A short history of the relationship between Lebanese arts production and foreign funding | Youssef Bazzi
A short history of the relationship between Lebanese arts production and foreign funding Print
Youssef Bazzi   
  A short history of the relationship between Lebanese arts production and foreign funding | Youssef Bazzi In the early 1960s the poet Tawfiq Saigh began publishing the Hiwar magazine. Born in Palestine and living in Lebanon in an elitist Protestant environment whose educational and pedagogic heritage was imported into the region by British and American missionaries in the late 19th century, Tawfiq completed his education at an American university before returning to Beirut in the late 1950s. Once home he set about promoting modernism in Arabic poetry. This process had been started by the Shi’r magazine, itself edited by the Syrian-born poet Youssef Al-Khal, another beneficiary of an Anglo-Saxon upbringing. What set Saigh’s magazine apart was that it openly received foreign, and in particular American, funding. Its publication coincided with the launch of another magazine called Al-Adaab with pan-Arabist if not Nasserist convictions, which was intended to counter the influence of Shi’r and the theses of poetic modernism that it regarded as polluting authenticity and distorting cultural identity. Nationalism and anti-colonialist slogans swept the Arab world and came to dominate cultural discourse. Al-Adaab suddenly found itself up against Al-Hiwar, a magazine funded by an American foundation ostensibly set up to support cultural projects around the world but that could have been funded in turn by an American intelligence operation to disseminate anti-communist propaganda in the European and Middle Eastern media. Another cog in the Cold War. This discovery formed the basis of a vicious and unrelenting campaign against Saigh, his magazine and modernism in general throughout the Arab world, which portrayed them as part of a Western conspiracy against Arab culture. Saigh was forced to close his magazine and the frustration and depression this caused him led to his sudden death in a hotel elevator.

Saigh’s drama thus became yet another lesson from history whose impact lives on in the contemporary consciousness of Arab culture. Al-Hiwar is seen as the starting point for the relationship between Arab cultural projects and what has come to be known as the Euro-US “foundation”. It is a relationship that can at best be described as “dubious” and at worst as “betrayal”, “conspiracy” or working on behalf of the imperialist assault on the Arab nation or the “Zionist-colonialist project”. The list of charges runs through the full list of clichés that have comprised the Arab political dictionary for the last 60 years. Ever since this unfortunate event no one has been courageous enough to reestablish funding links with foreign parties of any kind. If this is true of Lebanon, where no law actively criminalizes such links, then it is doubly true under other Arab regimes that effectively function as police states. The criminalization of these links has come to dominate understanding of the morality of the relationship between cultural production and money. It has had a profound impact. For many decades Arab cultural output has been governed by the following equation: either you get support from the nationalist state (as is the case with the majority of Arab regimes that use censorship and extremist ideology to oppress and restrict expression) or you choose to be independent and private, in which case you are destined to be inconsistent and poor (as is the case in Lebanon, where the state does not intervene in cultural production and rarely provides any form of financial or moral support to projects).

The first noticeable change came after the signing of the Camp David agreements between Israel and Egypt and the opening up of the Egyptian market to American products and financial aid. The Egyptian regime, which began to receive this aid on a regular basis, was no longer in any position to criticize artists, producers and associations for doing the same. However the same was not true of the media, public opinion and the cultural establishment, which leveled charges of “normalization with Israel” against anyone foolish enough to accept Western funding. In these circles it was accepted fact that foreign funding was designed to “take control” of cultural output and channel it towards endorsing and disseminating “suspicious” ideas and policies. This firmly held belief seriously impeded any attempt to establish any normal relationship between Western donor organizations and Arab artists, just as it became impossible for civil society organizations in the Arab world to get benefit from Western wealth. In any case, the Egyptian experience created cracks in the previously impervious Arab “boycott”, and those who were known to have received American or European aid mounted a vigorous self-defense. They remained a despised and embattled minority, but there were exceptions, such as the director Youssef Chahine, who managed to get Egyptians accustomed to the idea of cinematic funding (from the French in particular). The second change took place around the same time and involved Gulf wealth, the fruit of the decade that had passed since the first major exploitation of oil in the region. Huge wealth at home was coupled with the experiences of those Arabs who had lived and studied in Europe and North America. These newly wealthy individuals, with their Westernized outlook, entered the field of cultural production for the first time. This took place on two levels. The first, and most prevalent, involved commercial and profit-making enterprises. The second involved donations and non-profit support, setting up cultural research centers, funding magazines and publications, establishing private art museums and funding the theatre, the performance arts and literary translation projects. However this phenomenon had a fundamental flaw inherent in both the failure to convert this private donation and support into regulated foundations as well as a lack of transparency and openness. The relationship between art and money took place in secret, closely resembling shadily brokered deals and often clearly corrupt. No association or organization seemed prepared to openly declare that it was the donor of a given artwork or civil project. In 1990 the civil war ended in Beirut. Despite 15 years of war the city had remained the printer of the Arab world, a vital part of Arab avant-garde theatre and one of the centers of the plastic arts in the Arab world (both commercially and in terms of production and distribution).

The Lebanese capital was a beacon of Arab modernism, albeit not the only torchbearer, as had been the case in the 1960s. Not only this, but as a result of the rise of fundamentalism in the Arab and Islamic world, the flame burned a little lower than before. No sooner had peace been declared that the Lebanese woke up to reality, which could be best summarized as follows: widespread destruction, a ravaged society and a collapsed economy. Politically, economically and culturally, reconstruction became a national mission of the highest priority. A sterile argument dominated the discourse: “What comes first: man or accommodation?” The language of this debate was derived from the now inappropriate, even senile, leftist, revolutionary and nationalist discourse. Even as this pointless debate raged, the ongoing process of reconstruction was having two distinct and simultaneous results. First it was providing rooms, and secondly a rise in jobs and improvement in living conditions. In the 1990s Lebanon seemed to well on the way to a market economy and liberal trade policies (that had been the norm from the 1940s up until the mid 1970s), and an attendant economic and financial flourishing. It revived a longing (culturally speaking) for the pre-war days, the old image of “beautiful” tourist Lebanon, the home of bars and nightclubs and festivals that attracted stars from all over the world.

Lebanon was the Arab world’s window on the world. Thus, the first major public event was a huge concert by the great Fairouz, staged in the ruins of Downtown Beirut. The first project to be proposed was reviving the international Baalbek festivals and transforming the modest and essentially local Beit Al-Din festivals that started during the war, into an international event. These first tentative steps towards cultural production were essentially major touristic shows and as a result required a major funding infrastructure to back them up. The relationship between the politics and cultural production was made completely explicit when the state took over the administration of these festivals and through the lavish contributions made by the figure central to the reconstruction process, the Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri. Al-Hariri was also responsible for encouraging wealthy individuals and local banks to fund cultural projects. For the first time, financial and commercial institutions were able to experience for themselves the hidden benefits of funding cultural production.

It was this understanding that led to the establishment of Lebanon’s first ever official donor organization, the Ministry of Culture, in 1991. The real innovation though, was that it became accepted that every artwork, show or performance, of whatever kind, should have its own sponsor. In response, artists, intellectuals and civil society activists began to develop a financial savvy long suppressed by the leftist anti-capitalist and anti-Western rhetoric of the war years. They suddenly woke up the benefits of the capitalist system (if that is the right term) and rushed to get their hands on the generous funds available for any and all cultural and civil projects. As peace took hold in Lebanon, the First Gulf War came to an end and rumors circulated of an Arab-Israeli peace settlement in the wake of the Madrid Conference. International organizations, both private and official, descended on the region to participate (each bringing its own aims and visions) in the formation of a New Middle East. This usually translated itself into an unusually high level of funding and a rapid growth in the number of civil society organizations, as well as providing aid and support to cultural projects. In no time the taboo of foreign funding disintegrated aided by a new cultural dogma that proclaimed: European money is acceptable as long as certain conditions are imposed, whereas American money is totally unacceptable. Unfortunately this nicely framed argument ran into reality, which quickly showed that European funds were paltry and tangled in Byzantine bureaucracy whereas the Americans doled out enormous quantities of wealth at the drop of a hat. Indeed, the Americans didn’t even seem overly concerned with how it was spent, nor did they, unlike the Europeans, insist on publicly declaring where they were sending their aid. A secret battle started to be waged to get hold of this American cash, most of which flowed from the Ford Foundation. In only a few short years important cultural and civil activities in Beirut were being funded by a plethora of sources: the Gulf, Europe, America and local donors.

Between 1990 and 2005 Beirut enjoyed one of the best periods of cultural production in its history, a flowering driven by the huge amounts of money available and the hunger of Lebanese citizens for the life they had known before the war and their desire to see their city as a cultural capital. Beirut’s society, nurtured on internationalism, a media-based economy, advertising, tourism, money, culture and luxury, quickly transformed into a city of political passions and ambitions. For example, the Cedar Revolution’s dramatic carnivals were funded by advertising companies, wealthy capitalists, major trading houses and civil society organizations (which had, in turn, their own sources of funding).

Today, there are some 21,000 civil society organizations and associations in Lebanon that receive funding from an almost limitless number of sources. If you can believe it, an anonymous American “source” pays a monthly wage to every Lebanese rap singer. Is their any point in questioning the benefits of the “foundation”? I interviewed the actress and theatre director Lina Saneh on this very issue. Saneh belongs to the post-war generation and runs one of the most successful cultural foundations in Lebanon: Forms/Colors. She has had experience of foreign funding as both an artist and as the director of an organization that relies heavily on foreign support. Youssef Bazzi