Another East: Arabic Literature’s Soviet Archive

By Margaret Litvin
Submitted to Session P5253 (Re-Opening the 1960s, 2018 Annual Meeting
Egypt; Iraq; Other; Syria;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
For three decades starting in 1959, thousands of Arab students each year studied in the USSR, the number growing every year to peak above 22,000 in 1989 (Katsakioris 2016, 2017). Most were in medical or technical fields, predominantly engineers instructed to tune out Soviet ideological teaching and focus on learning to use the machines. However, Arab countries also sent trainees in cultural fields such as journalism, cinema, theatre, and even literature. Since culture was their machinery, these ?ul?b ba`tha had to engage, often ambivalently, with the Soviet cultural system. They continued to do so upon return to their countries. While relatively few in number, the Soviet-trained intellectuals made a major impact on cultural production in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and even Morocco. Their writings in and about the USSR – and what their Soviet hosts wrote about them – constitute a barely explored archive of Arab intellectual history of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. This paper will present some items from the early part of that archive, showing how they both complicate our received wisdom about Arab-Soviet educational ties (“Oh sure, you mean the Communists? The people who, when it rained in Moscow, raised their umbrellas in Baghdad?”) and offer new angles on Arab debates about committed art and political belonging.