Open City

October 5, 2020

Cosmopolitan Radicalism: The Visual Politics of Beirut’s Global Sixties by Zeina Maasri. Cambridge University Press, 2020. 342 pages.

TWO WHITE WOMEN IN BIKINIS, feet planted in the froth of the Mediterranean, backdropped by Beirut’s iconic Raouché rocks. Bannered across the top left corner of the photograph, in yellow, an unlikely milestone—THE DAY THEY ABOLISHED WINTER—accompanied by looks of self-satisfaction, as if the pair had done it themselves. This image appeared in a December 1969 issue of The Economist, in an ad placed by the National Council for Tourism in Lebanon (NCTL). Backed by the World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development, the country had begun to strengthen its brand as a tourist destination during the late 1950s and early ’60s, moving its graphic design capabilities in-house at the newly-formed NCTL and reorienting its national image around a beach idyll rather than Mount Lebanon, the longtime domain of the country’s Maronite Christians and Druze. The ensuing period of cosmopolitan spectacle in 1960s Beirut is often remembered today with a mix of nostalgia and awe as the “golden years” of Arabic Modernism: Beirut as the “Paris of the East,” home of the bustling Hamra commercial district and its European fashions, of women in miniskirts on the Corniche, poets in cafés on Bliss Street, and museumgoers in the Achrafieh—a city open to all.

Cosmopolitan Radicalism, a new book by Zeina Maasri, a senior lecturer at the University of Brighton, explores these mythologies without sentimentality, tracing the overlooked visual culture of Beirut’s “long 1960s,” an era bookended by two consciousness-searing events in Lebanon—the landing of US Marines on its shores in 1958 and the Lebanese Civil War that began in 1975. Maasri focuses on three core themes: Beirut’s postwar affixion as an international venue for Mediterranean tourism and leisure; its displacement of Cairo as the premiere locale for Arabic-language publishing and cultural writing; and its emergence as a convening place for revolutionary anti-imperialists and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) after the 1967 Arab–Israeli War.

Maasri’s book unearths reams of archival and printed material, suggesting that these changes occurred at a moment of generative aesthetic and political tension in Beirut, when a Western modernism brushed up against a pan-Arab nationalism. The same year of the Economist ad, the city was host to fashion shows for Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior; the year before, its airport had been flattened by Israel. Running through Maasri’s chapters is an attempt to decenter both “the West” and “the nation” in an evaluation of the period’s visual culture—and in doing so, complicate the conventional understanding of this Arabic Modernism that saw Beirut as its capital.

A major part of Beirut’s instantiation as such was its role as a center for book publishers and periodicals. In one chapter, Maasri focuses on Hiwar (Dialogue), a quarterly funded by the Paris-based Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) as part of a covert CIA scheme to combat the influence of Communism during the Cold War, and whose global network included, among others, Quest in Mumbai and Black Orpheus in Lagos. Hiwar, which published Arabic translations of W.H. Auden and Czesław Miłosz, was part of an interconnected CCF literary community which could circulate the same chosen writers in multiple languages across multiple periodicals spanning multiple continents. This helped enforce a synchronic transnational canon, shaped in no small part by voices the editors chose to omit, including some of the most active participants in the Communist-aligned Afro-Asian Writers Movement. In 1966, after the CIA ties to the CCF were revealed in a leak and published by the New York Times, the journal was shuttered, and its founder, the Palestinian–Syrian poet Tawfiq Sayigh, was exiled to the United States.

Fascinatingly though, Maasri challenges the dominant interpretation of Hiwar as an “Arabic outpost” in the global anticommunist cultural front, focusing instead on the journal’s aesthetic contributions to Beirut’s modernist period. Hiwar helped flatten the long-hierarchical relation that prioritized Arabic literary arts over visual arts, published Tayeb Salih’s seminal Season of Migration to the North in 1966, and was one the earliest to recognize the writing of Lebanese feminist Layla Baalbaki, printing her short story “A Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon.” Her 1963 book of the same name would later be banned and lead to her arrest and trial for “offending public morality.”

Maasri situates Hiwar among two other competing Beiruti periodicals of the era, al-Adab (Literature) and Shiʿr (Poetry), arguing that these new developments presented a challenge to the dominance of Cairene publishing by allowing Baathists, Marxists, Nasserists, and Syrian nationalists all space to comingle on their pages. That the journals attracted disaffected or radical Arab artists of such varied backgrounds was as much a product of the cultural conditions endemic to Beirut at the time—Lebanon’s relatively liberal censorship laws, for one—as it was of the material conditions of the city’s capitalist growth—banks aflush with oil revenues from the Arab Gulf helped finance a major construction boom that coincided with significant increases in tourism—providing a fecund economic environment for cultural production.

Maasri delves into the divided aesthetic sensibilities of al-Adab and Shiʿr, the latter of which attempted an avant-garde project and was accused of heresy by the Arab nationalists advancing a literary movement of iltizam, or political commitment. (Shiʿr’s editor responded in turn that heritage “has no value if it does not live in us.”) Although Maasri sets up a core tension between this Arab nationalism and a Western-inflected modernism emphasizing aesthetic independence, in her later chapters she dismantles this binary, using the art of the Palestinian liberation movement as a lens through which to understand the creative fracturing occurring at the time. The end of the 1967 Arab–Israeli War prompted massive recalibrations of Arab political and cultural life, and thousands of Palestinians were displaced from their homes. Soon after, Beirut was established as the capital of the PLO, serving from 1970 to 1982 as the center of an international movement to liberate Palestine. Maasri argues that this Palestinian backdrop subverted the Arab nationalist iltizam by insisting—in part because of Arab government betrayals—on a political art that existed outside the domain of the state.

For Maasri, the shifts that came to define Beirut’s importance during this period manifested at the levels of both form and content, as artists who had been radicalized began to alter their aesthetic practices. This is perhaps best described by the Palestinian artist and critic Kamal Boullata, who reflects on the effects of the 1967 war on Arab intellectual life:

What, in practice, did this look like? Maasri observes that aesthetic combat of the time was waged primarily in the printscapes of Beirut’s street life, as the city began to be redefined as an “Arab Hanoi,” to borrow a phrase from the Lebanese historian Fawwaz Traboulsi. The resultant political posters were the popular domain of radical youth culture across the world; as Susan Sontag said of the imagery of May 1968, it had a “serious political use in de-mystifying and delegitimizing repressive authority.” This visual culture of resistance found particular resonance with Lebanon’s exiled Palestinians and those sympathetic to their cause, who went on to produce images commemorating Palestinian battles against Israel, like the series of eleven solidarity posters commissioned by Shiʿr’s art director Waddah Faris in 1968 to fundraise for displaced Palestinians in the West Bank. Anti-Zionist works, according to novelist Elias Khoury, “transformed Beirut’s walls into a large exhibition,” filled with expositions of heroic revolutionary struggle by kufiya-clad Palestinian fedayeen. Artists sought to replace the narrative of victimization in social realist representations of Palestinians in the camps with scenes of anticolonial insurrection, marked by abstracted figurative forms and photomontage.

These artistic projects coincided with the emergence in 1972 of the PLO’s Unified Media, which helped produce films, children’s books—Maasri devotes an entire chapter to these—postcards, and plastics, as well as the founding of the revolutionary publishing house Dar al-Fata al-Arabi in 1974 and the political journal al-Hadaf (The Target) in 1969 by Ghassan Kanafani, the Palestinian writer and member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Maasri is interested in cities—in their metaphors and their political geographies, but also their transnational connections—and shows how Beirut’s trajectories coincided with developments in Iran, India, and across the Arab world. Her work helps de-exceptionalize histories of the city without denying the importance of what transpired there in the 1960s—something that has implications for how we talk about Lebanon today. The idea of Beirut’s cosmopolitanism has always traded on the core conceit of an Arab city that “wasn’t like the others.” Its modernity and progressivism are framed as antithetical to Arab (and Muslim) life, lending potency to a convenient myth that has been shattered time and again—most recently in the aftermath of last August’s explosion at Beirut’s port.

When French president Emmanuel Macron visited following the blast, he promised to mobilize international monetary tools to help steer Lebanon into a new future. In his wake, some Lebanese leaders suggested that, like the violence that ushered in the “long 1960s,” the explosion could allow Beirut to come back stronger than ever, precipitating a new era in the country’s cultural production. Such boosterish projections—issued from those in power—deliberately obfuscate the sheer scale the crisis, romanticizing a colonial past while welcoming a disaster capitalist future. The impact on Beirut’s artistic life has been nothing short of calamity. That the city now lies in tatters—a blasted shell at the feet of its clientelist, gerontocratic, war criminal leadership—is hardly a fall from grace so much as a return to a uniquely Lebanese normal—a mix of human tragedy, proxy factionalism, and anti-refugee racism crammed into a tuna can the size of Connecticut. The exceptionality of the city’s loss, then, cannot be found in the Western nostalgia for a Beirut that never existed, but in the suffering of its people, who have always deserved so much better.

— Kaleem Hawa