What Past for What Present?

by Mirene Arsanios

I was instantly drawn to the magazine as an object encountered towards an end or a departure — a thing present enough to trigger déjà vu. There and remote, readable yet opaque, the cover of the Shi’r poetry magazine attracted my gaze as if it were a time magnet. It might have been the geometric graphics or the alluring colors, but I believe it was something else. Perhaps the fact that for the past fifty years the object had survived undamaged, but that its intellectual and artistic history was utterly absent to me. How was that history linked or disjointed from the object that had outlived it?
What is the currency of these magazines today now that they have lost their readers, their subscribers, and most of their authors?
Jalal Toufic, the Lebanese artist and writer, discusses how — in the aftermath of a traumatic history (war, catastrophic event) — the cultural or artistic tradition that once existed is withdrawn. Everything is intact, yet something is irremediably lost. 1 Objects having survived that tradition still exist, whether hidden, collected, forgotten, piled up, or cautiously preserved, but the system through which meaning is conferred upon them is lost. This essay questions the ways in which tradition, particularly a political and cultural one — and although lost — still informs the existence of these objects. To engage with that tradition, through an artistic perspective rather than a historical one, is a way of situating, understanding, and experiencing the magazine today. What do these historical artifacts still yield for the present?
These explorations of Shi’r magazine should be considered in relation to the realm of cultural and artistic production in Lebanon, considering that the past — through the archive and the use of documents — has been extensively explored in Lebanese contemporary art practices. Often as a way to revisit Lebanon’s modern history, traumatic traces are transformed into images that can trigger a critical understanding of the past, while also achieving a means of catharsis. In handling past material, however, few artists really engage with the political implications of these traces, or the political tradition to which they belonged.
When first established in 1957, Shi’r magazine (Shi’r means poetry in Arabic) declared an uncompromising war against what the magazine considered to be the stifling traditions in Arabic literature and poetry.
Founded by Youssef el Khal and comprised of those that would later become Lebanon’s most preeminent poets such as Adonis, Fouad Refka, Ousi El Hajj, in addition to collaborations with other poets from the Arab World and beyond. Throughout its thirteen years of existence (including a four-year interruption from 1963 – 67), Shi’r became a defining platform for modern Arabic poetry. Its mission was clear: to radically reinvent not only language but also everyday life itself in modern Arab societies.
To the tribal, religious, and the traditional, they opposed the individual, the secular, and the new. Here are two excerpts from the magazine’s 1957 manifesto, titled The Future of Poetry in Lebanon:
3. To replace ancient words and expressions, deprived of life, by other, new ones, drawn from the experience (of the poet) and from the life of the people;
4. To develop the arabic poetic rhythm and make it shine to the light of new content, because the traditional poetic meter is not sacred.2

Such claims were perceived as an affront to the forces that fought to maintain a truthful link to their past. Soon Shi’r was assailed as anti-Arab and banned from circulation in Egypt and Syria.3
Over its years of existence, a sour dispute arose between Shi’r and its counterpart, the literary magazine Al Adab, renowned for its Pan-Arabist and engaged politics. Al Adab accused Shi’r of wanting to destroy the Arabic turath (tradition), of spreading anarchy, and denying its Arabic spirit.
Shi’r was also accused of being a project supported by the West including rumors that it was funded by the CIA. In wanting to desacralize a language bound to the Qur’an, Shi’r was shaking the cultural and religious fundament.
In the midst of a period of historical unrest, characterized by Nasser’s Pan-Arabist project and by the Palestinian struggle, Shi’r’s quest for the modern expressed itself in the pursuit of autonomous free verse, detached from any direct form of political engagement. Moreover, it glorified individual experience and creation, endeavoring to achieve the impossible task of establishing an apolitical and anti-ideological project.
Shi’r probably did not embrace any direct political affiliations (although some of the founding members were initially members of the Syrian Nationalist Party) but it’s apolitical claims, the content of its magazine, the translations it featured, its belief in the universal, and in individual creation, all translate into a certain politics.

“Which Says That the Past is Only a Word?”4

In a modernist sense to attack the past is to be in the present — a present that rejects all stultified forms and expressions having survived their eras as mere echoes. The avant garde, as Alain Badiou tells us, is the art of the present that is grounded in action and in the now. However, the discernable expression of one’s own chronology is never as blistering as it sounds.
The past is never merely a word. It lies dormant, and occasionally resurfaces through cross-temporal conversations. Even avant garde groups affiliate themselves with past figures or movements. In Al Adab Youssef el Khal states: “And if we acknowledge someone from our past, it is because he is with us, here and talking. Our share of the past is the present. The entire past can be summed up, for us, to a gleam that death could not weaken, and that distance could not isolate. All the rest matters little to us.”5
When critiqued by the magazine Al Adab, Youssef el Khal declares in the pages of An Nahar that: “Between us and those who are accusing us, there is 1,000 years of misunderstanding.”6 Political accusations are countered through a temporal argument, i.e. it is that difference in the presents account for our artistic and ideological divergences. To have a claim to the present, be it reactionary or progressive, expresses a politics of a time. To resist subscribing to a dominant history, and to claim kinship with another one is where politics are located. Shi’r magazine rejected its affiliation with the Arabic tradition. On the other hand, it labored to delineate a universal and humanist vision of history, where poets from all over the world con- versed through the very means of poetry as a universal language. Shi’r struggled to draw another genealogy that would outline another history. Its struggle was partly due to the task of situating its project in a historical trajectory, while deconstructing another one.
I page through the entire collection, effortlessly displayed on shelves, with colors still speaking to the day. A contentious production, stigmatized by fights, interruptions, collaborations, translations, and so on, that stands still looking back. What present do these magazines belong to today?
Without conceiving of history as a seamless and progressive flow, considering that history is not a seamless and progressive unfolding of events in which the trajectories, struggles, and ways of speaking are constructed. These questions should not be answered, but voiced publicly and speculated upon.
To reclaim, today, the magazine’s modern rhetoric, or to fight tradition like the plague, to be a revolutionary or a counter-revolutionary, would simply be anachronistic. Yet, the present of these magazines should not be abstracted from their historicity. To reconsider these artifacts in the light of a disrupted historical trajectory is also a way to preempt their circulation in the art world as purely formal objects, art historical objects, or archival objects. Because of its dominant aesthetic, which has become autonomous and stylistic in some cases, the use of archives shadows the construction of historical meaning.
Producing art works that address the past is also a mode of distancing oneself from that past, relegating it to the realm of cultural memory. It has no effectiveness in the present.7 As if the creation of art objects was a way to fend off history.
In the play How Nancy Wished That Everything Was an April Fool’s Joke (2007) by the performer Rabih Mroué and writer Fadi Toufiq, four actors representing former militia fighters from different and often opposing groups, converse on stage. The actors recount how they died and the circumstances of their deaths. They died under the following circumstances: one was shot in the eye, one was shot in the guts, one fighter was kid- napped, and the last fighter was thrown to the sea. They are resurrected in another battlefield with new companions and entertaining anecdotes only to be killed again and so on and so forth. Their narrative revolves around key historical events of the Lebanese Civil War. What is striking in the play is the way in which being dead or alive, physically on stage or a character in the story, is in fact sharing the same condition. The dead cannot really be resurrected as they are not truly dead. More than ghosts returning to haunt us, Mroué’s play stages zombies that methodically recount their version of history as if dead automatons. Their story hovers in an ahistorical time zone, where the past is the past, where to die is to live, and where the performance becomes a story. What demands could be uttered from that space? What can actually be heard?
98weeks’ current research addresses the challenge of reading historical magazines such as Al Hilal (an Egyptian magazine) and Shi’r, by inviting speakers to re-read an issue that they choose. Art historian Anneka Lenssen discussed the figure of the correspondent in Shi’r magazine against the backdrop of a cold war context; Suneela Mubayi looked at the brief involvement of the Syrian poet Sargo Boulos with the magazine; Youssef Bazzi, a writer and journalist, discussed the similarities of his (war) generation with the Shi’r generation. Sam Wilder looked at the translation of an American poet in Arabic by retranslating his poem into English, comparing the translation to William Burroughs’s The Cut-Up Method. Rayya Badran engaged the section of the magazine dedicated to the reader’s comments and responses rather than with the published poetry. These singular readings create new stories that rewrite the history of the magazine. Not as a historical account of the era in which it circulated, nor from an ideological standpoint oblivious to historical discontinuities. These re-readings offer peculiar takes and interpretations, which open up passageways in history and create transhistorical dialogues. History is not relegated to memory, or to a distant past. It enters into a live dialogue with a haphazard and passing audience, engaging with the material in a given time and place. The magazine creates transient forms of engagement, where, through public debate and discussions, an intellectual and artistic history is lived anew for the first time.
The few issues lying on the desk, next to a bottle of water, a pack of cigarettes, and a smart phone, have survived a tradition and a political past. They have survived the heat of endless discussions and the anticipation of dedicated readers. They linger in the present, shouldering the writing in silence, always on the verge of withdrawing into silence. To fight for what defines this present as in a modernist struggle, or to politicize the present against other presents, is perhaps an outmoded and stylistic gesture. However, to engage with the past debris, and to open up transhistorical dialogues by revisiting images and affects from the past, is to break down an ahistorical narrative and consensus whereby the past is considered past and forever withdrawn. As objects survive that withdrawal, they also yield the possibility for experiencing the past in the present.

1 “What can be included among what was and continued to be lost, withdrawn, no longer available even after ‘everything’ came back.” in Jalal Toufic, The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster (2009), p. 20.
2 Dounia Badini, La Revue Shi’r: Poésie, et la modernité poétique arabe Beyrouth (1975–1970) (Paris, 2009), p. 44.
3 Ibid. p. 94.
4 Mushin al-Musawi, Arabic Poetry: Trajectories of Modernity and Tradition (New York, 2006), p. 34.
5 Badini 2009 (see note 2), p. 62.
6 Ibid. p. 70.
7 In his lecture entitled “The Truth Will Be Known When the Last Witness is Dead,”
Peter Osborne discussed the difference between cultural memory and an effective and
active engagement with history. According to Osborne, the realm of cultural memory
is characterized by the over-production of artworks and cultural artifacts referring
to historical memory. Such production, which often serves the purpose of a consensual
narrative, is paradoxically a way to disengage from history. It relegates the past to the
past and evades the possibility for the past to resurface.