One Minute with Co-Curator of the Bilingual Arabic-English Cultural Magazine ‘Shahadat’

I thought the ArteEast story series “Shahadat,” which currently features two stories by Ma’n Abu Taleb, was rather new. (Wrong.) Anyhow, in the process of clarifying, I learned a few things about this not-entirely-new, but developing publication.

Rayya El Zein (@rayelz) is working with ArteEast as a co-curator for the “Shahadat” series with  with Barrak Alzaid (@barrakster) and Alex Ortiz (@cairowitness). She is also working towards a PhD in Theater at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

ArabLit: When did the “Shahadat” series begin? What was its inspiration?

Rayya El Zein: Shahadat has been live for a few years; I just came on board this January to work on a piece about the popular literature of Tahrir.

The piece was a big success for AE’s online programming, and so I’ve stayed on with co-curators Alex Ortiz and the Artistic Director of Shahadat, Barrak Alzaid. The three of us are Shahadat. Since March we’ve been actively remaking the journal. Our approach is to curate a quarterly, virtual publication which examines the popular literature of the Middle East and North Africa. We are invested in encouraging a inter-disciplinary focus which we hope will amplify different forms of contemporary articulation coming from the MENA. We’re looking to put pressure on the Middle East arts community (and others) to reconsider what it defines as “literature”; and we’re working to give a platform to a wide spectrum of articulate young Middle Easterners in a changing world.

AL: Since you say you’re looking to redefine literary boundaries: Might graphic-literary/cartooning forms also be welcome?

REZ: Yes.

AL: What is the relationship between Shahadat and the ArteEastQuarterly? They’re…the same thing?

From the latest issue of Shahadat.

REZ: There is a lot of renaming happening at ArteEast at the moment! Shahadat and the current “Quarterly” will be part of an online constellation of programming that launches new material every quarter. The constellation includes a Film Center, a Virtual Gallery, Shahadat and what is now called the “Quarterly”. All four pieces together will eventually come to be known, we hope, as the ArteEastQuarterly while the current “Quarterly” – a critical eZine gets renamed. Barrak Alzaid, our Artistic Director, oversees all four pieces of programming, but everything except Shahadat works with invited curators. Shahadat is much more in-house. If that sounds confusing, trust me, it’ll be clear on the new website! But the short answer to your question is no, they’re not the same thing. But they are part of the same online constellation of work produced by ArteEast.

AL: (Still slightly confused, but willing to wait for new website.) Will the literature always be published bilingually?

REZ: Yes.

AL: Is this latest edition (Ma’n Abu Taleb’s stories) what you think the series is heading toward? A “booklet” of stories each month?

REZ: So to the ends I just mentioned, Shahadat will pursue two avenues each year, each one producing two issues (for the annual total of 4). One is the Contemporary Literature in Translation series (which Ma’n’s piece was a part of): the focus here is to publish young authors in translation, often for the first time. The other is a more conceptual or genre-focused series (which the Signs of the Times piece was a part of): the focus here is to produce a survey of a specific kind of creative activity within certain parameters (a specific place and a specific kind of work, etc.).

AL: So the next issue will be one of the genre-focused series, and after that, it will be literature in translation again?

REZ: Yes, basically that’s the pattern.

AL: Is there a particular aesthetic to the series, beyond the works of young and lesser-known authors? Where are you looking for writers? Do you solicit or can authors submit to the series?

REZ: Planning for the next few (Contemporary Literature in Translation) issues, we have so far been pursuing authors based on a certain issue they examine, or a certain affect within their work. We’d love more authors submitting! They can send proposals or full text in Arabic, Turkish, or Persian to relzein – at – Planning for the genre-based series we’ve been following our gut for what kind of creative output has an especially interesting pulse now and doing outreach and research from there. But we’d love more authors (of all kinds) submitting! They can send proposals or full text of writing samples in Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, or Persian to relzein – at –

AL: Are you also interested in proposals from translators who have an author in mind?

REZ: Sure!

AL: You have a pretty distinguished board. They’re all just for Shahadat? Is the whole board/committee involved in the selections? Do they also select the translators? Or does the author? I understand Ma’n worked pretty closely with his translators.

REZ: The board you see online is for all of ArteEast. We’re in the process of establishing an editorial board specifically for Shahadat; that should be announced sometime early next year. Barrak, Alex, and I will maintain most creative control, however. So far, we have provided the translating work but we are invested in working as closely as possible with the authors.

AL: Can you tell us what’s coming up next month?

REZ: The next issue (out in December) is on Arabic hip hop. Hip Hop as Literature in the Arab Middle East. (It’ll have a better title than that!)

AL: Will the literary publications always focus on a single author?

REZ: No, they won’t always focus on a single author. Next year we’re also looking forward to an issue on Young Gazan writers, which follows the thematic layout of the Contemporary Literature in Translation Series but will feature several authors.