Found in Translation

In November 2001, Lisa Farjam was working in Paris as a secretary to the
Iranian delegate to UNESCO. Within her network of colleagues, friends,
and family, she came to know artists and writers from the Arab and
Persian communities, such as the photographers Shirana Shahbazi and
Youssef Nabil. “I was meeting so many people who were doing
interesting work but were still represented under this monolithic
umbrella of Arab artists,” she recalls.

Critics writing about
these artists would invariably create a one-dimensional portrait
focusing on their Middle Eastern identities, even though, as Farjam
observes, “that’s not at all part of their work.” Her
initial reaction sparked a concept for a magazine focused on Middle
Eastern art and culture. To research the idea, she traveled to Tehran,
Cairo, Casablanca, and Beirut, where she met with curators, writers, and
artists. “In every city, I asked people if this magazine was
something they would be interested in,” she explains. The answer,
invariably, was an emphatic yes: “People were tired of being
represented in a [stereotypical] way.”

Bidoun, the New
York-based magazine that Farjam started with several close
collaborators, friends, and contributors located in key cities
throughout the world, is now in its eighth issue. The publication offers
a remarkable collection of analysis and art that uses Middle Eastern
culture as a leaping-off point. “Bidoun” means
“without” in Arabic and Farsi, which the editors say in a
mission statement refers to “the statelessness in which many of us
find ourselves—sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not.”

Bidoun is not alone in its effort to convey a more complex
understanding of the region. Pages (“Farsi/English magazine
for art and culture”) is a roughly twice-yearly publication
started by Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassiabi, two Iranian-born
conceptual artists based in the Netherlands. It showcases art and
ruminates on culture, architecture, theater, history, and politics
relating primarily, but not limited, to Iran. Alef (“A New
Language of Beauty”), a quarterly fashion magazine that launched
in October, focuses on mainstays of beauty and style with additional
coverage of arts and music.

Each magazine defies classification, but
they do have some referents. Alef’s closest kin is W,
or Vogue, and the 40,000-circulation publication, with editorial
offices in New York, is geared toward readers who can afford to buy
luxuries like Prada handbags and Helmut Lang clothing. Funded by Sheikh
Majed Al-Sabah, a member of the Kuwaiti royal family who owns the
high-end fashion retailer Villa Moda, the magazine is distributed in
global fashion centers—New York, Tokyo, Paris, Milan,
London—and in prominent Middle Eastern locales such as Abu Dhabi,
Bahrain, Dubai, Jordan, Oman, and Syria.

Bidoun’s
editorial voice might be described as a combination of Artforum
and Harper’s, its audience comprising artists, academics,
and intellectually curious readers who enjoy a magazine that manages to
dissect Edward Said and Michael Jackson in the same issue. At a current
circulation of 18,000, Bidoun reaches bookstores, museums, and
galleries in Europe and the U.S. as well as in centers such as Dubai,
Damascus, Tehran, Cairo, Beirut, and Amman. Farjam raised start-up funds
for the magazine from philanthropists and arts benefactors in Dubai and
Iran; she has recently changed the magazine to nonprofit status,
allowing it to remain independent of the financial pressures of
advertisers.

Pages, whose print run of 1,000 is disseminated
on a small scale internationally and in Iran, feels more like a
’zine for social theorists and avant-garde experimentations,
bringing to mind the Surrealist journals published during the 1920s. A
literary extension of the cultural explorations initiated by its
creative co-founders, it is funded by arts subsidies and grants.
Whatever their differences, the magazines share a penchant for
distinguished art direction. And while not limiting themselves to a
single editorial focus, they all give tangible form to the intricate
landscape of Middle Eastern culture, a realm that remains primarily
uncharted territory for mainstream media outlets. Asked to consider
similarities between his magazine and Bidoun, Alef’s
editor-in-chief, Sameer Reddy, remarks, “It’s like comparing
apples and oranges—their function is so different. Except that we
both have a positive role to play in the media for the public image of
the Middle East.”

Bidoun’s staff chooses a theme
for each issue; this began with “We Are Spatial” (Issue 1,
Summer 2004) and progressed to the more recent “Tourism”
(Issue 7, Spring/Summer 2006) and “Interview” (Issue 8,
Winter 2006), an homage to Andy Warhol’s magazine. Commentaries,
articles, photography, humor writing, and specially commissioned art
projects exploring the themes—an ode to Yul Brynner as an
accomplished chameleon of ethnic identities; an analysis of Iranian
director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s films; a photographic portfolio of
immigrant construction workers in Dubai—are complemented by
critiques of art exhibitions. A significant part of
Bidoun’s content, certainly, is art about current political
trends. “We approach politics from an artist’s
perspective,” Farjam says.

Since arriving at Bidoun for its
third issue, art director Cindy Heller has created an aesthetic
framework that allows her to vary headline fonts, printing styles,
papers, and other details to fit the theme of the issue. The pages of
“Envy” become a progressively darker shade of green as one
proceeds from the beginning to the end of the book. “Emirates
Now,” capturing what Farjam describes as the
“Disneylandesque phantasmagoria” that is the modern-day
United Arab Emirates, is printed on luxuriously glossy paper and
features bubbly, curvy headline fonts rendered in gold ink.

“I
wanted to have certain elements that change in each issue, to make the
magazine more of a collectible item,” says Heller, a Swiss native
who originally trained at Zurich’s Hochschule für Gestaltung.
“I treat each issue as a piece of art all its own.” To
achieve this, Heller brings lavish production to the magazine:
gatefolds, pullouts, a variety of paper stocks, and five-color printing.

 

Mideast_01.jpg

Cover of the premiere issue of Alef.

Alef—the word for the first letter of the Arabic
alphabet—debuted in October with features including a profile of
fashion designer Gabi Asfour, an appreciation of the recently built
Alexandria library in Egypt, and a photo essay by photographer Sheila
Metzner.

The New York studio Stiletto NYC created an initial design
for Alef, which was interpreted by Edward Jowdy, the
magazine’s creative director, along with designers Jerlyn
Jareunpoon and Justin Thomas Kay, for the first issue. Photography will
sound the most prominent note in Alef’s aesthetic
composition, with the design playing a more subtle accompaniment to the
imagery. “A lot of design has become more ego-driven,
in-your-face, a little bit larger than life, and what we’re trying
to do is something quieter,” says Sameer Reddy.

Cognizant of
Middle Eastern mores, the magazine will avoid the sort of provocative,
skin-baring photography typical of Western fashion magazines, but Reddy
sees this aesthetic choice shaped by sensibility, not by context.
“It’s not that ‘I want to show nudity but can’t
because Alef is a Middle Eastern magazine,’” he
explains. “It’s more that we’re bored of seeing this
one aesthetic dominate in the fashion world, and this magazine presented
an opportunity to counter that.”

Of the three publications,
Pages has a decidedly more conceptual bent, a fact evident in its
writing and design, as well as on its website, a robust archive of art.
For its first four issues, Pages was an unbound, tabloid-size
publication numbered consecutively from one issue to the next (that idea
has given way to a new distributor’s necessities).

As with
Bidoun, each issue of Pages centers on a theme.
“Voices,” the fourth issue, featured essays on subjects such
as blogging—an immensely popular expressive medium in
Iran—and the history and influence of Iranian cinematic recording
techniques including “doubling,” in which a film is shot
without sound and dialogue is recorded later, resulting in a disjoint
between the actor’s lip movements and the audio track. Riffing on
that effect to translate the theme into a visual motif, the issue was
printed with yellow mirroring black ink to produce a golden silhouette
around both text and imagery.

This distinctly deconstructionist,
avant-gardist design and printing sensibility is evident throughout
Pages’ design scheme. “As Pages is an artistic
work, we always wanted to have its design in a way that became part of
the whole project and not a background element,” Tabatabai and
Afrassiabi explain. “At the same time, we had to be careful not to
be overly designed [so that it] could remain comprehensible and
functional.”

Thomas Castro, a principal of LUST, the Hague-based
studio that designs Pages, describes his task as a similar
balancing act: “We’re always walking the line between the
very high-level graphic design acrobatics we use to embody the
issue’s concept and ending up with [a magazine] that’s
ultimately too readable,” he says. The “other extreme”
would result in a publication that is “very accessible but has no
conceptual nature at all.”

Like the bilingual Colors,
Pages is unusual in that its writing is featured in two
languages, Farsi and English, in a way that gives equal priority to
both. Because Farsi is read from right to left, the designers hit upon a
novel, if eminently logical, design in which the Farsi section begins on
the last page of the English section; the features are organized in
reverse order so that the first article of the Farsi text is the last
article of the English version (and vice versa), allowing the same
layout to be used for both texts. In contrast, Alef features
translated material in a printed supplement, and Bidoun plans to
feature Arabic, Farsi, and French versions on its website.

Though the
designers for all three magazines are not from the Middle East
themselves, their varied backgrounds have allowed them to escape the
clichéd visual language of geometrical patterns and decorative motifs so
commonly associated with Islamic and Persian architecture, painting, and
calligraphy. Referring to Tabatabai and Afrassiabi, Castro explains,
“They hinted that Iranian designers who are educated in Iran are
too bogged down in that culture to be able to reach the conceptual level
they wanted. They wanted Pages to look international, but not
necessarily Middle Eastern.”

Farjam similarly acknowledges that
the initial design for Bidoun, created by Daniel Jackson from the
design studio Surface to Air, was “decorative and beautiful”
but constrained by that notion of “what a Middle Eastern magazine
is supposed to look like.” Art director Cindy Heller has allowed
the publication to move beyond that.

Like its design,
Bidoun’s editorial vision has also evolved. Farjam might
have initially conceived it as a way of giving voice to a group that is
often portrayed inaccurately, but she says that the magazine’s
mission is now more nuanced. “It became a magazine about
globalization instead of a magazine about identity,” she says.

If globalization means that disparate cultures have many more points
of contact, it does not mean that they comprehend each other better;
interpretation is still necessary. The three publications presented here
offer lucid interpretations, ensuring that the diverse, contemporary
cultures of the Middle East can be found in translation.

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