Ad Blitz Satirizes Lebanon's Divides
Provocative Signs Target Pervasive Sectarianism
By Anthony Shadid
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
BEIRUT, Nov. 27 -- The evening was tense, as most are these days in Beirut, its Maronite Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Druze perched imprecisely between war and peace. Malak Beydoun, a young woman, pulled her car into a parking lot in the Christian neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh. She peered at a billboard overhead, alarmed and then indignant.
"Parking for Maronites only," it read.
Beydoun recoiled. "How did they know that I was a Shiite?" she remembered asking herself.
Part provocation, part appeal -- with a dose of farce that doesn't feel all that farcical -- advertisements went up this month on 300 billboards across the Lebanese capital and appeared in virtually every newspaper in the country. Thousands of e-mails carried the ads across the Internet to expatriates. Each offered its take on what one of the campaign's creative directors called a country on the verge of "absurdistan" -- cooking lessons by Greek Orthodox, building for sale to Druze, hairstyling by an Armenian Catholic, a fashion agency looking for "a beautiful Shiite face." At the bottom, the ads read in English, "Stop sectarianism before it stops us," or, more bluntly in Arabic, "Citizenship is not sectarianism."
The campaign, designed for free by an ad agency and promoted by a civil society group, has forced Lebanon to look at itself at a time when the country is spiraling into one of its worst political crises in years. The timing was coincidental, the message universal, in a landscape with ever dwindling common ground: The forces that dragged Lebanon into one civil war are threatening another.
Many have praised the ads for asking uncomfortable, even taboo questions about a system in which sectarian affiliation determines everything from the identity of the president to loyalty to sports teams. Some have mistaken the campaign for reality. Across the capital, one in six billboards was torn down, prevented from being put up or splashed with paint, usually the tactic of choice for conservative Muslims irked by lingerie ads.