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  • Voices Against Disavowal, Obscurantism, and ExclusionThe Year in Lebanon
  • Sleiman El Hajj (bio)

Prologue: Dissident Voices in a Bleak Political Landscape

Life writing may have been acknowledged as an independent, if interdisciplinary, field in literary criticism in the North American and Anglophone European contexts in the 1990s, but in Lebanon the 1990s marked the end of a protracted civil war (1975–1990), and the country's staggering corpus of postwar literature, in Arabic, French, and English, has been mainly geared toward fiction, rather than nonfiction. Against the backdrop of considerable social and political censorship in Lebanon, real-life accounts have been engineered into fictional prose over the past three decades.

Since fiction is not assessed by the same "metrics of authenticity" (Smith and Watson) as nonfiction, fictional texts have provided a heuristic space for self-expression as well as social critique. Lebanese women authors, for example, have folded into their postwar novels "graphic glimpses into the tragic human consequences of violence," and have thus been able to "transcend confessional and political loyalties in order to concentrate almost entirely on the omitted stories of pain and suffering" (Khalaf 13). The repressive political climate that has spawned such narratives continues to date, even if life writing and its subversive voices are now becoming more audible.

A number of bitterly contested social media-related arrests of activists, accused of libel against leading politicians and party leaders, were widely criticized as infringements on free speech in 2018 and 2019 (Alami; Azhari). The country was also polarized over indie rock band Mashrou' Leila, which was accused of blasphemy, sedition, homosexuality, and devil worship—not sufficiently evidenced to warrant legal action but enough to galvanize sectarian mass protests. The subsequent threats of violence from Christian right-wing groups led to the cancellation of one of the band's concerts scheduled for August 9, 2019 in Byblos, Lebanon; [End Page 121] what followed was an outcry in international media by Lebanese activists calling for secular freedom and civil rights (Hall; Kayssi).

The past year saw a rise in academic as well as public interest in life writing across different modes, namely digital, audiovisual, and onstage narratives, particularly among activists and cultural practitioners interested in the life stories of people who have had traumatic experiences or suffered persecution and stigma, such as refugees, LGBT people, veiled women, atheists, sex workers, gender non-conforming individuals, and prisoners. An atmosphere of growing unrest and discontent, and the relatively long production time for biographies, autobiographies, and other personal narratives in print form, may explain why the latter were not the main vehicles for life writing in Lebanon this year.

Life Stories Online: Veiled Atheists from Lebanon and Syria

The debate around veiling, whether forced or voluntary, gained renewed traction in 2017 with a dispute in the classroom between a hijab-wearing sophomore student and a retiring professor at the American University of Beirut ("AUB 'Hijab'"). Soon after, Sarah Harakeh, a high school English teacher, published an incendiary personal narrative titled "I Am an Atheist and I Wear the Veil" about how her wearing of the hijab was a collective family decision, rather than an emblem of personal conviction or faith, of which she was devoid after becoming an atheist.

One year later, Harakeh published the stories of ten Lebanese and Syrian atheists living in Lebanon. These women had reached out in response to her testimonial and wanted to express their own experiences of physical and mental abuse and their desires to emigrate:1

We took off the black abaya after we left the ISIS-occupied area in Syria, but then my parents made me wear the veil in Lebanon, not taking my opinions or wishes into consideration. […] My views toward religion have changed drastically. […] I wish I can go live one day in a different country, where my choices are protected, where I can be free, and take my veil off. -Samah

Despite my age [29] and the fact that I hold a master's degree and I have a job, I still can't take the veil off. I still have to wake up every morning and put the veil on before going out. […] The last time I opened...