By Michael Vasquez
The journal that the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) published in Beirut, Hiwar, was immediately controversial. It was founded in 1962 by a Palestinian Christian modernist poet and translator of TS Eliot – a somewhat perverse figure named Tawfiq Sayigh. Sayigh published many of his poems in his journal, including “A Few Questions I Posed to the Unicorn”, which has been called the strangest poem in Arabic literature. In 1963 Hiwar published a short story by the radical feminist writer Layla Baalbaki called “A Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon”. She released a short story collection by the same title later that year, which led to her being arraigned for obscenity and offence to public morals. Which is also to say that Hiwar was the sort of magazine that would purposely court that sort of controversy. And it wasn’t just controversy for its own sake – if you look at Baalbaki, who in the wake of that encounter with the state stopped writing, she’s definitely another elliptical figure who is worth recovering. In 1966, the magazine published Tayib Salih’s Season of Migration to the North in its entirety. It’s an incredible book. Edward Said called it one of the six pivotal novels in the Arabic language. It’s the story of a Sudanese intellectual, Mustafa Said, who goes to London, becomes a professor at the London School of Economics, and sleeps his way through various well-meaning white girls in London, leaving a trail of suicides behind him. To seduce women he plays up the Oriental savage fantasy – appealing to everyone’s basest nature. Finally he meets someone who “gets him” and then, he murders her. Hiwar was the sort of forum that would publish the book because one tenth of the novel is a conversation between 70-something elders from the village about sex which is led by an 80-something woman who has divorced several husbands for their sexual inadequacy.
The CCF was actually being bankrolled by the CIA. They purported to be engaged in promoting cultural freedom, which had an agenda, obviously, but this was not known. And when the story came out, many of the journals they published – though not all – collapsed within a few months or years, and the editors faced personal and professional catastrophe. Tawfiq Sayigh was hounded out of Beirut. He died in 1971 at the age of 47 – but in some ways, I think that the relationship between Sayigh and Salih was very important; and it’s the absence of that relationship which helps to explain the diminution of Salih’s interest in publishing new work.
This article features in a special, Arabic-only edition of the Chronic, published in June 2015 as “Muzmin”. The issue, which examines the division of “North” and “sub-Saharan” Africa and Ali Mazrui’s concept of “Afrabia”, was designed in collaboration with Studio Safar (Beirut) and presented at the 12th edition of Sharjah Biennial.Buy the Chronic