BY ELIE CHALALA
One salient feature of Al Jadid lies in focusing on “the new,” as the name Al Jadid means in Arabic. This correctly suggests that Al Jadid has distanced itself from tradition, if tradition means indiscriminate safeguarding of the past. We at Al Jadid cannot be a voice of the past because the past could mean oppression of minorities, of the poor, of intellectuals, just to name only a few groups. We are a forward-looking publication rather than an apologetic one, celebrating the critical and the humane in Arab and Arab-American culture.
Born in Lebanon, I spent my teenage years in Beirut and immigrated to the United States in 1972. I studied political science at U.C.L.A., and published articles on Middle East issues in professional journals, books, and national and international publications such as theInternational Herald Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Boston Globe, The Humanist, Free Inquiry, among others. I am currently an associate adjunct professor at Santa Monica College in California, where I have been teaching political science since 1988.
I have been asked many times why a political scientist would publish a cultural and arts review rather than some sort of a political science review. Although I am neither a poet nor a novelist, I have always been interested in arts and culture. But any personal reasons for my interest in publishing are secondary to the major reason, which is the exceptionally poor coverage of Arab arts and cultures in the Western media, predominantly in the U.S. and to a lesser extent in Europe.
In addition to lack of coverage, timing was also an important factor. When I first published Al Jadid in 1995, the Cold War was over, which led me to assume, naively so, that politics had retreated somewhat to the back burner, and that interest in culture and arts had gained more momentum. Of course, all this evaporated after the events of September 11, 2001 and the war on Iraq in 2003.
The events of September 11th have presented us at Al Jadid with a pain and a challenge. It struck a severe blow to the accomplishments made in recent years by Arab Americans toward correcting centuries-old stereotypes, both of themselves and of Arabs in the Middle East. I feel this blow acutely, for one of Al Jadid’s goals is to share with the English-speaking readers the wealth of Arab culture and arts, with the goal of correcting common misunderstandings about the region and its peoples. We have approached this difficult task through book, film, music, and art reviews, intellectual debate, poetry, and other short works of fiction, offering an all too rare glimpse into this part of the world through the eyes of our best writers. Unquestionably, this task has become more difficult. Non-Arabs will ask more questions and demand more convincing answers from us and from the many other individuals and organizations that have devoted years of their professional lives to advancing an alternative to the orientalist stereotype of the Arab.
Neither the setbacks posed by the events of September 11th nor the war on Iraq discouraged us at Al Jadid. The will to continue is sustained by many factors –
the Arab world still has wars, civil strife, censorship issues, vestiges of the colonial mentality; and here in the U.S. we still have the demonizing and marginalizing of Arabs.
Given the “rebirth of politics,” we were also asked how we could avoid politics since politics is at the roots of demonizing Arabs in the West and sustaining dictatorship in the Arab world. At Al Jadid, we were fully aware of the importance of politics but chose to approach it differently – politics is covered in Al Jadid via culture and arts. A book about politics, a film about human rights abuses, a political intellectual debate-- all these and more are covered in the pages of Al Jadid.
@@Many observers have noted that literature tends to provide an escape from political repression anywhere in the world. Since most Arabs live under authoritarian regimes, literature remains a primary area where individuals can escape the yoke of the state to express themselves. Thus by exclusively focusing on arts and culture, Al Jadid has incorporated this observation into its coverage approach of the Arab cultural scene.
Our goals at Al Jadid have been the same since the magazine was founded in 1995. These include introducing English readers to the Arab cultural and artistic scene, and providing them a substantive picture of creative productions and creators, with special emphasis on the freedom of conscience and expression. Unfortunately, the censoring and prosecuting of intellectuals and artists in the Arab world consumes a substantial part of our coverage. This repression is due to the unwillingness of authoritarian regimes to tolerate a plurality of opinions.
Equally important to us was dispelling the notion that the main trend of thought among Arab intellectuals was Islamic fundamentalism, as opposed to secularism. Without a doubt, fundamentalist religious forces have influenced the cultural activities and discourse in the Arab world, but nevertheless, secularism emerges as the dominant trend of thought in Arab literature. We felt this fact needed to be covered in English.
Also important to our coverage is the translation section, which has been growing steadily. Decisions on what to translate are based on the text’s relevance to the English-speaking reader and the importance of the theme of the text itself. We publish regular reviews and overviews of the latest Arabic-language books in English, which makes Al Jadid a valuable source for scholars and librarians.
Providing coverage of the productions of Arab-American writers as well as serving as one of the many vehicles for publishing their works is central to Al Jadid’s mission. The quality of this literature has undergone change, both professionally and thematically. Professionally, more and more Arab-American writers are emerging as a match for mainstream writers. The reader is increasingly introduced to works that tackle taboo themes like sexuality, domestic abuse, and other topics that cannot be brought into the open in certain Arab societies. These trends are very encouraging and promising of good works to come.
Feeling that we have accomplished some of what we set out to do lies in the connection we have established during the past 15 years with a readership that plays an important role in influencing public opinion. Our subscribers, are predominantly academics with an interest in Arab-Islamic studies and related professional fields.
Where does Al Jadid go from here? Al Jadid’s immediate plan is to continue to growing, both qualitatively and quantitatively. It is imperative that we are as much of an online presence as a printed one, if not more so. Much of our energy is now being channeled in this direction. We have introduced many changes, which have made our digital and electronic presence visible. For example, we introduced a secure online subscription, making it easy for readers to subscribe. A digital issue of Al Jadid is also available for subscription at a lower price than the printed version.
Soon, the Al Jadid website will have a new look, thanks to a new webmaster who is working on revamping the site, with a complete revision of its pages and page content. The site will publish exclusive online content on a weekly basis to ensure that our readers get the latest news and views about Arab culture and arts. Among the new website’s features will be the permanent column: “In case you missed it! The cultural view from within and without the Arab world.”
Finally, how has Al Jadid survived financially? Al Jadid has been a labor of love. People who work with us donate their time generously. Al Jadid’s sole revenue comes from subscriptions. A limited number of advertisements are confined to cultural and artistic products. But neither subscriptions nor advertisements match the human capital that is largely donated to Al Jadid – the contributions of authors, artists, editors, proofreaders, and the scores of interns.