Elizabeth M. Holt is Assistant Professor of Arabic in the Division of Languages and Literature at Bard College. She holds a Ph.D. in Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, and a B.A. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University. She serves as Associate Editor of the Journal of Arabic Literature. Dr. Holt is the author of Fictitious Capital: Silk, Cotton, and the Rise of the Arabic Novel (Fordham University Press, 2017), and is in the midst of a second book, "Imperious Plots: Arabic Literature and the Cultural Cold War," about how the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a CIA-founded and -funded cultural organization of American empire, shaped Arabic literature in an age of decolonization and cold war.
Adab and the Cultural Cold War
Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, Arabic literature and the Arabic language itself became theaters of cultural cold war. Both the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), covertly founded and funded by the CIA from 1950, and the increasingly Soviet-sponsored Afro-Asian Writers Association (AAWA) -- like the 1955 Bandung conference for Afro-Asian solidarity that inspired it -- looked to Arabic as a lingua franca of cultural cold war in the decolonizing nations of Africa and Asia. From the mid-1950s, just after Bandung, the CCF had begun to intervene in Arabic culture, hosting the 1961 Rome Conference for Arab writers, and publishing the Beirut-based Arabic journal Ḥiwār from 1962-67, all part of the CIA’s covert mission to curate a global non-Communist Left and a propaganda of cultural freedom through the imperial geographic rubric of area studies. Seeking distribution for Ḥiwār in all Arabic speaking countries, the CCF also oversaw a special 1965 issue of Ḥiwār on Africa, publishing some of the earliest Arabic translations of twentieth-century sub-Saharan African literature. The AAWA would in turn publish their journal Afro-Asian Writings (soon to be called Lotus) in Arabic and English (and later also French) from 1968 in Cairo in a counter-effort to unify the anti-imperial, decolonial cultural struggle in African and Asian countries, with Soviet support. In the process, Arabic’s adab networks, networks that had sustained past Islamic empires, became targets of cold war cultural imperialism.