Ad Blitz Satirizes Lebanon's Divides

Reem Kotob, left, Manal Naji, and Yasmina Baz conceived the anti-sectarian campaign in the Beirut office of the ad agency. It has been met with mixed reaction.
Reem Kotob, left, Manal Naji, and Yasmina Baz conceived the anti-sectarian campaign in the Beirut office of the ad agency. It has been met with mixed reaction. (By Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 28, 2006

BEIRUT, Nov. 27 -- The evening was tense, as most are these days in Beirut, its Maronite Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Druze perched imprecisely between war and peace. Malak Beydoun, a young woman, pulled her car into a parking lot in the Christian neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh. She peered at a billboard overhead, alarmed and then indignant.

"Parking for Maronites only," it read.

Beydoun recoiled. "How did they know that I was a Shiite?" she remembered asking herself.

Part provocation, part appeal -- with a dose of farce that doesn't feel all that farcical -- advertisements went up this month on 300 billboards across the Lebanese capital and appeared in virtually every newspaper in the country. Thousands of e-mails carried the ads across the Internet to expatriates. Each offered its take on what one of the campaign's creative directors called a country on the verge of "absurdistan" -- cooking lessons by Greek Orthodox, building for sale to Druze, hairstyling by an Armenian Catholic, a fashion agency looking for "a beautiful Shiite face." At the bottom, the ads read in English, "Stop sectarianism before it stops us," or, more bluntly in Arabic, "Citizenship is not sectarianism."

The campaign, designed for free by an ad agency and promoted by a civil society group, has forced Lebanon to look at itself at a time when the country is spiraling into one of its worst political crises in years. The timing was coincidental, the message universal, in a landscape with ever dwindling common ground: The forces that dragged Lebanon into one civil war are threatening another.

Many have praised the ads for asking uncomfortable, even taboo questions about a system in which sectarian affiliation determines everything from the identity of the president to loyalty to sports teams. Some have mistaken the campaign for reality. Across the capital, one in six billboards was torn down, prevented from being put up or splashed with paint, usually the tactic of choice for conservative Muslims irked by lingerie ads.

"They didn't get it," said Fouad Haraki, a 53-year-old shawarma vendor, idly dragging on a cigarette next to a kerosene tank, across the street from billboards that had been defaced. "They just read what was written on top, not what was on the bottom."

The result in his neighborhood, he said, was "a sectarian clamor."

It is almost a cliche that Lebanon is home to 18 religious sects -- from a tiny Jewish community to Shiite Muslims, the country's largest single group. The system that diversity has inspired has delivered minorities a degree of protection unequaled anywhere else in the Arab world. But it has left Lebanon a country where individual rights and identity are subsumed within communities and, by default, the personas of their sometimes feudal leaders, who thrive on that affiliation.

By tradition, the president is Maronite, the prime minister Sunni, the parliament speaker Shiite. Other posts are reserved for Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic and Druze. Boy scouts are organized by community, not country -- the Mahdi Scouts for the Shiites, for instance. Television stations have their own sectarian bent -- the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. for Christians, Future for the Sunnis. Christians are partial to the Sagesse basketball team, Sunnis the Riyadi team. There are even two Armenian soccer teams -- Homenmen and Homenetmen -- one faithful to Armenian leftists, the other to the community's right wing. Before this summer's war, Sunni soccer fans loyal to Ansar brawled in a stadium with Shiite youths loyal to Nijmeh.

The system, known as confessionalism, dates to long before Lebanon's independence in 1943. But there is a growing sense that the decades-old principles underlying Lebanese politics have grown obsolete. In some ways, today's crisis is about the assertion of power -- a coup to its critics -- by the long-disenfranchised Shiite community led by Hezbollah. Hardly anyone can forecast with certainty how the struggle will end, but almost everyone sees it as a turning point, a crisis that intersects raw ambition with ideology, foreign policy, perspective and history, all awash in sectarian combustion.

"This is today a very explosive situation where you have all those sects being triggered, teased and hammered by all their leaders," said Bechara Mouzannar, the regional creative executive director for H&C Leo Burnett in Beirut, which authored this month's ad campaign. He calls himself "a little dazed and confused."

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