For the five-year anniversary of ArabLit Quarterly, we’ve published a brand new redesign of ALQ‘s first ever issue, BEGINNINGS, titled BEGIN AGAIN. On this occasion, ALQ‘s art director Hassân Al Mohtasib shares his journey with the magazine, reveals his sources of inspiration, and answers five quick-fire questions.
Speaking of beginnings: How did your story with ALQ begin?
Hassân Al Mohtasib: At that time, I had stopped working in journalism and started working for book publishers. I wanted a rest from daily or weekly news-making and do something I had ignored for a while, which is reading fiction. The pace that I worked at during that time was very high and, after this slowing down, I regained the ability to read a book. I was looking for opportunities to work with Arabic literature and easily found Marcia’s account, ArabLit. I followed it and was very impressed by the scope of literature that the blog dealt with. It wasn’t only about contemporary, but also classical texts. I remember discovering the first issue of the magazine. I ordered it and was happy to find that I could contribute something to this new-born publication. I contacted Marcia and had my shortest—positive—job interview yet. And so we’ve been in business together since then.
Over the past five years, you’ve created consistently stunning designs and layouts for the magazine. Where do you get your inspiration? How do you come up with ideas for illustrations and images to accompany the texts?
HA: I owe my love of reading and the fact that I own a personal library to my father. I remember when I went to art school, one of my professors told me that graphic designers are bad readers. It was hard to believe, but it is true. Most visual designers are visually motivated and sadly don’t build their visual vocabulary on the soil of literature or concepts but merely on the playful engagement of first visual associations. A good art director intentionally builds a library of images in his subconscious through reading and forgetting. This process takes years. Most concise visualization comes from an intuitive encounter with the text. It can be simply explained by being exposed to a good general education and life experience. When I was young, I learned that you can’t run out of ideas if you can access the material you are working with. It means you are humble and can listen to tiny details and engage with them and find the right stage-setting for each piece and harmonize or contrast pieces with each other.
What is the most fun part of working on an issue?
HA: Fun is a hard word to define. Maybe you mean the part of the job that brings me the most joy? If so, I would say there are two stages I enjoy the most: the first one is when you have nothing at the beginning and you just enjoy welcoming all ideas and associations entering your mind without any effort. The second part is dealing with the most difficult part of the magazine, that can be a poem, an essay, or just a story. Some pieces are so hard to engage with because you want to avoid visual cliches or because no previous visual form was given to them. The satisfaction after the frustration that builds up during this process is beautiful too.
Is there anything you found particularly frustrating during the process? And/or something you’d do differently in hindsight?
HA: Sometimes, it is the pieces themselves. The structure of the text that needs to be understood before one starts to set the typography. We had a couple of texts that were complicated but highly structured. You need to admire the complexity of them and pay tribute to that structure and find the right way to render this structure so the reader enjoys it without suffering or getting lost.
All these lovely designs look so very time-consuming! What takes up the most time when preparing a new issue?
HA: Finding the right imagery is time consuming because you need to work as a picture editor and a text-setter and an art director at the same time. You need to cultivate a sense of how to visualize the story and where to find the images that you need and sometimes render them yourself. But what takes more time is what I mentioned before when dealing with a special rendering of language in poems or essays. You need to understand what the author is trying to convey with his or her own structure and serve this purpose. That can be difficult yet very satisfying.
What do you hope for ALQ’s future?
This magazine has made me happy since day one. I am grateful for being a part of the core family and I hope we can continue producing it for many years. I wish more people would engage with it and appreciate the huge effort that we pour into it. Marcia is a great person to work for and with. We have a couple of ideas for the future, but at the age of five, it’s okay to just enjoy growing.
Five Quick-Fire Questions
1. Which was your favorite issue to design?
2. Biggest surprise over 5 years of ALQ?
Meeting people on my travels that know the magazine.
3. Your favorite cover?
4. A theme you wanted that was vetoed by the team?
Smoking ( I don’t smoke!)
5. One person who you think should really read this magazine?
Anybody who has no points of contact with the Arabic language or its literature because they think it is irrelevant or out of their educational canon. They will discover how much their own language is influenced by Arabic. It is an ancient yet living language and the only inflected language still in use in the world. Latin and Sanskrit are sadly dead. A couple of moths ago, I visited the Alhambra for the first time in my life. This palace is a textual architecture. Being able to “read the rooms” was an out-of-this-world experience. This language is not from this world. It resembles something primordial.
Hassân Al Mohtasib was orn in Amman, Jordan. He studied linguistics and visual communication in Germany, worked for the German broadsheet Süddeutsche Zeitung as infographic designer and illustrator and for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit in Hamburg, art-directed the German business weakly magazine WirtschaftsWoche and works for many book publishers in Germany, UK, the Emirates, and Morocco. He teaches visual journalism in Hamburg, Germany, and nowadays he art directs a regional newspaper in south Germany and runs his own studio for publishing design and consulting.