“Disseminating the Cultural Cold War in Arabic”- Interview with Elizabeth Holt
You are currently working on a book dealing with the CIA and its impact in the
Arabic peninsula during the Cold War Era. How did you find your sources? Could you easily exchange information and data with the CIA?
The book that I am presently writing — Disseminating the Cultural Cold War in Arabic — considers the fate of Arabic letters within the wider ambit of American and Soviet cultural intervention in Arabic, African, Latin American and Indian literature during the Cold War. At the center of the study is the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s Arabic journal Ḥiwār, which published from Beirut from 1962 until the CCF’s collapse in 1967, and at its height had broad distribution throughout the Arab world, from North Africa to Iraq and the Gulf, with a particular emphasis on the Cairo literary scene. Beginning in April of 1966, the New York Times ran a series of exposés that revealed that the United States Central Intelligence Agency had covertly founded and funded the Congress for Cultural Freedom. My research draws from the pages of Ḥiwār itself — which has been largely neglected by historians of Arabic literature and the Arabic press –; recently published letters and diaries of its editor Tawfīq Ṣāyigh; research on the CCF’s European and Latin American literary interventions by scholars including Jean Franco, Francis Stonor Saunders, and Andrew Rubin; and thousands of previously unstudied documents from the holdings of the International Association for Cultural Freedom archive at the University of Chicago. Both Saunders’ and Rubin’s efforts to access CIA records were met with either silence, or a willingness to neither confirm nor deny the CIA’s involvement in the workings of the CCF.
The Congress for Cultural Freedom oversaw a lot of publications and events around the world. Was it an effective Trojan horse among citizens and writers in the Arabic world – thanks to the CCF’s Arabic journal Ḥiwār for instance? To what extent did Cold War propaganda affect Arabic literature, from 1962 to nowadays?
There is an underlying question here as to what would be considered “effective” in a cultural Cold War, and how one would go about evaluating that. To measure by the legacy of Ḥiwār‘s authors in Arabic and in English translation, it was indeed a highly successful effort to curate a canon of Arabic literature in the name of a propaganda of cultural freedom. Some of Arabic’s most prominent novelists, critics, short story writers, poets and historians of the 1960s appeared in the pages of Ḥiwār, including Badr Shākir al-Sayyāb, Ghādah al-Sammān, Albert Hourani, Jabrā Ibrāhīm Jabrā, Suhayr Qalamāwī, Walīd al-Khālidī, Samīr Khalaf, Zakariyyā Tāmur, Laylā Baʿalbakī, Ṣalāḥ ʿAbd al-Ṣubūr, Salmā al-Khaḍrāʾ al-Jayyūsī, Ṣabrī Ḥāfiẓ, Luwịs ʿAwaḍ, Ibrāhīm Manṣūr, Ibrāhīm Aṣlān, Fuʾād al-Takarlī, Khayrī Shalabī, al-Ṭayyib Ṣāliḥ and Yūsuf Idrīs. One of the most devastating legacies of the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s Arabic literary activities is the long shadow of suspicion cast upon the possibility of avant-garde poetics and literature in Arabic.
Was there an equivalent Russian initiative?
In addition to initiatives such as Soviet Arab student exchanges, Arab ballet troupes touring the Soviet Union, and efforts to translate Russian literature into Arabic, the Soviet-sponsored Afro-Asian Writers Association and their journal Lotus, which began publishing in March of 1968, stands as the most striking corollary to the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s Ḥiwār.
Elizabeth M. Holt is currently a Fellow of Europe in the Middle East – the Middle East in Europe (EUME), a program of the Forum Transregionale Studien. Furthermore she is Assistant Professor of Arabic in the Division of Languages and Literature at Bard College, a small liberal arts college in the hamlet of Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where Holt teaches courses in Arabic language, Arabic literature, world literature and translation, literary theory, and Middle Eastern Studies. Holt serves as Associate Editor of the Journal of Arabic Literature, a journal she has edited since 2008. She recently completed a book entitled “Novel Material: Speculating in Arabic from Beirut to Cairo, 1870-1907” (forthcoming with Fordham University Press in 2016), a historical materialist study of the simultaneous rise of the novel form and finance capital in Arabic in the late nineteenth century.