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More than that
Covering aspects of Arab culture overlooked by mainstream media

By Elham Gheytanchi
December 23, 2002
The Iranian

Interview with Elie Chalala, the editor of
Al Jadid magazine. A review and record of Arab culture and arts.

I have known you for a long time from University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), where you were a Ph.D student in the Political Science Department. Could you please tell us about yourself and how you started Al Jadid magazine?

I am originally from Lebanon. I spent my teen years in Beirut where I became, for the first time in my life, intellectually and politically challenged. I left Beirut with my family about 30 years ago. As you have mentioned I have studied political science at UCLA and have published articles in professional journals and in national magazines. I have been teaching for the last 13 years.

I founded Al Jadid magazine in 1993. There were three stages involved: in 1993, Al Jadid was first published as a bilingual newspaper mainly in Arabic with a small section in English. The Arabic section focused on issues pertaining to Arab-Americans, i.e. the economic, scientific and political aspects of their lives in the United States. The small English section covered culture and arts in the Arab world. This experiment came to end after 6 issues.

A major factor in folding the newspaper then was the lack of response from Arab-Americans, probably due to our reluctance, I and my colleagues at the time, to cover the glamour side of the community, that is the life of the rich and famous. We wanted Al Jadid to reach those Arab-Americans who were not necessarily rich, especially those who did not have a voice in the larger society and in our community. This resulted in scarcity of advertisements from the Arab-American community. People with money in Los Angeles have vibrant life; but this, in itself, wasn't of primary interest to us.

The second stage began in1995 when Al Jadid made a come back as a magazine, with two-thirds in English, and exclusively dedicated to covering Arab culture and arts. But before long, whereas we had started Al Jadid started out as a monthly publication, we were soon forced to make it a quarterly publication, and dropped the small Arabic section. Al Jadid is now exclusively in English. The decision to make Al Jadid in this new format arose from our frustrations with the scanty coverage in American media of Arab culture and arts. Thus, we decided to devote our energies to covering Arab literature in the Arab world and outside, primarily in the United States.

I also think that contrary to what is depicted in mainstream media, the main trend of thought among Arab intellectuals is not Islamic fundamentalism but rather secularism. Was this a factor in your shift of focus in Al Jadid?

Certainly. When you read Arabic works of literature, secularism emerges as the dominant trend of thought. We felt this reality needs to be covered in an English language format.

What were other reasons behind your decision to cover Arab literature and arts?

I think literature, anywhere in the world, provides an escape from political oppression. Most Arab peoples live under authoritarian regimes. Literature remains the only area in society where individuals can escape the yoke of the state and express themselves. Another reason was the common perception in the west that the Arab culture is either ultra-Islamic, that is, about praying rituals, or, on the other hand,catering only to an interest in entertainment, as manifest in belly dancing.

Obviously, Arab culture is much more than that. So, we try to present the Arab culture differently, covering aspects which rarely receive sufficient attention in mainstream media, while declining an apologetic approach that covers only the positive. In short, we approach Arab culture from a critical and enlightening perspective.

I have been particularly intrigued by the work of Arab-American writers you have published in the pages of Al Jadid during these years. Was this a new area also introduced in the later stages of Al Jadid publication?

Yes. In 1996, when Al Jadid became a quarterly magazine exclusively in English, we started to introduce Arab-American as well as Arab writers. We cover diaspora literature and literature produced in the Arab world. However, our primary emphasis remains Arab literature-two thirds of our coverage goes to the literature written and published in the Arab world and one-third goes to the literature written by Arab-Americans.

How have you been able to financially sustain Al Jadid?

It has been a labour of love. People who work with Al Jadid donate their time and money generously. Al Jadid is not a publication for profit. And we have not limited our resources to the Arab-American community. There are many Americans who have life-long interest in the Arab culture.

Academics with interest in critical coverage of Arab culture and arts have been an additional source of support, primarily through subscriptions and editorial contributions. Al Jadid is not an ethnic publication. In fact, some Arab individuals and groups are critical of Al Jadid because they think it is exposing Arab society as an oppressive one. Their discontent stems from Al Jadid's relentless coverage of censorship in the Arab world and repression of intellectuals and artists, not only by the state but also by extremist groups, mostly religious.

What do you think is the most important contribution of Al Jadid?

I think just being out there has proved to be very important. We are the only one of this kind. Al Jadid covers a broad range of cultural and artistic themes as well as some fiction. In the past nine years, Al Jadid has filled a vacuum. Al Jadid is the only one that offers important writing in the Arab world translated into English by our editors in a timely manner, especially those literary pieces that are urgent.

One of the hardest challenges, I think, among Middle Easterners is to create a fruitful dialogue among people with different opinions. Has Al Jadid been successful in providing a platform for such dialogue?

Yes. There have been many instances of debate around controversial issues. We, in Al Jadid, always publish criticism of our own work.

What is the most striking feature of the Arab-American literature published outside of the Arab world?

There are a great number of Arab women writing outside of the Arab countries. This literature tends to be very secular and critical of patriarchal norms. The early phase of these writings tended to be nostalgic. But I would say that most Arab-American writers have transcended the nostalgic phase. There are a variety of genres present in their writings; their work is sophisticated and multi-layered. Arab-American writers write about discrimination, assimilation in the American society. And then there is, of course, the never-aging topic of Arab Israeli conflict.

One fact about life in the Middle East is usually overlooked. Middle East does not have a homogenous population. There are many ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious minorities in the Middle East and particularly in the Arab world. Has Al Jadid covered the literature and culture of these minorities?

We have consistently covered cultural and literary news about minorities in the Middle East. Naturally, we have also discussed minority rights in the Arab world. One example is Sepharadic voice represented in the pages of Al Jadid.

Does Al Jadid ever publish works by Iranian writers or

We published some reviews of Iranian books in translation as well as Iranian films. Islam is common to both Iranian and Arab communities. So, there are many books about Iran which are of interest to our readers.

What is next?

We are hoping to bring major changes to the format of Al Jadid. In the new format, we hope to establish a greater balance between reviews and features on one hand and references and synopsis on the other hand. The reader will soon note a substantial increase in the number and the space allotted to the condensed news, synopsis or abstracts of major cultural and artistic productions, be they books, films, musical productions, cultural and artistic debates, just to mention a few.

Best wishes for your continued success at Al Jadid and thank you for your time.

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