Book review: Lebanon’s political posters as sites of struggle

A poster commemorating the second anniversary of the assassination of Sheikh Ragheb Harb, by Merhi Merhi, 1986 (Hizballah Media Office)

Author Christopher Hitchens might have saved himself a beating had he read Zeina Maasri’s book Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War. Hitchens, a self-proclaimed expert on all matters theological and Middle Eastern, was attacked in the streets of Beirut last February after defacing a political poster. The power of posters apparently touched Hitchens himself, who felt compelled to express his vindictiveness by attacking an image. But in a war-ravaged place like Lebanon, images can be a lot more than mere symbols. As Fawwaz Traboulsi explains in Off the Wall’s forward, they can serve as weapons, and Hitchens’ attackers must have understood that quite well.

The power of posters, as not merely symbolic weapons but also sites of hegemonic struggle during Lebanon’s civil war, is a central theme of Maasri’s book. A mix of text and image, the book is a rich and visually engaging work that tackles a dimension of war long-neglected by Lebanese historians. A sample of 150 posters (out of 700 the author has examined) in full color and printed on laminated paper occupies the center of the book and it is hard to begin reading before going through them: portraits of “heroic” leaders of all factions, clenched fists facing enemy guns, silhouettes of martyrs and landscapes of religious and nationalist symbols overlooked by dominant war figures, many marked with slogans that range from the racist to the revolutionary. But the book is a lot more than a slideshow of images summing up defining moments of the war or a straightforward critical review of the posters. Maasri delves into questions of theory, representation and meaning that shaped and defined the art of poster-making and the politics of their interpretation during times of conflict.

“The world is asleep while Ain el-Rummaneh stays awake,” anonymous, c. 1978-79 (American University of Beirut Library)

The introduction can be a drawn-out and obscure read for the non-academically inclined. Maasri outlines different ways of theorizing political posters. A couple of main ideas however animate the rest of her work and are worth noting. The first is the author’s critique of seeing posters as products of either pure propaganda on one hand or grassroots activism on the other. In other words, posters are neither “innocent carriers of political activism” nor “coercive tools of propaganda.” Instead, Maasri argues, the posters need to be seen as the outcome of a complex process of communication and articulation of social and political identities in which many players, from party media offices to ordinary people, take part. They are like fossilized imprints that can tell us about the desires, fears, collective imaginations and political aspirations of the different and constantly shifting political communities of Lebanon. In the case of Lebanon, the analysis is further complicated by the lack of a dominant power that is able to create a single hegemonic discourse and eventually produce its counterpart. This is the second important idea: that styles and models of poster-making in Lebanon differ from the classic model where one hegemonic discourse is being subverted by an oppositional one.

The book picks up pace as Maasri delves into more concrete analysis of the posters themselves and the people behind them. Stories of political cartoonists and graphic designers who became prominent are told and their work decoded in terms of style and content. Some readers might take issue with her uncritical evaluation of the work of prominent cartoonist Pierre Sadek who was a staunch supporter of right-wing militia leader Bashir Gemayel. In one instance, Maasri speaks of the straightforward symbolism of Sadek but in another laments the absence of the “subtleties” of his work in the work of fellow right-wing artists. Despite Maasri’s articulate depiction of the political context of the posters for most factions, when speaking of Sadek’s work, she skips over one major context that defined the faction Sadek cheered for, namely the alliance between Israel and the Lebanese Phalange party, including the direct role Zionism played in “electing” Gemayel as president. Unlike the explicit exploration of the impact the alliance between Hizballah and Iran had on poster-making of the former, the links between Zionism as a racist ideology and the Phalange is reserved for the final section of the book.

“God’s victorious Lion. The martyr Hajj Nassar Nassar,” by Adel Selman, c. 1980s (Hizballah Media Office)

The case of Pierre Sadek aside, Maasri succeeds in reconstructing the contexts and broad stylistic and thematic trends that shaped poster-making. She goes beyond the individual artist and looks at the various aesthetic schools of different warring factions, and identifies major themes that permeated poster-making. Four themes emerge as central to the culture of posters at the time. These are leadership, commemoration, martyrdom and belonging. The theme of leadership is examined through the phenomenon of the zaim, the fatherly figure of authority, and its manifestation in iconic leaders of the civil war era: the “youthful militant” Bashir Gemayel, the “turbaned activist” Mussa al-Sadr, and the “ascetic socialist” Kamal Jumblatt, all of whom sacrificed their lives for their cause and their portraits became a staple of many posters. The theme of commemoration is also examined through posters celebrating the founding of parties, the birth of founders of movements, and memorable days of tragedy or triumph such as massacres or battles. Ordinary partisans are also commemorated. But unlike the zaim, the ultimate sacrifice is a necessary condition for them to make it to collective memory through posters. As martyrs, they are a valuable testimony of the party’s devotion to the collective cause. Maasri discerns common codes that define martyr posters across parties and factions: the posters usually show a portrait of the martyr, along with the name, date and most likely place where he or she fought and died. Designs of these posters however may vary from a standardized obituary to complex representations of martyrdom imbued with party visual and textual rhetoric. Martyrdom is generally associated with nationalist causes, but in the case of Hizballah posters, martyrdom takes on a predominantly religious dimension.

The variation in ideological motivations of different movements translates into a multiplicity of collective identities expressed in the art of poster-making. Maasri explores the controversial question of belonging in Lebanon as the fourth theme of posters. She describes the polarity of “we vs. them” in civil war posters and how the enemy is manufactured and its identity consolidated through the language of imagery and rhetoric. Dehumanizing the enemy as a ruthless and inferior aggressor appears strongly in the works of the right-wing Lebanese Front that was formed in the ’70s. In one poster sympathetic to the Lebanese Front, a giant war-torn building carrying a Lebanese map is stepping over a mass of ant-like people identified as the “barbaric Arab tribes.” Questions of belonging are not only in relation to the other, but also to the collective self. From communal resistance to a nationalistic sectarian consciousness to the bond between people and land, belonging takes on shifting and contested meanings for different communities and different struggles, something that illustrates Maasri’s initial argument about posters as sites of hegemonic struggle. As such, Maasri’s work becomes all the more relevant today, amid an explosion in the production of political posters across Lebanon that hasn’t been witnessed since the official end of the civil war in the early ’90s. A quick comparison between the posters in the book and contemporary ones plastered across the walls of the country brings out both continuities and discontinuities in terms of themes and style. Still it is hard not to notice that form and presentation today overshadow content, with slogans today adopting advertising style and increasingly lacking the intensity and urgency of those during the civil war. Who knows what would have befallen Hitchens had he attacked the poster all the way back then.

Hicham Safieddine is a Lebanese Canadian journalist.

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