Lotus was a quarterly magazine which for its time was a ground-breaking a literary cum artistic cum political expression. It started life as a journal called Afro-Asian Writings. From the outset the writer’s of the jounal placed themselves in relationship to the broader social and political mechanism of imperial powers. Firoze Manji spoke to Tariq Mehmood from the American University of Beirut about Lotus and the plans to republish these exceptional writings from the archives.Number of visits: 2073
FIROZE MANJI: Can you tell us what exactly the magazine Lotus was?
TARIQ MEHMOOD: Lotus was a quarterly magazine which for its time was a ground-breaking a literary cum artistic cum political expression. It started life as a journal called Afro-Asian Writings. From the outset the writer’s of the jounal placed themselves in relationship to the broader social and political mechanism of imperial powers. In the very first edition Youssef el Sebai, the journals first editor wrote,,’Today there are clear indications that the imperialist system with its allies and agents, is desperately clinging to whatever strongholds still remain and is vainly at¬tempting to recuperate whatever it has al¬ready lost. These attempts have taken the form of either flagrant neo-colonialist in¬filtration, through sowing division, as occurr¬ing in South Sudan; reinforcement of their footholds in the few territories still under the yoke of direct colonization, as in the Portuguese colonies, insurance of the con¬tinuity of the inhuman and repulsive systems of racial discrimination through counter-at¬tack, as indicated by the series of imperialist and reactionary coups d’etat recently in Africa; or finally, direct military aggression and intervention as in Vietnam now.’
Today, in 2014, our world is awash with journals and magazines, hard and soft, in numerous languages, spreading across countries and continents. But this was not this was not the case in 1960s when Lotus was born. There was no literary landscape at this time in which writer’s from Africa and Asia, many of who spoke no common tongue, other than the language of similar experiences could share their words with each other especially as their’s was a language of hope and rebellion.
One of the most important issues that the writers of Lotus were concerned with was that unity which was born out of a shared history of colonialism as well as a shared vision of a world free of imperialism.
In a special feature in the Issue Number 8, 1971, the words J Rebelo illustrate what sort of words the writers of Lotus wanted to carve:
I will create simple words
That even children understand
Words that will enter every home like the wind,
Words that will fall like burning coals
Into the soul of our people
Apart from the journal, the Afro-Asian Writer’s Association also created the prestigous Lotus award. Some of the winners included, Alex La Gama, Sonomyn Udval, Hiroshi Noma, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Ousmane Sembane; Ghassan Kanafani, Chinua Achebe, Faiz Ahmed Faiz; Youseff el Sebai; Mahmoud Darwish; Makoto Oda and Jose Craveirinha.
FM: When was it established and by whom?
TM: In 1958 a group of African and Asian writers who spoke a multitude of languages met in Tashkent and formed the Afro-Asian Writer’s Association. Ten years later this organisation would launched a journal called Afr-Asian Writings, which would go on to become Lotus.
Lotus was published from Cairo and Beirut and was produced tri-lingually in Arabic, English and French.
FM: What was its aim?
TM: This question should be placed in the historical context of the time of the beginning of Lotus. This was only a decade or so after the carnage of the second world war. It was not far from the bloody communal massacres in South Asia. It was at a time of the bitter bloody conflicts in Vietnam and against Apartheid in Southern Africa and Israel. But these events themselves were just a gruesome footnote of history western colonialism, and its attended spreading of racism especially in assault on the cultures of the peoples of Africa and Asian.
The beginning of the Lotus era was also the era of the cold war and the writer’s of Lotus, in the main were socialists, and the ideology of socialism was an overriding component of their work. In this the organisation supported and subsided by the former Soviet Union as well as from The former East Germany.
Lotus was keen to promote the idea of translation, in the broad meaning of the term, ie not just language. And here, they wanted to break the Western monopoly, where translation was seen as a one way journey, from the rest to the West. This was a formidable task for the time. Given that this was the first time a project of this scale and scope had been attempted, there were movements when literary work, for example a one act play by the Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim which is published in Lotus, is translated in India and Ethiopia and is performed in local languages.
The writers of Lotus a huge cultural impact affecting tens of millions of people. It published a vast collection of poetry, short stories, folklore, studies and positional papers that explored issues relating to the development of arts and culture in the former colonised nations of Africa and Asia, and actively addressed the burning issues of the time, such as the Vietnam war, the struggle against British, French and Portuguese colonial outposts in Africa and Asia, against the apartheid regimes of South African and Zimbabwe and against Zionism.
From the individuality of people experiences, Lotus sought to project the universality of humanity of the peoples of Africa and Asia. By publishing folklore, studies, about themselves about each, the writers of Lotus sought not simply to inspire, not simply to free those countries which still had not shaken off the colonial yoke, but also to reclaim history from colonial masters, and to do this, not only had the pen to be transformed into a sword but the shield of Art had to be snatched back from the masters as well. These were the first group of writers, who sought to unite with each other to break the mirror of western cultural domination.
FM: To what extend did it achieve those ends?
TM: Lotus was the product of a time and a movement. The movement in a sense wanted to create a new human being. But not just a person, but in the words of the Shokolov ’ A real Human being is not one who finds it sufficient to feel sympathy for the victim whilst forgetting the presence of the murderer amongst us.’ The murder in the eyes of lotus was not just a man, but a system.
Perhaps a world free of racism and injustice, a world which the writer’s of Lotus wanted to create, is yet beyond reach, but the fact that they tried to grasp it, and the fact that they remain a living legacy of poets whose words are still sung; fiction writers whose novels are still read and whose films are still watched and studies by intellectuals who have been cannonized, perhaps this is their achievement – it was hope in the face of terror and tryany, a hope that could only be achived by the building of broader unity of the vast continents.
FM: Was Lotus a product of the Bandung conference, the conference that brought together the non-aligned countries that were, at that time, committed to promoting the sovereign project? Were they organically linked?
TM: In so far as being part of the same organisation, no they were not organically linked, but they were both part of the same movement. Both Bandung conference of 1955 and the Tashkent conference of 1958, both set out to build an new unity across Africa and Asia. …. and were responding to the needs for a ’non-aligned’ movement of countries and the other a very clear ideologically driven movement driven by the desire to create a new literary landscape, in in that sense Lotus is clearly the product of the birth pangs of the same process. It would not be unfair to say that perhaps the support of the Soviet Union was on of the major contributors to the birth of the writers association and later Lotus.
FM: Who are some of the contributing writers?
TM: Its authors represented the broadest swath of the global South and included some of the most celebrated cultural, literary and political giants in their own countries as well as internationally, such as Mahmoud Darwish and Ghassan Kanafani (Palestine);Adonis and Soheil Idriss (Lebanon); Youssef El Sebai, Abdel Aziz Sadek, and Edward El Kharrat (Egypt), Faiz Ahmed Faiz (Pakistan); Mulk Raj Anand (India); Mouloud Marnmeri (Algeria); Mohamed Soleinian, (Sudan); Ousemane Sembene (Senegal); Alex La Guma, (South Africa); Mario De Andrade, (Portuguese Colonies); Hiroshi Noma, (Japan); Sononym Udval, (Mongolia); Anatoly Sofronov, (USSR) and many more.
At least three contributors (Ahmed Sékou Touré, Léopold Sédar Senghor and António Agostinho Neto) became Presidents.
FM: What happened to Lotus? How come it died?
TM: I am not sure when the last edition was published, and notwithstanding hiccups, Lotus came out until the late 1980s. Following the assassination of Yousef El Sebai in 1979, Pakistan’s Faiz Ahmed Faiz assumed this position. Faiz left Beirut after the Israel invasion of 1982 and Lotus moved briefly to Tunis and then back to Cairo.
Apart from the shifting of historical era’s, in which national liberation movements and a newly emergiing world provided the literary cement for this moment, which with the ending of directl colonial rule, often created conditions in which the confronting of new contradictions, such as the rights of national minorities, human rights generally and many other complex historical factors within newly emergent countries, created irreconcilable contractions but the collapse of the Soviet Union, the main financial and political backer of the journal was probably one of the most important reasons for its demise.
FM: How is it that so few people know about it?
TM: This is indeed strange, that the individual writer’s of Lotus, in many cases, both at home and internationally, became in some cases literary legends and often giants, yet what produced them was a collective body and a socialist ideology. One the one hand this could be due to legacies of the cold war, on the other that it is not unusual for the history of those who resist to be buried, or at least hidden.
The important thing in a sense is not that so few know about it but that so many still remember.
FM:I understand that your institution The American University of Beirut has begun to put together a collection of Lotus. Is this a complete collection?
TM: No the university does not have a complete set, in fact it is fairly basic and most of it in is in Arabic. I have not found any place as yet that has the complete set. Copies exist here and there.
FM: What are your plans for making this collection accessible
TM: What I would dearly like to see is the collection of complete set, but also the work of some of the artists and illustrators who worked with the journal, particularly the earlier editions.
What exists in the university is held in the Library and is accessible.
Along with people from a number of different countries we are working together to resolve this issue.
FM: Why do you think it is important for people to know about Lotus?
TM: Today more then ever, in this world of ours, which with the passage of each day is being pushed closer to an abyss; a world in which even at times of peace, hunger and insecurity roams the lives of the billions of people on the fringes of existence; a time of today in which the hope for a better future humanity, a future free from the avaricious mechanisms imperialism and its local agents, without this hope of future there can be meaningful present. And this present exists because of the thinkers of the past who struggled for a better future.
The writer’s of lotus, in the words of its first editor again, wanted ’the ability to forge words that transform silence into a driving force... which indicates the path and lightens it, contributing to the progress of man, the transformation of the world and the establishment of values which make life more just and consequently, more beautiful.’
And Why Literature? Alex La Gama, speaking on the 10th annivesary of the Afro-Asian Writer’s conference quoted Gorkoy in a talk entitled Literature and Life
“Literature is the heart of the world; all the joys and sorrows, dreams and hopes, despairs and wraths of it, all the emotions of man as he faces the beauties of nature, all his terrors as he faces nature’s secrets, lend it wings. This heart of the world palpitates indomitably and immortally with the desire of self-knowledge; as though in it all matter, all the forces of nature, having created in man the highest expression of their own intricacy and rationality, were trying to discover the essence and object of their own being.
“One might call literature also the all-seeing eye of the world, an eye whose glance pierces the deepest secrets of the human spirit
“There is as yet no united world literature because there is as yet no language common to us all; but all literary creation in prose or in verse shares the unity of the emotions, thoughts and ideas common to all men, the unity of the sacred striving of man towards happiness and freedom of the spirit, the unanimous hope for better forms of life, and finally the desire common to all men of something beyond the reach of word and thought, something that even the emotions can barely apprehend, something mysterious to which we give the pale name of beauty and which flourishes in the world and in our hearts ever more brightly.”
FM: Can you tell us something about yourself and why you decided to devote so much energy to Lotus.
TM: I am a writer who learnt to write primarily so because I was engaged in the struggle against racism in Britain and the images of myself, my friends and community, created by the media or academics in the 1980s did not resemble the life I or my friends lived. We wanted a world free from racism and imperialist wars. It was during this time I came across many of the names of the writers, some I met, mentioned above, and more, who I later learnt were part of Lotus.
In both my writing and film-making, the theme of resistance is a central component, and here I don’t mean fists and banners, but to love in a place of hatred is resistance, and resistance is in everything.