On September 16, 2011, Nour Merheb killed himself. Nour did not leave a wife, husband, or children behind. He did not publish any books, did not write opinion pieces for influential newspapers, and did not parade himself in front of television cameras to provide expert opinions. He did not die in a protest facing down an authoritarian regime, he was not killed by an occupier`s bullet, and his death will not inspire a popular uprising in Lebanon. He was not what academics would call an intellectual, nor was he what politicians would claim as a martyr. But it feels wrong to let his death go unmarked, as if his citations, or markings, could only ever be found in books, articles, or news channels.
The night he killed himself, Nour sent a suicide email to his friends and colleagues, writing "my dear friends, I`m sending this message to explain what I did and ask you to stand up for your and my rights”. He explained that he wanted his death to be an opportunity to continue a struggle that he had been involved in his entire life; that of reforming the Lebanese state into a modern and secular one. Nour had been a committed activist since he was 16, and he had collaborated and worked with nearly all of the secular activists that I have met over two years of dissertation research. In his suicide email, Nour urged his friends and fellow activists to fight for his right to be cremated, stating that they should stand up “if my atheism was not respected”. His email ended with a plea and a call to action that situated his suicide within a discourse of “secular activism” in Lebanon:
“i don`t want to be buried in a cemetery. i despise christianity and other religions! i don`t want any fucking priest to pray over my body! i want to be burned and thrown away!
You knowing this puts a burden on you to make sure i will not be forced in my death to be a christian...Please fight for my and your rights...It has been a pleasure knowing every single one of you and fighting next to many of you!”
When a citizen dies in Lebanon, she is buried according to the traditions of the religious sect they are identified “belonging to” according to the census registry. A citizen who the state classifies as a “Sunni Muslim” cannot be buried in a coffin, just as a “Maronite Christian” cannot be buried without a priest present because that sectarian and religious classification in the census registry corresponds to a personal status law which outlines proper burial rites. Neither of them can be cremated, which is what Nour wanted. Almost immediately after his final email circulated, leading secular activists in Lebanon implicitly framed Nour`s suicide and final wishes within a discourse of the 2011 Arab uprisings. They compared his suicide to the thousands protestors who have died trying to overthrow their respective regimes and suggested that the Lebanese state was oppressing Nour even in death by not allowing him to “choose” how, and if, to be buried. For many of Lebanon`s secular activists, Nour`s suicide is a political statement that indexes the inability of the Lebanese state to protect and support the autonomous decisions of its citizens. For many of these activists` detractors, Nour`s death proved that one of the leading youth voices for change in Lebanon was deranged, amoral, and cowardly.
Throughout his life Nour fought against what he believed was unjust. He produced an astonishing amount of activist campaigns and political writings in the short time he was alive, perhaps because he knew he did not want to live long. He studied law at the extremely competitive Faculty of Law at the Lebanese University. Instead of practicing law, he used his expertise to spread awareness of the Lebanese legal system and the way it functions to a broader public. He could be found at diverse activist meetings (feminist, anti-sectarian, queer, pro-Palestinian, or anti-capitalist) and when found, he would always generously and kindly explain the complexities of how these causes are refracted through Lebanese law. He built what he called “The Council of Citizens” and the “Human Rights Congress”, two organizations he hoped would empower citizens and non-citizens in Lebanon and embolden them to claim their rights from successive governments. Even in death, he paid attention to the details that are the law. He recorded his suicide in a rented room by the beach in order to prove to investigators that he was alone at the time of his death. He did this because he knew that under Lebanese law, suicides are investigated as homicides until proven otherwise.
When Nour was 17, he began an activist campaign demanding that the fees associated with public schooling in Lebanon be reduced. He argued that because the national minimum wage was (then) $200, the $450 public education fees effectively ensured that many children would not have access to education. That same year, 2003, Nour engaged in long-term civil disobedience in front of the Lebanese Ministry of Education in an attempt to get his message heard. At the time, he received a personal phone call from then-Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri asking him to stop his campaign. Five years later, Nour was brought to trial for allegedly attacking a member of the Lebanese armed forces. He struggled at the military court for years to prove his innocence, and when he did so, the military justice system closed ranks. The Law demanded that Nour pay compensation to the man in a uniform who had falsely accused him, and had in fact beaten Nour bloody while he was off duty. The ability of military courts to enforce corrupted and violent justice is not a new story in the Arab world, but what Nour did next was unprecedented for Lebanon. He held several press conferences where he explained, in excruciating and embarrassing detail, the rife corruption of the military courts. He picked his case apart publicly, allowing his life to be an example that others could learn from. He started a website dedicated to exposing the rotting insides of the Lebanese legal system. He announced he would no longer be attending any of the military court hearings concerning his case, adding that the military police knew where he lived and were welcome to come get him. Nour was found guilty of contempt in 2010, sentenced to three months of prison time and ordered to pay a fine. But, either due to the inefficiency of the courts system or to Nour`s success at waging a publicity war and gaining allies, he was never incarcerated.
For the past week, Lebanon`s activist world has been reeling, and mobilizing, from and around Nour`s death. It is understandable that his friends, colleagues and comrades would want to give his decision meaning, to give it felicity in a region twisted in the ecstasies of revolution. The urge to make death speak is one that every human being has, or will feel, while she is alive. But instead of speculating on how, or if, Nour`s suicide will inspire (or can be made to inspire) others to act with a greater sense of urgency, or if his death will discourage other others from acting, I wanted in these lines to pause on his life. I wanted to reflect on his life, as he did while he was alive. It is the secret of death to not know why Nour killed himself, sucking on a tube connected to a balloon connected to a bag until he fell asleep. It is the arrogance of the living to believe that we can understand death and hear its clear message. Somewhere in the space between the two, I hope that Nour is in peace.