Publisher Mahmoud Muna on the Launch of an Arabic Edition of Granta Magazine: “We Want to Encourage New and Bold Creative Writing from the Region”
This summer marks the publication of the first-ever Arabic edition of Granta magazine. Part of the UK-based magazine’s expansion into other regions and languages, the Arabic journal is published by Jerusalem’s Educational Bookshop, with publisher Mahmoud Muna and writer-editor Eyad Barghuthy at the helm.
In his editor’s note, Barghuthy writes, “Literature, in our opinion, is an encounter—between people and texts, and between people through texts.”
Here, ArabLit Managing Editor Nashwa Nasreldin talks to Granta Arabic‘s publisher, Mahmoud Muna, about how the project came about, how this new magazine fits into the broader literary landscape, and which challenges he anticipates in the future.
By Nashwa Nasreldin
Can you tell us a bit about how this project come about?
We first made contact with the UK-based magazine and publisher, Granta, just after the 2019 edition of the Palestinian Literature Festival (Kalimat), had ended. We wanted to discuss the possibility of publishing an Arabic edition of Granta from Palestine, and Jerusalem specifically. Publisher and Editor of Granta magazine, Sigrid Rausing, expressed an interest in the idea and and offered us her support. After studying the idea and the possibility of its implementation, the Educational Bookshop in Jerusalem approached Palestinian writer and editor, Eyad Barghouti, with an offer to lead the editorial board, review submissions, and contribute to the final selection of the texts published. That was the beginning of the journey.
Why was Jerusalem selected as a base for the magazine?
We are proud that we have placed the city of Jerusalem as a center that gathers Arab writers and writers From the East and the West, since this reflects the historical role of Jerusalem as an Arab city and an important literary center. We are also proud to have an experienced Palestinian editor for the magazine who works from the city of Acre in occupied Palestine, and therefore further reflects this Palestinian and Arab connection. It also feels fated that the beautiful and expressive cover of the first issue would be produced by a renowned Palestinian artist from Gaza City, Mohammad Hawajri. The first issue of the Arabic Granta magazine undoubtedly represents a truly Arab production that expresses a high degree of belonging and cultural awareness since on the one hand it faces the state of fragmentation and division in a wounded Arab homeland, while it tries, on the other, to contribute to creating a bold, creative, literary space for a more beautiful and wonderful future.
How closely will you be working with the team responsible of the English edition, or will the Arabic magazine be editorially independent?
It was decided from the beginning—and in agreement with the Granta Foundation—that the Arabic edition would be editorially independent in terms of the choice of theme and selection of texts included in the magazine. At the same time, it was agreed that each issue would operate in parallel and be artistically compatible with its counterparts in the other language editions of Granta, which include versions in English, Spanish, and several others. We maintained regular contact with Sigrid Rausing throughout the process [of putting together the first issue], keeping her informed of our progress and on the texts and topics we selected.
What are you personally hoping to achieve with this magazine?
We hope that the magazine will add some vibrancy to the contemporary Arabic literary scene and that it will encourage bolder creative writing to emerge. We also hope that the magazine will create a space for literary discussion and that it will be a new platform that introduces us to young Arab writers who deserve attention and to be read, and to empower them through Granta’s multilingual world to cross into other languages and cultures.
Where will the magazine sit within the current landscape of literary journals in the Arabic-speaking world and is there a vibrant culture of literary journals in the Middle East?
There is a certain energy in the publishing and production industry of literary works in the Arab world but I don’t think that there is any kind of renaissance in terms of literary magazines and online platforms, and their role in shaping a literary movement. I believe that the Arabic edition of Granta will be unique in its position as an independent magazine, i.e. one that is not published through any governmental or semi-governmental cultural institution. And the combination of it being an Arab magazine and being linked to an international magazine that is already published in 14 languages, gives it a real possibility to play a role in forming literary connections. It will also be distinguished by being a literary platform that specifically highlights new writing, and for being somewhat free from the constraints of censorship, whether political, social and even religious, as well as being a magazine printed in the digital age.
How can such literary journals serve the potential readership, and the industry as a whole?
We hope that by presenting writing that represents new creative output, formats, themes and topics, related to the contemporary reader, this will encourage the process of recruiting more readers of modern Arabic literature and to contribute to the intellectual debates around important political and social issues. The existence of a new cultural platform in the form of a magazine for creative Arabic literature will enhance critical reading and may also help to promote writers who stimulate this passion for reading and raise the standards for reading in general.
I’m curious to know how the Arabic edition will differ from the English edition. What kind of content are you looking for that may not necessarily be the focus of the English language magazine?
The Arabic magazine has its own staff but shares the vision of the international Granta Foundation, especially when it comes to unconstrained creative writing. Specific features relating to social, political and literary themes from the Arab world, throughout its various regions and in all its diversity, will be instrumental in influencing the production of and contributions to the magazine. We see an urgent need for the magazine to reflect a local and international Arab reality, and to be a real platform for the writing and creative output of Arab writers.
How will the submissions process operate? And will contributors be offered a fee?
Submissions will be done by email. An advisory committee is established before the start of production on each issue, to offer their opinion on the texts that will best serve and respond to the themes in a creative way. After a shortlist is selected, the texts will be edited according to the vision of the editor. There will be a fee offered for future editions from that issue’s budget.
What challenges do you envisage with launching this kind of journal in the Middle East? Have you already planned reliable channels of distribution for example?
Distribution and Marketing are likely the biggest challenges facing publishing in the Arab world. This is why the Educational Bookshop in Jerusalem mobilizes all of its energy and resources to attempt to offer a distribution and marketing base in major Arab cities, as well as in some European countries where there is a large Arab diaspora. We have also provided the option to purchase a digital copy for a modest fee to help distribute the magazine worldwide.
Can you give us some highlights from the launch issue, for those of us who may not be able to access the journal as quickly as those based in the Middle East?
The first issue includes prose, poetry, photo essays, and an illustrated story by writers from Palestine, Syria and Jordan, centered around the common theme of ‘escape’. The texts are strong and varied in their literary style, but they all share this narrative of escape as experienced in our region, which in the past decade has witnessed significant displacement due to wars.
How will we be able to access the magazine if we are based outside of the Middle East?
There is nothing limiting—nor do we want anything to limit—the magazine reaching as many readers as possible. Everyone is invited to submit to future issues and we are also working on ways to organise literary events around the published texts, in coordination with the contributors.
Mahmoud Muna was born in Jerusalem and attended school in its refugee camp (Shu’fat) where his dad taught three consecutive generations. He is a computer science graduate, trained communicator, and currently known to many as the bookseller of Jerusalem. He runs his family’s two bookshops, The famous Educational Bookshop, and the prestigious Bookshop at the American Colony Hotel. In 2020, Mahmoud was commissioned by Granta to publish the first ever edition of Granta Literature Magazine in Arabic.
Nashwa Nasreldin is a writer, freelance editor, and translator of Arabic literature. She is the translator of the collaborative novel, Shatila Stories, and co-translator of Samar Yazbek’s memoir, The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria. She is Managing Editor of arablit.org, and a contributing editor of ArabLit Quarterly.