The Avant-garde: A new printed platform for leftist thought

Mohammed Saad , Tuesday 21 Feb 2012

Revived left-wing magazine Al-Talia is aimed at newly-politicised youth

Magazine Cover

During the 1960s, Al-Ahram Media Foundation published a magazine entitled Al-Talia (The Avant-garde) which gave a voice to the leftist currents of the Nasserite era. The magazine was first issued on January 1965 and went out of print in 1977. Now, after the revolution, a group of academics and thinkers have decided to re-issue the magazine again under the same name, Al-Talia, adding to it the number 21 to mark the 21st century. The first issue of the revived magazine was the topic of a discussion held at El-Zaytoun workshop on Monday.

Critic Shaaban Youssef, the host, compared the two different historical contexts in which the magazine was issued; the first release came at a time when leftist parties were reconciled with the state as Nasser, Egypt’s president, encouraged leftist thought. For Youssef, the magazine then was not really an expression of the left-wing, but rather an attempt to justify the regime's ideas, as the leftist parties of that era were working for Nasser’s interest and were loyal to him.

"The magazine was issued regularly from January 1965 until 1977, when President Sadat started what is known as the 'massacre of the magazines,' closing down all the independent magazines including Al-Talia. Sadat despised writers and intellectuals, although he used to have friends among them," Youssef explained. "He wished to become a writer and artist and when he failed he took revenge on all writers and artists."

The new release arrives in a totally different context, according to Youssef, since today's left is in opposition to the ruling power. He considers the magazine now to be a true expression of the left.  Yet he criticised the magazine, which defines itself as an adherent of the socialist left, for featuring the late historian Raouf Abbas and novelist Sonnallah Ibrahim on its cover, as in his opinion they belong to the traditional left not the socialist left, and may even be considered as active against it.

Mustafa El-Gammal, writer and co-founder of the new edition of the magazine, explained the reasons behind the new release. "We thought of issuing the magazine again to spread a political culture lacking in our country. There’s not a single magazine that provides this kind of necessary culture. Most of the magazines are either very theoretical or immersed in daily events to the extent of shallowness, with nothing in between. So we decided to re-issue the magazine." 

El-Gammal said that he and his colleagues had been thinking for two years about reviving the magazine, but when the revolution broke out they pushed to fulfill their decision and to re-issue it, since, in their views, most of the young people entering the political arena are not politicised and lack the political culture that reinforces their stance. The magazine thus aims to "spread a political culture, train the youth on critical political writing, and provide the youth with a theoretical background." El-Gammal added that: "We do not speak for anyone or represent a certain political tendency; we’re open to all currents of leftwing thought from Trotskyist to Nasserite."

Among the guests of the event, Fakhry Labib, a renown leftist writer who was involved with the first edition of the magazine in the 1960s, criticised the choice of name. "For me, reviving the name was unnecessary. The magazine could have chosen any other name since the context, persons and the left are all different from the 1960s, and even if they want to create an extension of the old magazine, it can't be done just using the same name."

"Being an extension of a certain school of thought can only be done via the contents, not the name."

Yet Labib still considered the magazine a positive gain to the left, who have no real media for expression.

Shaaban Youssef also had some criticisms of the new edition, arguing that the former version had been more "to the point" while the current issue might be found complicated and difficult by the kind of reader the magazine is aimed at, who is fairly new to politics. He also criticised the lack of cultural articles, saying that culture was "despised" in this new edition, at a time when Egyptian culture was running against the risk of oppression by the rising conservative powers, and bearing in mind the historical role the left wing has played in promoting freedom of expression and opened the doors for supporting culture.

Despite this, it is important to say that the magazine was prepared through the efforts of individuals, without any institutional help, in stark contrast to the first edition, which was published by Al-Ahram.

However, it must be said that with the astonishing rise of online media, particularly among young people, it seems rather odd that so much effort and money has gone towards producing a print magazine targeting this particular segment. It also strikes a worrying note that the writers seem to all belong to the generations of the 1970s and 1980s, with little youth contribution by comparison.

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