North Africa, West Asia: Interview

Shaping imagination in 1960s Beirut: a conversation with Zeina Maasri

The role of the visual in modern history, and the transnational nature of 1960s Beirut as a hub of politically oriented creativity and intellectual life

Tugrul Mende
26 January 2022, 12.00am
Lebanon, Hotel Guide, booklet, designed and illustrated by Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui, for the National Council for Tourism in Lebanon, 1969
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Courtesy of the artist's collection

In her latest book, ‘Cosmopolitan Radicalism:The Visual Politics of Beirut's Global Sixties’ writer and academic Zeina Maasri explores 1960s Beirut in the context of the Cold War, the anti-colonial struggle and the Palestinian resistance movement.

By using archives of printed media, Maasri’s new book explores the development of Beirut’s visual culture and politics during the city’s so-called ‘golden years’.In this interview with Tugrul Mende, Maasri talks about her new project, its challenges and how cities rather than nation states can often shape the flow of culture.

Tugrul Mende: How did you start working on the project?

Zeina Maasri: The initial ideas for ‘Cosmopolitan Radicalism’ developed while I was working on my previous book ‘Off The Wall’, which was about political posters from Lebanon’s civil war. I came across a lot of fascinating printed material in varied formats (posters, cards, leaflets, magazines and books) that didn’t fit the Lebanese Civil War framework, and which required a project of their own.

I’m mainly thinking here of the visual culture of the Palestinian resistance, work produced in Lebanon between the 1960s and the 1980s, which needed its own framing. The printed materials I came across were the outcome of creative collaborations between different Arab artists, intellectuals and militants who crossed paths in Beirut in the ‘long sixties’ [the period between 1958 and 1975]. Many of them would later take part in projects of solidarity with the Palestinian resistance.

I got interested in knowing more about what brought them to Beirut. I am referring here in particular to a generation of Egyptian, Iraqi and Syrian artists who worked with Palestinian intellectuals, some of whom moved to Beirut in the early 1970s to join radical publishing projects. That’s how my new project began to take shape. I began looking into the historical conditions that preceded the war and locating this history within global frameworks of the long sixties.

3-Nawal-PLO.jpg
From a postcard series commemorating the '10th anniversary of the Palestinian Revolution 1965–1975', Featuring artwork by Lebanese artist Nawal Abboud Traboulsi. PLO, Beirut 1975
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From the author's personal collection

At the same time, 1960s Beirut was developing as a nodal city for publishing and modern art in the region, where transnational circuits of Arab intellectuals and artists converged and diverged on matters of politics and aesthetics. In this new framing it’s important to think about the longer history and global dynamics of Lebanon’s wars. This enables us to understand the country’s longer history of protracted political struggle and conflicts in terms beyond sectarian violence, and through more intimately textured accounts of local agency and resistance rather than geopolitical interventions and imperialist machinations.

TM: Do you think this is why Beirut became a centre for political posters?

ZM: Beirut played an important role for artists and intellectuals, especially on the Left, publishing critical work that might otherwise be censored in the region. Some of these publications were liberal but a lot of the transnational publishing projects that developed in Beirut at the time acted as platforms for the anti-colonial struggle, and others were more radically on the Left.

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This was especially the case after the 1967 war and the major defeat of Arab states by Israel, when Lebanon was transformed into an anti-imperialist space with the rise of the Palestinian resistance and the associated movement of artists and intellectuals. The movement made Beirut a home and the liberation of Palestine its major cause and a potential catalyst for revolution in the Arab world, once the postcolonial Arab state project began to dissipate. Some might have been disillusioned with the state project earlier as they witnessed its repressions, but it was the 1967 defeat that blew it.

Arab states, such as Egypt and Syria, not only failed to keep to their promise to reclaim Palestine after its partition in 1948, but Israel managed to annex further Palestinian and Arab land in just a few days. From the late 1960s, Arab artists and intellectuals came to Beirut to lend artistic and material solidarity to the Palestinian resistance and dreamt of sparking a revolution that would reverberate across the Arab world.

TM: Did you interact with the artists you were working on?

ZM: I did interviews with many of the artists who were available. It is very difficult to rely on oral testimony because so much has changed and we’re living very intense moments today. My experience is that they always want to selectively remember what they did in the past in relation to how they position themselves politically today. This could be great for another project on memory, but it was not what I was doing for this book. So that’s why I was looking into press archives, to find texts they had written then or former testimonies. Not all of them kept their own archives; during war, archives get looted, sabotaged or damaged and people get forcibly displaced.

Images shape social relations, fuel consumption and ideas about leisure, but they also inspire resistance, mobilise solidarities and draw up revolutionary projects

Collections of printed ephemera rarely remain intact in conditions of war and forced displacement. The artists themselves were itinerant revolutionaries and did not always carry their portfolios with them as they travelled. In many cases I’ve had to locate their work for them. During interviews, some were in tears because they reconnected with material that they thought was lost or had forgotten about; seeing their work triggered memories. There were some intense emotional moments during that process.

TM: How does the material you use help you to get a sense of the period and what can it tell you about this era?

ZM: I used the visual material for two purposes. First, to access the past in its everydayness and, second, to understand the role of the visual in modern history. It is not only a cultural artifact or historical document that tells us about the past; it is a very active medium that has its own role in shaping imaginaries and actions. I am interested in the visual as a site in which politics unfolds in day to day manifestation. That is what visuals do as they themselves move across spaces and borders. I’m looking particularly at printed matter, which by definition is actually meant to be in circulation. It is something that you’d find in the street or at home, on posters, postcards, stamps, leaflets, books and periodicals. It is actually routinely shaping the imagination. It tells us about how people imagined themselves then and what radical futures and possibilities they dreamt of. It brings us back to the 1960s. It helps us understand this time period beyond the myth of Lebanon’s golden age as it is romanticised today, but rather in terms of how it was really lived then.

2-Darwish-Touni.jpg
Book cover designed by the Egyptian artist Helmi el-Touni for the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, published by the Arab Institute for Research and Publishing, Beirut 1973
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Courtesy of the collection of A. Bou Jawde

The whole affective and aesthetic dimension of images opens up to the realm of the imagination very differently than texts and official documents would do. That’s what my whole book is about, in fact. Images shape social relations, fuel consumption and ideas about leisure, but they also inspire resistance, mobilise solidarities and draw up revolutionary projects. Visual culture is a site of politics which historians tend to forget or underestimate.

TM: What were the most challenging aspects of working on the book?

ZM: The first difficulty I encountered was the inaccessibility and dispersal of the material and the lack of institutional archives that care for visual culture (beyond photography) in the Arab world. The second was methodological, to be able to undo the national framework as a historical given, especially in art history. This archival material, though produced in Lebanon, was pointing me to a project that is not merely about Lebanon. Or at least, it invites us to think of Lebanon’s modern history differently. I began to think instead through the framework and scale of the city, Beirut, as a space of flow and transnational encounter.

It might be very obvious now and there’s more and more scholarship that deals with histories of migration and global cities today; but it was not so straightforward when I began the project ten years ago. How do I deal with all this material that involved Iraqi, Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian artists at a given time and place? The politics of contestation and anti-colonialism at that time were also much more adept at crossing borders of the nation state than historians have managed to relate. All of this invites us to rethink our frameworks and methods as we retrace the forgotten trajectories of artists and visual cultures in the long and radical 1960s. This was a challenge for me at the beginning; but once I’d done this, everything fell into place, crystal clear.

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