“AND WERE YOU POLITICALLY INVOLVED in Beirut?” an interviewer once asked Faiz Ahmed Faiz, arguably the greatest Urdu poet of the last century. “I was, indeed, yes!” he replied. “You had to be, if you were part of the suffering of the place and of the people.”
Today, the most visible signs of the subcontinent’s involvement in Beirut are the neon-green-uniformed South Asian men emptying plastic garbage bins into large green trucks on the street. Images of India abound in the city’s hip yoga culture, with Pakistan harder to find. The Arabic word for “Sri Lankan,” in its feminine adjectival form, is widely synonymous with “maid.” Diversity fares mildly better in elite liberal enclaves such as the American University of Beirut or the contemporary art scene, which are generally sprinkled with a few brown faces. There are moments, of course. An independent film festival recently screened the Indian filmmaker Anurag Kashyap’s crime drama Gangs of Wasseypur, a Palestinian refugee camp includes a grocery store stocked with imported ingredients for its Bangladeshi residents (cheap housing and limited state intervention attract the camp’s mixed occupants), and a Nepalese feminist organisation offers a stream of regular programming for its community of domestic workers. In Faiz’s day, Asians had just begun to enter Lebanon’s manual and domestic labour force. But for politically conscious intellectuals in Lahore or Delhi, the tiny Arab country bordered by Syria and Palestine was a closely followed news item in an era marked by the spirit of socialism and Third World solidarity.
In 1977, General Zia ul-Haq deposed Pakistan’s elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in a coup that would lead to over a decade of American-supported military rule. Soon afterwards, the 67-year-old Faiz—a former political prisoner, close associate of Bhutto and outspoken socialist—decided to leave his home in Karachi for Beirut. This seemed a curious choice. It was 1978, and Lebanon was three years into a civil war that would last another 12. In Beirut, the Green Line, named for its grassy overgrowth, separated the city’s Christian-controlled east from the Muslim-controlled west, and moving around meant confronting checkpoints, Kalashnikovs and threats of disappearance. Syrian troops had entered the country in 1976, and Israel had been conducting regular raids against Palestinian resistance fighters operating out of southern Lebanon since 1968. With support from the West, Israel was also arming local militias.
At the time, Beirut was a centre of modern Arabic culture, brimming with intellectual fervour and anti-colonial thought. During his stay, Faiz took up the editorship of Lotus, a trilingual magazine of international literature jointly funded by the Soviet Union, Egypt, East Germany and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, the umbrella organisation for the factions that formed the Palestinian national movement. Faiz and his wife, Alys, quickly acquired an address by the Mediterranean Sea, spending smoke-filled evenings with Palestinian revolutionaries and fellow exiles. Less than four years later, in 1982, the two were forced to flee Beirut to escape a full-fledged Israeli invasion and siege. But even in the brief time Faiz spent there, the city left its imprint on him. In a poem published in homage after Faiz’s death, the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali—who first obtained permission to translate Faiz’s work into English in a letter he received from Beirut—recalled, “Twenty days before your death you finally/ wrote, this time from Lahore, that after the sack/ of Beirut you had no address.”
That death came in 1984, just two years after Faiz left Beirut. Now, many decades later, the city as he knew it is gone, a victim to war, factionalism and rampant privatisation. Overpriced copies of Lotus may be found shelved in one of the city’s antique bookshops. Faiz’s revolutionary vision has become a footnote to his life and work, overtaken by a nationalist mythology that has rendered him icon of a single country. The legacies of many of his comrades from his time in Beirut have been treated likewise. Lotus, which carried forward the dream of a radical new postcolonial order against such nationalist narratives and depleted political imaginations, remains largely unknown and underappreciated today.