administrative or bureaucratic stuff,” Omar says. “So we went and they took us in one by one, and they wouldn’t tell us what was going on. When Hatem went in there, we could hear some yelling about Jesus. And we thought: ‘This doesn’t sound like what we thought this was about.’”

The seventh issue of Samandal had been released a few months prior in December 2009. As it turned out, two comics had caught the eye of a religious media watchdog. The first one, by regular contributor and editor Lena Merhej, interpreted popular Lebanese expressions literally in the form of recipes. One of them was the insult yahraq dinak – the English translation of which, “may your religion burn,” fails to convey the full thrust of the meaning – and showed religious figures being set on fire.

The other, by Belgian artist Valfret, told the story of a closeted gay Roman centurion who, after killing one of his lovers in a fit of rage, blamed the murder on a random Christian man. The last panel of the comic shows the Roman centurion standing in front of the crucified Christian and tauntingly thinking “You’re the homo” in French.

These panels from the two comics, the watchdog claimed, were violently sectarian. Thanks to its contacts within the Lebanese government, the religious organisation officially filed a complaint; Omar, Hatem and Fdz were going to be tried for inciting sectarian strife, denigrating religion, false reporting and slander. The three men were stunned, but the substantiality of the case barely mattered anymore – the bureaucratic machine was already set in motion.

Sectarianism is in the eye of the beholder

The intended meaning of the comics was of little importance compared to the meaning perceived by the authorities. “They show you and explain, and you’re like, ‘Oh my God.’ You have to do the mental yoga to understand how they’re seeing it,” Fdz says.

The context of the final panel of the Roman comic didn’t matter, as the crucified figure was seen by the accusers as being Jesus instead of a nameless Christian character. Therefore, they argued, Samandal was slandering Jesus by saying he was gay.

“Jesus and the word ‘gay’ appearing on the same page, they really couldn’t take that,” Omar recalls from the interrogation. “They said, ‘Well you know that in print law you’re not allowed to say bad things about religion,’ but that’s open to interpretation. Saying something bad is different to me than it is to you. [They asked,] ‘Well you don’t think that calling Jesus homosexual is bad?’ No, of course I don’t. Somebody calling somebody homosexual is not wrong to me.”

The fact that one of the comics was merely illustrating a common Lebanese insult didn’t matter either. What did matter was that it had come out in the wake of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons controversy of 2005 and 2006.

“They asked us, ‘Who paid you to make these comics? Is it some kind of Muslim group paying you to get back at Christians for the Muhammad drawings in Denmark?’” Omar says. “They thought we were politically being used to get back at the Christian community.”

The amalgam between the Muhammad cartoons and Samandal was in part amplified by the very medium of comics.

“We always thought we could get away with stuff because it’s a comic. And this goes against our mission statement, where we said that comics are not for kids, but at the same time we thought ‘they think comics are for kids,’” Fdz says, laughing.

“The problem was that […] someone was trying to build a ridiculous case as if this was payback for the Danish Muhammad cartoons and that we were striking back by doing comics about Jesus. So that didn’t help, it being comics. If you just took a sentence out of a book, even the sleepiest judge would say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s completely taken out of context.’ But it definitely didn’t help that it was a comic, that it was this French thing that nobody knew how to read.”

“In the end, this [censorship] happens in every medium,” Fdz continues. “This happens in books, this happens in magazines, this happens in newspapers. It’s really about what political clout you have [to say what you want], and I guess comics don’t have political clout here.”

The “public good” versus Samandal

Omar, Hatem and Fdz were sued, instead of the publication Samandal as a whole, or the artists who penned the two comics. The reasons behind picking these three editors to prosecute remains a mystery – Omar hadn’t contributed to that specific issue as an editor, and saw one of the offending comics for the first time while he was being interrogated.

“I was on break from Samandal, so I hadn’t even read all the comics yet,” Omar remembers. “It completely took me by surprise, and I had to stall when they asked me about it until I could think of something.”

Their names were seemingly picked at random from the list of contributing editors, surprising even the judges involved in the case, one of whom later asked them: “Why are you guys here?”

“They literally said that [Omar, Hatem and Fdz] were not the main people responsible for publication,” recalls Rana Saghieh, who was one of the defense attorneys for the Samandal three. “Why, if they were not directly responsible for publication, would they be tried and be the only ones tried? It was very deliberate and arbitrary. We raised this issue, but all [the court] said is that they knew ahead of publication and they should have stopped it.”

Just as confounding as why these three men were chosen to be tried was that the state sued them in the name of “the public good.” What was “public good” supposed to mean in this context? Who was being harmed by these comics? Who was being incited to sectarianism? Who was the state trying to protect with this trial?

“Sectarian strife in itself is not one comic. Sectarian strife is when there is a real damage to society, a real provocation to violence and hate,” Saghieh says. “It wasn’t decided by a referendum that this comic really hurt the feelings of the Christian people of the Middle East. Any person can’t just say, ‘I am a Christian and this hurt me,’ and have this mean that these guys did something very hurtful to their country and wanted to start sectarian conflict. It’s very exaggerated.”

The case was so flimsy, the indictment so arbitrary, that the three Samandal editors felt that they could take it to trial instead of using personal connections to erase the charges.

“We didn’t want to play the wasta card and ask people to make it go away, though many people offered,” Omar says, using the Arabic word for personal connections and, by extension, nepotism. “But then we would have been doing the very same thing that they’re doing, and I just don’t like that. I still stand by that, firmly.”

“Our lawyer had told us that this was just capriciousness and due process, that [we] probably could use wasta to make it go away, but that [we] were publishers now and that it was [our] freedom of speech being encroached on,” Fdz remembers. “These people had no case. We thought that if we went to court, we would win.”

The trial took five years, with long stretches of inactivity during which the trio thought they might be off the hook. But in March 2015, the sentence came down like an axe: Omar, Hatem and Fdz were found guilty and ordered to pay 10 million Lebanese pounds ($6,600) each, one of the highest fines a Lebanese publications court can demand.

“It would disappear in the annals of the judiciary, they would take breaks for years on end, and then suddenly there was a snap decision and we lost the case,” Fdz says. “I heard nothing from the prosecution [during the trial]. [One of our lawyers] Nizar Saghieh would go up and make this impassioned speech and make this great case, and the prosecution would say, ‘No, we disagree,’ and that’s it. That was their case.”

“We didn’t really get to appear in front of the court,” Omar adds. “They refused to give us the right to talk to the judge and explain our point of view […] We passed in front of three judges, and every one of them would say, ‘This doesn’t sound right.’ We’d then go away feeling good because our case was perfect, our lawyers were really good […] At the appeal [in April 2015], they wouldn’t even reduce our sentence.”

In hindsight, Fdz admits he was a little naïve.

“I realise now that we were playing their own game. We thought, ‘Let’s take this to court,’ thinking this was a place where we could stand a chance, but that was silly. This is why everyone uses wasta, because there is no legal system; it’s completely politicised and it’s completely bent out of shape,” he says.

“I have no idea why they decided to go ahead with the case. I really think it was just the machinery of bureaucracy grinding on, and nobody really wanting to take a position,” Fdz adds. “I think in the end, there’s pressure put on the legal system. Those who dealt with our case would think, ‘Well, there’s three guys with no political cover, and there’s the Church. Who am I going to upset more?’”

Unfortunately for the Samandal teammates, retribution did not stop there. Unbeknownst to them, General Security circulated a “memo of subjugation” against the three men, an unofficial document encouraging the state organ to obstruct basic bureaucratic processes they undertook.

“It’s unannounced; nobody’s allowed to know this exists,” Omar says. “Because it’s not enough to go after our money, they wanted to go after our sanity as well.”

They only found out this memo of subjugation existed when Fdz tried to renew his passport to attend a comics workshop in Bulgaria. Instead of taking a couple of days as usual, General Security held his passport for several months, forcing him to cancel his trip.

Who owns speech?

The fallout of the trial illustrated yet again something far too many victims of censorship already knew: that while free speech might be celebrated as a universal ideal, in practice, authorities maintain control over certain types of language. In a country where sectarian speech has been used and abused by political figures to divvy up control of the population based on religion, it comes as quite a bittersweet irony that the mention of religion in a small comic publication would provoke such a reaction from the Lebanese state.

“It was referred by the Ministry of Information to the Ministry of Justice, but they didn’t even mention who were the personalities who were so upset about the comics,” Saghieh says, noting that the individuals behind the initial complaint to the Ministry of Information remain unknown.

The development of the case seems to baffle even some of those who instigated the lawsuit. Tarek Mitri, the then-minister of information, was the one who signed a letter to the Ministry of Justice in 2010, calling for the ministry to “take the necessary measures required by law” against Samandal. His involvement in the case seemed odd given Mitri’s reputation as a protector of free speech. Now, Mitri says he does not remember signing the letter, although he does not deny having done so.

“I have no recollection of this story. I could have ‘censored’ and prevented the distribution of the publication, or removed its [publication] permit. I didn’t do so because I didn’t want to be a censor,” Mitri says. “Their problem is with justice. Lebanese law, like most laws, imposes limits on freedom of opinion. We would gain much from having a better law.”

It is a bitter pill to swallow for the Samandal defendants – knowing that the letter that would lead to half a decade of legal turmoil was seemingly so insignificant as to have been forgotten by the person who signed it.

For Rana Saghieh, the trial came at a time when religion was a particularly touchy subject in Lebanon.

“Whenever there’s disorder in the country, religious sensitivities become a priority all of a sudden and no one should disturb the equilibrium,” she notes. “Samandal wasn’t taken lightly by the court at all, which means religious sensitivities were very much accepted and respected by the court, and they did not have much tolerance in this regard.”

Lawsuits like this one, in effect, are about reclaiming this language as belonging to those in power, instead of letting ordinary citizens redefine the public discussion on religion on their own terms.

“As soon as you tag something as religion, no one can talk about it […] As if it’s not part of everyone’s lives and something they live every day! It’s just off limits,” Fdz says indignantly. “It’s really a complete monopoly on public discourse, a monopoly on that [sectarian] discourse. They are saying, ‘We can use it, but you can’t.’”

“I don’t think it has to do with their unfamiliarity with reading comics and the language of comics,” Omar asserts. “But just by saying anything about religion, they thought, ‘We have to show them that we’re strong, that they can’t say that shit.’”

The crackdown on Samandal and other publications and artists in Lebanon over the years could very well have a chilling effect on people considering discussing topics as taboo as religion.

“We are afraid this could constitute prior censorship and self-censorship,” Saghieh says gravely. “Because when you know that you could be fined $20,000, you will think a lot before publishing something like this. The problem with this precedent is the self-censorship of artists. We’re afraid of this, especially because what is always requested is that the judge should make this balance between freedom of conscience […] and freedom of expression.”

“When you put further constraints on freedom of expression, you should have serious reasons to do so,” she adds. “Sensitivities to some comics don’t justify such a harsh sentence. The judge should make this balance to decide which is more dangerous: to hurt the feelings of some Christian personalities […] or the consequences [for] artistic freedom in particular and freedom of expression in general.”

Fdz also sees the dangers of the trial beyond the consequences that befell him and his friends.

“I think there’s a lot of self-censorship that happens. You have to think: ‘Do I have the political cover to say that? Do I have friends in high places who can cover me?’” Fdz says. “This really is the worst thing, when you’ve internalised this apathy and fatalism.”

For Saghieh, the Samandal case is illustrative of a judicial system that could, but doesn’t always, choose to fight for freedom of expression.

“The publications law in Lebanon is old, definitely, and reform is a necessity. But at the same time, we have a responsibility as lawyers and judges to contribute to this kind of legal reform, and not just sit and wait for the reform from the government,” she says. “We can do a lot even within the scope of the current law on the concepts of freedom of expression, freedom of conscience [and] the problems with censorship.”

Stranger than fiction

In a story so replete with absurdity, the cherry on the cake remains that the controversial issue of Samandal had received financial backing from the Ministry of Culture as part of Beirut’s stint as world capital of books in 2009.

“I’m sure nobody cares about the irony in that,” Omar notes sardonically.

But in spite of it all, the trial has not discouraged Samandal from pushing forward, although the aftermath of the events took its toll on the team.

“When we lost the case, we wanted to take the comics to a square in Downtown and set them on fire,” Fdz remembers. “We had never made any money from this; this was always done for the love of comics. So that after all of that, that we had to pay 10 million [Lebanese pounds] out of our pocket was such a slap in the face. We thought: ‘You know what? Here’s what you want, a giant bonfire of comics.’ I think this was our darkest hour. But after that we thought that actually, the best thing to do was the opposite: make more Samandals. We think the best form of resistance is to not let the magazine sink.”

On October 31, 2015, Samandal launched a two-month fundraising campaign to fund new issues of the magazine, as a way to reassert their stance against censorship as well as to publicly shed light on the legal quagmire they found themselves in for five long years. Unfortunately, they were only able to reach half of the amount they were hoping to gather.

“I was always against making a big stink about it,” Omar says. “But we were sentenced in the name of the people, so people need to know what is being done in their name.”

Chloé Benoist is a French journalist who spent four years in Lebanon and currently lives in the West Bank. She writes mainly about politics and social issues.