Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1377, ( 18 - 24 January 2018)
Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Issue 1377, ( 18 - 24 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The politics of literature

An ambitious Berlin exhibition is exploring the Cold War links between politics and the arts, with intriguing reference to the Arab world, writes David Tresilian

The politics of literature
The politics of literature

Anyone who remembers the Cold War, in other words anyone who has reached at least middle age, may remember the cultural battles that went alongside the political and economic ones. 

Europe in particular was the theatre of intense superpower rivalry, divided almost down the middle between Soviet and US areas of influence. Crossing from one side to the other could bring home to even the most apolitical of travellers the division of the world into competing ideological and economic spheres.

Those spheres were also cultural ones, with the German capital Berlin, a city that found itself on the border between them, bristling with competing monuments to the achievements of the rival systems. West Berlin had its shopping streets and concert halls, East Berlin had its public housing projects and grand collective spaces.

The shopping streets and concert halls are still there in Berlin today, though on a much larger scale, while the monuments of the former East Germany have all but disappeared. Much that gave the city its special character during the Cold War has gone, but Berlin still feels like an appropriate backdrop for an exhibition commemorating the cultural struggles of the period even if these were by no means confined to Europe.

Housed in Berlin’s House of the Cultures of the World, itself built with US funding during the Cold War, an exhibition entitled “Parapolitics: Cultural Freedom and the Cold War” is examining the history of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), a front organisation for the CIA which supported cultural activities throughout the period particularly in countries allied to the United States. 

This being Germany, the exhibition is partly helped, partly hindered, by a forbidding vocabulary in which its curators debate the “global dimension of cultural politics and the changing semantics of modernist aesthetics.” 

What this boils down to was that the former Soviet Union found itself further away than ever from realising the goals of the October Revolution after World War II when it was engaged in a global competition with the United States. It had become a by-word for tyranny for many, and the United States was able to pose as the champion of freedom in the political as well as the economic and aesthetic spheres.

As the exhibition points out, many leading European and North American thinkers who before World War II had been supporters of varieties of socialism as a way out from the ideological and economic impasse of the inter-war years became ardent cold warriors in the 1950s. They thought the economic and political arrangements of the United States now represented the best way forward, and they denounced anyone who might think otherwise. 

The late Palestinian-American critic Edward Said once described seeing piles of remaindered copies of “The God that Failed”, for example, a typical product of the time, heaped up around Cairo in the early 1950s. Competition was heating up between the Soviet Union and the United States for the allegiance of the Arab capitals freeing themselves from European rule, and even this book of political essays, a collective mea culpa by European intellectuals who had gone over to the United States, could be roped into the fray.

“The God that Failed” figures in the Berlin exhibition, which shows how the United States, taking on global responsibilities after the collapse of Europe during World War II, went on the kind of hearts-and-minds offensive sometimes associated with later decades almost as soon as the War was over.


HIGH AND LOW: Many people may still remember smuggling pairs of jeans into Eastern Europe before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, so keen was the demand among young people in the former Soviet bloc for American consumer products.

However, American influence was not left solely up to the market to provide, and in any case the elites were unlikely to be won over quite so easily. For them, something more sophisticated was required, and it was here that the CCF came into its own in exercising US influence.

From its founding in 1950 to its winding up nearly three decades later, the CCF promoted an astonishing variety of cultural and intellectual activities across the world. In a context in which the Soviet Union was being widely accused of “politicising” cultural and intellectual life and bringing creative figures under state control, the CCF sought to present itself as funding activities that promoted artistic autonomy and vaunted free creativity within an explicitly liberal framework.

The Berlin exhibition includes materials funded under this programme, some, but by no means all, of them from Europe. Among the extra-European materials featured in the exhibition is Hiwar, a Lebanese cultural journal funded by the CCF that in the 1960s was widely read until the source of that funding was revealed in 1967. The resulting scandal, exacerbated by the then division of the Arab world into US and Soviet areas of influence, led to the closure of the magazine and the early death of its editor, the Palestinian writer Tawfik Sayigh.

Before that happened, however, Hiwar published material that is today recognised as being among the most important Arabic literary works of what was an exceptionally creative decade, including work that could not be published in other outlets for political or other reasons. The Sudanese writer Tayeb Saleh published his novel Season of Migration to the North, today recognised as one of the period’s most important novels, in Hiwar, for example, having encountered difficulties finding a publisher at home.

The Lebanese writer Layla Baalbaki published in Hiwar, drawing opprobrium from the country’s conservative authorities for her outspokenness, as did a string of others from across the Arab world who make up a kind of roll-call of the Arab intellectuals of the time. Among them were writers of the calibre of Badr Shaker Al-Siyab, Ghada Al-Samman, Albert Hourani, Suheir Qalamawi, Zakaria Tamir, Salah Abdel-Sabour, and Fouad Al-Takarli.

According to Sayigh, Hiwar was intended to “serve the Arab national cause” by publishing contemporary Arab writers and providing them with a regular forum free from the political, societal or financial constraints that might have restricted what could be published in the countries they came from.

However, in the overheated political and ideological milieu of Beirut in the 1960s, the magazine drew attention as much for its ideological commitments and the sources of its funding as for its content. The Lebanese capital boasted other magazines that also saw themselves as promoting literary innovation, among them Al-Adab, founded by the Syrian-Lebanese poet and critic Suhayl Idris and associated with then fashionable ideas of literary “engagement”, and Shi’r, edited by the Syrian poet Youssef Al-Khal and arguing for a less politicised conception of literature. According to French commentator Franck Mermier, Beirut at the time had the kind of cloak-and-dagger reputation more appropriate to Cold War thrillers than academic debates.

“The Dar Al-Farabi publishing house was linked to the Lebanese Communist Party, whereas Dar Al-Talia was Baathist. The Markaz Al-thaqafa Al-arabi was Arab nationalist, and Dar Ibn Khaldoun… was linked to ‘progressive’ Arab regimes such as South Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Algeria and Libya. Dar Al-Farabi made most of its money publishing Soviet books in Arabic… and Dar Al-Talia, closely connected to Iraq, made money publishing the works of the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in Arabic,” he comments.

In this context, it is not surprising that Hiwar attracted some hostile attention. The magazine’s US funding and alleged, but later proven, connections to the CIA were the reasons given by the Egyptian short-story writer Youssef Idris when he refused to accept Hiwar’s fiction prize in 1965, and they were the reasons given by the critic Louis Awad in 1966 when he led calls for Hiwar to be banned in Egypt. 

This history is not mentioned in the Berlin exhibition, even if it would seem to be very relevant to its theme of the “global dimension of cultural politics and the changing semantics of modernist [in the Arab context] aesthetics.” However, it does have things to say about the deception practised by the CCF in concealing the origins of its funding. 

The UK writer Stephen Spender, literary editor of the CCF-funded magazine Encounter in London, claimed until the end that he was unaware of the origins of the money that was bankrolling the magazine, though he resigned when the scandal broke in 1967. According to critic Jean Franco the Latin American intellectuals who worked on the CCF-funded journal Mundo Nuevo felt “the bitterness of the duped” when it was revealed that the CIA was secretly funding their activities.

In his diaries, only published in Arabic in 2011 (Mudhakkirat Tawfiq Sayigh), Sayigh reveals that he was aware of the suspicions surrounding the CCF, but expresses his determination to argue that the “Congress has no relationship with Zionism or Israel”, a major concern in the years leading up to the 1967 War, and his distress at the pressure put upon him to publish “foreign articles” in Hiwar, only agreed to on the proviso that “we can’t find Arab authors to write upon these topics.”

Parapolitics: Cultural Freedom and the Cold War, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, until 8 January.

add comment

  • follow us on