Dateline: Beirut Popular Arab singer on trial for blasphemy ; Marcel Khalife faces trial for putting verse from Koran to music; [1 Edition] Lee Hockstader. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Dec 1, 1999. pg. 1
Copyright 1999 Toronto Star, All Rights Reserved.
BEIRUT - When he goes on trial for blasphemy today, one of the best-loved singer-songwriters of the Arab world is prepared to give the court an earful, regardless of whether he is sentenced to prison.
"I'm going to ask them: 'What am I doing here?' " said Marcel Khalife, 48, who stands accused of offending Islam by singing a brief verse from the Koran. "I'm culturally ashamed. I think it's an ethical scandal that I'm here. Are we moving forward and building a happy future, or are we stuck in the past?"
Khalife - soft-spoken, impish, a veteran of concert halls and recording studios in North America, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa - seems an unlikely blasphemer.
Politically, he is prone to a gauzy, love-thy-neighbour brand of liberalism. Religiously, although raised in a Christian family, he considers himself devoutly secular.
He lived in Muslim West Beirut through much of Lebanon's long civil war. His CDs, on sale worldwide, are hugely popular, and 90 per cent of the buyers are Muslims, he says.
Khalife is a cultural icon in Lebanon, which prides itself on an openness and avant-garde spirit that sets it apart from most Arab countries.
Despite the devastation of a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, Beirutis think of their city as the cultural capital of the Arab world, and point to outspoken intellectuals and slightly decadent night life as proof.
None of that carried much weight with Lebanon's Sunni Muslim hierarchy, or with Beirut's new chief magistrate, Abdel Rahman Shehab, also a Sunni Muslim. A day after taking office last month, Shehab indicted Khalife for committing a crime against the country's dominant religion, Islam.
If found guilty, Khalife faces a prison term of six months to three years.
Khalife's offence was to set to music a poem, "Oh, Father, it is I, Youssef," which ends with a verse from the Koran. The poem, by renowned Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish, is a bitter lament that gives voice to the Koranic prophet Youssef (the Old Testament figure Joseph), whose brothers hated him and plotted to kill him. In the plaintive last stanza, Youssef asks if he wronged his brothers by telling them of his dream:
I dreamt of 11 planets
And of the sun and the moon
All kneeling before me.
The Dar al-Fatwa, Lebanon's senior Sunni Muslim religious authority, said quoting the Koran is fine, but setting its verses to music and accompanying it with instruments is off-limits.
"When you include a musical instrument to accompany the Koran, you go beyond the respect due the word of God on Earth," said grand mufti Mohammed Kabaneh. "There are rules that must be respected. This issue has nothing to do with freedom."
Khalife's prosecution is actually an encore performance. His song, "Arabic Coffeepot," first released in 1995, attracted attention almost immediately. But an indictment against him two years ago was dropped, reportedly at the prompting of then-prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
Following the recent indictment, several thousand of Khalife's fans and allies signed petitions on his behalf and demonstrated their support this month at his pre-trial hearing. Groups such as Abroad, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have publicly expressed concern.
But Lebanon's cultural elite appear unwilling to let it drop. Intellectuals in Beirut said the case fits an ominous pattern of recent attacks on artistic expression.
They said they fear for Lebanon's status as one of the more tolerant Arab societies if the balance tips toward Islamic fundamentalists.
"Until now, Lebanon has had the most open freedom of expression in the Arab world," said Tewfiq Mishlawi, a Lebanese journalist. "Here there is a different balance of forces. The liberals are much stronger. But there are worrying signs." [Illustration] Caption: AP FILE PHOTO / BLASPHEMY BATTLE: Lebanese singer Marcel Khalife, seen at a recent concert in Beirut, faces a prison term of six months to three years if found guilty on blasphemy charge. His trial begins today.
Credit: SPECIAL TO THE STAR; WASHINGTON POST