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. Read More