Zeina Maasri, Cosmopolitan Radicalism: The Visual Politics of Beirut’s Global Sixties (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Zeina Maasri (ZM): While doing research for my previous book, I came across many fascinating collections of printed media, ranging from posters, stamps, cards, and leaflets, to cultural periodicals and illustrated Arabic books produced in Beirut between the late 1950s and the mid-1970s. These curious printed objects, often beautifully designed, turned out to be the outcome of creative collaborations between various Arab artists, intellectuals, and militants who crossed paths in Beirut. While clearly central for social histories of everyday modern life, leisure, art and politics, such archives of visual and media cultures have largely been forgotten, not only in postcolonial histories of Lebanon but also across the wider Arab East.
Over the past decade, I have been obsessively gathering together these sources, tracing their authors and related—mostly defunct—institutions; stubbornly returning day after day to wait for someone who has the “only” key to a locked archive; rescuing a heap of precious international solidarity prints that had got damp in the warehouse of a formerly leading radical Arab left organization; amateurishly finding my way into digitalizing and cataloguing these collections; and building friendships with more professional collectors who shared my obsession and allowed me into their archives and on their treasure hunts—my key partner has been Abboudi Bou Jawde (al-Furat Bookshop, Beirut). During this time, I was teaching in the Architecture and Design Department at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and, together with my students, was growing increasingly frustrated with Western-centric histories and theories of design and visual culture and the dearth of scholarship relating to the Arab East. This gap had to be filled, not least in my teaching, and so these archived collections and my preliminary research found their first audiences in my classes. Students’ and colleagues’ enthusiasm at AUB further encouraged me.
Meanwhile, the unfolding Arab revolutions began to draw scholarly attention to the centrality of aesthetics in the politics of dissent and to the role of “new” media technologies in connecting activists in and across spaces of protest. Little knowledge, however, was available about the history of such militant aesthetic practices and the transnational circulation of so-called old print media. All these collections were begging for a serious study, one broader in reach than my AUB classroom. So, here I now am with this book.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
ZM: Shedding light on understudied design practices and cultures of the visual attached to print technologies, this book critically engages with another similarly ignored facet of Arab postcolonial history: the transnational movement of cultural actors across Arab state borders and the mobility of visual and print cultures. I propose that these cross-border aesthetic practices and mobile cultural artefacts need to be examined outside of nationally circumscribed frameworks. Thus, my analysis situates travelling artists/designers, images/printed objects, political discourses, and aesthetic experiences within the disjunctive cultural flows of the global sixties. In so doing, the book foregrounds the significant translocal role of visuality in articulating new visions of cultural modernity, consumption, and leisure; in forging novel relations between modern art and literature; and in shaping the aesthetics of anticolonial struggle, revolutionary anti-imperialism, and transnational solidarity.
My focus is on Beirut as a nodal city in the global sixties. In that context, I examine archives of printed matter, mapping the cultural flows that animated modernist pursuits in Beirut from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s along three interrelated themes.
The first theme is concerned with the constitution of the city as a Mediterranean site of tourism and leisure within a postwar global economy of travel and consumer desires. Bolstered by development funds and modernization imperatives, this influx drew Beirut into the shadows of US “capitalist democracy” in the Cold War. My analysis, however, shifts focus from global US designs to more nuanced readings of the role of local actors. It draws attention to the historical contingency of cultural practices, as “Cold War Modernism” gets conjugated with the heat of Arab anticolonial struggles, Lebanon’s 1958 revolt, and US counterinsurgency campaigns.
My second line of enquiry investigates the rise of Beirut as a node of pan-Arab publishing. I explore changes in the visuality and materiality of Arabic cultural periodicals and books in the context of a network of new relations in modern art and literature, printing technologies, the political economy of transnational publishing and the cultural politics of decolonization in the Arab world.
My third strand situates Beirut within a third worldist project of anticolonial solidarity and connects it, through the Palestinian Resistance, to an internationalist framework of revolutionary anti-imperialism and armed struggle that followed the 1967 Arab–Israeli war. In this globally expansive revolutionary geography, Beirut acted as a nodal city in and through which an aesthetic of solidarity with the Palestinian liberation movement converged and circulated along transnational circuits. In particular, I investigate the translocal visuality of revolutionary struggle in the printscapes of solidarity that marked Beirut’s public culture and street life.
The book reveals how this radical aesthetic configuration developed historically in the interstices, overlaps, and contentions of transnational circuits of modernism, linking Beirut to Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad during the long 1960s. This nodal configuration decentred Paris, among other Northern metropoles, from the cosmopolitan imagination and instead envisioned radical worldviews stretching their contours across the Global South, from Havana to Hanoi. In retracing these forgotten circuits, Cosmopolitan Radicalism challenges cultural histories of the postcolonial Arab world which posit Lebanon as the liberal exception and too readily and too easily flag up European-oriented cosmopolitanism, the hegemony of the Lebanese Christian elite, and sectarian incongruity. In particular, I demonstrate the necessity of overcoming the lopsided limitations of national—and sectarian—frameworks and the value of focusing instead on the city as the space of convergence and confrontation in a wider aesthetic field of transnational political relations.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
ZM: My new book builds on my long-time work on the relations between visual culture, graphic design, and politics; it revisits this nexus from global and postcolonial perspectives. In many ways it is a continuation of what I had begun (somewhat less confidently) in my previous book, Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War (IB Tauris, 2009). Excavating unexplored archives and suppressed narratives of wartime Lebanon, I argued for an understanding of political posters as discursive sites of a complex hegemonic struggle where imaginaries of antagonistic political subjectivities—formed and transformed during wartime—are visually articulated, contested, and battled over.
Cosmopolitan Radicalism takes a few steps backwards in history; it is, in a way, a genealogical undertaking that enables us to understand Lebanon’s longer history of protracted political struggle and conflicts in broader frameworks than internecine sectarian violence, and in more intimately textured accounts than geopolitical interventions.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
ZM: I hope it will be read by anyone interested in Lebanon and the Middle East, offering them antecedents to contemporary political conflicts that may help them understand the present. In that sense, it is also an attempt to offer a historical redress that peels away the layers of some of the hegemonic constructs that have come to constitute what it is to be “Lebanese”—hospitality, openness to the West, liberalism, entrepreneurship. In so doing, it reveals the cultural politics that have reified some of these myths—but also, crucially, it sheds light on very different archives—ones that center the everyday forms of resistance, contestations, and revolutionary imagination that have time and again stood to confront power and demand radical change.
I am also hoping that the book will encourage scholars to take visual and material culture studies more seriously as a lens through which to understand political relations, rather than remaining a concern on the margin of “real” political affairs.
I would like artists and designers to read it and perhaps identify with some of the preoccupations, trepidations, and debates of a previous generation around issues of modernity, decolonization, cultural identity, political art, and activism. Finally, I would like the book to intervene in emerging discussions of global art and design history and contribute to methodologies for “decolonizing” modernism.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
ZM: I am currently co-editing a book (with Cathy Bergin and Francesca Burke), based on the successful conference “The Radical Sixties: Aesthetics, Politics and Histories of Solidarity” we convened at Brighton (27-29 June 2019). This project seeks to decenter the established Western loci and temporality of “the sixties” and calls for new analyses of this critical historical conjuncture from the standpoint of transnational solidarity with and across anti-imperialist and anticolonial liberation struggles of the Global South.
I am also building on the research for Cosmopolitan Radicalism to seek funding to construct and expand, through collaborative networks, web-based archival resources and exhibitions to make this material more widely accessible.
J: What connections, if any, could be made with Lebanon’s uprisings in 2019-2020?
ZM: There are many comparisons and connections that could be drawn between the revolutionary hopes of Beirut’s long 1960s and those unfolding today. But most importantly, we need to consider how past revolutionary moments, rising against a Lebanese ruling oligarchy and sectarian power structure, have been ironed out, erased from history and reduced to memory narratives of civil wars and geopolitics. How to guard against such erasures—in Beirut today as in the region—seems to me a crucial question for both activists on the ground and academics, especially when radical futures are never certain but only systemically thwarted by counter-revolutions and challenged by the devastating contingencies of a murderous crony capitalism.
Excerpt from the book (pp. 6–13)
Beirut in the ‘Long’ 1960
My focus is on Beirut’s ‘long’ 1960s, caught as it was between two moments of violent civil strife in Lebanon’s history. The first, a summer-long insurrection in 1958, occurred in the euphoric tide of anticolonial Arab nationalist movements that swept the region in the aftermath of the Suez War. The second, Lebanon’s protracted civil war (1975–90), developed in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab–Israeli war, in tandem with the rise of the Palestinian Resistance in a global framework of revolutionary anti-imperialism.
A ‘crossroads to civil war’ (Salibi 1976), Lebanon’s history from 1958 to 1976 has been amply studied by scholars who have advanced various perspectives on the genealogy of the conflict: sectarian political identities, economic disparities, competing national imaginaries, regional and international intervention. Very little work, however, is available on the cultural dimensions of political struggle. How did global configurations of the Cold War intersect with regional anticolonial struggle and in the everyday life of 1960s Beirut? What was the role of visuality in these complex (counter) hegemonic processes and discursive formations? And how did printed matter constitute a fraught site of struggle in the interlocking of global and local relations of power at this historical conjuncture?
The 1960s are foregrounded in retrospect, and often with a great deal of nostalgia, as Lebanon’s ‘golden years’: a booming site of modern leisure and culture in the Middle East. The glamorous performances of the likes of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at the International Festival of Baʿalbek or images of bikini-clad young women posing fashionably in a prototypical Mediterranean beach setting are just two examples to conjure up the cosmopolitan spectacle of modernity that Lebanon staged. Equally promising was the scene of modernist experimentations in art and literature that made its imprint on the pages of Shiʿr (Poetry 1957–64; 1967–70) and Hiwar (Dialogue 1962–7), or materialized in Silsilat al-Nafaʾis (Precious Books Series, 1967–70) published by Dar an-Nahar, and hung on the walls of the city’s burgeoning art galleries and salons. But at the same time Beirut was also developing as a platform for radical publishing in and for the Arab world, a beacon for dissenting voices and a nexus for anticolonial political commitment, iltizam, through the arts, from the literary journal al-Adab (Literature 1953–) to the radical children’s books of Dar al-Fata al-Arabi (1974–94) and, not least, through the labyrinth of revolutionary signs posted on the city’s walls. Many of these cultural practices and themes, which culminated in the 1960s, were launched in the 1950s and continued in fact to develop through the 1970s. The cultural fervour of 1960s Beirut is thus aptly described as ‘long’, an epoch that stretches beyond the artificially imposed historical boundaries of a decade.
Despite this lustre of glory – or perhaps underlying it – the long 1960s were marked by domestic socio-economic disparities, institutionalized in liberal economic policies that established Beirut as an entrepôt – a node in the free circulation of goods, people and capital – in the Middle East. This political economy was conjugated with an institutionalized sectarian political system that concentrated ruling power and sustained it with Christian Lebanese at the expense of Muslim populations. These structural inequalities had no little role in triggering dissent and unfolding into violent conflict. Despite the reformist policies, state-building and developmental projects of the Shihabist era – the presidency of Fuad Shihab (1958–64) and his successor Charles Helou (1964–70) – socio-economic problems and political grievances would persist through the 1960s. While the two moments of civil strife, 1958 and 1975, share a domestic politics of contestation, their articulation within regional and global politics marks them apart. Indeed, Beirut’s long 1960s were closely connected to regional processes of decolonization and complicated by shifting imperial powers in an emerging global Cold War order. It is on this account that it may be characterized as a nodal city in the global sixties. […] The East Mediterranean port city that ushered in the reign of US power with the landing of US Marines on its shores in 1958 was reconstituted, in the aftermath of 1967, as a radical node on the global terrain of revolutionary anti-imperialism.
Cosmopolitan Radicalism: From ‘Paris of the East’ to ‘Arab Hanoi’
In his essay ‘De la Suisse orientale au Hanoi arabe, une ville en quête de rôles’, historian and political analyst Fawwaz Traboulsi traces a genealogy of modern Lebanon by way of Beirut’s ascribed roles, from the tourist economy of the ‘Switzerland of the East’, developed by nationalists in the wake of Lebanon’s modern formation as a nation-state in 1920, to its radical antithesis, the ‘Arab Hanoi’, arising from the constitution of Beirut as the capital of the PLO from 1970 to 1982 (Traboulsi 2001). My argument builds on Traboulsi’s observation in order to enquire into the historical conditions of the aesthetic emergence of an ‘Arab Hanoi’. The label is indicative of the Third Worldist imagination that connected Beirut with the North Vietnamese capital. I suggest, however, that before the latter’s radical materialization, the Swiss tourist model had already been displaced in the 1960s by the emergence of Beirut as the ‘Paris of the East’. This displacement shifted the national touristic discourse and its scopic regime from the mountains to the Mediterranean coastal capital. Historically locating this substitution is crucial if one is to understand the new place the capital city occupied in the economy of leisure and to reveal the dislocation between mountain and Mediterranean coast in the post-independence national imagination. It also allows us to understand how transnational circuits and associated discursive and aesthetic formations overlapped and contended with one another in and through Beirut’s long 1960s.
I take inspiration, furthermore, from Ilham Khuri-Makdisi’s important work in understanding the interconnections between cities such as Beirut, Alexandria and Cairo in ‘the making of global radicalism between 1860 and 1914’ (2013). Like Khuri-Makdisi’s, my aim is to ‘de-provincialize’ the Arab East from accounts of global revolutionary cultures. My study, however, reconfigures the global optic to meet the historical contingencies of the long 1960s: it is explicitly concerned with Beirut’s new role as a ‘nodal city’ in the global sixties.
Critics and historians of modern art in post-independence Lebanon have habitually stressed its cosmopolitan, European orientation and attributed this to a host of factors, most popularly, the multi-sectarian socio-political composition of Lebanon and the strong ties of a Lebanese Christian elite to Europe. This standard view generally foregrounds the exception of Lebanon in an Arab region, where national affirmations were prevalent in artistic processes of decolonization. […] I propose, in contrast, that if we challenge the guiding questions and ‘national’ framework within which these arguments are lodged, we find something else: something at once radical, cosmopolitan and not Eurocentric.
First, I emphasize how Beirut in the long 1960s developed as a nexus of transnational Arab artistic encounter, aesthetic experimentation, intellectual debate and political contestation. Its cosmopolitanism was not directed only at Euro-American modernism and not limited to a Lebanese nationalist subjectivity. Rather, it was formed by competing transnational circuits of modernism and the mobility of its enunciating subjects, not least Egyptian, Palestinian, Syrian and Iraqi artists and intellectuals who weaved through the city, in and out of its flourishing art galleries, publishing industry, and tourism and leisure sites. Second, I contend that this cosmopolitanism was also politically radical, demonstrating how in the contingency of the 1967 Arab defeat and the Third Worldist politics of transnational solidarity, the city’s modernist aesthetic circuits and associated infrastructures were radicalized to serve the Palestinian revolutionary project. The ‘radical liberalism’ (Creswell 2019: 10) of Beirut’s early 1960s was repurposed by the close of the decade as a node in Third Worldist internationalism. Thus the cosmopolitanism of ‘Beirut: the Paris of the East’ was displaced in the service of revolutionary ‘Arab Hanoi’ and thereby transformed. The ensuing cosmopolitan radicalism is expressed in and through visual and print cultures that carried in their transnational circulatory practices projects of anti-imperial solidarity and prefigured radical horizons of possibility. Accordingly, we need to reconceive of this radicalized form of cosmopolitanism as one that is enunciated ‘from below’ – from the place of margins – decentring Eurocentric normative and institutional instantiations.
The antagonistic relations forming in the global space of Beirut were not only linked to domestic articulations of national, sectarian and class identities; rather, and crucially, I argue that these social relations were also politically entangled with translocal modes of visuality. Against any celebratory reminiscence of the ‘golden years’, my argument conceives of Beirut’s long 1960s as a liminal juncture, an anxious time and space when the city held out promises at once politically radical and radically cosmopolitan.