Foundations of Solidarity: Zeina Maasri Answers

November 26, 2021   •   By Helen Mackreath

IN THE WAKE of the intensifying resistance to the occupation of Palestine, the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States (and beyond), and such movements as #StandWithStandingRock, appeals for solidarity with the plight of migrants, occupied populations, racialized minorities, and Indigenous peoples have become culturally pervasive. This new LARB series on the Foundations of Solidarity draws together thinkers from the loosely defined region of the Middle East to discuss the topic from creative, historical, and political perspectives.

“It’s in hell where solidarity is important, not in heaven,” said John Berger. But is solidarity, indebted to the shared conditions of catastrophe, as much as we can hope for, without an imagination of something better? On the other hand, solidarity based on a notion of global sameness invokes an ambiguous “we” that disguises social and material injustices. From the settler colonialism in Gaza and the West Bank and in the occupied territories of Rojava and Kashmir to the structural racism and police violence in the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore, the messy work of envisioning and building coalitions of solidarity is underway. These are revolutionary solidarities anchored in the intersectionality of freedom struggles, the collective product of movement and contradiction, rather than abstract notions of what it means to be human.

Our second interview is with Dr. Zeina Maasri, author of the recently published Cosmopolitan Radicalism: The Visual Politics of Beirut’s Global Sixties (2020) and senior lecturer at the University of Brighton. Dr. Maasri works across the field of visual and cultural politics and design history with an emphasis on postcolonial Lebanon and the Arab world. She is the author of Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War (2008) and curator of the online archival resources. She is working on a new co-edited volume, Transnational Solidarity: Decentring the Sixties, forthcoming with Manchester University Press in 2022. In this interview, Dr. Maasri draws attention to the mobility of modernist cultural forms, discourses, and practices; how solidarity was conceived by Arab revolutionaries in the “long” 1960s; and what different print and visual archives from that period tell us about everyday forms of resistance and transnational solidarity networks.

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HELEN MACKREATH: Your work positions the cross-border visual and print cultures and aesthetics of solidarity in the Arab world as discursive sites of a complex hegemonic struggle where imaginaries of antagonistic political subjectivities were visually articulated and contested. Maybe we could begin by discussing some of these complex hegemonic struggles which your work is situated within?

ZEINA MAASRI: In my book on the political posters of the civil war in Lebanon [Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War, 2008] I begin to think of visual culture, and specifically the political posters of the civil war, as symbolic sites of struggle in the war. The civil war raged officially from 1975 for 16 years. Writing a history of the war through its visual and material culture and its artifacts, how the everyday discourses and imaginaries of the warring factions were articulated in these posters and how they changed over time, is also a way of trying to understand political subjectivities, in their formation and transformation through war time.

The discursive aspect of the posters gives an insight into the war that we usually miss in conventional accounts. How do people imagine themselves, how do they relate to an understanding of themselves, how do they become politicized? How do they come to hate another group, how is this imagined, how is this enemy imagined, or how do they identify with a particular community? These are things which are lived in the everyday and are developed visually through the posters.

From this early work, I developed on the idea of the intersections of visual culture and politics in its everyday unfolding, but turned instead to look at the period in Lebanon before the civil war to understand some of the antagonisms that were taking place then. In Cosmopolitan Radicalism: The Visual Politics of Beirut’s Global Sixties (2020), I examine that period as both marking the end of colonial or mandate Lebanon (from 1943 onward) but also as part of a moment of global transformations in the ’60s — locating it within both the global ramifications of the Cold War and a postcolonial moment in the Arab world, and their intersection. I’m still questioning the everyday through the visual and material culture but trying to understand how this was part of broader global transformations that were related to the “long” ’60s.

On one side there was the 1958 revolt and civil war in Lebanon, which occurred at a particular moment — it was two years after the Suez war, a moment in the rise of anti-colonial Arab nationalism, the rise of Nasser, the idea of the Arab union. It was also a revolutionary year for Iraq and Syria in terms of building the UAR (United Arab Republic) between Egypt and Syria. 1958 was a critical moment in the Cold War, as Lebanon saw the first major US military intervention in the Middle East, which proceeded under the Eisenhower Doctrine “to safeguard Lebanon from communist threat,” though history tells us there was no such threat. And on the other end, 1967 was the year of the major Arab defeat against Israel and the further loss of Arab land through the further annexation of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai. This affected Lebanon locally through the increase in refugee migrations (mainly Palestinians) but also as a major shock to the idea of the building of a postcolonial Arab state. It marked a historic shift in politics. From 1968 onward, you started seeing the radicalization of independent non-state actors and political movements in the Palestinian liberation struggle. This also corresponded to a moment in the Global South in which guerrilla movements, or armed struggle, were the means for national liberation and emancipation.

From a postcard series commemorating the “10th anniversary of the Palestinian Revolution 1965–1975,” Featuring artwork by: Mona Saudi. PLO, Beirut 1975. Courtesy of the artist, from Z. Maasri’s collection.

In both these moments, in 1958 and 1968, there were attempts at political emancipation. There was internal strife, structural in terms of the economy but also within the sectarian system of Lebanon. There were also regional changes and Global South changes, politicizations and youth movements and revolutionary anti-imperialist movements. Alongside this was the Cold War, which was thwarting some of these aspirations for radical political change. We saw this across the Global South. These are moments that are intimately linked to what was going on in Vietnam, the fall of Saigon, and then the civil war in Lebanon. 1968 became a critical year globally for the youth, for forms of anti-imperial solidarity, civil rights movements, and anti-establishment organizing. But this was translated within the region — it took on its own shape and form, particularly through the Palestinian liberation movement. That anti-establishment orientation also became a position of the New Left against Arab regimes of that time.

I am interested again here in the question of what the visual and print culture tells us about these time frames and these changes. It’s also important to say that this is a period about which not much history has been written, particularly about Lebanon. It’s also interesting to understand what was happening outside the state — the different actors, their aspirations, the contradictions, the particular political imaginaries but also how ideas of modernity materialized in the everyday.

Your work decenters the West and the nation-state and unearths multiple circuits of modernism. How does focusing on visuality allow us to understand the multifaceted modernist dissensus at the historic moment of the decolonization processes and experiences of post-independence Arab states? And what forms of dissensus did this take?

The idea is to think of the unfolding of modernity in contexts which are usually outside of the West, but also to understand this unfolding within a postcolonial moment historically and through postcolonial critical frameworks. How do we understand and critically broaden our understanding of modernity from that space of margin which has normally been excluded from its remit, or understood only as derivative of something that originated in the West? I’m also interested in how we do that without replicating an idea of a place-based form of modernity that works at the national scale. It’s been a very common approach to start with the nation as the given space of the unfolding of this modernity, specifically a postcolonial one. This national framework can sometimes fall into a kind of triumphalist postcolonial affirmation, which is itself a problem. But as it does that it also excludes other voices and other movements which were happening within the space of the nation.

This is specific to the space of Lebanon, because the ’60s themselves were a time of intense political movement but also a time of intense movements of people through that space. That’s why I focus on Beirut, rather than the nation of Lebanon, as an open city and as a nodal city. Beirut was a node for the intersection, coming together, convergence and divergence of various transnational circuits that were taking shape locally and globally around that time. We can think about the contributions and interactions that happened in Beirut, from Iraqi, Palestinian, Syrian, Egyptian, and Lebanese artists and intellectuals. How they met together in the city, what the city provided them in terms of the infrastructure that allowed them to meet, move, produce, interact with one another, and produce work (art or visual culture) that was outside the nation.

My key argument is revealing how, through a focus on visuality and understanding visuality itself as a force field, this enabled and shaped Beirut in the global ’60s as a nodal city. If we look at visual culture, it’s not merely a product of the 1960s, with all the different forms of political struggles or revolutionary changes, or dreams of modernity or leisure, but it’s also crucially shaping these ideas. This is what I specifically talk about when I refer to translocal visuality. This is a visuality that is part of global circulations but that assumes its own translated meanings that are locally informed. That sense of translocality, of the potential of the visual, is very important to shaping Beirut as a nodal city and imaging it as such, representing it as such but also living it through these images.

I look at three aspects. One is tourism — situating Beirut as a Mediterranean city within the rise of the postwar economies of leisure and travel. This is also directly connected to some of the Cold War funding, and the ideas of development and modernization — how does Beirut change historically as it becomes a tourist city that is Mediterranean? This is mostly achieved by Lebanese state promotions, a translocal visuality of “Mediterraneanscapes.”

Advertisement for Lebanon The Day They Abolished Winter, designed by Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui, for the NCTL, in The Economist, 27 Dec. – January 2, 1969–1970. Courtesy of the artist’s collection.

The second is to look at Beirut as a nodal city in terms of the development of postcolonial Arabic publishing. Here, there is a modernist dissensus that is part of the post-independence experiences of decolonization. Beirut is an important city in this regard because it became a publishing node for the Arab world and by the Arab world. I look at specific publishing projects from magazines connected to Cold War funding, but also radical colonial dissenting projects of Arab nationalists, and Palestinian publishing projects.

Book cover designed by Helmi el-Touni for Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish Habibati Tanhad min Nawmiha (My Lover Awakes from her Sleep) the Arab Institute for Research and Publishing, Beirut 1973. Courtesy of A. Bou Jawde’s collection.
Front cover design by W. Faris, featuring artwork by Juliana Seraphim, Hiwar, no. 18, 1965. Courtesy of A. Bou Jawde’s collection.

The third area of inquiry is looking at the Palestinian resistance and how that transformed Beirut and some of its infrastructures from being referred to as the “Paris of the East” into the “Arab Hanoi” — again another nodal city in the Global South.

Ahmad Zaatar, poem by Mahmoud Darwish, illustrations by Kamal Boullata, inside pages of the bilingual edition by Palestinian Union of Artists and Journalists, Beirut 1977. Collection of Z. Maasri.

I suggest these were both overlapping and antagonistic, but they overlapped in ways which created common infrastructures. I’m talking specifically about cultural infrastructures here — from printing, publishing, arts, and literature, for which Beirut was important. These included funding from Algeria, Iraq, and Libya. There was some funding through Maoist China. The PLO also made major investments after 1970 in publishing — particularly the radical children’s publishing house, Dar al Fata al-Arabi, which was the first publishing house in Arabic dedicated to children, part of a project of decolonizing both knowledge and affect for children and building an Arab futurity. These were also important for the debates that were shaped around that time — important disagreements about what counts as modern Arab art or literature, whether it should be connected to politics or remain outside politics, whether it was autonomous or not. These were really fierce debates, with charges of treason against some intellectuals who were on a particular side, with liberals for instance who it transpired were being funded by the CIA without them knowing (through the Congress for Cultural Freedom). All of this was taking place during the long ’60s, and Beirut was the stage-ground for this.

Front cover of al-Bayt (Home), Zakariyya Tamir (story) and Mohieddine Ellabbad (illustrations), Dar al-Fata al-Arabi (DFA), Beirut 1974. Collection of Z. Maasri.

These were sites of dissensus, or disagreement. Rather than thinking of the postcolonial nation-state as a space of agreement and consensus building, around the idea of the postcolonial nation — actually this was not the case. We need to go beyond these official nation-state narratives to find the much more granulated discussions, the disagreements and challenges, ideas, dreams, and projects that were thwarted or developed around that time.

How was solidarity conceived, imagined, and radically enacted in the border crossings, both spatial and intellectual, of particularly (but not exclusively) Arab revolutionaries in the “long” 1960s?

There’s a lot of literature on the ’60s, particularly recently around the commemorations of the 50 years since 1968. Most of these narratives describe this period as a failed radical movement of the left in Europe and North America. Not much of this literature remembers the Global South, and how important it was at that time for the revolutionaries and for this movement in Europe/North America. This is a really stunning erasure, not only perpetuating a lopsided history but one that engenders a failed understanding of what radicalism was then. So many theoretical treaties on the ’60s examine it through such limited geographic and political perspectives.

In 2019, I co-convened a conference, “The Radical Sixties: Aesthetics, Politics and Histories of Solidarity” (due to be published as a forthcoming book, co-edited with Cathy Bergin and Francesca Burke, Transnational Solidarity: Decentring the Sixties), which attempts to recenter anti-colonial solidarities of the 1960s in the radicalism that marked the era. It’s a project of historical restitution of something that’s been silenced. This is not only a way to give voice to those revolutions that were happening elsewhere that are usually omitted — which is important in itself. But it’s also important for understanding what radicalism was at that time. Solidarity was clearly radical. And if we don’t understand this, we will completely fail to understand what constitutes transnational solidarities today.

For us, it was important to understand the role of migration and the role of visual media and traveling cultures at that time in shaping these solidarities and imaginaries — in fact in shaping the youth’s understanding of themselves and their positions in the world. That solidarity was not just a progressive worker’s solidarity, but introduced another dimension of the worker — the immigrant worker, who came from a space that had been colonized. This brought home some of the problems of the colony that made some of the youth aware of the repressions more directly, and begin to rethink some of their positions and the places which they had been nurtured to be part of. These border crossings gave a new sense of collectivity that might not be directly experienced — that’s where I think transnational solidarity is so important and why cultural practices are key to political imaginations. Some people actually crossed borders to become activists in certain places, like traveling to South Lebanon to join the Palestinian guerrillas in the late ’60s and early ’70s, or going to Algeria. But some did not necessarily travel physically across borders, but made the border crossings in their imagination. The film cultures, Third Film, posters, magazines, songs, art, and images that were in very intense circulation — these different circuits of solidarity that were taking shape had such an important role in the radicalism and the movements of the period.

I think our contribution from the conference to this forthcoming book is to begin to open up this space for discussion. There’s so much more work which needs to be done. There’s work happening on South-South solidarity, like Afro-Asian solidarity for instance. This is amazing and important, but we’re also trying to say that there was not only South-South solidarity but also North-South networks which were traversed by migrations. They don’t fit this grid of North-South, South-South, but were much more complex and were changing in the long ’60s. We’re decentering conventional accounts of the ’60s in order to foreground transnational solidarity, particularly anti-colonial solidarity, at that time. This history is also important for today’s Black Lives Matter solidarities and Palestinian transnational solidarities.

What do these different archives (the ones usually erased from history) tell us about the everyday forms of resistance, contestations, and revolutionary imagination that confronted power and demanded radical change?

This is something which comes through in all three projects. I work on what we call in archives “ephemera.” Things that are there to be on the wall today and disappear tomorrow. Or the flyer that you distribute at a workers’ meeting or some sort of activist meeting which again disappears. Even the magazine which is there to be read, passed on, and ends up somewhere unknown. These are usually very difficult to find in the archives, specifically of the Middle East. But because they are ephemera they tell us something about these moments of transition and transformation during these revolutionary times that are missed when these histories are written. Histories are written based on archives, which are either available in the state or archives that have been kept. We know what sort of power maintains certain archives and occlude other ones.

I’m also interested in that sense of the ephemeral that for those of us who are part of the ongoing uprisings in the Arab world today, are lived in a tweet feed. You go onto the street, there’s a certain moment of affective utopia, of optimism, hope, connection, that you live out today and which goes away the next day; but something else emerges from it. There are changes but these moments are important for the possibility of imagining another future, that are lived in the day to day. These ephemera hold these traces, and if we don’t have access to them, then we don’t have the lived experience of how people live their day-to-day revolutionary dreams.

There are, of course, other methods to do so — oral history. But I think these ephemera, which were previously in print, were important in recording these day-to-day forms of resistance and new forms of solidarity, the new imaginations which emerged. Ideas about what people want can very easily be crushed by whichever regime comes to power. I think now, for the Middle East in particular, there is an interest in this material. There are rising studies of affect, aesthetics, and politics — specifically since the Arab uprisings. But this has not been the case for the history of such uprisings, the previous revolts like the 1958 one I talked about, or the 1968–’69 ones in Lebanon. These have not been written about except through the more top-down historical narratives. And those top-down historical narratives, specifically in the case of Beirut, will also only write about these through the presentist lens of the civil war. The perspective of ephemera helps us to understand that in fact what we understand as the civil war was preceded by revolutionary possibilities that many took part in. Even if it descended into violence, it doesn’t mean that it was initially a sectarian-inspired divide. It was something else. And it is another form of hegemonic writing of history that writes all these uprisings as forms of civil war. On the contrary, it’s the counterrevolution, and in military terms “counterinsurgency,” that turns them into a civil war. So we might want to rethink the civil war in Lebanon as a counterrevolution.

You write in the book that “The ‘radical liberalism’ of Beirut’s early 1960s was repurposed by the close of the decade as a node in Third Worldist internationalism.” I wonder if you could expand more on this break — how did this repurposing come about and what did the Third World internationalism look like?

This is something which comes out when people ask me what I mean by “Cosmopolitan Radicalism.” In response, I say that it’s a qualifying claim of radicalism. Some may argue that cosmopolitanism doesn’t go with radicalism, but I’m trying to argue that — if it’s radicalism which is Third Worldist in its internationalist view of the world, and in its political emancipatory project, and which connects the Global South, then it has a cosmopolitan view of the world, which provincializes Europe. Lebanon specifically has always been described in terms of cosmopolitanism, of being the liberal exception to the more authoritarian postcolonial nation-states. And I argue that if you focus on Beirut, you find something else, which connects the city to the Global South and not only to being “the Paris of the East.”

It’s also interesting how the infrastructure of cultural production, arts and publishing, and tourism, overlapped — not coincided but were subverted or displaced — to be used for revolutionary purposes. When a printing press which produces these glorious state-of-the-art images of Beirut as a cosmopolitan center of leisure on the Mediterranean for the state, is also used to produce radical children’s books for Palestinian kids in refugee camps; and is used to support emerging artists from Syria, Iraq, and Palestine and Egypt to make beautiful drawings and decolonize children’s literature, then something is transforming. The cosmopolitanism of Beirut is transforming, or being displaced, into something else. And we need to think that radicalism is cosmopolitan in its cultural outlook. Isn’t that’s what internationalism is about. What is it that makes Beirut an Arab Hanoi if it’s not in the imagination of people enacting, geographically rethinking these connections? What does it mean aesthetically for it to become an “Arab Hanoi”? That’s really at the heart of my argument.

How do you understand, on the one hand, the role of the city as being a site of encounter and exchange, and on the other solidarity as being in circulation, through the movement of objects, ideas, and images?

Beirut as a nodal city is a space of both encounter and exchange, but also opposition and divergence. Different circuits were meeting and rubbing against one another. There are divergences between the different “-scapes,” to borrow from Arjun Appadurai. There’s the financescape, and this could meet or diverge with other circuits such as tourism or publishing, mediascapes. Books and ideas traveled both as printed objects but also as ideas and with the people who made these books. People who came to join the Palestinian revolution in camps, who came to join in solidarity as artists, from the Arab world and from beyond, or who mounted exhibitions in Beirut, also used some of the infrastructure which had been developed as a city of tourism — the cafés, for example. The cafés and intellectuals were important for the transformation of Beirut as a publishing space; and they were located in the same area, Hamra, where a lot of the new radical publishing houses and bookshops developed. As these new modern cafés became the meeting places for the intelligentsia and some of the activists of the left, they were also part of the burgeoning new developing city as a Mediterranean leisure site. So we started seeing some of these overlaps.

Some of the Iraqi artists and Palestinians (before ’48) used to come to Lebanon as the summer resort, because it was cooler to be in the mountains. This changed in the ’60s, they would meet in Beirut, in those intellectual meeting places, in order to share ideas. Beirut became simultaneously a space of leisure and a space of intellectual development and contestation for the neighboring Arab postcolonial states. What could not be published in Syria or in Egypt was published in Beirut. But people also met in other places, such as art galleries. There was an idea that Beirut was a marketplace for selling modern art; and artists of the region would come to show their work in galleries and for it to be sold internationally and nationally. Another interaction then occurred between these artist spaces and publishing. New spaces started appearing where there was experimentation between artists and intellectuals, new transformations in the form of the book and magazines which had not been seen before. There was a new form of art that took shape in this new published material which was a result of the city being a space of encounter.

You reflect on the historical junctures and disjuncture of the Palestinian struggle with global anti-colonial politics, and the utopias and disenchantment of a generation of politically committed Arab artists and intellectuals. I wonder how you conceive of these in relation to the forms of solidarity being practiced today?

I tried to map how solidarity with the Palestinian struggle was part of an anti-colonial global solidarity through tracing the story of one children’s book called Home, a joint authorship between the Syrian writer Zakariyya Tamir and the Egyptian illustrator and book designer Mohieddine Ellabbad published in 1974 by Dar al-Fata al-Arabi. I followed its journey, from production in Beirut to how it accompanied Yasser Arafat to his landmark address at the UN in New York, subsequently translated to 12 languages and how it was plagiarized by the Arab League of Nations in 1986, which involved erasing some of the text and illustrations, to tone down the political signs of anti-colonial national liberation. This tells us not only about the disjuncture of how things changed globally with the fall of/demise of the revolutionary anti-imperialism generally, but also nationally or transnationally within the Arab world, in terms of the role of some of the Arab states and institutions that gave up on the Palestinian struggle. It also tells us the stories of people like Ellabbad on what they felt, their position toward what happened to their work and toward the failure of the postcolonial Arab state to maintain its promise of the liberation of Palestine but also crucially of failing its people in any attempt to deliver on the Arab postcolonial project of emancipation and restitution of dignity. Something ended there [just after ’82 with the siege of Beirut and the Israeli occupation of Lebanon].

There’s another generation that has today, in the last decade, taken up the same mantle to rise again. Today’s movements are not covered in the work that I do. But it was interesting to end with the voice of Ellabbad to be able to understand what got us here. There was almost this long silence from the mid-’80s up until the new wave of revolutionary dreaming which began in 2010/’11. There is something interesting in the way that members of the younger generation try to reclaim some of the artistic practices and songs of the past. Some scholars have been writing about this — that ongoing memory, which we thought was broken between generations. These activists are the ones who are excavating and using an archive of the past in the new making of their own revolutionary times. On a more global scale, there’s definitely a sort of cultural memory which is at play between Black Liberation and today’s Black Lives Matter solidarities, in the forms of solidarities which were revisited and re-invigorated between black liberation movements and Palestine and other anti-colonial movements of the ’60s. And I think there is a desire to go back to that previous period. At least we need to provide them with that historical knowledge to start with, because some of it had been buried or some, especially in the Arab world, is not accessible.

For me, I end with what happened. And I also end with a place which is not documented sufficiently enough to understand how it happened. It’s not a failure of the political activists rising against forms of tyranny or occupation, it’s just that question — how was it actually thwarted? This is also important for today’s generation to understand. Not just the failures of the past — it’s not simply a failure of the left — but what forms of counterrevolutions were at play earlier as well.

Finally, as you draw attention to the importance of resisting the erasure of past revolutionary moments from history, I want to ask how you conceive of methodologies for decolonizing modernism? How can retrieving these revolutionary legacies contribute to radical futures? 

If we don’t center the actual political struggles for decolonization and these histories in the contemporary discussions on decolonization, then there’s a risk of decolonization being hijacked and co-opted by the Anglophone university. I’m very careful to use the term both to talk about epistemological work that needs to be done in particular fields of study; but also to go back to the histories of how, in former colonies, there were attempts to decolonize modernism or decolonize cultural and creative practices; that was part of a political struggle for decolonization and is an ongoing project. Perhaps this is what is important in terms of why we need to avoid erasing these radical histories.

Today’s Anglophone university project of “decolonizing,” as necessary as it is, needs to build on histories of decolonization in the Global South rather than co-opt the term to academic ends emptied of politics and claim it for career gains, which sadly is what is happening.

When I show some of the work, the collaborations of the artists and intellectuals, some of the book projects and the magazines, of that previous period to generations who have not accessed them in the archives before, it gives them hope. It’s not about romanticizing that past, even if I can myself be guilty of that sometimes, but because we need hope. We are in a very critical moment. That sense of history gives hope to people and in people rather than in any form of bigger structure which is miraculously going to change everything. It inspires a sense of agency, a sense of how people can shape their history.

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Helen Mackreath is the Middle East Correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books based in Istanbul, previously in Beirut and the West Bank. She is currently researching issues relating to Syrian refugee governance in Turkey.