A Multilingual, Beirut-based ‘Successor to the Economist’?

The Beirut-based magazine The Outpost — which focuses on “possibilities in the Arab world” — is crowdfunding its second year in print.  (See crowdfunding appeal here.) ArabLit asked editor-at-large Ramzi Nasir and editor-in-chief Ibrahim Nehme about why print isn’t dead:

outpostArabLit: Tell me about The Outpost, which the Guardian called “a reminder of the power of imagination to shift perspectives” and “a successor to the Economist.”

Ramzi Nasr: Is the Arab Spring responsible for a flourishing of independent magazines in the Middle East? Maryam Jamshidi says civic entrepreneurship was the driving force behind the uprisings. Christopher M. Schroeder also argues that entrepreneurship is defining the region’s future. The unprecedented new crop of independent magazines in the region certainly reflects the entrepreneurial current of a new Arab generation taking responsibility for their future in their own hands.

For some time, Bidoun and Brownbook were the only high-profile independent print magazines from or focused on the region. Bidoun (founded in 2004, New York) is a specialist magazine reporting on the region’s art scene, and Brownbook (2006, Dubai) positioned itself as a Monocle-like all-encompassing “urban lifestyle guide.”

Then, quietly, things began to change. Young Arabs began experimenting and taking risks to launch print magazines in the heart of a digital age. In 2010 Kalimat launched in Beirut as a platform for Arab creatives, and AMOR (“A Magazine of Random”) launched in Dubai “focused on Dubai-based creative people and their random behind the scenes stories.” We Are Here (Dubai) dedicates each of its issues to a different city, OOMK (London) to the imaginations of women. The Middle East’s food got its own print journal with The Carton (Beirut), architecture with and WTD (Dubai), and fashion and visual illustration with F/I/M²/P (Beirut). Dubai even produced a magazine dedicated to the region’s radical intellectuals. The State (Dubai) describes itself as interested in “transgressive cultural criticism” and “South-South reorientations.”

One of the most perplexing features of these Arab start-ups is their uniform use of the English-language. Even Schroeder notices that the region’s new digital start-ups usually feature odd anglicised-Arabic names. Only one of these new publications, Qatar-based Alef has made the effort to print in both languages.

The trend toward English-language dominance among Arab-language elites and their cultural productions is one of the issues regularly discussed in The Outpost (2012, Beirut). The Outpost is also my favourite magazine from the new wave out of Arabia – and not only because my name is on its masthead. Why does it stand out? Yes, is independent and beautifully designed. But it is also under-stated. Its stories are longer and it invests in the quality of its writing, whereas the trend so far in the region has been to put more exclusive focus on the visual. The Outpost is also unique in bringing narrative journalism, also called creative non-fiction, to the region. This works well with the way it prioritises indigenous voices, echoing the best of Arab storytelling tradition.

AL: There certainly have been a number of English-mag startups, but I don’t think they overshadow interesting Arabic or multilingual-mag startups. What about TokTok (which has got to be Egypt’s most important new magazine), the multilingual Samandal and the bilingual Portal 9? There are also of course many vibrant online Arabic magazines (7iber, for instance). Do you see yourself as part of a multilingual tradition, or more squarely as an English-language magazine? How does that shape your audience?

Ibrahim Nehme: I don’t think they overshadow the interesting Arabic mags; it’s just that the mag scene here is currently in a state of flux, which is why the new mags seem to be occupying the conversation. Each media outlet has its own role, speaks to a different audience and is filling a different gap. There’s a need for all these voices to come out and be heard, irrespective of what language(s) they adopt. The Arab world is in a state of transition and these voices will help us define and understand where we are now and how to move forward.

There’s a need for all these voices to come out and be heard, irrespective of what language(s) they adopt. The Arab world is in a state of transition and these voices will help us define and understand where we are now and how to move forward.

As far as The Outpost is concerned, our English edition has always been a jumping board. It has helped us reach the young and educated Arab youth who consume their media in English — they are our primary audience. Importantly, it has helped us expand globally and reach an international audience, which is important because we are projecting a different image of the Arab world that these people are not exposed to in mainstream media. That said, we do have plans for an Arabic edition and a multilingual radio station. For a media voice that has an ambitious mission to create change, we are aware that we can’t remain confined to print and exclusively focused on publishing in English.

AL: When Adaab closed in 2012, Sameh Idriss suggested there wasn’t a readership for culture-oriented print magazines any longer, at least those publishing in Arabic. What makes these new magazines different?

IN: I don’t fully agree with Idriss’ statement. Now it’s true that Arabs don’t really read and that the most successful magazines here are trashy tabloids, but we shouldn’t take this at face value. We’ve grown a lot in the past year, partly because of young Arab readers embracing the magazine and wanting to read its content, not to say be part of this movement. I can’t speak of the other magazines as I don’t think the same dynamics apply. We’re very broad in terms of the topics we cover whereas most of the new regional magazines are specific (food, travel, architecture, etc.). Also I think that the biggest market for these mags is Europe and North America, not here.

Our Arabic edition is going to be much more accessible than our English edition in terms of both content and format.

AL: I think the question is not so much about whether Arabs read, but how you get young people to read print when they can read online without worrying about cost, censorship, transportation, finding the magazine, etc. How do you get around the significant distribution issues when bringing out a print magazine in the Middle East / North Africa? 

IN: Yes, print can be limiting in that sense because it’s hard to build a solid distribution network with the limited resources that we have. The good thing is that we are being approached by stockists and universities who are interested in carrying the magazine and this is helping us grow faster. We are clearly lagging on the digital front, but we just don’t want to take the PDFs of the print edition and dump them online. We have an idea for something more interesting and engaging for our digital platform, and given that we are short on funds we have to take our time in building it. We are growing slowly, but it’s an organic growth and I think this is important. It’s only been a year. There will come a time when we will be everywhere and more accesible. Having said that, our print editions can be bought from our website and shipped to anywhere in the world.

It never was a question of print versus online. We’re really past that. Each medium has a role to fulfill. They compliment each other, they don’t compete. We’re currently focused on the English print edition. As I said [previously], it’s a jumping board. It’s helping us establish our name and credibility before we venture into other channels.

As for censorship, the fact that it’s in English helps us navigate a tightly controlled and highly censored landscape. We wouldn’t have been able to get away with many of the things we publish had the magazine been in Arabic.

AL: Why does print still matter?

Print is essential in this regard. It can capture the energies and conflicts of a particular time in such a timeless and compelling manner that very few media – especially the internet – can do. 

IN: With the explosion of content providers and content platforms, there’s a need for media outlets that can sift through the noise and offer critical, balanced and insightful coverage. Print is essential in this regard. It can capture the energies and conflicts of a particular time in such a timeless and compelling manner that very few media – especially the internet – can do. Print is important for a media vehicle like The Outpost that focuses on narrative journalism and long form writing. Print products are cultural artifacts of their time and they’re important in documenting the ideas, ideals, dreams and fears, challenges and opportunities of a certain era. So yes, print still matters.

AL: What else would you like to say about The Outpost?

RN: Above all, The Outpost is deliberately dedicated to being optimistic. It prints stories that allow us to imagine a different Arab future, to play, to speculate, to dream. This is not just a nice activity, but a hugely important exercise. As individuals and as societies, we must first be able to imagine where we want to go before we can take ourselves to that point. This is the mission of The Outpost: not a magazine about things to buy. Not an academic journal. Something more: a beautiful collection of inspiration; stories worth reading.

And just as Jamshidi argues that Arab civic entrepreneurs need our support to keep the revolutionary spirit alive, so too should we support the region’s new independent magazines.  “Once your focus is on the audience rather than the clients,” explains Rami Farook, the self-funding publisher of The State “you have that freedom.”

 Ramzi Nasir is Editor-at-Large of The Outpost. He tweets @RamziNasir. Support The Outpost’s crowdfunding campaign here:http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-outpost-crowdfunds-its-second-year

 Ibrahim Nehme is the editor-in-chief of The Outpost magazine. Two years ago, he quit the advertising world to found The Outpost. Published from Beirut and dubbed ‘a magazine of possibilities’, The Outpost aims to ignite a socio-cultural renaissance in the Arab world through inspiring its readers to explore a world of possibilities. Soon after its launch in September 2012, the publication was considered to be one of the most successful independent magazine launches in the Arab world and nominated for Best New Magazine and Best Magazine Design at the Magpile Magazine Awards 2012. Ibrahim is in charge of the magazine’s editorial direction, managing a diverse team of thinkers, writers and creatives from across the Arab world and overseeing The Outpost’s rapid expansion in key markets in the Middle East, Europe and North America.