Nothing is politically neutral when it comes to publications: the language, of course, but also the aesthetic, the layout, the logo, etc. This is what Danah Abdulla shows us in this detailed examination of the canonical PFLP Bulletin, published from Beirut to construct international solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.
As cliché as it may sound coming from a Palestinian, when I launched my publication Kalimat in 2010, the desire to produce a magazine was inspired by Ghassan Kanafani and his work with al-Hadaf, the official weekly mouthpiece of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), launched in 1969. Ghassan Kanafani (1936-1972) was a prominent Palestinian writer and a spokesperson of the PFLP. His works addressed themes of exile, national struggle and uprootedness, and his short story Men in the Sun (1962) is considered to be one of the most famous pieces of Arabic fiction. He was assassinated alongside his niece Lamis in July 1972, in Beirut, by the Mossad.
Alongside al-Hadaf existed the PFLP Bulletin, an English-language monthly magazine published by the PFLP in the 1970s and 1980s. In some issues, the bulletin outlines its aims. These are:
• presenting the political line of the PFLP
• providing current information and analysis of the Palestinian liberation struggle, as well as developments in the Arab world and on the international level
• serving as a tool for building solidarity with progressive organizations, parties, national liberation movements and countries around the world
The PFLP is a left-wing, Marxist-Leninist organization established in 1967 by George Habash (1926-2008), who served as Secretary-General until 2000 — the current Secretary-General is Ahmad Sa’adat. The PFLP has been an integral part of the Palestinian Resistance and the Arab national liberation movement. The major reasons for its formation was to provide a class perspective on the Palestinian and Arab struggle. In the 1970s, the PFLP was the second-largest faction in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) — the umbrella organization of the Palestinian national movement — after Yasser Arafat’s Fatah. Unlike Fatah however, the PFLP does not recognize the State of Israel, opposes negotiations with Israel, and rejects the so-called “two-state solution.”
The Bulletin largely acted as a communiqué, documenting PFLP visits to different countries, meetings with leaders from different countries/groups, outlining military operations, issuing official PFLP statements, publishing statements from other like-minded groups, and other pieces of news. It also featured translated articles originally published in al-Hadaf in Arabic, thus bridging the two publications.
A Laboratory of Ideas, a Space of Solidarity ///
Magazines are, as Rick Poynor stated, a laboratory: a vital source of ideas, information and encouragement, which provide researchers and the curious alike with a research document for understanding specific events and ideas of a particular time. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Third World struggle, and the connection of various Palestinian groups to these, was evident. I use the term Third World in its original sense here — where first and second worlds referred to capitalism and socialism,
and the “third way” to the independent nations that formed the non-aligned movement who saw a different perspective on political and economic priorities.
As stated in their aims, the Bulletin covered issues pertaining to the Palestinian struggle, but it also prominently featured issues from the Arab world as well. There were articles on Sudan, Yemen, and other Arab countries. The inclusion of these demonstrates what a different world it was, as the PFLP (and more specifically George Habash) had a dream of Arab unity. Palestine as an Arab cause was very much alive in the pages of the Bulletin, and this unity amongst leftie Arabs was crucial to the solidarity project that this bulletin represents. Of course, despite the focus on Arab countries, Western imperialist powers and their Arab collaborators (generally Jordan and Egypt) are criticized throughout the publication. Descriptions were cutting, such as this one from the article “Uprising in Occupied Palestine” from No. 39, June 1980:
Meanwhile Arab regimes gaze idly and some, such as the Jordanian, ask permission from the imperialist masters to share the waters of the Yarmouk River with its Israeli neighbors […] the Israelis kindly consenting when the request comes from this quarter.
Moreover, the Bulletin served as a platform for creating connections with various solidarity groups around the world, as outlined in its aims. Each issue featured articles on comrades in Iran, Cuba, Lebanon, Syria, Bulgaria, Afghanistan amongst others, and of solidarity from leftie groups in Western countries. There’s even a letter of condolence to Yugoslavia from George Habash on the death of Josip Tito (No. 39, June 1980) addressed to Lazar Kolisevski. Habash writes:
The international working class and the communist movement, as well as the movement for liberation, progress and peace have lost a great symbol, who struggled against international imperialism and Hitler’s fascism. The Non-Aligned Movement has also lost a great symbol of its foundation, who struggled for the liberation and peace of all people throughout the world.
To the left of this letter, one can read another one from George Habash addressed to Comrade Babrak Karmal, General Secretary of the People’s Democratic Party President of the Revolutionary Council, Prime Minister of the People’s Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The letter gives “the sincerest revolutionary wishes on the 2nd anniversary of the glorious April Revolution,” and expressing solidarity with the people. It ends with “long live the revolution, long live Palestinian — Afghani friendship, long live the proletarian internationalism.”
George Habash was featured prominently in most issues of the Bulletin. His name appeared either as the signatory of the solidarity messages, or through extensive interviews with him or through a statement he wrote titled “Comrade Habash Speaks.” The addition of his name was important, as it added a sense of personalisation to the messages of solidarity expressed throughout the Bulletin.
Solidarity messages to the PFLP were received in return, and the bulletin served as a space for publishing these. A section called “Thanks for your solidarity” published messages of solidarity with the Palestinian cause from around the world. One such message comes from T.M. Aidoo in Ghana:
Yes, victory is on the side of the Palestinian people. You are surely not alone in the struggle. We are with you! We are planning to hold a day of solidarity with the PFLP in December this year. Kindly send us PFLP posters. We shall write you again to inform you of preparations here and hope to extend an invitation to you.
Above the text is a facsimile of the postcard sent by T.M. Aidoo. The role of this section appears to be similar to letters to the editor found in newspapers and magazines, where the editors of the Bulletin thank those that wrote to them about their desire to receive the bulletin and express solidarity with the Palestinian revolution.
Part of its aim of building solidarity with groups around the world was to distribute it. Despite what appeared to be an inconsistent publishing schedule, it becomes evident that the bulletin was an important part of the PFLPs strategy in spreading their ideas globally and not necessarily targeting the Arab world — al-Hadaf played that role. The PFLP offered an annual subscription shipping from Beirut or Damascus to Europe, the United States and Canada and what they referred to as “everywhere else,” — a term that disappears in issues from the 1980s, when subscriptions only become available to Europe, the U.S. and Canada. The contrast between the use of the names Europe, U.S. and Canada on the one hand, and, on the other hand, everywhere else is an interesting one, demonstrating a Eurocentric way of categorizing the world. It appears at odds with what the PFLP stands for, mostly due to the language of the bulletin, which is largely anti-capitalism, anti-imperialist, and refers to the Zionist colonization of Palestinian land and to racist colonial movements.
Layout Design ///
The design of the publication did not stand out in particular, it was more a newsletter than a fully-fledged magazine using black and red as the main colors — with hints of green in the issues from the 1980s. The layout design resembled the 1970s issues of al-Hadaf. The covers dating back to this time emulated newspapers and newsletters, with a text-heavy cover instead of the more elaborate designed ones found in later issues, and only 12 pages of content. The 1970s versions featured an article on the front and with a black background and the letters P.F.L.P. written in a sans serif spread across the top with the official PFLP logo prominently placed either on the right or the left. Its designer, late Palestinian artist, physicist and designer Vladimir Tamari, who was never affiliated with the PFLP, drew the logo in 1969 as a personal initiative, when he began wondering why the resistance did not have an effective symbol. Originally, he designed the logo for Fateh. As he described it:
We sketched and played with various ideas — using the Arabic letter Fa for Falastin [Palestine], adding an arrow to the word Fath […] and finally adding a map of Palestine. The Fa + Arrow + Map made a simple dynamic symbol and I felt it was good enough to finalize and send to the PLO […] as a logo suggestion. I have no idea if my covering letter and designs ever reached the poet Kamal Nasir, the spokesman of the PLO, or whether some committee there rejected a change.
While working with the Jordanian artist Mona Saudi, she suggested he change the Fa to the letter Jeem for Jabha (front). Mona then took the logo to Ghassan Kanafani, who adopted it as the PFLP symbol. The issues of the Bulletin from the 1980s began considering editorial design and featuring more elaborate covers, as well as doubling the page count of issues. The Bulletin was not necessarily sold on newsstands; it was independent and its creators had freedom in the content. The increased attention to design details in this period signals that perhaps the PFLP considered how its subscribers would keep the issues rather than discard them, giving readers more reason to see the Bulletin as a collectable item filled with rich content and beautiful covers. Or maybe the PFLP believed in the old industry adage: there is no such thing as a good magazine with a bad cover.
The covers, created by the Swiss graphic artist Marc Rudin (who now goes under Jihad Mansour) with few exceptions, were stunning. Rudin became involved with the PFLP in the late 1960s and created over 200 posters and graphics for them while living in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria in the 1980s. Alongside the covers, the Bulletin included cartoons and illustrations from artists and designers engaging with the liberation movement at the time. However, the publication displayed various inconsistencies. For example some issues include bylines for authors, but no credit is given to photographs, cartoons and illustrations, which remain anonymous — with some recognizable styles such as Ismail Shammout. The only exceptions were the authors of the poems who were always named. The editorial note provides no hints either: the PFLP Bulletin has no named editor nor is there anything about the contents of the issue in the editorial note. Rudin’s name is never mentioned either, and the identity of others who contributed covers to the Bulletin remain unknown.
Rudin used the stereotypical “Palestine” color palette of red, black, white and green almost exclusively on the covers, but he used it effectively to compliment the strong imagery he creates for these. Interestingly, the covers did not reflect the entire contents of the bulletin — which did not follow an overall theme — but often made reference to the editorial note or to a specific article within the issue. The covers of No. 39, June 1980 and No. 45, Dec 1980 and No.57, Dec 1981 stand out in particular.
The cover of No.39 includes an Israeli army tank in the background with a red hand holding a green Molotov cocktail with the fire at the top of the bottle forming the Palestinian flag. The article the cover is associated to is about mass uprisings in occupied Palestine. For issue 57 (Dec 1981), Rudin sets a white Ghutra (headdress) against a black background. The headgear is meant to represent the face of Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia. But Fahd’s face is replaced with a rolled-up document with a Palestinian flag drawn over it. The cover reads “No to Fahd’s Plan” and over the F and the A is the emblem of Saudi Arabia placed diagonally. The cover directly references the editorial, which outlines the uncertainty around Prince Fahd’s eight-point plan for the Arab summit — a plan the editorial refers to as Camp David II.
PFLP Publishing Now ///
The PFLP Bulletin ceased to publish in 1984. Its successor was Democratic Palestine, a bi-monthly publication that was published from 1984 until 1993 by the PFLP. Based on a blog post on the official PFLP website titled “Democratic Palestine, revolutionary English-language Palestinian magazine, to relaunch” dated 25 November 2014, an attempt at a revival of the publication was made with a call for submissions featured. It is unclear if this panned out as the blog post features dead links. Interestingly, the aims set out for the publication are identical to those outlined in the bulletin over 30 years before.
Can the same be achieved in the digital age? Hardly. This is not a designer’s plea for print and its tactility. The distribution of a physical publication requires much more complicated logistics than publishing online. The issue with online publishing is the potential loss of information. There is no guarantee a link will work when you decide to revisit it in a few years’ time. Worst-case scenario is being greeted with a “404 not found” page.
Unfortunately, despite all the attention the PFLP once paid to this bulletin and its distribution, it has made little effort in archiving it. Although they have digitized some issues on a website called PFLP Documents — the connection as an official PFLP website is not clear — other issues of the bulletin were scanned by people who owned copies of them and can be found on the Palestine Poster Archive.
Reviewing copies of the Bulletin, the sense of nostalgia that is felt is not for a better time, it was for a language of true solidarity, of a belief in what a publication could produce.
It is a longing for a sense of care that was given to these ephemeral objects, one that appears impossible with the state of what publications from political parties now look like; one only needs to visit their websites to see this. Most importantly, an English-language publication enabled the PFLP to assert a political presence not only in Arabic, but to affirm its presence in the global discourse in order to challenge marginality. Through this presence, it served as a way of connecting with the Third World struggle, and its purpose was largely a solidarity project. ■