“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.

THE MAGAZINE Faiz edited in the final seven years of his life had a winding genealogy firmly rooted in the Third World movement. While origin stories are often inexact, one narrative of the magazine’s genesis might start at the Conference of Asian Countries held in Delhi in 1955, immediately prior to the Bandung Conference in April of that year. This latter conference, named after the Indonesian city in which it was convened, drew together representatives from 29 newly sovereign Asian and African nations. There, they celebrated decolonisation and advocated economic and cultural cooperation, world peace, nuclear disarmament and self-determination, as well as opposition to all forms of imperialism. Although dominated by Asia and marked by tensions between those countries committed to Cold War non-alignment and those with strong ties to the United States or the Soviet Union, Bandung’s greatest legacy was the political emergence of the Third World as an entity. The Delhi conference, in comparison, was smaller and more homogenous, but informed by the same spirit. Attendees decided to set up national Asian solidarity committees in each country, with resolutions passed over political, cultural, scientific, economic and religious questions. The Indian delegates were appointed to explore the possibility of a permanent Asian secretariat. The secretariat was never established, but the meeting sowed the organisational seeds of a cultural counterpart to “Afro-Asianism” and Third World solidarity.

In December 1956, Delhi hosted the first Asian Writers’ Conference. Faiz was one of approximately 275 writers from across the continent in attendance, along with many of his pre-Partition comrades from the Progressive Writers’ Association, such as Mulk Raj Anand, Sajjad Zaheer and Krishan Chander. The conference was consciously modelled after Bandung, with the notable addition of Soviet invitees, and was organised around questions about the relationship between art and politics. A year later, a conference was held in Cairo, gathering nearly 500 delegates representing 45 entities—both liberated states and ongoing liberation movements—to establish the African-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organisation. AAPSO’s founding statement declared, “We have been motivated by one feeling only—cooperation and unity among our peoples, and close friendship with all the peoples of the world.”

When General Ayub Khan orchestrated Pakistan’s first military coup, in October 1958, Faiz was on his first trip to the Soviet Union, to attend the inaugural conference of the AAPSO-initiated Afro-Asian Writers’ Association. The gathering was held in the Uzbek city of Tashkent, which was celebrated as a model for how non-European cities could be lifted out of poverty under Communist leadership. There, Faiz mingled with some of the leading male writers from across the Third World, including Mao Dun of China, Nazim Hikmet of Turkey, Ousmane Sembène of Senegal and Pramoedya Ananta Toer of Indonesia. Also in attendance were the 90-year old WEB DuBois, the towering African-American intellectual, and Paul Robeson, the African-American singer and artist. Silent footage from Tashkent shows hundreds of delegates arriving at grand stadiums to streams of applause, meetings facilitated with headphones offering simultaneous translation, and stylised posters depicting faces and flags in the bold forms of Socialist realism. Faiz was partly responsible for organising a mushaira, and literary salons were hosted at the homes of Uzbek writers such as Musa Tashmukhamedov, gathering delegates for evenings surely marked by the delights of wine and mistranslation.

By the end of 1958, AAPSO had its own writers’ movement, initially headquartered in Sri Lanka—then still known as Ceylon. The publication of a journal was recommended from the start, but was only undertaken a decade later. In 1966, readers in many parts of the world were rocked by explosive revelations that key literary journals—including the London-based Encounter, the Beirut-based Hiwar, the Kampala-based Transition and the Bombay-based Quest—had been covertly funded by the US Central Intelligence Agency through an anti-Communist front group: the Congress for Cultural Freedom. In the Arab world, this scandal’s fallout collided with the defeat of Arab armies by Israeli forces, in what became known as an-Naksah, or the “Setback,” of 1967, leaving many leading intellectuals disillusioned. Responding to this climate, a resolution was passed at the 1967 Afro-Asian Writers’ Congress in Beirut, entitled “On the Counter-Action to Imperialist and Neo-Colonialist Infiltration in the Cultural Field.” At the same congress, the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association decided to establish its own literary magazine.

The first issue of Afro-Asian Writings appeared in March 1967, with 5,000 copies printed in separate English and Arabic editions, and a French edition appearing the following year. It was available for the equivalent of $2 per issue. The trilingual quarterly was renamed Lotus a few years later, and a Lotus Prize was established to honour writers for both their artistic merit as well as their militant anti-imperialism.

The literary scholar Hala Halim points out in a 2012 essay that “Lotus’s roster of contributors reads like the contents of a postcolonial survey course, or an anthology of world literature after the opening of the canon.” Its densely packed issues traverse borders with ambitious disregard, flipping between poems from Japan, a short story from South Africa, another from Iraq, a one-act play from Algeria, a profile of an author from Vietnam, an assessment of the state of indigenous languages in Somalia, lessons learned from Lenin, and a full-colour illustrated insert on Buddhist art. Underlying this breadth of content was a cross-continental network of publishing houses, translators and readers.

The Permanent Bureau of Afro-Asian Writers was first based in Cairo, in what was at the time the United Arab Republic—the union of Egypt and Syria. The Arabic edition of Lotus was printed there, and the English and French in East Germany. In late 1977, the Cairo bureau was shut down after Egyptian president Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel and spoke before the Knesset, resulting in a boycott of his country by other Arab states. Lotus moved to Beirut, where it found the support of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation leadership based in Lebanon. The magazine remained based there until 1982, when, just as Faiz and the PLO, it was driven out by the Israeli invasion. Lotus moved briefly to Tunis, and eventually returned to Cairo. There it continued to publish, until the fall of the Soviet Union left it without the bulk of its funding and institutional support. The last issue was published in the early 1990s.

FAIZ WAS CAUTIONED by friends in the Soviet Union not to return to Pakistan from Tashkent after Ayub Khan’s 1958 coup. He returned nevertheless, and was arrested a few days later. This was his second prison sentence; he served his first from 1951 to 1955, for his alleged involvement in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy, a left-wing plot to overthrow the government of the Pakistani prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan. This time, he was released in about six months. Ayub Khan continued to rule until March 1969, when he handed power over to another general.

Lotus moved to Beirut, where it found the support of the PLO. The magazine remained based there until 1982, when, just as Faiz and the PLO, it was driven out by the Israeli invasion.

It was shortly after this that the first mention of Faiz’s involvement in Lotus appeared. In an issue published that June, he was listed as a member of the editorial board, his name awkwardly transliterated as “Faayiz.” Faiz’s presence in the magazine continued in subsequent issues, through multiple translations of his poems, a few short essays on subjects such as “The Role of the Artist,” and a profile to accompany his receipt of the 1976 Lotus Prize.

In 1973, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was elected the prime minister of Pakistan. Bhutto appointed Faiz to multiple posts with the ministries of culture and education. From his base in Karachi, the poet spent the next few years working closely with the Bhutto government. After Bhutto was deposed in 1977, an ageing Faiz was put under police surveillance at his home in Lahore. He managed to escape by road to Islamabad, slipping out of police jurisdiction and heading directly to the airport. From Karachi his self-imposed exile took him to Beirut, where he would become the first non-Arab editor of Lotus magazine.

In February 1978, the Lotus editor and Egyptian writer Youssef al-Sebai was assassinated in Cyprus, leaving the chief editorial position temporarily vacant while the magazine continued to be published. The secretariat offered the position to Faiz, prompting his move to Beirut. At the sixth conference of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Union in Angola in 1979, Faiz was formally appointed editor-in-chief. The Palestinian poet Muin Bseiso also joined, to edit the Arabic edition, and Alys Faiz was appointed as the magazine’s secretary. Faiz and Alys moved into a tiny sixth-floor apartment directly across the hall from the Lotus offices in Raouché, an old seafront neighbourhood of west Beirut.

From its inception, the literary contributions of Lotus as compared to its regional, monolingual counterparts centred around its work of curation and translation. At a time when Third Worldist ideas had significant international currency, Lotus was one of the only venues that not only published writers espousing such commitments in their home languages (or famous European intellectuals in translation), but also made non-European authors available to a diverse readership. In addition to the trilingual magazine, the Permanent Bureau of Afro-Asian Writers published selections of the magazine in local languages in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Japan and elsewhere. The editors sought to display their vision by gathering texts that spanned a vast global territory yet resembled each other in the use of shared metaphors, overlapping vocabularies and frequent injunctions towards militancy. In this sense, Lotus operated more as an exhibition than a space for debate.

While editor at Lotus, Youssef el-Sebai also served as secretary general of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association and minister of culture in Nasser’s Egypt. Although he continued to publish during this time, el-Sebai was primarily known as a cultural bureaucrat. Under him, Egyptian figures occupied key managerial roles in the writers’ movement at large, and as argued by the scholar Sophia Azeb in the July 2015 issue of the pan-African magazine the Chimurenga Chronic, Lotus’s content directly reflected the leadership task assumed by Egypt at a time of African decolonisation: the “hyper-vigilant sustaining of [Afro-Asian] cultural unity.”

Faiz’s tenure at Lotus softened some of this previous ideological rigidity while continuing to foreground the intellectual as revolutionary. Less bureaucrat than poet, the issues he edited were catalogues of internationalist prose and poetics per Lotus’s raison d’etre, but without being embedded in the Nasserist political culture that animated the Cairene editions. Beirut was a refuge from Arab authoritarianism and the Israeli state after 1948, and this eclecticism was necessarily reflected in the magazine. Faiz also brought his aesthetic sensibilities and knowledge of South Asian traditions to Lotus, in editorials on literary concepts of beauty and truth, or passing references to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. And it was under Faiz and Muin Bseiso that the magazine published its powerful 1983 double issue on Palestine, put together after the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon, when the Israeli military gave their allies in a right-wing Christian Lebanese militia free rein to slaughter thousands living in the Palestinian refugee camp and surrounding area. The special issue features an early comparison between Israel and Apartheid South Africa by the South African writer Alex La Guma, an essay about the Sabra and Shatila violence by Alys Faiz, and a series of poems printed on red pages with bold graphics that depart from the magazine’s usual design, including Faiz’s own poem “Beirut” (a rendition of his Urdu “Ek Nagma Karbala-e Beirut Ke Liye”—A Song for the Battlefield of Beirut). In it, as translated by Riz Rahim, he describes the city thus:

a jewel among the assemblies of the world!
Every deserted house and the ruins—
comparable to an Emperor’s palace!
Every fighter,
an envy of Alexander the Great,
every girl,
beautiful as Laila.

To be a leftist in Beirut in this period was to be at the centre of the Palestinian revolution. Faiz, with his degree in Arabic, his lifelong engagement with political struggle and his poetic repertoire of love and martyrdom, was quickly immersed in the movement. The official inauguration of Lotus’s Beirut offices was delayed until January 1980, partly to accommodate the availability of an all-star cast of heroes of the Palestinian resistance, including Yasser Arafat.

Faiz wrote a number of poems about Palestine during his time in Beirut, including “Ek Taraana Filastini Mujaahidon Ke Naam” (An Anthem for Palestinian Revolutionaries), “Filastini Shuhada Jo Pardes Mein Kaam Aaye” (Palestinian Martyrs Who Died Abroad), and “Mat Ro Bachche” (Weep Not, Child), a lullaby for a Palestinian child. One of his final collections, Mere Dil, Mere Musafir (My Heart, My Traveller), is dedicated to Arafat, who celebrated Faiz’s seventieth birthday, in 1981, with a lavish speech praising the poet as a courageous freedom fighter.

Faiz came to figure in several Palestinian memories of Beirut as well. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who had arrived in Beirut in 1973, later recalled that at the time, “Beirut was the capital of Arabic modernity. It was a platform for debates, for democracy, all cultures met there. It was extremely dynamic … I met Iraqis and Syrians, I became friends with Faiz Ahmed Faiz.” But the passing reference to Faiz belies the context of their encounter. In the book Memory for Forgetfulness—his 1982 lament for Beirut over a single day of the Israeli invasion—Darwish presents Faiz in darker times. Darwish indicts the traditional intelligentsia for the inadequacy of their response in the face of the war. “Beirut itself is the writing,” he insists, “its true poets and singers are its people and fighters.” And yet, “our great friend from Pakistan … is busy with another question: Where are the artists?’ ‘Which artists, Fayiz?’ I ask. ‘The artists of Beirut.’ ‘What do you want from them?’ ‘To draw this war on the walls of the city.’ ‘What’s come over you?’ I exclaim. ‘Don’t you see the walls tumbling?’”

Faiz surfaces in the recollections of the critic Edward Said as well. Said’s story of their acquaintance is so oft-repeated that it has acquired the status of a dreamy legend.

Several years ago I spent some time with Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the greatest of contemporary Urdu poets. He was exiled from his native Pakistan by Zia’s military regime, and found a welcome of sorts in strife-torn Beirut. Naturally his closest friends were Palestinian, but I sensed that, although there was an affinity of spirit between them, nothing quite matched—language, poetic convention, or life-history. Only once, when Eqbal Ahmad, a Pakistani friend and fellow-exile, came to Beirut, did Faiz seem to overcome his sense of constant estrangement. The three of us sat in a dingy Beirut restaurant late one night, while Faiz recited poems. After a time, he and Eqbal stopped translating his verses for my benefit, but as the night wore on it did not matter. What I watched required no translation: it was an enactment of a homecoming expressed through defiance and loss, as if to say, “Zia, we are here.”

Salima Hashmi, Faiz’s daughter, also noted her father’s loneliness in exile on a visit to Beirut in the summer of 1980. “The Arab literary world is highly inbred and although they accord him great respect, this is not his scene,” she observed. “He misses his ‘yaars’, his milieu.”

Faiz’s years in Beirut were marked by constant travel—to the Soviet Union, and also Angola, Mongolia, Vietnam, India, Canada and the United States. Each trip returned him to the sounds of shelling and machine-gunfire in a city that was not his. Alys’s recollections of the time, compiled in her 1993 memoir Over My Shoulder, show a marked change of mood towards the end of the Faizs’ stay in Beirut. Her account of their initial days there is full of tales of extravagant hospitality and stubborn resilience, but, gradually, Lebanon begins to break under the weight of tragedy and neglect. Streets are pocked by bullets, cities laden with rubble, the stench of death everywhere, the people disconsolate. Faiz and Alys’s Beirut was transformed indelibly by the war. We are left to wonder if the poet, unable to find the city’s artists, might also have been struggling with fissures in the Lotus dream.

Faiz also brought his aesthetic sensibilities and knowledge of South Asian traditions to Lotus, in editorials on literary concepts of beauty and truth, or passing references to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

IN JUNE 1982, Faiz left Beirut for the last time, going by land to Tripoli in north Lebanon, then Homs and Damascus, then by air to London, and finally to Lahore. He arrived in a Pakistan no more welcoming of his radical dreams than the one he left. Over the course of his absence, Pakistan, under Zia ul-Haq, had witnessed the hanging of Bhutto, the implementation of martial law, a severe repression of political debate, and the beginning of state-led Islamicization. Faiz continued to edit Lotus, and was last listed as editor-in-chief in issue 56, published shortly after his death in November 1984.

Last April, I attended a lecture at the American University of Beirut by the Palestinian writer Ziad Abdel Fattah, the final editor of Lotus, who took over the post after Faiz’s death. His visit was part of the Lotus Project, an initiative to expand the university’s archive of Lotus material, bring scholars and audiences together to discuss the magazine and its legacy, and republish a selection of multilingual Lotus anthologies through the university press.

Abdel Fattah’s lengthy Arabic speech was primarily concerned with emphasising the failures of the magazine that he attributed to Soviet interference and Faiz and Bseiso’s ideological commitments to communism, which his own more liberal sensibilities were meant to redress. But Abdel Fattah’s memories of Faiz were tender, and even three decades later, marked by awe. He described Faiz as a poet who could not be tamed, a presence you were always trying to keep up with. Never idle, Faiz had no interest in the complacent poetry of quietude. “He never agreed with me, but we were always on the same page—as long as my soft words pointed to his hard character,” Abdel Fattah quipped.

What does Palestine mean to you? Faiz was once asked. “After all these years that I spent with the Palestinians, I became one of them,” he responded.

In a 2004 article, the literary scholar Aamir Mufti describes the defining theme of Faiz’s writing as the legacy of Partition. Mufti sees the lyric element in Faiz’s poetry—what he describes as the overwhelming presence of “love and the sensuous,” which seems at odds with Faiz’s avowed political commitments—as an inward examination of the subject. Faiz’s work returns constantly to a longing for an amorphous “beloved,” but he cannot be read as simply substituting the traditional object of desire in Urdu poetry for “revolution,” as is often glossed. Instead, Mufti writes, the poet’s desire for union with the beloved reveals the fragmented self that exists at the varied collisions of nation, language, culture and community. Faiz’s poetry constantly draws attention to the divisions that mark the modern history of the subcontinent. And it is the poems Faiz composed in Beirut, Mufti says, that are “the most exquisite exile poetry in modern Urdu literature,” reminding readers that, for Faiz, the vocabulary of Urdu verse is constitutively one of wandering and displacement.

Living today, in the wake of anti-colonial nationalisms and post-colonial identity politics, it is difficult to inhabit the calm conviction of Faiz’s answer. His was a capacious imagining of what it meant to be Palestinian, refracted in a corpus of poetry that also cites the peasants of Vietnam, the independence movements of the African continent and the Jewish communists of New York. His was also a world marked by an insistence on collective projects, overlapping historical experiences and shared political solutions. Like Faiz, the Palestinians of Beirut lived in relation to a partitioned homeland. But theirs, unlike Faiz’s, lay across a close border, and was contiguous in terrain and syntax. Even the grand solidarity of the Third World project could not substitute the intimacies of home for the exiled poet. And so he writes in Beirut in 1980, in his poem “Mere Milne Wale” (Those Who Seek Me), as translated by Mustansir Dalvi:

Here they come, all those who seek me,
those with whom I have business daily,
but neither my heart nor my gaze can tell
when they arrive, when they depart. All the while
joyful thoughts of my homeland gush and flow,
holding fast to the mane of the galloping ocean,
holding up against a thousand doubts and suspicions,
holding on tightly to all manner of questions.

Note: The research for this essay was conducted with the support of Esmat Elhalaby of Rice University.

This article was originally published in The Caravan: A Journal of Politics and Culture on May 31, 2016.