Beirut Conference 2005: Speech by Mai Ghoussoub

It is banned to ban

Summary of Mai Ghoussoub’s speech at the Freemuse Conference in Beirut, 2005

“Censorship never works.”
This was the overall message from Mai Ghoussoub at the Beirut conference on Freedom of Expression and Music in October, 2005.
An absolute principle of her youth was the phrase ‘Mamnou’ al-Manna’ (‘it is banned to ban’). The absolutism of this phrase is challenged, she said, not only by the censor and by dictators, but by us all. Totalitarian regimes are afraid of freedom and impose one speech, the one that keeps them in power. But even worse than obvious censorship from the top, she targeted discreet, invisible censorship, the ones that lie behind ‘good intentions’. To say that ‘This should not be allowed’ can be a spontaneous reaction in us all.
As an example, Mai quoted Eminem and the song Slim Shady:

‘Slap hips, support domestic violence
Beat your bitch’s ass while your kids stare in silence’

Recently, the Jamaican Reggae Star Capleton had two concerts cancelled in Britain and France. He had been singing:

‘All Boogaman and sodomites fi get killed…Burn out a Queer, Blood out a queer’
(All faggots should be killed, burn a queer, kill a queer.)

But should these songs be banned? Should they be broadcast only after the children have gone to bed? Ghoussoub thinks not, because however outraged she is by these words, ‘I should have the courage to let others express their own views, however ugly or hurting they may seem to my eyes and ears.”.
She recognizes that people will ask ‘What about racism?” What about hate speech calling for murder?” She recognizes the problem. She seeks enlightened laws fighting racism and discrimination but insists that we must defend freedom of expression. It is a challenge worth facing.

At the conference in Beirut, Mai Ghoussoub told about a boy who battered to death a man sleeping rough and claimed to be acting out the violent lyrics of Eminem. He was sent to prison for life, but she agrees with the court’s decision that expressing and acting are not synonymous; she asked: “how it is that we watch Tom and Jerry but do not act out the violence of the cartoon?”

Everything banned is desired

Mai Ghoussoub reminded her audience that Serge Gainsbourg’s song ‘Je vais et je vis’ was banned once, and in Lebanon songs like ‘Riji ala Ishu hal Usfur’ were banned, encouraging everyone to rush out and buy the song. She reminded of the Arabic saying ‘Kul mannou’ marghoub’ (‘Everything banned is desired’).
People come to Saqi Books, she said, and ask, ‘Where are the banned books?’ [Saqi Books, in central London, has the most comprehensive selection of books on the Islamic / Arabic World in Britain]. Mai Ghoussoub believes that banning by censorship never works. In the age of the Internet it is impossible to suppress a song, a book or an image. It gives the rich easy access and gives the poor a narrower, dangerously fundamentalist focus and creates discrimination between the haves and the have-nots.

However, a new form of censorship has emerged. Giant record chains are putting small shops out of business, promoting their own labels. Self–censorship is now the most pernicious form of censorship. Mai Ghoussoub reminded the conference that at the height of her fame Billy Holiday was forced to take the servant’s lift because she was black. “It is racism that should be outlawed. Words as such don’t kill, weapons kill”, she said.

Mai Ghoussoub is an artist and the founder of London’s Saqi Books. She gave this speech as the keynote speech on the underlying issues of censorship at the Beirut conference on Freedom of Expression and Music in October, 2005.


Mai Ghoussoub


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