LONDON: At the height of the Cold War, two international organizations – the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) and the Franklin Book Programs – became heavily involved in the literary landscape of the Arab world. Throughout much of the 1950s and 1960s, they published books and magazines, organized conferences, and embedded themselves in the cultural lives of writers, editors and translators. Their work would find its way onto bookshelves and into cafés in Beirut, Cairo and Damascus, before the world they had helped to sustain began to unravel.
Both organizations were revealed to have been covertly funded by the CIA. For years, the Franklin Book Programs also worked with the United States Information Agency, promoting American values to the rest of the world and using cultural diplomacy as a weapon in its ideological struggle with the Soviet Union. The revelations would cause considerable pain to those who had contributed to the organizations’ cultural output, despite warnings from a handful of their peers.
The two organizations are now at the heart of an exhibition taking place at The Mosaic Rooms in London. “Borrowed Faces: Future Recall” is the first UK solo exhibition to be held by the Berlin-based art collective Fehras Publishing Practices and delves into the intriguing world of cultural diplomacy and publishing imperialism. The Syrian artists Sami Rustom, Omar Nicolas and Kenan Darwich, who have been working together since 2015, have delved into one of the most fertile periods in Arab publishing, not only investigating the clandestine infiltration of Arabic literature, but the vibrant world of pan-Arab and anti-imperialist publications.
United by a love of collecting, the trio’s interest in Cold War archival material began in Beirut in 2018. Having been invited to participate in an art residency by Ashkal Alwan (the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts), the three immersed themselves in the city’s cultural landscape, searching for books, magazines, memoirs and letters from the 1950s and 1960s.
“That was the moment when we began thinking about publishing during the Cold War,” says Rustom, who was born in Aleppo and has a background in journalism. “How Beirut played an integral role in cultural production and how it was a meeting point for Arab intellectuals from different countries.”
They began scouring the city’s flea markets, organizing interviews, and gaining access to private libraries. They met Abboudi Abou Jaoudé, a Hamra-based vintage poster collector who introduced them to “Soviet Union,” an illustrated monthly magazine published in multiple languages, and interviewed the writer and researcher Mahmoud Chreih, who has written extensively about the life of Tawfiq Sayegh, the editor-in-chief of the CCF-funded “Hiwar” magazine. They also visited the library of the Russian Cultural Center in Verdun, the Orient-Institut Beirut, and the American University of Beirut, searching for magazines, publishers, writers and translators who were active during what was also Lebanon’s Golden Age.
In many ways, the research was an extension — or a continuation — of their previous work documenting the private library of the Syrian writer Abdul Rahman Munif, which they undertook as part of a series called “Disappearances.”
“While documenting his library we came across the stories of many publishers who were active in the 60s or early 70s in Beirut, Damascus or Cairo and we started to understand how strong the relation between publishing, politics and ideologies in general was,” says Rustom. It was during this documentation that the collective first became aware of the sheer quantity of Arabic books published by international institutions.
“That was the moment for us to rethink where we wanted to go with our research into the history of publishing, or the modern history of publishing, in our region,” explains Rustom. “And we said, ‘OK. We will go to Beirut and make the focus the Sixties, because Beirut was very open, very dynamic and the place where many of the… what we call actors, were based. It was the city where these actors were playing, whether they were translators, writers, institutions or publishing houses.”
They soon found themselves immersed in a world of literary talent. Amongst the translators of Russian texts were Mawahib Kayali and the Iraqi writer Ghaib Tumah Farman, both of whom eventually moved to Moscow. Meanwhile, the Franklin Book Programs, which opened an office in Cairo in 1953 and Beirut in 1957, worked with many prominent literary figures, including the Palestinian short story writer Samira Azzam and the Palestinian academic Ihsan Abbas. The involvement of such writers and translators, many of whom were involved in cultural resistance against Israel and had no idea the Franklin Book Programs was funded by the US government, triggered a number of questions for the collective, not least those relating to the funding of artistic projects.
“We are trying to see what overlaps, or what common denominators there are between the Sixties and today,” says Rustom. “The Sixties were the beginning of globalization as we know it and we feel there is a lot in common between the Sixties, and how cultural producers were working, and now. The questions of autonomy, your political position, what you want to do, who’s funding you, and how you are producing or working on the margins. What is freedom in this regard? What is political belief? This is something that we have experienced all the time since we started working. The question about where the money comes from, where we are free, where we are (following) the policies of institutions.”
The exhibition, which runs until September 26 and has been made possible by a partnership between the Delfina Foundation, The Mosaic Rooms and the Shubbak Festival, includes three different elements. The first is a photo-novel called “Borrowed Faces,” the second is an interactive presentation of the collective’s archive, and the third is a re-imagining of the CCF’s archive. “We created four big photographic works in which we intervene in, or imagine, the archive of the CCF — an archive that we didn’t even have access to. Not even a picture,” says Nicolas, who is originally from Homs.
One of the main concerns of the exhibition, however, relates to the ownership of archives. It’s not just about collecting the physical material, says Rustom, or about buying and possessing that material, but understanding and questioning it.
“What does it mean in such a time of historical change, in a time of limited mobility, to own an archive?” asks Nicolas. “What does the physicality of the archive and the accessibility of the archive mean? Especially as we are focusing on the CCF, an institution that was globally active in the 60s. What does it mean to own the historical archive or the historical narrative?”