How America covertly influenced Arab literature during the Cold War

How America covertly influenced Arab literature during the Cold War
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. (Supplied)
Short Url
Updated 15 July 2021

How America covertly influenced Arab literature during the Cold War

How America covertly influenced Arab literature during the Cold War
  • A new exhibition from Syrian collective Fehras Publishing Practices explores this little-known piece of history

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.




Throughout much of the 1950s and 1960s, CCF and the Franklin Book Programs published books and magazines, organized conferences, and embedded themselves in the cultural lives of writers, editors and translators. (Supplied)

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.”




CCF and the Franklin Book Programs are now at the heart of an exhibition taking place at The Mosaic Rooms in London. (Supplied)

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.




CCF and the Franklin Book Programs were revealed to have been covertly funded by the CIA. (Supplied)

“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.




CCF and the Franklin Book Programs’ 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. (Supplied)

“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.




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. (Supplied)

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?”


Zuhair Murad celebrates Jennifer Lopez’s birthday with fashion tribute

ennifer Lopez performed at the Citizen VAX LIVE concert in May wearing a jumpsuit by Zuhair Murad. (Getty Images)
ennifer Lopez performed at the Citizen VAX LIVE concert in May wearing a jumpsuit by Zuhair Murad. (Getty Images)
Updated 25 July 2021

Zuhair Murad celebrates Jennifer Lopez’s birthday with fashion tribute

ennifer Lopez performed at the Citizen VAX LIVE concert in May wearing a jumpsuit by Zuhair Murad. (Getty Images)

DUBAI: Lebanese designer to the stars Zuhair Murad celebrated US singer Jennifer Lopez on Saturday, taking to Instagram to toast the queen of pop’s special relationship with the fashion house.

The hitmaker is known for her love of Zuhair Murad gowns and regularly hits red carpets, and the stage, in glittering outfits by the designer.

The fashion house celebrated the singer’s birthday on July 24 by releasing a short video of the numerous occasions she has donned a gown by Murad.

“Celebrating the beautiful Jennifer Lopez today, by reminiscing over some of our favorite #ZuhairMurad looks of hers,” the caption read. “Happy birthday @jlo! Cheers to your everlasting youth and to more #ZMxJLOMoments!”

Murad is one of Lopez’s go-to designers for special red carpet events and performances.

The “Let’s Get Loud” singer previously opened up about her affinity for Murad’s designs, describing the couturier as “probably her favorite designer” in a past interview with Venture Lifestyle.

“I discovered him years ago when I was doing a show, and I was so jet-lagged and I was up in the middle of the night watching Fashion TV, which they had in this country I was in,” explained the hitmaker. “He had this beautiful show and I was like, ‘who is this guy?’”

Lopez went on to explain the hurdles she faced when trying to get in touch with Murad, who doesn’t seem to have been a household name at the time.

“I came back (to the US) and I said, ‘Do you guys know Zuhair Murad?’ and nobody knew who he was, none of the stylists, nobody in the United States knew who he was. I was like, ‘You have to get me this dress for the Met Ball,” she said, referring to the Met Gala, an annual fundraising gala for the benefit of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York and one of the fashion world’s most eagerly anticipated events. 

“I wore his dress to the Met Ball and after that, I just started using him for everything — he designed my last tour — we just have a great relationship. He’s a beautiful man, a beautiful designer,” Lopez added.


US-Egyptian jewelry label Jacquie Aiche snaps up celebrity fans

US-Egyptian jewelry label Jacquie Aiche snaps up celebrity fans
Updated 24 July 2021

US-Egyptian jewelry label Jacquie Aiche snaps up celebrity fans

US-Egyptian jewelry label Jacquie Aiche snaps up celebrity fans

DUBAI: From British actress Emily Blunt, to US stars Justin Bieber and Khloe Kardashian, Egyptian-American jewelry designer Jacquie Aiche’s celebrity fan base expanded this week.

 The label has quickly managed to emerge as a A-lister-loved brand, with stars like Kylie Jenner, Emily Ratajkowski and Shanina Shaik adorning themselves with the Los Angeles-based jewelry house’s signature diamond-encrusted body chains, anklets and stacked gemstone rings on the red carpet.

This week, Blunt showed off an ornate ring by the label while doing press interviews for Disney’s “Jungle Cruise,” her latest film in which she stars alongside Dwayne Johnson and Edgar Ramirez.

Blunt was dressed by Hollywood stylist Jessica Paster, who made sure to get mileage out of the ring by featuring it in several ensembles on the press tour, including outfits by Gabriela Hearst and Zimmermann.

For her part, Kardashian opted to show off a dainty body chain by the brand during a photoshoot for her label Good American’s latest swimwear release. She paired the jewelry, which wrapped around the torso, with a neon yellow swimsuit.

To wrap things up, Bieber showed off a pair of small hoop earrings by Aiche, which he paired with a red visor.

(Instagram)

Aiche, who was born to an Egyptian father and an indigenous American mother, launched her eponymous label from her garage in 2008. She has since amassed an impressive celebrity client list that includes the likes of Rihanna, Selena Gomez and Katy Perry, whose stylists flock to her Beverly Hills showroom in droves to adorn their clients in her signature delicate earrings, finger bracelets and chokers ahead of red carpet events. The jeweler is also the brainchild behind Chrissy Teigen’s bespoke engagement ring from John Legend.

The part-Egyptian jewelry designer’s store in Los Angeles is full of jewelry items made from delicate raw quartz, tourmaline, moonstone and countless other special stones. Her pieces often feature Arab influences like hammered gold, amulets and the evil eye talisman, as well as natural elements such as turquoise, fossils and precious gemstones, which are a nod to her indigenous American ancestors.

 


New exhibition in Manchester explores nature through British-Arab eyes

English-Moroccan creator Jessica El-Mal, lead artist and one of the co-producers of the installation, said her inspiration for the project came when the UK was still in lockdown. (Supplied)
English-Moroccan creator Jessica El-Mal, lead artist and one of the co-producers of the installation, said her inspiration for the project came when the UK was still in lockdown. (Supplied)
Updated 24 July 2021

New exhibition in Manchester explores nature through British-Arab eyes

English-Moroccan creator Jessica El-Mal, lead artist and one of the co-producers of the installation, said her inspiration for the project came when the UK was still in lockdown. (Supplied)
  • Manchester-based installation highlights stories of migration, diaspora
  • Lead artist: ‘After the year we’ve just had, this project and exhibition is the lightness we all need’

LONDON: A new mixed-media exhibition exploring the history, achievements and experiences of Arabs in Britain through the lens of people’s relationship with nature and green space has launched in the north of England.

Free to visitors and run by the Arab British Centre, the Manchester-based installation highlights stories of migration, diaspora, and the intricacies of the Arab-British experience in all its intersections and diversity. 

Themed around the idea of nature and named “Jarda” — “garden” in Moroccan Arabic — artists will give audiences a chance to “walk in nature through Arab eyes.”

English-Moroccan creator Jessica El-Mal, lead artist and one of the co-producers of the installation, said her inspiration for the project came when the UK was still in lockdown and when parks, fields and forests became people’s only outing.

The women-led exhibition encourages visitors to appreciate the green spaces available to them, while also exposing audiences to the Arab experience in modern Britain.

“Working with this group of amazing women has made me appreciate Manchester, myself and my femininity in a whole new way. After the year we’ve just had, this project and exhibition is the lightness we all need,” El-Mal said.

Amani Hassan, program director at the Arab British Centre, said: “Since it was first launched in 2019, our Arab Britain theme has set out to explore the history, achievements and experiences of Arabs in Britain.”

The program aims to overturn preconceptions, challenge prejudices, retrace the ways the Arab world has influenced and shaped British culture and society, and celebrate the contributions of Arabs in the country, past and present. 

“Jarda highlights the universal comfort and connection we can all find in nature through intimate and personal reflections on home, belonging and the power of community,” Hassan said.

“We hope that visitors to the museum enjoy their walk in nature through Arab British eyes and are encouraged to reflect on their own connections to it.”

The physical exhibition will be accompanied by a digital offering that will give people free access to a host of creative activities that aim to encourage people to reflect on their own connections with green spaces.

“Jarda” is open now, and will run until Oct. 10 in Manchester’s People’s History Museum.


Art installation ‘Beirut Narratives’ is a testimonial from a traumatized city

Art installation ‘Beirut Narratives’ is a testimonial from a traumatized city
The text-based installation “Beirut Narratives” is currently in display in Lebanon. Supplied
Updated 23 July 2021

Art installation ‘Beirut Narratives’ is a testimonial from a traumatized city

Art installation ‘Beirut Narratives’ is a testimonial from a traumatized city
  • Text-based installation offered residents ‘a silent, anonymous way of protesting’ after the devastating port explosion

DUBAI: “I burst into tears.” “I was shaking.” “My chair flew me right above ground.” “No right to dream.” “Bitter feelings.” “Apocalypse.” 

These are some of the brief-but-harrowing testimonials from survivors of the catastrophic Beirut Port explosion of August 4, 2020, which are now being publicly displayed on the streets of the Lebanese capital as part of the text-based installation “Beirut Narratives.” The installation was conceived by Lebanese sisters, architects and co-founders of Architecture et Mécanismes, Celine and Tatiana Stephan. 

From the banking crisis to price inflation and fuel shortage, it has been a surreal year of lows for most Lebanese civilians. On the day we had arranged to discuss the sisters’ latest project, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri resigned after failing to form a new government. 

The text-based installation was conceived by Lebanese sisters, architects and co-founders of Architecture et Mécanismes, Celine and Tatiana Stephan. Supplied

“Each one of us is thinking: ‘How can people still be so adapted to such a situation, in terms of the economic crisis and the socio-political situation?’ Everything is happening all at the same time,” Celine told Arab News. “People are, I believe, tired and frustrated. What we’re trying to do, as architects, with this urban installation is to rethink the city.”

Unlike many young professionals who are hoping to migrate or have already left the country for better opportunities abroad, Celine and Tatiana have decided to stay for now, for better or for worse, in their home country. “Beirut is like a parent to us,” said Tatiana. “When your parents are getting old, you just don’t leave them behind and go. You help them, support them and push them to be better.” 

Continuing the theme of family, Celine added: “I have two daughters. I would like them to live in Lebanon and see change happening and be part of that change. Despite its misery, chaos, and lack of infrastructure, it’s a city that inspires us at all levels.”

The Stephan sisters gathered testimonials from a diverse group of people, including friends and family, firefighters and healthcare workers. Supplied

In recent months, the pair turned their attention towards buildings and spaces in the neighborhoods of Gemmayze, Karantina and Mar Mikhael, which have been damaged and stand empty in the aftermath of the blast. In a commemorative manner, these silent and neglected buildings are given their own voice. 

“We wanted to make those buildings talk, because it’s somehow like a new way of manifestation,” explained Celine. “It’s a silent, anonymous way of protesting,” added Tatiana. 

The Stephan sisters gathered testimonials from a diverse group of people, including friends and family, firefighters and healthcare workers, all of whom were releasing pent-up anger and sadness and were willing to share their experiences of that horrific day. Children also contributed drawings to the project. 

Children also contributed drawings to the project. Supplied

For the Stephans, it was all an emotional and healing experience. “We sat with those people, we talked to them, we cried, we heard every single story. I still have goosebumps now,” said Celine. 

Divided into three categories — descriptions, emotions, and reflections — the testimonials were written out with red, black and white spray paint onto pieces of brown jute, later transformed by stitching into bold tapestries or “fragments.” According to the Stephans, who did the spraying and stitching, the use of jute was intentional, as it is accessible and serves as a reminder of the durable material used to transfer wheat into the silos at the Port of Beirut. 

The sisters and their collaborator, the Lebanese-Danish creative consultant Mira Hawa, went to different sites, personally hanging the fragments, which is in itself a risky task. “We had to go to the edge of a high building, on the 11th floor, and the wind was extremely strong. We had to improvise, we didn’t know how to install it because it was huge and there was a lot of wind,” Tatiana said of one of their challenging experiences near the port. 

The testimonials were written out with red, black and white spray paint onto pieces of brown jute, later transformed by stitching into bold tapestries. Supplied

Seeing the women lead the installation process on site was surprising for some. “Men were coming out in their sleeveless vests, with their big muscles, hanging over their balconies to see who these three girls were,” said Hawa. “One of the first comments we got was: ‘Who’s going to help you? Where are the guys?’” 

Despite encountering difficulties in accessing some buildings, they persisted and installed the work on 13 buildings. For some, the fragments proved to be too intense — akin to rubbing salt into a wound. 

“Some people were very disturbed when they saw the piece,” said Celine. “I remember one time we were not even installing; we were trying to talk to an NGO to discuss the possibility of installing. The owner of a building was there and he was really destabilized and he started crying. We felt really bad and asked ourselves so many questions: Are we making the right choice?” 

The project also tackles the notion of speaking up in an environment that often suppresses inner thoughts and feelings related to trauma. Supplied

Tatiana echoed Celine’s sentiments, highlighting how sensitive this whole project has been. “I felt that for some who were engaged in the piece, you feel in their eyes as if you put a knife into a wound,” she said. But overall, the project was positively viewed and embraced by locals. It brought out a sense of community, with many assisting the women during the arduous installation process. 

“We were touched by everyone who wanted to help, who offered us coffee, or water. They barely have anything to eat and drink,” remarked Celine. 

“Beirut Narratives” ticks a number of boxes, acting as a form of cultural activism, supporting the Lebanese people and offering them a sense of justice. The Stephans and Hawa hope that one day these fragments can also travel abroad, igniting empathy with the Lebanese diaspora. The project also tackles the notion of speaking up in an environment that often suppresses inner thoughts and feelings related to trauma. 

“We have a very painful habit in the Middle East, that every time something (bad) happens we just get on with it. I think it’s about time we stopped and made some noise,” said Hawa. “When you see the pieces on the street, it’s very bold, it’s very raw and prominent. You cannot ignore it.”


Pop-culture highlights from across the region

Pop-culture highlights from across the region
Photographed by Kishore Das. Supplied
Updated 23 July 2021

Pop-culture highlights from across the region

Pop-culture highlights from across the region

DUBAI: From indie electronica to live performances, and adorable animals to wilting trees, these are the pop culture moments you might have missed from the region.

Kishore Das 

The Indian photographer was one of five winners of the Dubai-based Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum International Photography Award’s (HIPA) June Instagram photo contest, the theme of which was “Your Pet.”

HIPA Secretary General, Ali bin Thalith explained the reason for the theme in a press release, saying: “The relationship between humans and their pets is deeply ancient. The quality of its emotions is complex; it’s rich in detail, situations and beautiful in its spontaneous reactions.”

Das won for this image taken in 2016 at the Sacribel Elephant Camp in India’s Karnataka state. “I was catching a scene in the distance when I suddenly noticed this little elephant playing with one of the caretakers near me. I wanted to capture this perfect emotional moment, so I had to use my 70-300 mm zoom lens. One of the reasons that I love this photo is because it was the baby elephant who approached and showed his closeness and interdependence,” Das said in the press release. 

It's a major win for Das, who only began a full-time photography career in February last year, after quitting his job in IT.

Gurumiran

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by miran gurunian (@gurumiran)

The veteran of the Beirut indie scene (real name Miran Gurunian) pays tribute to his Armenian roots with his latest single “Partsratsoum.” The song is based on a poem by Vahan Tekeyan, an Armenian poet and activist, known as The Prince of Armenian Poetry.

“I related a lot to the story — which is a popular poem in schools,” Gurunian told Arab News. “I composed the music to reflect the theme, which is about the advice offered by a father to his son: Aim, reach, and rise high, but take along your loved ones, because the higher up one reaches, the colder and lonelier it gets.” The track has a jazz-y, folk-y feel, with Makram Aboulhosn’s double bass, Delaney Stöckli’s cinematic string arrangement and Dani Shukri’s stuttering drum beat underpinning Gurunian’s typically tasteful guitar work. And it was written in a single day. “Everything fell into place effortlessly,” Gurunian said. 

Zahed Sultan 

“Born to a Kuwaiti father and Indian mother, I had the fluidity to straddle both cultures; navigating being bullied and feeling shame to find my (super)power,” the London-based multimedia artist wrote of his latest single, “Hindi Majnoon.” He described the track — auto-tuned vocals over a pounding Bollywood-style beat — as “a tribute to people who were ‘othered’ for being different in whichever way while growing up.” The accompanying video, shot between Kuwait and London, is, he said, “a journey through industrial crevices and societal tropes laced with nostalgia to bring you closer to the experience of migrant ‘workers’ living in Kuwait.”

Tayar

The Arabic indie duo (singer-songwriter Ahmad Farah and producer and filmmaker Bader Helalat) have released a new two-track EP called “Khams Sneen.” The title track started out as a folk song, according to Farah, but has since morphed into a largely synth-driven indie-pop number. It’s heavily inspired by US duo MGMT, Farah told Arab News, because “they wrote a lot of songs that discussed childhood and also had a sense of absurdity.”

Sara Naim

The Dubai-based photographer’s striking 2019 image “Broken Palm” is part of “Chemistry of Feeling,” a community exhibition of analog photography that runs until Sept. 21 at Dubai’s Gulf Photo Plus. “Drawing on the delicate connections between a tumultuous past year for human relationships and photography, this exhibition locates moments of slowness, micro- and macro- revolution, introspection, and the folding priorities of the present, captured in film format,” the gallery says of the show. “We invite viewers to engage with these varied personal stories, and in the process, meditate on what it is to feel, care, and see in a fraught contemporary landscape.”

LUMI 

The much-lauded, often-inactive Lebanese duo — Marc Codsi and Mayaline Hage — dropped the title track of their new EP “Eternity,” a four-track record written between 2019 and 2021 “while our home country Lebanon and the rest of the world went through unprecedented turmoil,” the duo said on social media. The record is “rooted in the feelings and emotions triggered by these strange times.”

On the title track, Hage’s dramatic vocals float over increasingly urgent instrumentation, which, they said, “resonates like an ode to transcendence, to what is above and beyond human experiences and resides inside of us, in a longing to stay connected to that energy. We find ourselves transported in a frenetic and delicious race, suspended between a wild and aggressive electronic rhythm and a transcendent voice coming from another dimension.”