No Fun: The Battle over Gad Elmalah

Living in Lebanon is hardly ever boring. Take the soap about bad journalism and French comedian Gad Elmaleh.

The one good thing about living in Lebanon is that it is hardly ever boring. Even if the country is not plagued by war, internal strife or election fever, the Lebanese have no difficulty in finding an issue to disagree about and, thanks to a natural-born love for high drama, happily blow it out of proportion. Indeed, living in Lebanon often resembles the very best and worst of a Mexican soap opera series.

Take the affair featuring French comedian Gad Elmaleh in July 2009. Known as France’s funniest man, this comedian of Jewish-Moroccan descent had agreed to perform his hit one-man show “Papa Est en Haut” on three consecutive nights at the popular Beiteddine Festival. Tickets sold fast and everyone seemed set for a night of French fun in the Chouf Mountains, were it not for Al Manar.

On June 25, the media outlet affiliated with Hezbollah published a photo allegedly showing Elmaleh wearing an Israeli helmet and military outfit. The accompanying text, written by a Hussein Assi, claimed Elmaleh in the 1990s had served four years in the Israeli army fighting in Gaza and Lebanon.

Assi wrote that Elmaleh was a fervent Zionist, as “he had spoken favorably about the Jewish state on several occasions” and “he will arrive to Lebanon on July 12, on the third anniversary (of) the Israeli war against the country.” Assi wondered how such a man could be billed at the Beiteddine Festival.

Now, if the above were true, this would be a legitimate question. But the accusations were immediately denied by Elmaleh’s manager and the festival organizers who claimed the photo had been “doctored.”

Assi admitted in his text that he had simply done a Google search on Elmaleh’s name. The photo stems from an open-source website in France, and thus could have been posted and manipulated by anyone. Still, the photo and article caused such a stir that Elmaleh cancelled the sold-out shows, citing concern for his personal safety.

Contrary to what Assi claims, Elmaleh has Moroccan, French and Canadian passports, yet not an Israeli one. In any case, if one looks at Elmaleh’s biography, one wonders how he could have fought in the Middle East in the 1990s, as he was performing in a series of French plays and films. What? Fighting in the Gaza back streets during the week, hitting the Paris limelight over the weekend?

To illustrate Elmaleh’s alleged Zionist outlook on life, most people, including Assi, refer to a French interview Elmaleh gave following several shows in Jerusalem some two years ago. Asked what he thought of Israel, he replied that life there was about more than the images one sees on TV, and he had advised several friends to go and visit.

He said he especially liked Israel’s most secular city, Tel Aviv, where he has many friends, mainly fellow actors and comedians. He went on to praise the Israeli sense of humor which, according to him, goes 10 times further than what is regarded as acceptable in politically correct Europe.

“Israeli society, if only through the creatively acerbic outlook of its performers, is very healthy, balanced and lively,” Almaleh said in an interview with the French-Israeli magazine guide SVP-Israël. He also told his interviewer he was attached to his roots in Morocco, just as he was to Israel.

Taking into account that an A-list artist like Elmaleh has to walk a tight rope not to politically upset part of his audience, this is hardly the Zionist pep talk Assi accused him off.

Now, in most countries, the people concerned would simply point out the appalling level of journalism and demand a rectification. Not so in Lebanon.

Here, 350 lousy words and a dodgy photo produce a national debate on the verge of hysteria, in which even ministers feel obliged to participate. Al Manar stood accused not of bad journalism, or even slander, but of nothing less than “intellectual terrorism.”

Antoine Courban, reportedly a journalist and professor of medicine and philosophy, circulated a petition on Facebook in support of “cultural diversity and freedom of expression.” According to the up-in-arms Courban, the case against Elmaleh violated Lebanon’s cultural and individual liberties, which constitute “a red line we will always defend,” he wrote on the website.

“We have to be courageous and prepare ourselves psychologically for a long and tiring struggle,” Courban wrote. “If we surrender on issues concerning those fundamental rights, we will end up in a state of barbarism, where cultural production has nothing to do with freedom.”

Personally, I find Courban’s overwhelming use of military metaphors frightening. Secondly, he makes little sense. What are a country’s “cultural liberties?” If he speaks about such a fundamental right as freedom of speech, does that include allowing Assi to write as he pleases? And is poor Lebanon really so fragile that the non-arrival of a French funny man can plunge it into the Dark Ages?

To me the case is really quite simple. In their urge to land a scoop, Assi and Al Manar simply forgot that a Google search is not the equivalent of investigative journalism. They should have checked their sources. It is bad journalism which, thanks to pseudo-intellectuals and sensationalist media in search of a story, has been turned into a TV soap opera à la Libanaise.

Executive Magazine/ August 2009

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Peter Speetjens (1967) woont sinds 1996 in Beiroet. Hij was correspondent voor Trouw en De Standaard, en publiceerde verhalen in onder andere De Groene Amsterdammer, NRC en Vrij Nederland. In 2004Πco-regiseerde hij de film 2000 Terrorists. Peter schrijft vooral over Libanon, de regio en de manier waarop zij gestalte krijgt in de media.