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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.


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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