Celebrated singer and composer Marcel Khalife, who has spent over a quarter of a century singing for Lebanon, the Palestinian cause and the Arab world, will go to trial in November on charges of "defaming" Islam by setting to music a poem that includes a quote from the Koranic account of Joseph.
In early October, criminal charges were filed against Khalife by Beirut's newly appointed Chief Investigating Magistrate, Abdel-Rahman Chehab. He called for a sentence of six months to three years on charges of "disrespecting" a religious text.
With a trial date set for November 3, Khalife has vowed to explain and defend his views in court, and has urged journalists and intellectuals to attend. Staunchly maintaining his innocence, he told the Daily Star "I'm ready for all possibilities. I'll go to prison if I have to. But I insist that I did not do anything wrong." His defense team is led by Abdel-Salam Shuaib, head of the Committee for Defending Public Freedoms and Human Rights, and more than 100 lawyers have volunteered to defend him.
The charges stem from a complaint about the lyrics to the song "Oh My Father, I am Yusif," lyrics written as a poem by Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish and published in 1992 (see poem on page 16). Khalife set it to music and recorded it on a 1995 album titled "Arabic Coffeepot" ("Rakwat Arab"). The lyrics include a quote inspired by the Koranic version of Joseph, a figure mentioned in both the Koran and the Bible; the lyrics compare Joseph's suffering to that of the Palestinians.
The opening lines of the song proclaim, "Father, my brothers do not love me. They do not want me among them, Father. They attack me and throw stones and words at me."
This is not the first time charges have been brought against Khalife for this song. The case originally began in September 1996, when a similar lawsuit was filed. Those judicial proceedings were stopped, reportedly on orders from then-Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri in the wake of widespread protests and a campaign organized by Lebanese intellectuals. (see Al Jadid, Vol. 2, no. 11, September 1996).
According to press reports, the case was revived in response to a complaint from the Dar Al Fatwa, the highest Sunni Muslim authority in Lebanon, which issued a statement saying that the use of a Koranic verse was only permitted in sermons, speeches, praises of God and forms of scientific studies or instructive literature.
Lebanon's top Sunni cleric, Sheikh Mohammad Qabbani, was quoted as saying he welcomed the case against Khalife, pointing to a decree issued by the highest Sunni authority, Al-Azhar in Egypt, forbidding any musical arrangement of a Koranic verse.
However, the Higher Shiite Council, while issuing a statement that Islamic law does not allow verses from the Koran to be included in popular songs, disagreed with the push to try Khalife for blasphemy. The head of the HSC, Sheikh Mohammed Mehdi Shamseddine, explained, "Our job as religious leaders is to issue religious rulings only."
Muslim leader Mohammad Hassan al-Amin, an assistant judge at a Supreme Shiite religious court, pointed out that Koranic text has been the inspiration for Arabic poetry and literature since the beginning of the Muslim era.
Khalife himself maintains that the allegedly incriminating phrase was not a verse from the Koran, but a poet's interpretation of the Koranic verse, a common phenomenon in Arab literature. (The phrase in question was: "Of eleven planets, I dreamt, and of the sun and the moon all kneeling before me.")
Khalife is surprised the case has been revived, and he told Al Hayat, a London-based Arabic-language daily, that many Muslim clerics had liked the text of the song. The Daily Star reported that Khalife claims that he has never hurt religious sensitivities, and certainly did not mean to in this song. "It was difficult for me to exclude this beautiful paragraph from the song," he said, and then added that he was against all forms of sectarianism.
Meanwhile, voices rise in protest of the charges and in support of Khalife. Protesters include Lebanese political leaders, in and out of government, and of all political persuasions.
Human rights watchdog Amnesty International called upon the Lebanese government to drop blasphemy charges against composer Marcel Khalife, and described his trial as a "gross infringement of his right to freedom of expression and a violation of ... civil and political rights." The Lebanese government, the Amnesty report says, "must uphold freedom of expression and allow Mr. Khalife to exercise, freely and without fear, his right to freedom of expression and opinion."
Lebanese intellectuals organized a meeting in support of Khalife on October 5, which rapidly turned into a mass rally of 1,500 people demonstrating in favor of freedom of expression. Elias Khoury, editor-in-chief of a weekly supplement in An Nahar newspaper, was one of the organizers of this event. "We will never accept Beirut falling back into obscurantism and becoming a city without liberty like other Arab cities," he told Agence France Press. "This decision is bewildering, and is even more curious when Beirut has been declared the Arab cultural capital of the year. We will not accept such threats to Lebanese culture," he concluded.
The strongest indictments have been coming from leading Arab intellectuals, ranging from Adonis to Mahmoud Darwish. (Translations of some of these protests can be found in this issue, pp. 8-9).
The Paris-based Lebanese Cultural Forum organized a meeting in solidarity with Marcel Khalife and in defense of freedom in the Arab world. The event, which was held in the House of World Cultures on October 14, included Adonis and many other prominent Arab intellectuals. "This moment reveals the abyss into which the Arabs are being pushed," Adonis said, in addressing the meeting. "At this critical juncture of human history, the earth and heaven alike are hostage to political and personal agendas. As land becomes personal property to those controlling it, extremist religious leaders increasingly "own" heaven. The religious leaders enter into perfect agreement with politicians, although on the outside they may appear to be at odds with each other."
Mahmoud Darwish, the author of the lyrics at the center of the controversy, sent a letter to those assembled in the House of World Cultures, in which he stated, "I am sad and in pain to see an artist like Marcel Khalife tried. Khalife wanted to express the essence of oppression and injustice through a poem accompanied by oud." Darwish wondered whether adopting Koranic verses to express oppression was now in the same category as moral offenses. "This is disgraceful and shameful, and one cannot doubt that there is a suspicious campaign against creativity, as if it has become the equivalent of infidelity in the Arab world. I am distressed about this course of events which is dragging our world to rock-bottom."
Through a statement read in his name, Salah Staytieh, a French-Lebanese poet, warned the same audience that "our silence could become the silence of the Arab world, where the night descends on all; and I want to remind the rulers everywhere that freedom is the salt of the people, and the silence of the people is thunder."
What Lebanon is doing to Marcel Khalife is setting a "dangerous precedent that awaits all of us," according to Wasini al-Arajj, a noted Algerian novelist and critic. Khalife's case, for al-Arajj, is another in a recent series of repressive moves targeted at intellectuals, including Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid and Mohammad Shukri.
Kassem Haddad, a poet from the Gulf, wrote an essay in the Kuwaiti daily Al Qabas, defending Khalife and telling him, "You are Yusif and your brothers are many."
The indictment, Haddad writes, "amounts to doubt in the bright moonlight that overcomes our gloomy nights... Why would some think that we in this world who have nothing left except songs will surrender our right to singing (in all its forms)?" The target is not the song, Haddad adds, but rather the singer himself, as censorship targets not the text, but the poet himself, "As if they are building for us the dark future they see fit."
Kamil Dagher, Lebanese writer and attorney, characterizes the current campaign against civil liberties as "salafi repression." In the Lebanese daily As Safir, he challenges the case against Khalife at both the legal and the political level. Any jurist who closely examines the indictment against Khalife, Dagher writes, will find how "weak" the case is, how remote from justice and from the "search for truth." He said that one might even conclude that it was fabricated as a strategic move in the power struggles of various political factions. It is not Khalife who, through his music, offends religious feelings, Dagher writes; rather, it is those who are taking Khalife to court and who are inciting sectarian differences in Lebanon. It is they who should be brought to justice.
Cognizant of the sensitive and delicate sectarian balance in Lebanon, Dagher warned against making the traditions and norms of any religion the basis for the country's constitution, or even the basis of "strict laws not to be violated," as Khalife's indictment suggests.
Jabber Asfour, a preeminent intellectual, novelist, critic, essayist, and editor-in-chief of the Egyptian journal Fusul, finds the enemies of intellectuals and artists in both the religious forces hostile to civil society, who falsely justifying their terror in the name of religion, and in the institutions of civil government, which are penetrated and exploited by extremist groups.
What is happening to Khalife in Lebanon, Asfour wrote in his regular column in Al Hayat, is part of a long campaign, signaling a shift from rhetorical violence-labeling those with whom the extremists disagree as blasphemous-into the practice of actual violence. This campaign began with the assassination of the Algerian playwright Abed al-Qader Aloula, but has also included, Asfour said, the assassination of the secular author Farag Fouda in Egypt, an assassination attempt against Mukaram Mohammed Ahmad, the editor of the Egyptian Musawar magazine, and the stabbing of the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Since the list of artists and intellectuals under attack by both government and extremists are numerous, Asfour finds the case against Khalife part of a trend rather than an isolated development.
Although many governments in the Arab world consider themselves civil, they have adopted a neutral policy toward violence visited upon intellectuals and artists by religious groups. The governments would only violate this neutrality when the threat is directed at the state itself. Asfour claims this policy has resulted in an increase in violent and non-violent attacks, such as taking intellectuals to "courts which belong to a judicial system that forgot its civility, or issue verdicts from biased judges."
This article appeared in Vol. 5, no. 28 (Summer 1999).
Copyright © 1999 by Al JadidAir Jordan I Low