“The Other Grape” is a new London-based magazine and wine-box curation service, run by Aghiles Ourad, that sends its subscribers wines and stories from the Maghreb and Mashreq.
Ourad answered a few questions about the origins and future plans of The Other Grape”:
How did the idea for “The Other Grape” come about? Can you tell us a bit about yourself, and what in your life brought you to this point?
Aghiles Ourad: Personally, as a Brit of Algerian descent, The Other Grape is the manifestation of a wish to reconcile mixed identity. I entered adult life during the “War on Terror.” Its assault on citizens of “Muslim appearance” led to my public humiliation at the hands of authorities, and the subsequent development of an imposter syndrome within European society — my own society.
At the same time, I was rediscovering the country of my birth. Taking a job in Algiers threw me into Algerian life and allowed me to bear witness to the population’s schizophrenic attitude toward alcohol, something that was an important part of my British identity. In the UK, being a drinker is not necessarily a label, it’s assumed that you drink. But in Algeria, there is an unshakeable taboo, almost seediness, to the consumption of alcohol. The brush that tars those who drink in society is thick. However, I soon found out that there are many more “drinkers” than society would have you believe. On a personal level, The Other Grape is a way of making sense of these supposed contradictions. It’s a way of breaking stereotypes through wines and stories.
Commercially, it’s a gap in the market. Wines from the southern and eastern shores, or the “Other Side” of the Mediterranean, are very good, but under-appreciated and little-known. UK wine drinkers are always looking for something new and exciting, and wines from countries around the Mediterranean are not only delicious, they also contain fascinating stories. For me The Other Grape is a way to showcase something good from this region while offering people nuanced storytelling.
Why did you decide to pair your wine boxes with a magazine? (Why is a magazine a necessary accompaniment to wine?)
AO: Wine from North Africa or the Middle East is a concept that many will find paradoxical, counter-intuitive. It triggers questions and raises eyebrows — the magazine is a way for me to feed that curiosity. The idea of a magazine came about because, for me, this project is not only about wine, but about challenging stereotypes and using wine as a vehicle into the societies in which the winemakers work, their lives, history, culture. Arab Lit, amongst other magazines, was a huge inspiration. You give your readers, including me, access to a world that was hitherto inaccessible. Magazines and wine are usually both consumed as a process of relaxation. I love having a good read with a glass of wine, and also telling quirky stories at a dinner inspired by what I read.
Can you tell us about the three sections in the magazine (Wine & Food, Sounds, Travels in Time & Space)? Will you have those sections each issue? And what were the core challenges of putting together a magazine? (What aren’t the core challenges of putting together a magazine?)
AO: I wanted the wine and magazine to be transportative for our customers. I see the different sections of the magazine as a journey that starts from a glass of wine. If you were drinking it in the winemaker’s wine cellar, what would the wine producer tell you about how the wine was made, the challenges they faced, what keeps them going? If they invited you for dinner, what would they pair the wine with? That is the wine and food section. But then you continue your journey outside the wine cellar, and you hear music, maybe go to a party, talk to ordinary people, and then maybe visit a museum to learn some history of where you are.
I made a commitment to work with local journalists and artists, voices that are not often heard in the UK. I stuck to it, but it was a challenge because it meant that many of the pieces needed to be translated, which (I am sure you know!) adds a lot of complexity to the task. And then editing, typos, deadlines, design, printing (and more typos!)… “What aren’t the core challenges of putting together a magazine” really is the right question!
But I, and all the people who helped me, loved putting the magazine together. In future editions, we’ll look to learn and adapt to what had good feedback and what didn’t. We just need more people to read it now!
What was one of your favorite pieces from the first issue? How did it come about?
AO: This is a tougher question than I first thought. I wrote a couple of the articles on wine so I can’t say they were my favorite out of fear of being too narcissistic, but they were fascinating to research and write. I believe we’re the first to come up with a concept like this, so it’s first-of-a-kind journalism. Otherwise, we commissioned articles from Algeria & Lebanon — two of which were written in French, and two in Arabic — and each has a special place in my heart. The Algerian article, written by a giant of Algerian journalism, Ihsane El Kadi, recounts the story of Mark Thatcher getting lost in the Algerian desert in 1982 through the eyes of the offended Tuareg queen, Tinhinan. It has a subtle irony that I love. But perhaps my favourite is “Ibtissam…a late-blooming voice in Beirut” by Rawan Ezzeddine. It’s a wonderfully intimate profile of a Beiruti woman who came of age during Lebanon’s golden years of music and female emancipation. It is beautifully written, its essence majestically captured by the translator Ola Haj-Hasan.
In many parts of the Maghreb & Mashreq, wine became entangled with colonialism and colonial infrastructure, as is visible on your Instagram and Twitter, as well as in the magazine. In some places, attempts to dismantle colonial infrastructure in the 1960s and 1970s meant destroying (or trying to destroy) alcohol industries. But . . . are there ways to have an anti-colonial or counter-hegemonic approach to the wine industries of the Maghreb and Mashreq (without throwing out the wine with the . . . baby?)?
AO: The room for academic study on this topic is huge. Current attitudes to wine and colonialism across the Maghreb and Mashreq differ to wide degrees — as our two articles on the wine industries in Algeria and Lebanon show. In the latter, Michael Karam, an authority on Lebanese wine in the UK, wrote how the Lebanese happily adopted French wine-making methods upon independence. But now, Lebanon is beginning to see a boom in agile, small wineries that are promoting a specifically Lebanese identity to their wines, of which indigenous grapes are an important aspect. This is to me a profoundly anti-hegemonic stance based on the recognition that there is no need to emulate some French idea of excellence.
In Algeria, it’s different. Under the French, Algeria was a wine powerhouse, one of the top four biggest producers in the world during most of the 20th Century, and in the 1930s was even the biggest “exporter” of wine — although it almost all went to the French metropole. Today, the opposite is true. Algeria produces between 1% and 2% of its previous highest ever output, a precipitous fall, and exports very little of its production abroad — still to France, ironically. I believe this to be a shame because the wine industry is a wonderful example of an economic sector that employs locals, especially those living in rural areas, satiates national demand with a national product (people love to drink), and to develop an export market that could bring in necessary foreign reserves.
The problem is that the Algerian state is the most visible of invisible hands in this market. The ebb and flow of this wine industry is fully a direct result of the state’s intervention, or lack of, in wine. In 1971 President Boumediene uprooted vines on a considerable scale to make way for an agrarian revolution based on wheat, rather than the vine, a crop that “Algerians don’t consume.” Yet, in the 1990s, when faced with the spectre of terrorism based on fundamentalist Islamic principles, the state sponsored the planting of vines across central and western Algeria, one of the reasons for doing so, people on the ground say, was to spite the Islamists. But then, only a decade later, the state was responsible for trying to undermine the alcohol industry yet again. At the moment, wine in Algeria is slowly suffocating. As our Instagram shows, farmers are slowly uprooting fruit-bearing vines due to societal pressure — undoing, in a single moment, work that takes nature years to achieve.
During colonialism, the colonists got very rich off the backs of Algerians, but now it’s time for Algerians to reap the benefits of this industry. The country needs to wean itself off oil & gas through economic diversification. Wine once accounted for 50% of independent Algeria’s exports, why not try to return to that level of national wealth creation?
How do the wine landscapes in Lebanon and Algeria differ, and how are they the same?
AO: What’s interesting is that wine landscapes in these two countries have always been in a state of flux depending upon the window of history you’re looking through. Leaving aside antiquity, in the Middle Ages Lebanon was awash with wine. Europeans arriving during the Crusades settled on the modern-day Lebanese coast and planted vines, creating renowned wines from the terroirs of modern-day Anfeh and Batroun, for example. In the 16th century, the Maronite Christians in the regions of Keserwan and the Matn, in the Lebanon mountains, underwent strong viticultural development, creating world famous wines that visitors indulged in.
Today, Lebanon’s most well-known wine producing region is the Bekaa Valley. It’s average altitude of 1,000m is an important cooling factor for vines to flourish in the Lebanese heat. There is good temperature variation between night and day, which allows the grapes to cool down sufficiently. And the Valley’s calcareous soils, similar to those in Bordeaux or Champagne, drain water well so the roots don’t rot, but also retain enough to allow the vines to drink. On the other side of Mount Lebanon, vines grow exceptionally well too — Lebanon is a dream for vines.
In Algeria during colonialism, the French grew wine across the whole northern strip. Today, wine country is in the west, in the regions of Aïn Temouchent, Mostaganem and Sidi Bel Abbès. The west is a place of outstanding beauty. Towards the coast, there are verdant, undulating hills not too dissimilar to Tuscany. Here, vines are cooled by the salty, Mediterranean sea breeze and are often grown on sandy soils that make for beautifully aromatic wines. Up in the Atlas mountains, you have the Coteaux de Mascara and Coteaux de Tlemcen appellations at 700-900m above sea level. The altitude and nutrient-rich limestone soils, which reflect sunlight, moderate warm weather and make for premium wines.
Algeria and Lebanon share characteristics, but their terroirs are truly unique, making for wines with true identity. You’ll have to try them to find out!
Where will you go next? Are you soliciting work for future issues?
AO: Our first box, Issue 00, is only a pilot. The website is up and running and we’re looking to follow up our pre-Christmas success with strong sales in the first few months of 2022. But it’s a continuous process. We are constantly collecting feedback in order to decide in which direction to go next. There are so many more wines and stories to explore out there — Morocco, Tunisia, Palestine, Albania. We’d love for ArabLit’s readers to get in touch with suggestions for help. We hope that Issue 00 is only the start of a long journey of discovery.