Arabic Modernism was a literary movement of exiles and émigrés who planted their flag in West Beirut during the mid-’50s, when the Lebanese capital became a meeting ground for intellectuals from across the region. West Beirut, a neighborhood known as Hamra, was “the closest the Arab world could ever get to having its own Greenwich Village.” For a brief twenty-year period, until the outbreak of civil war in 1975, Hamra was a contact zone for artists and militants from the far Left to the far Right, nationalists and internationalists, experimentalists and traditionalists. In this highly politicized bohème, journals of ideas flourished, and each coterie had its own café. Local banks were flush with deposits from the newly oil-rich states of the Gulf, helping to finance a construction boom that quadrupled the built area of the city in the decade following World War II. This intellectual and economic ferment turned Beirut into a magnet for disaffected thinkers from within Lebanon as well as from neighboring countries. It was a place with all the characteristics of what Roger Shattuck, in his study of the early Parisian avant-garde, has called “cosmopolitan provincialism”: an eclectic community of outsiders living on the margins and snitching tips on taste, style, and ideas from elsewhere.
The Arab Modernists, like many artistic groups of the early and mid twentieth century, gathered around a magazine that acted as the nerve center of their movement. Shiʿr (Poetry), a quarterly dedicated to poetry and poetry criticism, was founded in 1957 by Yusuf al-Khal, a Greek Orthodox Lebanese with shrewd editorial instincts, who lived in America from 1948 to 1955 and took the moniker for his new journal from Harriet Monroe’s famous “little magazine” of the same name. Shiʿr published forty-four issues over eleven years (1957–64, 1967–70), including manifestos, poems, criticism, and letters from abroad. Under al-Khal’s editorship, Shiʿr was an energetically internationalist organ; its openness to foreign literature was one of the ways it defined its “modernity.” The magazine had correspondents in Cairo, Baghdad, Berlin, Paris, London, and New York, and it published a range of verse in translation. The physical magazine was also a stylish object, printed in book-size format with single columns of type and wide margins. The cover was minimalist, featuring only the title in austere and angular calligraphy. Particularly during the early years of Shiʿr, its design was remarkably consistent, elegant, and understated. In addition to the magazine, al-Khal established a publishing house, Dar Majallat Shiʿr, which printed criticism, original poetry, and anthologies of foreign verse. He and his wife, Helen, also founded a gallery for contemporary art, Gallery One, where the Modernists often convened a literary salon, the so-called jeudis de Shiʿr, which hosted Stephen Spender and Yves Bonnefoy among other European luminaries.
In some respects, Shiʿr was a typical product of its time and place. Beirut’s Modernist moment (circa 1955–75) coincided with the rise of the Lebanese capital as the center of Arabic intellectual life, usurping the place hitherto held by Cairo. Lebanon’s liberal censorship laws attracted writers and editors from across the region. Many of these immigrants were Palestinians fleeing north in the wake of the 1948 Nakba; subsequent waves were composed of Egyptians or Syrians escaping the increasingly monolithic regimes of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Baʿath. As Franck Mermier writes in his study of Lebanon’s print culture, “At the end of the 1950s, Lebanese publishing had managed to transform itself into the crossroads of Arabic intellectual production. Unlike its competitors elsewhere in the Arab world, Lebanese publishing enjoyed a striking degree of autonomy from the State and was held almost entirely in private hands.” In Fouad Ajami’s more skeptical view, “The city’s large number of newspapers reflected the worldviews of their patrons, the rival embassies and foreign governments that paid and sustained them. But the press still played with ideas, pointed fingers, debated the issues of the region, and now and then appalled the conservative custodians of proper and improper things.” In many histories, Lebanon in these two decades before the civil war was an oasis in the midst of an authoritarian wasteland, “a laboratory of numerous and conflicting tendencies,” in the words of Adonis, a Syrian Lebanese poet who was among West Beirut’s immigrants and the preeminent figure of the Modernist movement.
That movement was the most significant literary grouping in the Arab world since World War II. It produced a body of work remarkable for its aesthetic ambition and rhetorical coherence. The Shiʿr poets’ conceptualization of “modernity” or “Modernism”—the Arabic word, al-hadatha, can be used for both English terms—was immensely influential. As the Syrian critic Muhammad Jamal Barut has written, Shiʿr magazine “imposed a specific understanding of the problematic of modernity, one that most closely approaches our own understanding of the word today.” Many other literary movements in the region called their own work “modern” (hadith). They did this to signal a break with the conventions of classical or “traditional” verse, a willingness to borrow Western forms, or the inclusion of some obviously contemporary aspect of modern life (new technologies, for instance, or radical politics). But these features can be found in virtually any significant poetry written in Arabic during the period. For the Shiʿr poets, however, al-hadatha was not merely an index of newness or contemporaneity but a tool to redefine poetry as such. “I wonder if they [i.e., the Modernists] are ignorant of the limits of poetry?” Nazik al-Malaikah, a rival Iraqi poet, worried in 1962. One reason for the Modernists’ success in transforming the concept of poetry is their active supposition that there are no natural limits to this concept—that no one knows in any final sense what poetry is or what its sources of authority could be. “What we did with Shiʿr magazine has not been given, even now, its necessary critical reading,” Adonis has justifiably argued. “It had been studied, for the most part, antagonistically; or else it has been studied for what we did with form: the escape from meter, rhyme, inherited standards, etc. But these are surface readings. Our experience at the magazine, as an experience of poetic creativity, was essentially cultural and civilizational—one that transformed the concept of poetry itself as well as the way it is written.”
For all its importance to poets writing in Arabic, the Shiʿr movement is essentially unknown to English-language readers, including scholars of Modernist poetry. Beirut does not figure, for fathomable reasons, among the cities of Modernism in Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane’s seminal collection of studies, Modernism, 1890–1930. Paris, London, Berlin, Vienna, Saint Petersburg, and New York stake out the geography of the field as envisaged by these essays. Marshall Berman’s groundbreaking work, All That Is Solid Melts into Air, surveys a similar terrain. Even after the recent “transnational turn,” which has added Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai, and Buenos Aires to the purview of scholars, Beirut is still terra incognita.
One noteworthy feature of Arabic Modernism is precisely its work of selective preservation, as can be seen in Adonis’s anthologies and elegies. This curatorial sensibility is typical of the period of late Modernism, when literary texts and art objects from the first half of the twentieth century were organized into a firm if flexible canon and provided with an ideological rationale, which is that of aesthetic autonomy or purity of medium. Rather than avant-gardist iconoclasm, with its irreverent attitude toward institutionalized art, the ethos of late Modernism was one of professionalism or specialized competency. The most powerful account of this ethos remains that of Clement Greenberg, who championed Modernist abstract painting for its “use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” By rooting each art’s “competence” in its particular medium—whether poetry, painting, or sculpture—late Modernism reformulated art history into canons whose internal dynamics were safeguarded from extra-artistic interference. As Theodor Adorno, the most discerning but also ambivalent critic of late Modernism, writes, this is the moment of “culture’s becoming self-consciously cultural.”
The effort to wrest cultural objects free of their historical occasions results in a characteristically late-Modernist rhetoric of autonomy. This rhetoric is at the heart of the Arab Modernists’ project. As Yusuf al-Khal writes, to cite one example among many by the Shiʿr poets: “The poem as a work of art looks no further than itself, it is an independent creation, sufficient unto itself [muktafiya bi-dhatiha].” The implicit sense of al-Khal’s name for his magazine is “Poetry—and only poetry.” In Lebanon, however, the autonomy of literature was not something that had already been “conquered,” to borrow Pierre Bourdieu’s useful formulation, but rather a rallying cry aimed at securing a margin of independence from the state—a goal that was more plausible in Lebanon than in surrounding countries, where cultural bureaucracies were largely successful in asserting their control over artistic production. The Modernists’ project was strongly resisted by the region’s Marxist and nationalist intellectuals, for whom the separation of literature and politics was anathema. Indeed, the issue of literary autonomy was among the deepest fault lines in the cultural cold war. Leftist thinkers, in the Arab world as elsewhere, formulated their own poetics and erected their own artistic canons, which emphasized the intrinsically political nature of literary activity. This helps explain why the tone of the Beiruti Modernists is so often embattled and even shrill. As opposed to their late-Modernist peers in Europe and America, the Arab poets could rarely afford the postures of polished certitude. Their anguish arose from the feeling that they had not only to preserve their museum of civilization but also to build one in the face of determined antagonists.
Robyn Creswell is an assistant professor of comparative literature at Yale University and an advisory editor for The Paris Review. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and Harper’s Magazine, among many other publications. He is the translator of Abdelfattah Kilito’s The Tongue of Adam and Sonallah Ibrahim’s That Smell and Notes from Prison.
Excerpted from City of Beginnings: Poetic Modernism in Beirut, by Robyn Creswell. Copyright © 2019 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.