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LEBANON: Jesus, Nasrallah and Barbie raise eyebrows

November 10, 2008 |  7:37 am

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Whether Shiites or Christians, the Lebanese adore icons representing their revered religious figures. Statues of Jesus Christ or posters of Hezbollah’s popular leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, are common sights on the streets of Beirut.

But playing around with religious icons, even for the sake of art, is seriously frowned upon.

Last week, some photos were abruptly removed from an exhibition by Lebanese artist and filmmaker Jocelyne Saab. One of the censored photos depict images of Nasrallah and the Christ on a crucifix along with undressed Barbie dolls in the background. 

The exhibition, “Sense, Icons and Sensibility,” held at an art gallery in downtown Beirut, tackles the change in habits and cultural characteristics of Arab societies as well as the Arab world’s vision of the West.

On the day of the exhibition’s opening, Saab, 59, had all her photographs displayed in their place as planned. No one uttered any objection to the artwork at the inauguration, which was attended by around 200 people, including journalists, photographers and officials from the Culture Ministry, Nasri N. Sayegh, Saab’s spokesperson, told the Los Angeles Times. 

The next morning, to Saab’s dismay, the director of the art center decided to remove a photograph showing Nasrallah and the Christ, entitled “Israeli-American playground.”

Saab defended her artwork in an interview with AFP:

"I wasn't looking to provoke or shock anyone. ... This piece symbolizes a cemetery and says that Americans and Israelis use us as a playground. It is a call for us to be vigilant and to cohabitate rather than a call to divide and insult."

Later, the company that owns the art space removed nine other photographs, including one depicting Barbie dolls wrapped in Iraqi currency and bearing the image of Saddam Hussein and another of a Barbie with green hair representing the Virgin Mary.

Sayegh said that there was no clear official decision to censor the exhibition but that the owners of the gallery acted out of fear that the photos would “create sectarian strife.”

“It is sad that the Lebanese are still driven by fear,” Sayegh said. “The artist was inviting the Lebanese to think all together collectively and not provoke anybody.”

Neither Hezbollah nor the Christian leaders have voiced objection to the photos in question. 

This is not the first time that Saab’s work created controversy. Her latest movie, “Dunia, Kiss Me Not On The Eyes,” was the subject of heated debates in Egypt for touching on the taboo issue of female genital mutilation, still common in some Arab countries.

The Lebanese English-language electronic daily, Now Lebanon, called the censorship "shameful":

"No one is suggesting that Barbie is sacred. But the removal of images of the long-legged incarnation of unrealistic beauty from the walls of a Beirut art gallery this week struck a blow against freedom, culture and mutual understanding. ... Art should be a forum for debate and discussion in a healthy society."

Although freedom of artistic expression is relatively respected in Lebanon, there have been violent reactions in the past few years to artistic depiction of religious figures. In June 2006, a mob of Shiite Hezbollah supporters burned tires and blocked roads to protest a satirical television program that mocked the group’s leader.

-- Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photo: A photograph taken by Lebanese filmmaker Jocelyne Saab, entitled "American-Israeli Playground," features Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah alongside Christ on a crucifix. Pictures deemed controversial were removed from Saab's "Senses, Icons and Sensitivity" exhibition. Credit: Jocelyne Saab / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

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