Arab Magazines: A Neglected History Resurfaces

You don’t have to persuade me to appreciate magazines. As a journalist, a reader, and a writer, they are among my great references and pleasures.

Yet a recent exhibition of the genre at the Kulte art gallery in Rabat was eye-opening. I admired a double slide show of images: beautiful graphic covers of magazines, emblazoned with brilliant logos and original artwork, alongside quotations from the great poets, artists and thinkers who contributed to them, announcing their emancipation and their radical political and aesthetic intentions.

The event in Rabat was part of a larger project by the French Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art (INHA) titled Seismography of Struggles: Toward a Global History of Critical and Cultural Magazines, which catalogs non-European critical and cultural magazines from the eighteenth century to 1989.

At a presentation about the exhibition, the project’s director, Zahia Rahmani, leafed through several anthologies of modernist magazines, noting indignantly that they contained almost no non-European entries. The work on the walls behind her has been largely ignored in official academic accounts of radial aesthetics and politics.

Yet, born in circumstances of great volatility and duress, in countries suffering from colonialism, apartheid and genocide, each of these publications is “an object that is a matrix of modernity,” the exhibition catalogue argues.

The fundamental question that many of these magazines posed, said Rahmani, was: “How to emancipate oneself from colonialism, what to do with this heritage, what remains of our culture?”

Morocco is the first Arab country the exhibition has visited. The list of magazines from Arab countries is long and impressive. I counted 54 renowned, historical magazines listed in the catalog, from Egypt to Algeria, Lebanon to Morocco (where the ground-breaking 1960s magazine Souffles continues to be an object of deserved inspiration and study).

This project sheds light on the excellence of much of the production it catalogs, given the incredibly difficult financial and political circumstances under which a number of these publications were produced—often by unpaid young volunteers facing repression.

It is almost startling to note the breadth and depth of a literary, cultural, graphic and political legacy that has in many cases fallen into semi-oblivion, partly due to the lack of good archives of these projects.

From the exhibition in Rabat (Photo: Kulte art gallery).

The mission of the INHA is “to create resources for researchers” to preserve that legacy, Rahmani explained. A database of 130 magazines will be created from this project.

And, as its catalog noted, the goal of the exhibition in Rabat was partly pedagogical: “to make live and be re-born here that which speaks of the critical and cultural vitality of many men and women deeply engaged in the defense of their integrity … and raise awareness of that which has been covered. Buried.”

The value of an endeavor such as this is as much to challenge and complicate Western notions of modernity as arising only in its own capitals, as it is to reconnect audiences in the Arab region with a rich cultural, intellectual and political heritage.

This includes the conditions under which magazines were produced. In another presentation, the Lebanese curator and writer Rasha Salti focused the audience’s attention on the complexities of the politics of financing and production, by telling the story of the Lebanese magazine Al-Hiwar.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union supported cultural projects in other countries as a way of advancing their political ambitions. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, under the cover of an organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom, backed a gathering in Rome of many of the most renowned Arab writers. It also financed the publication of Al-Hiwar, in Beirut.

When the source of its funding was revealed by the New York Times, the magazine collapsed, and its editor, the well-respected writer Tawfiq Sayigh, left Lebanon in disgrace. The story serves as a reminder that the paranoia over the question of foreign funding in the Arab region has valid historical roots. Yet the quality of Al-Hiwar is also remarkable; it was much more than simply American propaganda.

The issues that Al-Hiwar’s creation, content and collapse raised continue to resonate today. As Salti noted, when she and others launched cultural projects in Beirut in the 1990s and they chose to take funding from the Ford Foundation, they were considered “traitors” by an older generation. Their own calculus, she said, was: “We’re going to take their money and do what we want.”

The question of what kind of a compromise it entails to take money from organizations and governments whose politics are not one’s own (and of whether any such source, regardless of its nationality or politics, can ever be without its problems) goes hand in hand with the question of how to sustain and ensure the independence of cultural projects. These questions are as relevant today as they have ever been. And we need, as ever, more magazines that debate them fiercely.


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