An Interview with Samandal

Since it was founded in 2007, Samandal has been one of the most dynamic and interesting comics anthologies in the world. The Beirut-based anthology has been at the forefront of a shifting culture of comics throughout the Middle East, spawning many publications in its wake. In recent years a new and vibrant comic culture has emerged throughout the Middle East and Samandal has been at the forefront of this, publishing great work by cartoonists from around the world in three languages (English, French and Arabic).

In 2010, three editors were charged with inciting sectarian strife, denigrating religion, publishing false news, and defamation and slander. Specifically they were accused of insulting the Christian religion. They were found guilty earlier this year and though they were not jailed, they were fined a total 30 million Lebanese Liras.

Recently, they published the newest issue of Samandal, “Geography,” which may be their last given the size of the fines they’ve had to pay. To continue publishing, they’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign, which they’re calling “The People vs. Samandal Comics”. Omar Khouri, Lena Merhej, Hatem Imam and Fadi Baki (aka “the fdz”), the anthology’s four editors, spoke with TCJ recently about Samandal, the court case, its consequences and their ambitions going forward.


I’m sure some readers know of Samandal, but I wondered if you could say a little about how it began and what you were trying to create?

Omar Khouri: When I first came up with the idea for Samandal in 2006, the political climate of Lebanon was extremely polarized. I felt that each publishing house that I might work with would pigeon-hole me into the political allegiance of that publisher. I had a comic book I wanted to serialize called Salon Tareq el Khurafi, which was quite political in nature, but dealt with more general themes than the local discourse was willing to accept at the moment. I was also craving a regular, periodic local comics production, and couldn't believe that it didn't exist here. I figured the best course would be self-publishing, but always preferred the Japanese manga magazine format to the single-issue Western one. I also wanted to include work from all over the world because I felt that being able to interact with international artist from countries that have stronger comics traditions would be beneficial to the development of the local comics scene. I was sure that there were other hidden writers and artists out there that felt the same frustrations I did, so I reached out to some friends (Tarek Nabaa, Hatem, Lena and Fdz) and they were very excited, so we went for it. Though Samandal has evolved so much in the past 9 years, and our team has grown, it still retains the spirit of everything we wanted to do at the start.

fdz: Samandal grew out of a the desire of a bunch of people (Omar, Lena, Hatem & Fadi) who were raised on comics and wanted to publish their own spin on the medium. We didn't really think it was something that would catch on because we didn't really think there many people out there like us. The smartest thing we did was open up the publication to submissions from other contributors because pretty soon we discovered that everyone wanted to take Samandal out for a spin.

Could explain exactly what you were convicted of?

fdz: a) Inciting sectarian strife b) denigrating religion c) publishing false news and d) defamation and slander.

Defamation and slander have become the standard accusation with the recent rise of legislation in Lebanon, where the accusing party enjoys some kind of political power and uses the legal system to exercise it. In the recent protests of the summer in Lebanon, the country saw a surge in various slander and libel cases issued by political personalities and parties against individuals.

The religious garnish comes from the case being instigated by the Catholic Media Center, which is famous for pursuing all kinds of censorship against films, books, music and- now- comics. Their letter to the minister of information put into motion the bureaucracy that used Lebanon's vague censorship law to essentially indict us of upsetting them. I assume that the function of these laws is to prevent people from using religion and sect to incite hatred against another religion or sect. Yet in the current application of these laws, it is the politicians and their religious counterparts, who make careers out of fomenting hatred between sects and religions, that are using these laws to keep people in line.

page3_ENGLena, one of the comics that was cited was yours. I don’t know if you have an answer, but why were you and the other artist not charged in this case?

Lena Merhej: It would have been important to petition to get this answer from the justice. However and unfortunately, I was not in Lebanon at the time when Hatem, Omar and The fdz were working tightly with the lawyer on the case and I failed to go through the extenuating details of the events they went through.

What has this conviction and the trial meant exactly? I know that you’ve been fined. Is it just a question of paying money or is there more involved?

fdz: Well, yes and no. Yes, technically, we just got fined, now have a criminal record, and have warrants of subjugation issues against us. These warrants are essentially a greenlight for general security to mess with us whenever we have dealings with them (I got my passport detained for weeks without any reason before I found out that I was flagged for a warrant of subjugation).

On the other hand, these fines are quite a heavy burden on publishers who've barely made their payments on every new issue printed. Samandal does not make any profit on its sales and is always scraping from various donors to put together the next issue. The 20K fine means that we are too broke to be able to continue publishing.

"The "offending" issue.

 Omar: Another strange fishy thing is that we were only fined. The issue that included the offending comics was NOT recalled from the market, and we were able to continue without restrictions to publishing or distribution. This indicates that the state was not really interested in the case or following up on it. In truth, they went after the 3 of the 4 editors personally (Fdz, Hatem and I) and didn't even approach Samandal as an association. It seems that they were taking the fastest and easiest way to appease the complaining "religious personalities."

Rightly or wrongly, from the outside, Lebanon has long had a reputation of having a pretty liberal press. Could you place your conviction in some context. Is the government becoming more restrictive? Has it always been this restrictive?

fdz: I'd say that censorship is a good gauge of the political situation in the country. While Lebanon has a reputation of free press, this reputation is mostly earned in comparison to the awful state of censorship in neighboring countries in the region. That said, once you look at Lebanon's "free press" you quickly realize that every outlet has a margin of "freedom of expression" conversely related to the power of the political party backing it.

Omar: Since we always wanted Samandal to stay away from any political ties, and so have zero party backing, we were a very easy target for the state.

fdz: On the other hand, smaller actors that do not function as mouthpieces for the various political parties are left at the mercy of political currents shaping the region at the time. When the case was raised against Samandal, the whole Danish Mohammad cartoon debacle was still somewhat fresh in people's minds. When we got called in for investigation, general security floated the idea that we were targeting the Christian religion as payback for the Mohammad cartoons.

Since then, censorship cases have increased, cases of libel and defamation have become the norm and because of the current political deadlock, there is very little breathing space left. It is important to note that Samandal’s case is not unique. Censorship has always been something that Lebanese artists of various professions have had to deal with and General Security is notorious for chopping up films, denying exhibition permissions, banning books, music and acting as a sort of “moral arbitrator” on cultural production. Only a few weeks back, a documentary by Reine Metri dealing with the civil war was denied not only a public screening but a private one that was to take place in the American University of Beirut, as it was considered too threatening to the public order.

Omar: I also believe that this image of Lebanon as a liberal place (not just for the press, but also socially) is publicly exaggerated because the country's economy is based on tourism. Being the only "liberal" island in a sea of surrounding conservative countries brings all the big spenders here.

A page from "Anomaly" by Omar Khouri. Published in Samandal issue #13 in 2012

You will have to forgive my ignorance, because I know that Lebanon has a very large Christian population, but is the Catholic Church really this powerful?

fdz: Of course it is. Lebanon is not a secular country and many of its laws are deeply sectarian. These laws reflect the power that these various religious sects have who are in a symbiotic relationship with their corresponding sectarian warlord. The Catholic religion is one of the main religions of Lebanon and thus quite powerful and in turn, the Catholic Media Center.

Hatem Imam: It might be worth mentioning here that according to what’s referred to as ‘the National Pact’, an unwritten agreement that dictates the sect of the heads of the Lebanese state, the president of the republic is must a Christian Maronite (an Eastern Catholic Syriac Church), head of parliament a Muslim Shiite, and the prime minister a Muslim Sunni. Just to illustrate the extent to which religion and politics are inextricable, and how any particular media center can in fact be this powerful.

Do you think that the complaint and the court case was really about these two cartoons or was it about more than that? Is this an attack on Lebanese artists? A warning of lines not to cross and what’s allowed?

fdz: I have nothing but conjecture based on conflicting theories we've heard, but there is nothing solid. In the broad sense, it is definitely a warning to Lebanese artists and a redrawing of the margins of freedom of expression. There is no way that these comics offended a large portion of the population, but instead what happened was the Catholic Media Center made a complaint and then the machinations of bureaucracy took over. We did not challenge that bureaucracy with any political backing and were thus easy targets and the ruling came out in their favor. I assume that if we had curried the favor of some political connection then the outcome of this trial would be very different. This is the way things run in Lebanon nowadays. Or possibly always.

Hatem: I don’t believe that artists per se are targeted here. It is really just about preserving a quasi status quo, in which the heads of each sect think that they are the guardians of religion and that anyone who dare even remotely insinuate an “insult” to their idols, then they should be severely, and publicly punished.

Yogurt and Jam english2
A page from "Yogurt and Jam (or How My Mother Became Lebanese)" by Lena Merhej. Published in Samandal issue 4.

This case began in 2010 and the decision only came down this year, but why did you chose not publicize this?

fdz: Two reasons: when the case began, our lawyer was very hopeful about it and urged us to keep it in court and not have the media affect the judge's decision. In his opinion, the case had no legs and would be thrown out. The other reason was that the political climate was quite different. We were worried that if we publicized the case we might face backlash from various religious figures and all they had to do was show the two comic panels taken out of their context (especially Valfret's which features a man on a cross with another standing in front of him thinking "you're the fairy") and we'd be done. Religion is a touchy subject here and if they painted Samandal as a publication that does not respect religion, we worried that we'd have no public support.

When we lost the case, the following appeal, and then had to pay the 20,000 fines, we were pissed and felt like we had nothing left to lose anymore.

Hatem: In retrospect, I certainly regret having waited till now, though at the time, I was against going public. I have always been extra cautious about Samandal’s public image, when in fact, I am so touched and surprised by the amount of support we have been getting lately, with absolutely no signs of a backlash.

Tell me about the crowdfunding campaign. Why did you decide to go this route? What are raising money to do exactly?

fdz: After paying those fines, Samandal is broke. We were faced with the choice of either shuttering the publication or reaching out to whatever fans we had out there for support. We don't want to stop putting out comics, especially after such wanton and arbitrary persecution. We wanted to put out MORE comics if only to spite them. That's where the idea came from. Let's not just help Samandal out from being broke- let's fund the next two issues. Let their censorship be the reason to put out more work.

Omar: For me, It has nothing to do with spite. I think that neither the State nor the catholic church are interested in what Samandal does. We want to keep publishing for our fans, our artists, our love and respect for the medium, and for the 9 years of our sweat and tears that we poured into the publication. The best resistance to censorship is to make more comics. The crowd funding campaign is more for us to finally make this case public because it was "The People vs. Samandal comics" so the people should know what the state is doing in their name. It is also a much more informative way to gather funds, since you can directly gave the interest of the public in what you are doing. I would prefer if all the money we gather in the future for this project is collected this way.

Lena: Samandal also included since its new formula (see Omar's answer to the question below), young comics artists who are enthusiastic and that are bringing loads of new ideas to the organization. Fundraising would also mean supporting their fresh and bubbling creativity and pushing the medium even further.

Haw comic 24-2012
A page from "Untitled" by Hatem Imam. 2012

What would you like to do going forward? Do you have a vision of what Samandal can be and what else you would like to do?

Omar: Our main publication has found a new format. Instead of going for a quarterly publication edited by committee, we have shifted to a yearly themed anthology that has one editor in chief. We would also like to publish more graphic novels, collections and special editions. In our indiegogo campaign, we mention that if we go over 60K, i can finally publish my collected book of my newspaper strip Utopia.

Lena: I am the editor of the new publication that will be focusing on things left unsaid or things only said behind closed doors. I am hoping with that to bring about questions of sexuality, a broader context for things related to gender, feminism and queerness.

I wonder where you see the state of comics in the region right now? We’ve seen the rise of many other magazines like TokTok and Autostrade. There are events that range from CairoComix to The Middle East Film and Comic Con. American University of Beirut has a comics initiative. Is there a new comics culture in the region?

Omar: There is definitely a boom in regional comics these days. For the first few years of Samandal, we were the only continuing comics publication and our events were all there was. Slowly, some of the artists who used to send us contributions (the creators of Toktok, for example) or the funders that used to give us money, began to create their comics publications and events. With the coming of the "Arab Spring" this began to spread further and further because more people felt the need and possibility to express themselves, and Western institutions suddenly had larger budgets to spend in the middle east. Regardless of the reasons though, it is wonderful to finally have so many magazines and books to read, so many new artists to follow, and so many events and prizes to attend. More and more people around us everyday are coming to realize what we have known for so long: That comics is as beautiful and powerful as any other art form, and has great potential for exploration and expansion of the collective mind.

Lena: There is new wave of comics coming from Arab country which have gained status in art and literature circles and more recently in the multiple events related to comics in the region as well as in International festivals. Artists in these comics often resort to cynicism, to poetry, to playful tension between image and text, and they review and revise the language of this medium in this particular context. Also, and in many many cases, the narratives of war, protests and revolutions, as well as domestic and civic conflicts, assert the existence of a resistance against violence and present dreams and imagined worlds. The enthusiasm and the readership is growing, however distribution in the Arab countries is not easy slowing the market instead of vitalising all the budding initiatives. This November, we are meeting with Skefkef, TokTok, Lab 619 to discuss this issue among other things related to comics publishing.

To conclude, do you want to say a little more about the campaign and what’s being offered and what else people can do to help?

Hatem: Regarding the campaign, we have a collection of very exciting perks that you can view here. Some highlights are the Joe Sacco original drawing for the cover of his book Palestine from 1994, which was already claimed, and original work by comics artists Baladi, Mazen Kerbaj, and many others, as well as work by visual artists Akram Zaatari, and Raed Yassin. People can help out by donating, sharing the campaign, spreading the word on the case, and of course buying our magazines and books.

“The People vs. Samandal Comics” continues running on indiegogo through late December.