The murder case haunting Lebanon's pop diva Nancy Ajram and her 'Insta-famous' family

The murder case haunting Lebanon's pop diva Nancy Ajram and her 'Insta-famous' family
Feature: How the killing of a Syrian refugee in alleged 'self-defence' at a celebrity couple's home brought Lebanon’s most burning issues to the doorstep of its national treasure.
11 min read
24 January, 2020
Nancy Ajram and Fadi al-Hashem (L) and Mohammed Hassan Moussa with his children (R) [Twitter]
Nancy Ajram is the closest thing Lebanon has to a "national sweetheart".

Graceful, approachable and liked by all, she has been the small country's best-loved singer of the past 20 years; her pop songs and sunny personality reaching the farthest corners of the Arab world.

That is, until January 5.

On that fateful Sunday night, the Ajram's husband, Fadi al-Hashem, shot dead an alleged intruder in their villa in an upscale neighbourhood in Keserwan, claiming self-defence.

The family of the victim, a Syrian refugee named Mohammed Hassan Moussa, claim he worked for the family and had come to demand long overdue wages.

Alleged details of the incident spread - including leaked and allegedly doctored security camera footage of the incident, rumours of blackmail, affairs and the complicity of the family’s other household staff - further contradicting al-Hashem’s claim of self-defence. 

The snowballing rumours, accusations and speculation have captured the imagination of Lebanon and the wider Arab online community like never before, spawning what many are calling a trial by media, much of which has been markedly fixated on Moussa’s nationality.

Across social media, people have reached their own conclusions that either hail Ajram and al-Hashem as national heroes, or demonise them as the embodiment of everything wrong with the system.

But the resonance of the incident goes beyond a simple hunger for celebrity gossip in Lebanon’s Twittersphere. The key elements of the murder - economic inequality, gun violence and attitudes to Syrians in Lebanon - crystallise the turbulent and divided moment the country currently finds itself in.

It’s a story that goes very much beyond the basics of a murder

“It’s a story that goes very much beyond the basics of [...] a murder,” says Alia Ibrahim, co-founder and CEO of independent Lebanese media platform Daraj. “It comes at a moment where people have very little trust in everything.”

Indeed, the ongoing uprisings have highlighted the stagnation and corruption in government, leaving the population with little trust in a fair judicial process, emboldening them to voice their own verdicts based on the speculative details.

Scandal hits Lebanon’s ‘model family’

According to the version of events of al-Hashem, a well-known celebrity dentist, he shot an armed thief who broke into his home at night and threatened to enter the bedroom of his and Ajram's three young daughters, demanding money and gold.

Following the incident, Hashem was detained but soon transferred to a psychiatric hospital for shock, state media reported. Two days later, he was released after questioning that concluded he acted in self-defence. 

He remains under investigation, and was questioned (Arabic) as recently as Thursday, with another interrogation scheduled in March.

Television crews allowed into Ajram’s home showed her shaky and visibly traumatised, with a wound dressing to her leg. “The most important thing is that my family is fine,” she told a reporter at the time.

But several sticking points about the incident remained: Hashem shot the intruder with 16 bullets, some reported to have hit Moussa from behind, and the house was already under security protection, while Moussa's gun turned out to be a fake.

The family’s version of events was then further challenged as the family of 30-year-old began to speak out in his defence.

Testimonies from Moussa’s mother in Idlib, as well as a tearful plea from his wife in Lebanon, claimed he worked for the family as a gardener, and had come to Hashem to collect long overdue pay. They alleged that Moussa was murdered on purpose, demanding a second investigation including all of the surveillance footage, phone records and testimonies from Moussa’s family.

Fuelling the controversy, a surveillance video from the villa was leaked days after the incident, purported to be of a gun-wielding Moussa breaking into the villa, however it was claimed to have been doctored, with some even claiming it was staged. Meanwhile increasingly dubious rumours including that Moussa was blackmailing the family over secret information he had, including about a possible affair, were all peddled across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Not only is Ajram is one of the most successful Arab pop artists of all time, she’s strikingly uncontroversial

However what has made the saga much more shocking is not only that Ajram is one of the most successful Arab pop artists of all time, she’s strikingly uncontroversial. 

Since her debut album at the age of 15, she has steered clear of any kind of scandalous behaviour, cultivating a thoroughly wholesome image from her marriage to a well-known dentist, to being mother to three daughters, all while being a long-serving judge on Arab Idol and more recently The Voice Kids Arabia. She has even made two albums of children’s songs.

“She’s really one of those people who are liked by most people, she’s not involved in any scandals,” says Ibrahim, adding that her insta-famous family of five are “considered the decent model of family.”

Attacks on Ajram’s family came in thick and fast, including a deluge of memes depicting the singer as a red-eyed zombie, as a parallel response unfolded declaring unwavering support for the popstar and her family by her army of followers, dedicated fan accounts and celebrity friends, with the hashtag #We_all_stand_with_you_Nancy.

Although the scandal rattled her at the time, she announced (Arabic) on Thursday that she would resume 'artistic activities' with a single to be released at the end of the month and a scheduled recording of an episode of The Voice in February.

A cash and gun economy

The ferocity of the divided response has arguably been so because of the resonance with the uprisings, which have primarily targeted banks, luxury housing developments, and symbols of the corrupt ruling class that has created gulfs in the wealth and wellbeing of Lebanon’s residents.

Alongside the alleged Syrian scapegoating, the grim economic context has weighted the saga with increased significance.

“It comes at a time when the economy is really bad in Lebanon, people are really concerned about security," said Ibrahim.

The country’s economic issues are inextricably bound up with the more normalised gun ownership, with many coming to the defence of Hashem’s 16-bullet rampage.

"It goes back to the context of being a cash economy we’re turning into, a lot of people are keeping a lot of cash in their houses. This is creating a sense of there’s going to be more theft," added Ibrahim. "It’s becoming increasingly a norm".

In Lebanon’s widespread black market for weapons, a kalashnikov can be bought for as little as $800. The mandatory gun licences are also not difficult to obtain, even for personal and self-defence use, Ibrahim points out.

The number of privately owned guns - licit and illicit - according to 2017 figures, is almost two million. That’s roughly one between three of the country’s 6 million people.

Establishment media: feeding into anti-Syrian sentiment 

While resolutely justifying al-Hashem’s use of his weapon, the defence of his family in the mainstream media was marked by preoccupation with Moussa’s nationality, imbued with anti-Syrian tropes implying criminality, danger, and being a generally hostile presence in the country.

"The first thing I noticed when reading about the incident is the problematic and racist language used to cover the story," said Tesbih Habbal, a Syrian editor and researcher based at the University of Chicago.

"Highlighting the identity and nationality of the offender in the headlines is not only unnecessary and irrelevant—but also a bold and ugly act of racism," she told The New Arab. "Such use of language only serves to further demonise and ‘other’ Syrians and feed into an already mounting anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanon."

Exploitation of Syrian refugees - often casual labourers - in Lebanon is nothing new. Of the estimated 1.5 million Syrians in the country, seventy-three percent now lack legal residency due to increased difficulty in obtaining permits, and risk detention for being in the country illegally.

Moussa’s permit is said to have recently expired.

It is no surprise then that among the most vulnerable to Lebanon’s economic crisis are the undocumented, casual migrant workers, whose existence is already precarious.

The media presented a story of a 'heroic Lebanese father' who saved his family from the 'evil Syrian criminal'

Habbal adds that the emphasis on nationality goes both ways, dehumanising the offender and glorifying the victim.

"The media presented a story of a ‘heroic Lebanese father’ who saved his family from the ‘evil Syrian criminal,’ thereby drowning unconditional public sympathy for the Lebanese victim against the Syrian perpetrator."

The media court

The incompetence of the government to overcome the economic crisis and political deadlock and corruption that enables it has led to a loss of trust in all state institutions, which arguably encouraged the trial-by-media of both Hashem and Moussa.

"Nobody really knows what happened," said Alia Ibrahim. "It’s up to the judiciary to do this job, but the fact that people don’t have huge trust in the judiciary in a context where everybody is asking for reform in the judiciary," makes this impossible, she adds.

"I cannot but ask the question, why did Carlos Ghosn go to Lebanon, and not to Brazil or France? The obvious answer for me is that he chose the place where the judiciary is most laissez-faire," added Ibrahim.

Fatima El Issawi, scholar and journalist specialised in Middle Eastern media, points out Lebanon’s media trials have been seen before.

"Lebanese media, as they have the tradition to do, opened a so-called media court based on unnamed 'sources' without respect to the judicial procedures," she said, citing the case of Ziad Itani, a Lebanese actor who was falsely framed as an Israeli spy, arrested and tortured before being exonerated. Many accuse the country’s top talk-show hosts and reporters of generating hysteria over the case through broadcasting unchecked allegations and statements from the state security.

"Media bias in supporting Ajram's version of the story is obvious," added El Issawi, saying the media’s so-called "sources" have smeared Moussa’s family as liars and justified the amount of force used to kill him, all the while garnering widespread support from the country’s elite circle.

Why did Carlos Ghosn go to Lebanon, and not to Brazil or France? He chose the place where the judiciary is most laissez-faire

Furthermore, many point out that it was primarily the outlets closest to the ruling right-wing FPM party who led the most discriminatory coverage, which spilled over into their support base on social media.

Kareem Chehayeb, Beirut-based journalist, told The New Arab: "The real xenophobic coverage has come from OTV and MTV," right-wing and establishment channels, rather than more liberal outlets. "It’s definitely a segment of the establishment media, which is quite notorious for its anti-Syrian rhetoric to begin with."

In fact, some argue that the three-month-long protest movement visibly shaped the public and media discourse around Moussa’s killing for the better, arguing that the reaction would have been more xenophobic if he had been killed prior to the protests.

"The whole refugee argument isn’t necessarily working out for the government anymore," Chehayeb says, adding that scapegoating efforts of previous years have been "diluted, because [...] people aren’t necessarily buying it."

FPM politicians including the President, Michel Aoun, and former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, have been reviled by protesters for their unapologetic scapegoating of Syrians for the myriad economic and social problems facing Lebanon, from rising unemployment an increased security threat from the Islamic State (IS). 

But in recent months their claims, including blaming rising crime rates and economic crisis, have been increasingly dispelled by protesters. Chehayeb argues that this is in part because the protest movement has been an educational one, looking into the root causes of the country’s problems, the factors contributing to economic failure and political stagnation.

Chehayeb and El Issawi agree that class is no less a driving factor than nationality in the handling of the case. But in a country where one’s economic and social status is demarcated along lines of citizenship, there is still weight behind many people’s claims that had Moussa been Lebanese, a thorough investigation into his death would have been launched straight away.

“It’s a fact that as a wealthy person you can get through court cases easier, your rights are more guaranteed,” Chehayeb said, drawing comparison to the many protesters increasingly being detained and denied basic rights.

Justice for Fadi, Nancy or Mohammed?

Whether either or both factors of Moussa’s class and nationality work against him, the prospect of a thorough and balanced investigation seems far-fetched to many.

"I don’t trust that we will get to that point [of a full investigation]," says Ibrahim.

"Because this person is a Syrian refugee who is poor [...] I don’t think we’re going to know the truth."

These things happen every day, and if you don’t have the security that justice will be [served], regardless of how immune, or powerful, or what kind of presence you have in society, it’s the jungle

In the latest turn in the saga, Hashem has been charged for "murder by self-defence", which carries a reduced sentence under Lebanon's penal code compared to premeditated murder, which carries the death penalty.

Athough vague, some kind of further investigation will be carried out. Despite facing minimum sentence of 15 years' prison with hard labour if convicted, Hashem’s lawyers and other judiciary sources insist that the further investigation will find his self-defence legitimate.

“These things happen every day, and if you don’t have the security that justice will be [served], regardless of how immune, or powerful, or what kind of presence you have in society, it’s the jungle,” Ibrahim said.

Florence Dixon is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @flo_dix