Turning the Page: Reading 1979 in and through the Cultural Journal Mawaqif

By Yvonne Albers

Years that Matter and the Phenomenology of the Periodical Form

Those who study periodical culture (in the Middle East and elsewhere) know: The periodical form, generally, and the cultural journal in particular, is a complex object of study. It holds big data, speaks multi-vocally, narrates inconsistently, is highly contingent, and often stretches over a large period of time. To cope with this unruly nature, a focus on years may help, as they fulfill an important function for any periodical. They are markers on title pages and, as imprints, they act as an ordering principle, by which they represent and promise a journal’s periodical and serial emergence and by which they locate a single issue in temporal relation to its predecessors and descendants. But beyond this editorial function, a year may also lend itself as a cipher for a ‘turning point’ in the journal’s trajectory, as often some years’ issues not only appear somehow more ‘dense’ than other years but also seem to divide the journal as an entity into a phenomenological before and after. 1979 strikes one’s eye as such a dense year studying the cultural periodical Mawaqif that was published between 1968 and 1994 in Beirut. After this point, profound changes of the journal’s network and discourse took take place or at least appeared to intensify.[1]

In what follows, I will take Mawaqif in and after 1979 as an example to scrutinize: What becomes visible when we read a year through a journal? And what happens when we read a journal through a year?

On Beginnings: 1968 / 1978

Adunis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber, born 1 January 1930), 12 May 2011, Image: Mariusz Kubik, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Mawaqif (engl.: Positions) was published between 1968 and 1994 by the Syrian poet Adunis and a group of intellectuals who belonged to Adunis’ broad personal and intellectual network, including Khalida Said, Halim Barakat, Sadiq al-Azm, and later Kamal Abu Deeb, Elias Khoury, and Kamal Boullata among many others. Besides being Adunis’ periodical follow-up project after his break with the group around the famous Shir magazine, Mawaqif’s launch was a direct reaction to the ‘moment of 1967’[2]: With the journal’s claim for a new radicalism in deconstructing Arab aesthetics and intellectual heritage, Mawaqif took part in the current intellectual call for a practice of self-criticism. Despite Adunis’ aim to position the journal beyond any political camp, this trans-ideological ideal was superseded by the journal’s contemporary cherish of Third Worldism, the support of the Palestinian resistance, as well as regular translations and readings of Neo-Marxist theory, which all might allow to define Mawaqif in that early period as part of what has been coined as the New Arab Left[3]. When in 1975 the Lebanese civil war began, Mawaqif ceased publication, only to relaunch again in 1978. Compared to its feverish and confrontational pilot-issue, the agony and desperation of the writer-intellectual facing violent warfare is resounding in this relaunch-issue. It was only in the subsequent year that a spirit of optimism returned to the journal’s pages. The Iranian revolution that led to the fall of Reza Shah Pahlavi was cherished not only by the Islamic authorities but also by many Arab secular intellectuals who perceived it as a historical victory against imperialism represented by one of its allies. Mawaqif’s editorial board was no exception to this euphoria. In 1979, they released two issues: #34 and #35. Their dates of publication were so close to one another that one might assume that due to the thrilling effect of the actual events, #34 was an improvised and spontaneously inserted.

Reading 1979 through Mawaqif

Issue #34 had two special themes: The first part was dedicated to contemporary Arabic poetry and introduced by a lengthy study of the young generation of poets from Southern Lebanon by poet and journalist Abbas Beydoun (34)[4]. Beydoun’s article also raises the question about the role of the Southern Lebanese intellectual in a period in which the hitherto forgotten Shiite South gained political importance and self-confidence in the course of the civil war.[5]

The second section of the issue was titled “Islam and Particularity” (Al-Islam wa-l-khususiyya). A short editorial note defines it as a continuation of a historical discussion on cultural particularity that emerged with the Arab Nahda and with the two entities called ‘West’ and ‘East’. The Islamic Revolution in Iran, as the editorial note states, brings this debate back into our present day. Mawaqif’s board thus feels the urge to reopen the discussion with some recent reactions to the Iranian events. Among essays by Hazim Saghieh, Bouali Yassin, and Aouni Bashir we find also a contribution by the critic and aspiring novelist Elias Khoury (31). He compares Khomeini with the Nahda reformer al-Afghani, arguing that both share the same goal of fighting Western imperialism with and through Islam. Khoury posits Khomeini as historical continuation of a century-long project of decolonization, who unifies the people by referring to their shared but lost language, the language of the majority: the language of Islam.[6] In the subsequent issue, #35, we find another article by Khoury, which presents an interesting response to his previous text. Entitled, “Lost Memory,” it discusses the realm of literary and critical writing in times of an ongoing civil war, which has exposed an inability to reflect on social reality in Arab culture. Khoury traces this inability back to what he calls the “lost memory” – a memory that was gradually destroyed since the Nahda. The recovery of this lost memory requires first the language of the majority (with roots in Islam, as he had said one issue earlier); and second a text that embraces its own destruction, a text at the end of modernity, i.e.: a postmodern text.[7] Back in #34, Adunis (49) closes the section on “Islam and particularity” with his text “Between Stability and Transformation: Thoughts on the Islamic Revolution in Iran”.[8] The title relates to Adunis’ earlier series of study published between 1974 and 1978, in which he had analyzed the heritage of Arab poetry and turned it into a cultural critique of Arab societies which seem unable to progress.[9] Other than in his previous study, he presents Islam as the manifestation of an authentic Eastern culture. Adunis’ argument relies on the somewhat contradictory assumption that Islam (perceived as culture) represents both the essence of the East as well as its only mover for social change.

Mawaqif Issue 34, 1979.

Reading Mawaqif through 1979

The opaque relation of cause and effect in the making of a journal applies to each issue as it does to long-term changes in its trajectory. One will neither be able to trace all factors that lead to alterations in a journal’s form and content, nor assess the exact impact of one single factor. Still, I argue that the moment of 1979 has had an impact on both Mawaqif’s social network as well as its discourse. The famous split between philosopher Sadiq al-Azm (45) and Adunis is probably the most immediate ‘effect’ of 1979 on the journal’s network. Mawaqif’s special issue on the Islamic revolution, and Adunis’ article in particular, led al-Azm to resign from his position as Mawaqif’s official co-editor and to break intellectually with his former friend. His main point of critique was articulated 1981 in his “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse”[10], a review of Said’s “Orientalism”, in which al-Azm criticized former ‘Leftist’ intellectuals who, in a naïve reaction to Khomeini’s revolution, self-orientalize ‘the East’ through a glorification of Islam, worst of them all Adunis. This accusation let to back-and-forth-dispute on the pages of Mawaqif and other periodicals between 1980 and 1982 (and remained a contentious affair long after[11]) which became representative for the schism of the Arab Left facing the Islamic revolution. In the early 1980s, Mawaqif’s imprint would then surprisingly present a new editorial structure that moved from an editorial board to a leading directorship, accompanied by the short note that “the authors of Mawaqif are also its editors.”[12] What first might appear as a widening of the editorial board is indeed a weakening of a group project (at least rhetorically).

Regarding its discourse, there are two major issues that gain prominence in the course of 1979 and which occupied a significant portion of Mawaqif’s pages until its closure. First, there is the debate on Islam, its relation to Arab culture and location in Arabic cultural heritage, and its importance for the process of modernization – a topos that was basically non-existent in Mawaqif’s first publication phase. It can be considered as the most ‘Adunisian’ characteristic of the journal after 1979, since it became one of the major themes with which he dealt only started to engage after the Islamic revolution.[13] The question of Islam became part of Mawaqif’s corporate identity and in 1989 even transgressed the journal’s pages with a symposium on “Islam and Modernity”, convened with Dar al-Saqi in London.[14] Second, there is the entry of poststructuralist theory alongside a stronger appreciation of literary criticism to which Mawaqif would make an outstanding contribution in the 1980s. This is also due to a central change of personnel in the editorial board with the literary scholar Kamal Abu Deeb and critic Elias Khoury, not to mention Khalida Said, and to regular contributors like Kazim Jihad, who translated, discussed, and tried to apply de Saussure, Barthes, and Derrida in their writings on Arabic literature. Another indication for Mawaqif’s ‘postmodern shift’ can be seen in the journal’s opening towards fiction, with which it was almost entirely unconcerned prior. Elias Khoury, in particular, argued for (and practiced) a fragmentation of literary narrative that reflects the broken relationship with the cultural past revealed by the Lebanese civil war.

Narrations of Change

The phenomenological displays of reading a year through a journal and vice-versa allow for some last thoughts on the relation of periodical culture to ‘years that matter’. A selective reading of 1979 through Mawaqif is far from a universal narrative of the year, but rather a contradictory, fragmentary tableau of Arab intellectual responses to the political constellations for which this year stands. Mawaqif’s 1979 brought together a Shiite poetry movement and a Shiite revolution in one issue. It allowed for a devastating civil war and a liberating Islamic revolution to reveal the “true East”. Islam became the lost culture and the lost language of the many, but only when this language can be brought back in a destroyed text. Each of these articles still represent individual perspectives, but their joint reading sheds light on how 1979 affected a decades-spanning inquiry into the question of modernity, the role of literature, and the mandate of the intellectual. However, the place where these reactions to 1979 come together in the act of reading is not arbitrary, nor is it out of history. By 1979, Mawaqif had been part of Beirut’s intellectual scene for over ten years and as a journal, it had always represented an ideological niche. A synchronous picture of Arab intellectual reactions to this year would require a comparative study of peer journal issues, also taking into account the cultural journals that launched during the ‘1979 moment’, such as Mahmud Darwish’s Karmel (1981) or Gabir Asfour’s Fusul (1980).

Reading Mawaqif through 1979 reveals some of the major changes that the journal faced and underwent in the course of a year. The split between Adunis and al-Azm and the latter’s resignation from Mawaqif’s board had a major significance. Both of them had been prominent voices in 1967, calling for Arab self-criticism.[15] With their mutual accusation of “betrayal,” this shared project and al-Azm’s resignation, Mawaqif’s mission, grounded precisely in the historical moment of 1967 was shattered, and the subsequent official editorial reorganization—although temporary—seems like a direct reaction to this unsettling. Although some years later Mawaqif would return to indicate an editors’ collective in its imprint, the group spirit found in the late 1960s and 70s editorials would never return. On a discursive level, Mawaqif after 1979 reflects the dissociation from a former identification with a Leftist project of liberation. What gains prominence instead is the question of Islam and its relation to cultural heritage, and a turn towards culture as text, that would usher in a strengthening of literary criticism, accompanied by an intense reception of French critical theory during the 1980s. In a way, what enters Mawaqif’s pages in this period is, at once, a certain essentialism of cultural discourse, alongside the crisis of representation and the disbelief in any unifying narrative. It is precisely in this paradox through which 1979 appears as a global momentum: In the same time, Europe witnesses the return of religion into politics (pope in Poland), its Left remains disenchanted, and “the pleasure of the text” triumphs over “the death of the author” (both Roland Barthes).

Mawaqif manifests itself as a site for some of the debates that would render 1979 into a crucial moment of Arab intellectual history. At the same time, 1979 appeared as a ‘year that matters’ for the journal’s trajectory, one that did not initiate a radical rupture but a gradual and partial shift. It is important to stress, though, that besides the discontinuities that I have highlighted in this reading, there was also a strong continuity, certain basic characteristics that did not change after 1979, the most prominent of which was Mawaqif’s function as a point of entry to the Arab literary scene for young poets due to Adunis position. Narrating change in relation to the periodical form is a challenge, ever more so since the cultural periodical – as serial object – is not only subjected to change, but produces narratives of change itself all the time, and has made an important contribution to the production of particular years as ‘turning points’ – but that reading is for later.



[1] Be it 1979, 1967, or any other (in)famous year that has been characterized as a ‘watershed moment’ or ‘turning point’ in the history of the Middle East: A reflection on our own contribution as scholars to the making of these years is deemed crucial. So is it a particular year which marks a rupture in cultural production; or is it historical narration itself that produces that rupture? And in how far can we talk about historical rupture at all in relation to cultural production? In 2015, these questions were also discussed in the workshop What’s in a Year? Reflections on 1967 which we convened together with the Department of History and the Department of Media Studies as part of our activities in the research group “Figures of Thought / Turning Points” at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies, Marburg University. See: https://www.uni-marburg.de/cnms/research/turning-points/activities/conferences-workshops/whatsinayear?language_sync=1

[2] See e.g. Said, Khalida: Yutubiya al-madina al-muthaqqafa. Beirut: Dar al-Saqi 2012: 165-71.

[3] For the impact of 1967 (as year of the naksa, i.e. the Arab defeat during the Six-Day-War) on the Arab Left and its cultural production see: Haugbolle, Sune. “The new Arab left and 1967.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 44.4 (2017): 497-512.

[4] In the following I index the protagonists’ contemporaneous age to illustrate 1979 also as a biographical moment in an individual’s intellectual trajectory.

[5] Beydoun, Abbas. „Al-hadatha, al-an: Bahth fi-l-harakat al-shu’ara’ al-shabban al-lubnaniyin.“ Mawaqif 34 (1979): 3-30.

[6] Khoury, Elias. „Ruh al-sharq wa-thawrat al-sharq.“ Mawaqif 34 (1979): 118-126.

[7] Khoury, Elias. “Al-dhakira al-mafquda.” Mawaqif 35 (1979): 68-81. Khoury republished this article a few years later in an anthology of essays of the same title: Al-dhakira al-mafquda. Dirasat naqdiya. Beirut: Mu’assassat al-abhath al-‘arabiya 1982.

[8] Adunis. „Beina al-thabat wa-l-mutahawwil: Khawatir hawla al-thawra al-islamiya fi Iran.“ Mawaqif 34 (1979): 149-160.

[9] Adunis. Al-thabit wa-l-mutahawwil. Bahth fi-l-ibda’ wa-l-ibtida ‘ind al-‘Arab. 3 vols. Beirut: Dar al-Saqi 1974-1978.

[10] al-Azm, Sadiq. “Al-Istrishraq wa-l-istishraq ma’kusan.” Al-Hayat al-Jadida 1.3 (1981). Published shortly after in English translation in Khamsin 8 (1981).

[11] For example, the “causa Iran” was brought up again by al-Azm in 2015 in reaction to Adunis’ nomination for the German Erich-Maria-Remarque peace price. See: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/buecher/autoren/sadik-al-azm-kritisiert-friedenspreis-fuer-adonis-13811010.html

[12] Mawaqif 37/38 (1980), Imprint.

[13] Mawaqif 43 (1981): 7.

[14] Al-islam wa-l-hadatha. London: Dar al-Saqi 1990. (Edited volume published after a conference of the same title in 1989, convened by Mawaqif und Dar al-Saqi in London)

[15] Al-Azm, Sadiq. Al-Naqd al-dhati ba’d al-hazima. Beirut: Dar al-Tali’a 1968; Adunis. “Bayan 5 Huzayran 1967.” Al-Adab 7/8 (1967): 7-12.


Yvonne Albers holds an MA in Philosophy, Theater Studies, and Arabic Studies and has studied in Leipzig and Damascus. Between 2010 and 2016, she has been a Research Associate at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies (CNMS) in the Department of Arabic Literature and Culture at the Philipps-Universität Marburg and is a member of the research group Figures of Thought | Turning Points: Cultural Practices and Social Change in the Arab World (DFG). Her PhD project, which is funded by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, investigates the genre of the Arab cultural magazine as a practice of criticism and intellectual self-fashioning, taking the Beirut-based periodical Mawāqif (1968-1994) as example.

Citation: Yvonne Albers, Turning the Page: Reading 1979 in and through the Cultural Journal Mawaqif, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.05.2018 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/9858.

Further articles in the series “The ‘1979 Moment’ in the Middle East” on TRAFO:

Amir Moosavi (2018), Looking Back at the “1979 Moment” in the Middle East

Behrooz Moazami (2018), The Making and Unmaking of the Moments: From the 1979 Revolution to the Arab Spring

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2018, 16. Mai). Turning the Page: Reading 1979 in and through the Cultural Journal Mawaqif. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. Mai 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/usp8

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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  1. 19. Dezember 2019

    […] Yvonne Albers (2018), Turning the Page: Reading 1979 in and through the Cultural Journal Mawaqif […]

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