Why Those Who Insult Istanbul’s Victims Should Always Be Challenged, Not Ignored

I never thought that we, as a country first and foremost and as a region in the grander scheme of things, would so grossly disagree about our characterization of the victims of the Istanbul attacks. I’m not talking about whether they are martyrs or victims, but about people who are so full of hate that not only do they not mourn but believe others should not mourn too.

Those people have forsaken every ounce of humanity and turned the barbaric deaths of innocents as yet another event to correlate with their religious, sectarian or even political discourse.

Ramzi El Kadi & Huffington Post Arabi:

Earlier yesterday, I posted screengrabs from a Twitter account by someone named Ramzi Al Kadi on my blog’s Facebook page. Soon enough, the story was picked up by news outlets and it went viral.

Within minutes, Al Kadi was being called all kinds of names as if he were the only entity in this country and region regurgitating that horrifying word-vomit. Some were attacking the way he looked, digging through his entire online history and bringing it back to haunt him.

El Kadi had said he did not want to mourn the victims. He thought what happened to them was well-deserved given that they were at a night club, which is in his opinion is a disgrace of a place. To him, the victims – Rita, Elias and Haykal – were nothing more than sinners who had it coming for wanting to have fun at a “whore house.”

Unfortunately, Al-Kadi isn’t a lone example. You only need to head to Huffington Post Arabi’s Facebook page to see the exact same rhetoric being spewed by Arabs in the comments section. In an article posted by the page about Lebanese victim Rita El Chami, the comments ranged from those who were sympathetic to her sacrifice, calling her a hero, to those – like Al Kadi – who saw her as nothing more than – again, I quote – “a whore” for partying the end of the year away, wishing that she’d “go to hell.”

The debate in Saudi Arabia about the Istanbul attacks isn’t about their dead, but about whether they were at a nightclub or a restaurant, because that makes a difference in how their death is perceived. Palestinian victim Leanne Nasser is suffering from the same discourse back home: whether it was appropriate of her to go party the night away. It was her first trip abroad.

To note, Ramzi Al Kadi is saying his Twitter account was hacked. I don’t see why given there’s no value in hacking an account with 200 followers, but it’s a statement to be conveyed. Ramzi has since been arrested in order for his tweets to be investigated, which – regardless of how disgusting what his tweets were – is not something we should accept. Being an asshole is not a crime.

Hassan Hamzeh & Politics:

 

Al Manar reporter Hassan Hamzeh decided to insult the victims of Istanbul’s terrorist attacks from a different perspective. To him, this was pure politics. Being a Hezbollah supporter, he saw the attacks on Istanbul as nothing more than a chance for him to gloat in revenge and spite.

“Istanbul is paying the price it should pay” he tweeted. He then followed it up with: “Istanbul should pay more,” before concluding with: “Erdogan, you reap what you sow.”

To Hassan Hamzeh, the victims from all backgrounds are nothing more than pawns in his party’s political game, their entire lives and families and loved ones be damned as long as he can be satisfied that a city and a country he despises are being broken like this.

Other politically-charged social media users were annoyed at how the victims of Istanbul’s attacks were being called martyrs compared to others who “didn’t sacrifice their lives at a nightclub,” as if the location of where you are brutally killed has some bearing over the worth of your life and death.

While the Lebanese government flexed its muscles with helpless people like Al-Kadi, Hassan Hamzeh – with his political backbone – is still at large, free to roam and tweet more hateful things because he’s untouchable.

Why We Should Speak Up:

Regardless of where people die because of such vicious attacks – whether at a club, a brothel, church or Mosque – the sanctity of death should be respected. You have to be at a whole other level of deplorable to disrespect the passing of people whose only fault was being at the wrong place at the wrong time because you don’t like where they were or what they were doing.

When I first posted Ramzi Al-Kadi’s screenshots, people said that giving people like him such exposure makes them feel important and gives them power, that their negativity had no place in times of mourning. I disagree.

The best way for hate and bigotry to prosper is for them to run unchecked for a lifetime. The more we stay silent, the more we let such horrors fester in the minds and souls of those who are most susceptible, and the more Ramzis and Hassans we will have to deal with later on.

Our bubble as millennials or liberals has gotten us to think that the majority of people share our views and as such most will find the words of Ramzi or Hassan as abhorrent as we do, and that might be the case with many, but today’s world is far from being one where we can remain silent to people who insult victims just because they can.

Staying silent to people like all of those who insulted the victims of the Istanbul attacks in LaReina has a lot to do with why we are dealing with entities like Trump, Le Pen, Brexit and a rising trend in right wing extremism all around the world, why we are reeling from the effects of living in a post-truth existence where facts have become matters of opinion for many.

There remains a huge populace that lives among us that believes in what Ramzi Al-Kadi said, without them proclaiming it. We live in a conservative Arab world where it’s very easy to forget, as the only people we talk to are those who think like us, that there are those beyond our walls who believe that nightclubs are abominations, that those who frequent them are sinners and that those who die there should not be mourned.

Those people you want us to ignore are voters, influencers, mothers and fathers. We can’t repress them into a basket to be tucked away just because we feel like the higher road is the better road. To drive our society forward, those people’s ideas – not the way they look as many have criticized Ramzi – should always be challenged. We can’t shy away from the ideological debate taking place wherever we roam for fear of the challenge, or of upsetting others and ourselves.

Ramzi Al-Kadi and those who think like him think their ideas and beliefs are as valid, and should be applied on a more grander scale than just tweets or Facebook comments. To better our societies, we can’t just dismiss those ideas outright just because they’re horrifying. We have to listen, criticize, challenge the core of their thoughts.

The cycle of us versus them will never end if we stay silent and let the cycle perpetuate without breaking it. It’s easier to imagine “them” as enemies who hate the way we live no matter what. But “they” are victims of ideas that have been entrenched in their minds for years, and those ideas can be beaten if we take up the mantle of the fight.

Dear Lebanon, Your Dignity Has More To Worry About Than a Facebook Status

A few days ago, a Lebanese journalist named Bassel Al Amin wrote a Facebook status that saw him thrown in jail. You’d never hear of such a sentence in any “civilized” country around the world, regardless of the content of said Facebook status, but here we are.

amin-1

It translates to:

“The shoe of the Syrian refugee and worker and citizen is worth more than your Republic, your cedar, your Lebanon, your right-wing, independence, your government, history, revolution, and presidents. Do you get it?”

Many journalists and activists have risen up to defend Al Amin with the hashtag: A status is not a crime. Of course, many others have also taken up the anti-Al-Amin camp with their proclamation, such as MTV in this piece of theirs, that – and I quote:

“We are faced with a segment of the population that wants to say what it pleases, whenever it pleases. It’s a segment that is completely in refusal of everything and doesn’t hesitate to insult our nation and express an opinion that should never ever transgress on the dignity of our country and our citizens. And even if what Al Amin wrote expresses the opinion of some people, then those should relinquish their Lebanese nationality.”

Let’s put it out there. What Al Amin said is nauseating. You can criticize anything you want about the country in any way that you like, and if you read my blog you’d know there’s nothing I like more than that, but I find that reverting to insults or derogatory rhetoric to get a point across takes away of the point you are making.

That said, let me put this out there as well: it is Bassel Al Amin’s right to say whatever he wants to say about anything that he wants, Lebanese Republic and presidents and politicians and botany, and still not be thrown in jail because of it.

The moment we start to limit what we are allowed and not allowed to say, we give our government and every censorship bureau out there a more than open occasion into further limiting the scope of what we can say in absolute terms. How long would it be, if we stay silent about the arrest of a Lebanese citizen because of a Facebook status, before our own statuses and tweets and even words on the street that we say to friends become the subject of lawsuits or arrests because someone with political or legal muscle decided they were “offensive” or “illegal?””

MTV may not like this, given their categorization of our segment of the population as one that wants to say “whatever it wants whenever it pleases,” but that is actually our right. I am supposed to be able to say whatever I want, whenever I want, and however I want, and you, MTV and those who believe in what it has said, are just supposed to deal with it in the multiple of ways that you can do so with, beginning with actually debating what I have to say and not stringing up poetic language to show people how my opinion or even my formulation of an opinion is a horrific act.

Lawyers across the country have agreed that Bassel Al Amin’s words are not, in fact, legal. However, a law existing does not mean the law is right. To note, Lebanon’s penal code has article 522 which allows a rapist to be absolved of his crime if he marries the woman he raped. The Lebanese penal code also has article 534 which bans “sexual acts contrary to nature,” an article that was used quite proficiently by Lebanon’s authorities on some occasions to arrest LGBT people.

The arrest of Al-Amin is also as hypocritical as it can get. A few years ago, Jean Assy, a prominent FPM supporter, went on a Twitter tirade against the former (then current) Lebanese president Michel Sleiman, leading to his arrest – albeit for very limited time. Gebran Bassil, son in law and politician galore of current Lebanese president, tweeted the following back then:

gerban-bassil-tweet

Perhaps tweeting and Facebooking is only a crime when it touches upon your president or your own political party?

This whole talk about national “dignity” being represented in the most mundane of things – tweets, statuses, what have you – reminds me of a debate the United States was having when I was there a few days ago.

When Donald Trump (cringes) tweeted (cringes again) that he was going to prosecute and/or take away the American nationality from everyone who burned the American flag, the US was divided. What was a fact, regardless of what Trump and his supporters wanted, was that the burning of the American flag was a protected act under the first amendment of the United States constitution, which guaranteers freedom of expression, therefore turning the burning of a flag – arguably one of the highest insults to a country – as an expression of freedom of speech.

Lebanon, we have a long way to go.

But for those who are worried about their dignity as Lebanese because of a Facebook status, let me remind you of the following:

  1. You do not have 24/7 electricity,
  2. You do not have access to water all the time,
  3. Your internet sucks,
  4. Your security situation is as precarious as it can be,
  5. You need a visa to go to almost anywhere,
  6. Your passport is the most expensive around the world,
  7. You have not voted for parliament since 2009,
  8. You stayed without a president for more than 2 and a half years, after a president that needed more than 8 months of void to be elected,
  9. You literally live in garbage,
  10. Your women can – as of the writing of this post – be raped and then proposed to and everything becomes okay,
  11. Your women cannot pass on their citizenship to their children, something that many of you wholeheartedly agree with,
  12. Your women can be victims of domestic abuse without repercussions.
  13. Your LGBT population’s existence is considered “illegal,”
  14. Your roads are in disrepair,
  15. Your infrastructure is near non-existing,
  16. Many see the country’s worth as contingent upon the well being of their religious sect,
  17. Censorship bureaus decide what you get to be exposed to depending on their whims,
  18. Not having a national budget since 2005?
  19. Your politicians – read Wiam Wahhab – having militias,
  20. The country having militias to begin with,
  21. You getting “SSSS”‘ed at airports just because you’re Lebanese,
  22. You getting secondary interrogations before entering countries even after you’re given a visa because you’re Lebanese,
  23. Smugglers and criminals being arrested and then freed a short while later because you need them to buy cheap phones,
  24. Your very last public beach in Beirut will soon become a resort,
  25. Your entire coast – your public property – is something you need to pay to access (refer to this for comparison),
  26. Your forests are subject to “accidental” fires but their wood ends up in your fireplaces anyway,
  27. Your governmental facilities are among the world’s most corrupt,
  28. You consistently rank among the countries with the least faith in their politicians… but keep on voting for them anyway,
  29. You put curfews for foreigners depending on where they come from,
  30. Your political class is basically warlords.

But yes, please tell me more about how our dignity was irreparably insulted by a Facebook status?

When Gebran Bassil’s Goons Don’t Understand Freedom of Speech

Breaking news: Gebran Bassil turned out to be yet another racist Lebanese politician. I have no idea how this piece of news was in any way a surprise, but over the past few days it’s almost the only thing people are talking about, apart from the fact that our phones now need Maps updates in order to skip the roads where garbage bags have started to take up lanes.

The details are as follows:

A few days ago, Gebran Bassil’s twitter account was quoting a speech he was giving in the United States to an audience of Lebanese expats ($10 says they’re voting for Trump in 49 days). In that speech, Bassil dropped the following:

The speech excerpts translate to:

  • I support giving Lebanese women who marry foreigners the right to pass on their nationality to their children but our constitution and societal fabrics don’t allow to give the Lebanese nationality to 400,000 Palestinians.
  • I support the law that allows Lebanese women to pass on their nationality to their children, with the exception of Syrians and Palestinians to maintain our land.

Of course, it has probably escaped Bassil in that moment that St. Maroun, after whom his sect was named, was Syrian and Jesus, after whom he prays, was Palestinian, but that’s besides the point. Certainly, however, Bassil wouldn’t have had a problem if those Syrians and Palestinians weren’t mostly Muslim. I wonder, how different would his statement have been had those refugees been mostly Christian like him? I can imagine him now, à la Oprah, distributing nationalities left and right: YOU ARE LEBANESE, YOU ARE LEBANESE, YOU AAAAAALL ARE LEBANESE!

Context to Bassil’s tweets, however, remains important. His statements do not come from void. They emanate from a public sentiment that has only managed to gain popularity over the past few years with around 2 million Syrians seeking refuge in Lebanon. Of course, as is the case with Lebanon’s statistics, numbers do not exist. But it wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that Bassil’s speech is not at odds with what the prevalent majority of Christians believes to be true, and a sizable portion of Lebanon’s Muslim community.

Yet again, the sentiment in the aforementioned denominations arise from their incessant need for self-sectarian preservation and are devoid from any national affinity towards a more global Lebanese state. Either way, I digress.

The uproar towards Bassil’s statements has been deafening. Human Rights Watch issued a statement whereby they found what he said to be abhorrent, in contradiction to the international treaties that Lebanon has signed in regards to women rights, and shameful to come from the minister of foreign affairs who is, whether we like it or not, the face of Lebanon to the world. Sorry #LiveLoveBeirut, you’re not it.

A slew of tweets and Facebook posts criticizing Bassil were also widely circulated, of which the satirical Facebook page Adeela led the forefront with a bunch of posts addressing Bassil’s tweets:

Lebanese blogger Mahmoud Ghazayel had a tweet (now deleted) in which he corrected Bassil’s statement to this:

fullsizerender-4

So far so good, right? Except this didn’t remain as just a manifestation of Lebanese online degrees of freedom because before you knew it, the situation – thanks to massive reports by Bassil’s online henchmen – became as follows:

Every single post that criticized Bassil about his racist tweets was removed because of Facebook reports, while the social media platform never bothered to check for the background upon which those reports were being filed in the first place, or the statements being criticized to begin with.

As a result, if you try and say something negative about Bassil’s statements, thousands will end up putting you in Facebook jail for at least 24 hours because you somehow violated the terms of being on that website, by simply expressing an opinion.

Maybe it’s fear of  exposing how ridiculous Bassil’s proposition – even if echoed by many – is. Maybe it’s wanting to keep his image pristine in their eyes, albeit it being irrevocably damaged in the minds of many others. Maybe it’s them wanting to keep a semblance of pride.

What Bassil’s goons seem to fail to grasp is that with every post they manage to bring down, ten more will spring up in their place. As it is their right to believe and want to defend what Bassil said, it is the right of every other Lebanese who categorically and irrevocably disagrees to not only criticize but mock those statements until kingdom come, whether they like it or not.

As the stench of garbage and filth overtakes their nares in every cubic meter of air in Beirut, as they spend countless hours without electricity, as they pray for the heavens for internet to be fast enough to load the images in this post, as they debate whether to flush or not because water is scarce, let them have all of that pride and the politicians whose image they want to keep. Let them have their “holy” land, their “better-than-thou” attitude towards anyone and anything they deem lesser. Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many Facebook reports are issued, common sense will prevail.

PS: Dear Facebook, re-assess yourself, why don’t you? 

Why Michel Aoun Trying To Silence MTV Is Beyond Unacceptable

Welcome to the land of political diarrhea.

A few days ago, Michel Aoun – head of Lebanon’s FPM – called on his supporters to go protest for their Jesus-given Christian rights. Some of those supporters immediately sported orange ribbons across their rearview mirrors, plastered posters on their cars, stood out of windows and took it to the streets.

The following day, a minimal number of those protesters decided to do what they ridiculed the Future Movement for doing back in 2012, and storm the Grand Serail. They failed. Some of Aoun’s MPs were pictured beating on the Lebanese Army – army love is only yet another entity in Lebanon’s spectrum of political diarrhea – and the army was pictured beating on some of Aoun’s protesters. A hilarious press conference, ensued, the highlight of which is the following:

Flash forward a day later, and the politician in question has banned MTV from covering his press conferences and any other political activity related to him in Rabiyeh.

Naturally, MTV replied:

The translation of MTV’s video goes as follows:

And on July 11th, of the year 2015, of the 21st century, Michel Aoun banned MTV from entering the Rabieh paradise. The General of Change & Reform hasn’t changed a thing in his behavior: he’s a military man when he’s supposed to be a politician, and he’s a politician when he’s supposed to be a military man. More than 25 years of this Aounist pattern has gotten Michel Aoun to make politics militia-like, while he’s seeking without success – and thank God for that – to politicize the military. The General is showing us with his stubbornness where he shouldn’t, and in him changing faces where he shouldn’t and in his constant bias to favor what’s specific over what’s general, and in his constant hate for the media, that he is not fit to become president of the republic.

He is always ready, however, to attack the Republic. As a reminder, the General has always resorted to the tactic of “après moi, le déluge.” That is how he ruined the first Republic and brought the Taef agreement on Lebanon’s Christians, and this is how he is now working on ruining the second Republic.

Regardless of how he has benefited from the Taef Agreement until the very last possible benefit that said agreement gave him, building on its ruins the Republic of the son-in-law, the son of the Republic and its president, on the struggles of all of FPM’s activists and their sacrifices. And now that the Taef Agreement has dried up, General Aoun is divisive, federalist, Christian, Syrian, Iranian, petrolic, electric.

You want us to talk to you in your language, and here we are ashamed to do so. A little bit of shame, General. The MTV can survive without you, but you were not alive for over 15 years if MTV hadn’t carried your cause and that of your persecuted activists until its own head was cut. But how can your selective memory remember us when you disowned the best of your army’s officers and your party’s activists, excluding them without batting an eyelid.

How can someone who can’t tolerate a question from a journalist to manage an entire country? If only General Aoun you liked your own activists as much as MTV did, and still does.

It’s a sad, terrifying moment when a Lebanese politician – regardless of who he is – tries to silence any form of media because the questions they’re asking are making him uncomfortable.

 

Michel Aoun is not a lone example of a politician who tried to silence people and media because the challenge got too much to handle. Every single Lebanese political party has a track record of squashing liberties, whether it’s Hezbollah apprehending bloggers when they visit Dahyeh, or the Lebanese Forces suing people for libel whenever Geagea is placed in a sentence, and the examples are endless.

The danger in these examples is that not only are they increasing, they’re also becoming the norm. We get used to our politicians telling us to shut up and stand in a corner. Nay, some people actually applaud a politician when they shout at others.

The country cannot function when our voices are being squashed slowly but surely by those in power, just because they can, after they’ve successfully squashed our democratic right to vote not once, but twice. The country cannot also function when any entity’s freedom of speech is not absolute, but relative and contingent upon that entity’s leanings.

The sadder part is that there are people today that side with their politician of choice in such a power struggle with news corporations, those same people that were complaining not very long ago about having their own freedom of speech squandered, and their liberties trampled on like cockroaches.

Michel Aoun banning MTV from covering him is ridiculous. In this neo-media age, any press conference of his is broadcast for everyone to see, criticize and even – gasp – make fun of. The danger, however, is when those people in power, like Aoun and his friends, think that them being in power places them beyond reproach, beyond critique and beyond questioning.

It is my right as a Lebanese as a Lebanese citizen to ask questions. It is my right as a Lebanese citizen to get answers. It is my right as a Lebanese citizen to challenge those that call themselves my leaders without having my arms bent, twisted and broken. It is my right as a Lebanese person to live in democracy, and democracy cannot prosper in the shadows of a forced silence. It is my right as a Lebanese citizen to be critical, of not being forced to fall in line whenever push comes to shove, of not being co-erced to applaud just because.

No politician in the country has the right to ban any form of news outlet. No politician in the country has the right not to answer a question that bothers them only because that question bothers them. No politician in the country has the right to get away with being a new-age dictator, and get applauded for it by a bunch of “za22ife” that would cheer beyond critique.

I’m not an MTV fan, but Michel Aoun banning them from covering him is disgraceful, disgusting, horrifying. Yet again, this is not unlike Lebanese politicians who think they are God.

PS: This is the same man who is now sporting a crusader flag for Christian rights as his new political existential cause. 

 

 

The Lebanese President & The Arrest of Jean Assy

It was July 2011.

Some local band had their song picked up by Lebanon’s “security” agencies and were investigated regarding its supposedly president-insuling content. Everyone got up in a fit. The law being employed to justify the arrest was an ancient one that forbids Lebanese citizens from insulting the president.

A few hours later, it was our president Michel Sleiman himself who ordered the band be released when he found out they were arrested due to insulting him.

It is now June 2013.

A local activist named Jean Assy, who also happens to be a staunch FPM supporter, is arrested for insulting the president. All hell broke loose on social media. The constitution’s preamble that guaranteers freedom of speech has been quoted so many times that I can almost recite it at this point had I been paying closer attention. Jean Assy will soon be released because these charges never, ever stick. And he will become a local hero for many who are beginning to idolize him.

But is July 2011 similar to June 2013?

I do not follow Jean Assy on Twitter because I mostly disagree with content and find the tone unacceptable. But I occasionally get his tweets retweeted onto my timeline. Is this matter only because he “criticized” the president? I remember seeing many tweets in which the words “president” and “castrated” [in that order] were mentioned. Is that freedom of opinion or is it libel?

20130618-143049.jpg

Is the arrest of Jean Assy warranted? Possibly not. In an ideal situation, I can call my president anything and expect to get away unscathed. But this isn’t an ideal country. In fact, I can barely think of a few things that make standards of life here remotely acceptable. You only need to check the news – word of advice: do not – to know how deep in this hellhole we are. What Jean Assy’s arrest for investigation, however, is not a matter of political rhetorical martyrdom and the Lebanese president turning into a dictator when, for all matters and purposes, the Lebanese president may be perfectly unaware of this even happening and the whole arrest is carried out by some security men with a vendetta under the pretext of a law that needs to be changed and removed.

The other element of the Jean Assy arrest is some prominent FPM politicians running to his rescue with tweets and retweets of their own. I have to ask those politicians: where were you when Hachem Salman was killed at the front doors of the Iranian Embassy? Where are you now that Ramy and Marwa Olleik are forbidden from going back to their hometown due to their threats on their lives? Or are my liberties as a Lebanese contingent upon the political rhetoric they can spark?

It is a sad day when opinionated people get arrested due to silly outdated laws, regardless of how over-the-line those people may have gone. But look at the silver lining: at least Jean Assy has people to watch his back. Many other Lebanese do not.

The Relativity of Freedom of Speech in Lebanon

The last few days have taught me that the statement: “I believe in freedom of speech” has to be amended to become the following: “I believe in freedom of speech as long as I agree with the speech.” Beyond that point of agreement, all bets of civility of discourse are off. Bigot, ignorant, racist, condescending, extremist, hypocrite, illiterate or any derogatory word of choice gets dropped in order to counter a point, regardless of what that point may be.

Santa Muerte, Santa Ejre:

I didn’t want to go over anything related to this issue again. It was blown way out of proportion. But my words were taken out of context. Lebanon’s self-anointed blogging police started to ridicule what I had to offer. Somehow this blog being nominated for Blog of the Year at the Social Media Awards became a mark of shame for some people – as if that changed things. News outlets started contacting me for their stories. And I realized that, even though I had actually blogged about the issue, I had never gotten the chance to say what I had to say for my input was very brief. In spite of the issue being overdone at this point, I believe it is my right to tell my point of view in detail. You may want to read it and you may not but here it goes.

I found Bershka shirt, aptly called shirtgate – the Mexican Embassy IS opening a shrine – offensive. Is it my right to find it offensive? You bet it is. Did I call for the shirt to be banned from Lebanese markets? No. Did I say it wasn’t a person’s right to wear the shirt? No I didn’t.

You don’t need google to consider the shirt offensive. Any person’s first impression of what the shirt says is with what they connect it. I believe it was Descartes’ school of thought which said our perceptions are the actions of our mind on our senses. The actions of your mind come from your previous experiences. When Lebanese people look at that shirt, the first thing they’d see is what they previously know: Mary icons present in churches or homes.

What people don’t seem to get is that people have different red lines whose crossing means getting offended. If people are offended by the shirt, it’s okay. If people are not, it’s okay as well because those people have their own lines as well and if they are crossed then they will bring their own fury to being. What’s not okay is some people calling those who are offended bigots, ignorants, etc… For not being aware of Santa Muerte, which 90% of the Lebanese populace wasn’t even aware of prior to yesterday.

This brings me to another point: Santa Muerte is irrelevant. It is not culturally relevant here and it’s being used to iron out the issue by those who want to portray all religious folk in Lebanon as a bunch of narrow-minded individuals. Is the shirt Santa Muerte? It could be. At least that’s what Bershka said. But it could be Our Lady of Guadelupe as well, which is actually present in many Lebanese churches, one of which is in my hometown which could be why I found the shirt print familiar.

The point is: the fact that Santa Muerte is not something most Lebanese are familiar with means that the shirt will be taken offensively. People do not have to google a shirt print. You judge it based on what you know. As an example, alcohol is allowed in Lebanon but it’s not culturally permitted in Saudi Arabia. Would you walk in their streets with a Jack Daniels shirt? Cow meat is allowed here but it’s not culturally allowed in India… how about a shirt with a burger on it? The list goes on.

You may not want to be culturally limited even if you are aware but what I believe many need to realize is there’s more to the world than the space between them and their computer and Twitter followers and, if a person has a blog, readers. We talk and analyze and extrapolate but the fact of the matter remains that less than a third of the Lebanese population has smartphones and not everyone has access to the internet and not everyone likes to read our English-written blogs. I may not get up in a fit if I see someone wearing that shirt on the street but are you willing to bet no one else would?

Only today, I had my legs crossed at a bank in Tripoli when a man asked me to uncross them because he was offended by my shoes’ sole being in the far corner of his eyesight.

Another important thing to note is that Santa Muerte is not a saint nor is it a holy figure. It’s Mexican folklore. Lebanese people who are not aware of their own folklore are supposed to know international folklores as well now? The Catholic Church of Mexico considers those who worship Santa Muerte as heretics-lite. This may not be relevant to those who don’t care what any religious institution has to say but it does for those who do, of which I am not. But there is another aspect to the conversation that is being disregarded because it doesn’t fit with the perfect Santa Whatever explanation.

After all, why would Mexican relatives of mine find the shirt print offensive if it were all that “innocent?”

Another point being raised is that Bershka is simply bringing in their entire collection to Lebanon, which I find to be non-sensical. Do companies always automatically import everything they make into this country without any form of market study or market appraisal? Any look at the shirt would have sufficed to realize it might cause a backlash among many of their customers. The shirt may have not been brought into the country but the price tag of 49,000LL means there was a will to bring it in.

The bottom line is: both sides of the story have arguments in their favor. It goes down to what you believe in. If you believe holy figures should not be demonized then the shirt offends you. If not, then the shirt will not. But people from both sides attacking each other is unacceptable as I witnessed firsthand with people calling me ignorant, a bigot, condescending and a bunch of other things just for the fun of it.

Ziad el Rahbani vs AUB Students:

Nothing can beat Santa Muerte when it comes to attention over the past few days. But the man of whom I am not a fan Mr. Ziad el Rahbani had an open dialogue session at AUB during which a bunch of attendees protested his political stance against the Syrian revolution and called him out on it.

The interesting part, though, is that I found out about the Ziad el Rahbani protest not from someone who is supportive of those students but one who was absolutely outraged because they made AUB students look like fools in front of such a man. That person, typically, felt it appropriate to call those students every word imaginable from the belt down. And he wasn’t alone at it.

The protesting students had their share of supporters as well who felt what they did was absolutely noble. I am personally with what those students did because it was 1) peaceful, 2) a demonstration of their basic right of free speech and 3) it didn’t interfere with the session’s proceedings.

I believe it is their right to protest in the way that they did. Their right stops in a hypothetical scenario where they wreck the hall or attack Mr. Rahbani himself.

I am personally supportive of what the students did and I commend them on it. But isn’t it the right of both who are against and supportive of Ziad el Rahbani to be heard?

George Abdallah:

On the other side of the political spectrum, many Lebanese are protesting what they are calling the French authorities unjustly keeping Lebanese George Abdallah behind bars. To that extent, they set up protests outside of the French embassy occasionally, most of which were peaceful and only served to prove the point being raised.

I do not agree with the protests, nor do I agree with the whole “unjust imprisonment” idea. But isn’t it their right to voice their disdain of the situation as well without having irrelevant me ridiculing them for it?

Boycotting Guns ‘N Roses, BDS, Israel:

Prior to the Guns ‘N Roses concert in Lebanon, a movement calling to boycott the concert was started. Many Lebanese may have not gone to the concert because of it but many other did. After all, the concert was a success. The boycott call was picked up by many Lebanese and often ridiculed.
The only question that popped in my head was: are they bothering me if they are not attending a concert without calling for the concert to be canceled?
The only answer that answered my question satisfyingly was: no they are not.

So I shrugged it off and didn’t write about it. Let them have their fun. I don’t think we should panic every time an artist who has set foot in Israel decides to hold a concert here. But what if someone wants to have a panic attack because of it? Simply, let them have it.

I draw the line when those movements start expanding to some form of neo-culutral terrorism whereby they get the concert in question to be canceled, the artist to cower from coming over and, sometimes, Lebanese acts to suffer in the process.

The bottom line:

Be it a shirt, a political movement, a concert, a dialogue session or a simple conversation, people are allowed to differ in opinion and have their opinion heard even if others find it subpar, unconvincing or unacceptable. What is becoming clearer to me, however, is that the concept of freedom of speech in Lebanon is relative. You get to enjoy its perks as long as you conform to what the vocal bunch expects of you to write or say.

But you know what, the past few days have also shown me that if being ignorant, a bigot and condescending comprises of what I did, then I am all those three and more and I’m proud of it.

Do you regret the whole Bershka shirt post, I was asked over the past two days. My answer was and will always be: definitely not.

Notta-Bene:

For those who were up in a fit how we weren’t discussing more “relevant” issues in Lebanon today, I invite you to read the following articles which I have written over the past two weeks:

It’s not my problem the only time you read is when a post goes viral enough for you to get a link.

Today… Proud To Be Lebanese.

As I followed my friend’s tweets on what he was going through in Tahrir Square in Egypt, today, I couldn’t help but feel proud to be Lebanese – at least for today.

I’m not going to start embellishing the life we lead in Lebanon for the sake of impressing a reader that might stumble on my blog. But today has proven the vital importance of something we’ve come to take for granted – at least in the last six years. Our freedom of speech.

We have gotten accustomed to saying anything that comes to our mind that we don’t really think about those who cannot do so.

Look at what happened in Egypt today… the government cracked down on those who tried to defy it. A bloodbath ensued in Tahrir Square.

Can you imagine what would have happened if the government cracked down on those that tried to topple it in 2006? They protested and had a two-year long sit in. And no blood was shed because of the protest directly.

Even more so, can you imagine what would have happened if March 14, which is very similar to what happened yesterday, on February 1st, in Egypt, was followed by a similar crackdown by the authorities to the one that took place in Egypt today?

So for all matters and purposes, I am proud to be Lebanese today. I am proud to be able to decide on a cold Wednesday in February to protest against the government and expect no one to beat me up in return. I am proud that I can support causes that most people frown upon and still expect nothing to happen to me. I am proud that I can criticize most top politicians in my country and be able to sleep soundly at night. I am proud to be from the country that is lightyears ahead of the whole region in everything that counts.

So do remember from time to time that there are things more important than super-fast internet, a booming economy and a fragile political peace… sometimes, being free is what matters the most.