Beirut, Modernism’s Vanished Utopia
Poets, Politics, and Freedom Before Lebanon's Civil War
It is a scene out of Balzac: a young man from the provinces arrives in the city, hoping to make his fame as a writer. The Syrian poet Adonis arrived in Beirut in October 1956, at the age of 26. “At the time,” he writes, “I was haunted by the feeling that I was little more than a ruin: I was broken, disappointed, close to despair.” The young Adonis was not fleeing bourgeois mores nor romantic failure, however, but political trauma. He had spent the previous year in prison for his militancy on behalf of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which he joined as a university student in Damascus. Syria in the mid-1950s was roiled by a succession of coups d’état, most of them originating in the armed forces, where various nationalist groups vied for supremacy. Adonis’s misadventure had left him with a feeling of horror for what he calls “the nationalist wasteland.”
The flight to Lebanon was an escape from these political intrigues and their painful consequences. Adonis’s memoir of his early years in Beirut, Ha anta ayyuha al-waqt [There You Are, O Time] (1993), is especially valuable for the way it characterizes, in hindsight, the modernists’ relation to the city and its intellectual life. The memoir also serves as a retrospective defense of the movement, highlighting its distinctive patterns of thought. Adonis writes of his immigration to Lebanon as a voyage of rebirth, an emergence from the closed world of Damascus—a city attached to dead monuments of culture and riven by violent power struggles—into the new world of Beirut, with its intellectual adventurousness and tolerant social codes. This itinerary, from east to west, from old to new, is one that Adonis traces many times over the course of his long career as poet and critic:
Beirut. As soon as my feet touched its soil and I began wandering its streets, I felt I was in a different city: not a city of endings, as was the case with Damascus, but a city of beginnings; not a city of certainty, but a city of searching. I felt the city wasn’t a completed structure, one you could only enter into as it stood and live in as it was, but rather an open and unfinished project. . . . The difference between Beirut and Damascus was evident in the streets, in people’s behavior, in their relations to one another, in the cultural activity—the newspapers, journals, and clubs—in the cafés, and in the dynamism of everyday life. This difference with Damascus suggested two things: first, an openness to modern gadgets and ideas of all sorts; and second, a kind of neutralism toward past values and the heritage [al-turath] in general. . . . Beirut, looked at from within, was a world escaping from the history that had raised it or given birth to it, a world setting out in the direction of another history, not the one written for it, but one that it would write for itself.
Many retrospective accounts portray pre-civil war Beirut as a place of miraculous convivencia, where competing political and intellectual factions lived together peaceably if not always harmoniously. Khalida Saʿid, wife of Adonis and one of Shiʿr’s most accomplished critics, begins her own look back at Beirut’s trente glorieuses with an evocation of the city as a vanished utopia: “Between Independence and the Civil War, a number of cultural and artistic institutions emerged in Lebanon whose peculiar aspirations must seem to us today like idealistic dreams. Their inquiries and explorations created a master plan for what we might call the lettered city [al-madina al-muthaqqafa]—a city that would nurture thought, the rule of law, knowledge, and the creative life.”
The neighborhood of West Beirut was the common site for such reveries. Hamra, in the words of sociologist Samir Khalaf, was “the only genuinely ‘open’ community in the entire Arab world,” a place where there was “room for everyone: the devout and the heathen, pious puritans and graceless hedonists, left-wing radicals and ardent conservatives.” For Khalaf and others, Beirut’s role as refuge and resort for intellectuals from around the region suggests the idea of “Lebanon as a playground,” a country characterized by “carefree and uncommitted activity.” In such historical accounts, Beirut holds an anomalous yet crucial place in the region’s literary geography. It is an intellectual entrepôt where dreams of autonomy—from the state, party politics, and history itself—could briefly flourish. Adonis’s memoir is very much in this vein. He argues that Beirutis’ “neutralism” toward the past and their eagerness to escape the constraints of history led to a uniquely open civic culture. The city’s avidity for modern things and ideas made it an intellectual estuary, “into which flowed rivers of goods of every sort from all over the earth.”
Why did this idyll have to end? In his memoir, Adonis suggests that Lebanon’s slide into civil war, beginning in 1975, was caused by a dangerous instrumentalization of identities, including sectarian identities. Each group “manufactured a private myth, not within the myth of Beirut, with its variety and differences, but against that myth as well as the myths of other groups.” Adonis characterizes this mobilization of identity as “the hegemony of the political”:
The hegemony of the political did not merely destroy the idea of difference, but difference itself; it obliterated not only the idea of culture as dialogue, but also as creativity. In other words it killed off, on the one hand, the rationality of cultural dialogue, a framework in which all kinds of ideas can be entertained . . . and, on the other hand, it deformed all those cultural elements that seem characteristic of Lebanese identity: religion, language, and poetry.
Adonis’s narrative is in many ways a compelling account of Beirut’s belle époque and subsequent civil conflict. According to this version, the pre-war era is characterized by a species of tolerant disregard between different communities, Sunni, Shia, Maronite, and other. Their common fascination with modern fashions, including things and ideas from abroad, make them less susceptible to the lures of older, more parochial ways of being. Beirut, as a laboratory of culture, is a refuge for the liberal virtues of openness, plurality, and experimentation. It is a city where conflict can be assuaged by rational dialogue. By contrast, the political is the sphere of irrational combat in which each community, whether national or religious, seeks to impose its own interpretation of history on others.
The idea that politics, in Arabic al-siyasa, is essentially an activity of oppression (rather than liberation, solidarity, or negotiation) is consistent throughout Adonis’s oeuvre; in his writing, the Arabic word is usually translatable as “ideology” or even “fanaticism.” Where culture is characterized by plurality, al-siyasa for Adonis is a struggle for domination; where culture faces toward the future, politics is imprisoned by the past; while culture permits the individual to explore and transform communal attachments, politics fixes identity and makes it into a weapon. In other words, Adonis’s argument is not a narrative but a series of antinomies. There is no historical explanation for the hardening of sectarian positions that led to Lebanon’s civil war; there is only a claim that the typically modern virtues Adonis associates with Beirut were at some point and for some reason overwhelmed by illiberal “political” agendas. Beirut’s golden age is, in this account, a kind of mirage that floats free of its material conditions. Its conflicting ideologies and varied cultural products have no common measure. They belong to two different histories or moments of history.
The presumption of a stark divide between culture and politics is, as we will see, a defining trait of Arabic modernism. In another revealing episode from Adonis’s memoir, which he has related more than once, he recalls his time as a student in Syria in the 1940s, when anti-French feeling was strong and nativist sentiments had taken hold among his classmates.
I remember, for example, that during some demonstrations students would make a pile of foreign books in the courtyard and set fire to them. What is astonishing to me now is that I never participated, personally, in the burning of a single book, although I did join the demonstrations and was even one of the leaders of the student movements in Tartus (at the school of the Mission laïque française) and Latakia (at the preparatory school) between 1944 and 1949. Did I make a distinction, unconsciously, between one’s political position toward the foreigner and one’s literary position toward him?
Adonis’s early verse of the 1940s and 50s is dominated by the myth of the phoenix, which served as an allegory for the rebirth of the Syrian nation. The same myth lurks behind this anecdote from his school days, but here it is not an ancient nation that rises from the vestiges of a vanquished imperialism. Instead, it is literature that is saved from the fires and passions of nationalism. The modernists often conceived of their task in just these terms.
During the three decades following World War II and preceding the outbreak of civil conflict in 1975, Lebanon established a unique role for itself in the region, becoming at once an intellectual center and political outlier. The country received independence from France in 1943 in a separate agreement from Syria, to which it had been joined under an interwar mandate. Christian and Muslim elites shook hands over the National Pact, in which the Maronites relinquished their demands for continued Western military presence in exchange for Sunni acquiescence to separation from Syria (unification had been a primary demand of the Muslim community throughout the Mandate period).
A new constitution formalized the Maronites’ dominance, establishing advantageous ratios for political positions and reserving the presidency for Christians. The executive was made into a pole of commercial interests, with the result that a small and powerful group of mainly Christian families soon began dismantling wartime economic controls. Under the presidency of Camille Chamoun (1952-58), and with the guidance of Foreign Minister Charles Malik (a significant mentor for the Shiʿr poets, as we shall see), Lebanon aligned its foreign policy with Western powers against the nonaligned pan-Arabism of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Chamoun’s government eventually adopted a militantly anti-Communist rhetoric in line with the Eisenhower Doctrine of 1957, which pledged “to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence of such nations, requesting such aid against overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by international communism.”
Lebanon’s pro-trade, pro-Western policies, which were unique in regional terms—and opposed by local Marxist and nationalist movements—would persist with minor alterations for the next 30 years. This period is customarily known as that of the Merchant Republic, which is roughly coextensive with the period of Arabic modernism itself.Is not Beirut itself proof that the sources of real transformation in the second half of the century came from the margin and not from the center?
Outside Lebanon, the characteristic development in the Arab world during this era was the rapid extension of state power, typically under the auspices of socialist, or quasi-socialist, single-party regimes. As historian Hanna Batatu writes in an essay on the Egyptian, Syrian, and Iraqi revolutions: “One of the most significant effects of the revolutions in all three countries was the enormous growth in the role of the government in the life of the people. The impact of the state upon the social structure or at least its capacity to determine the direction of social change was enhanced by its planning powers and its greater influence over the distribution of the national income.”
This expansion of the state into more and more areas of social life was concurrent with its assertion of hegemony over the field of culture. Here, the Egyptian experience supplies a useful model. Although an extreme version, leading to what Anouar Abdel-Malek has termed “a State monopoly on culture,” the Nasserist program was influential at a moment when pan-Arabist politics were spreading across the region. Egyptian officials encouraged centralization in Syria during the three years of union (1958–61) and also in Iraq between 1963 and 1964, when the two countries contemplated unification in the wake of a coup by sympathetic officers in the Iraqi army. Richard Jacquemond gives a précis of how the Egyptian state established its control over the realm of culture and intellectual life in general:
It was only after 1956 that the Nasser regime, reinforced by the Suez Crisis, went on to set up the system of institutions through which it intended to control and mobilize the intellectuals, a system which in its essentials still exists today. This system included the establishment of institutions such as the Higher Council for Arts and Letters (1956) and the Ministry of Culture (1958), as well as the expansion of those state institutions that already existed in the field of theater or radio. . . . New organizations were created, such as state television in 1960, while others were nationalized, such as the whole of the press in 1960, the film industry in 1961, and an important part of the publishing industry in 1961 and 1965. . . . On the whole, the state created by the Free Officers continued an ancient tradition of protecting and controlling artists and intellectuals, only acting, in the final analysis, to make this tradition more systematic.
The specter of state culture and its standardized aesthetics haunt the imagination of the Beiruti modernists. It is a recurrent theme in the letters of Shiʿr’s foreign correspondents from Egypt, Morocco, and as far away as East Germany. Writing from that divided capital, Asʿad Razzuq, author of an early study of modernist mythography, noted that “The poet in the socialist state receives a very high salary, but he is obliged to commit himself [yaltazim] to the causes of the workers and peasants when the State demands it.” This concern echoed those of older modernist poets such as Eliot, who worried during the closing moments of World War II over “the dangers which may come from official encouragement and patronage of the arts; the dangers to which men of letters would be exposed, if they became, in their professional capacity, servants of the State.”
In Lebanon, by contrast with its neighbors, the state never assumed such powers. Traditions of clientism, encouraged by underfunded French colonial policies; an economy dominated by the trade and service sectors rather than industry; and communal disagreements over the historical identity of the country, all conspired to limit the growth of the central government. This trend was somewhat mitigated during the presidency of Fuad Shihab (1958–64), a former general who sought to build up the state, particularly its security apparatus, and to increase public sector employment in line with regional norms. Shihabist policies met strong opposition, however, most powerfully articulated by the editorialists of al-Nahar, a Beiruti daily that was a forum for economic liberalism and anti-Nasserist politics as well as a consistent ally of the Shiʿr movement (both Yusuf al-Khal and Unsi al-Hajj served as editors of the cultural page beginning in the mid-1950s).
Such countercurrents helped to maintain the relative weakness of the state and to ensure that intellectuals had room to maneuver. A chief reason Beirut became a refuge for thinkers and artists from across the region was the margin of independence it allowed to cultural life. The modernists were aware of the eccentric position occupied by Lebanon and recognized that their own movement was conditioned by its peculiarities. “Our success in poetry,” writes Adonis in his memoir, “was essentially due—here is the great irony—to our marginality. Was it not ‘the Lebanese margin’ [al-hamish al-lubnani] that spread the contagion of the modern poetry revolution into the Arab center? Is not Beirut itself proof that the sources of real transformation in the second half of the century came from the margin and not from the center?”
Excerpted from City of Beginnings: Poetic Modernism in Beirut by Robyn Creswell. Copyright © 2019 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.