Publishing Beirut: Loose Systems

Arab Spring
Independent Publishing
Petri Dish

What are the conditions set by a multitude of crises—and how does one navigate such an environment? How can a sector be sustained when a system breaks down? The pandemic has confronted a lot of people and countries—some of them completely unprepared—with these kinds of questions. Facing an unexpected crisis, one feels tempted to reach out to people that have experience in dealing with them. Independent publishers in Beirut, a city facing an unprecedented set of challenges once again, certainly are among them. Jana Al Obeidyine, who runs a Dance Mag and Ibrahim Nehme who publishes The Outpost are part of that scene. Confined to their homes during another strict lockdown, they virtually reached out to their fellow publishers in Beirut. The result of these conversations is a report for our theme focus Petri Dish. It provides first-hand insights into a highly fragile ecosystem—and a guide on how to navigate it.

Text Ibrahim Nehme, Jana Al Obeidyine
Images provided by magazine makers

In 2020, Lebanon went from the euphoria of defying the corrupt ruling class in November 2019 to a free fall to hell. The year opened up with the Covid-19 crisis. It was followed by the crash of the Lebanese banking system that resulted in capital controls exercised on our savings, starting with limiting our monthly withdrawals, then decreasing that limit continually. International transfers became impossible. Receiving new money became subject to regulations and unjustifiable bank fees. Then, in August, the port that made Beirut a cosmopolitan city exploded, causing the loss of precious lives and the destruction of half the city and its most vivid neighborhoods. So, when we say “hell,” we are not talking figuratively. 

Lebanon has been always organically connected to its larger cultural and geographical environment. Following the Arab Spring that swept across the Arab region in 2010, a new wave of independent magazine publishing reached Beirut. Two proponents of them, both initiated in 2012, were a direct response to the Arab Spring: The Outpost, the “magazine of possibilities” in the Arab region, and Bidayat, a magazine dealing with “New beginnings for All Seasons of Change.” While The Outpost is a young, energetic voice published in English that thinks of imagination as the place for positive transformations and radical possibilities, Bidayat is a seasoned Arabic magazine that suggests new beginnings, portraying a continuation of the publishing tradition in Beirut both in terms of content and visuals.

That same year, three other publications were born in Beirut: The Carton, featuring conversations around food culture and the Middle East; Portal 9, a bilingual journal of stories and critical writing about urbanism and the city backed by Solidere, a private company; and Rusted Radishes, an English language literary magazine born at the American University of Beirut, giving space to young writers. Samandal Comics, another important voice in Beirut’s scene of independent publishers, had already been in print since 2007. Samandal is a trilingual magazine founded by a young collective aiming to advance the art of comics in Lebanon.

Publications are not only influenced by the realities in which they are created, but also the other way around: In some ways, their existence gradually affects or even alters the culture.

In 2014, Journal Safar, a bilingual design and visual culture journal that is published in Arabic and English launched its first issue. It was created to address the scarcity of critical writings on design in the Global South. In 2017, Cold Cuts, a photo journal that explores queer culture in the southwestern Asian and north-African region popped up. The latest addition to the bouquet is a Dance Mag, a magazine launched in 2018 that looks at “the world through the lens of dance.” Breaking with the tradition of “geographical belongings” the magazine claims to be global—reflecting the spirit of its time, namely that of globalization.

Cover of Cold Cuts' first isseu
Cover of Cold Cuts‘ issue 01

You may be wondering, how a broken system as you currently find it in Lebanon is able to produce magazines, in the first place. The answer is simple: a broken system doesn’t produce magazines, but a loose system does. A loose system provides fertile ground for new ideas, thus, publishing and other media productions. The Lebanese State is mainly a loose system interrupted with breakdown periods. Unlike dictatorships, in which the narrative is singular, funded, and controlled by the state, and regulated democracies, in which narratives multiply and are funded by the state and guided through cultural policies, in a loose system narratives are free from regulations but also deprived of funding. So in Lebanon, most publishers are independent publishers. They exist due to their own initiative. It is said that in the 1960s and 1970s there were more publications in circulation than the population could consume. Many of these magazines ran out of print due to the weak circulation. Financial sustainability remains the main challenge faced by publishers throughout the country’s history. We spoke with our fellow publishers and came up with a guide on how to publish in a loose system and how to maintain a magazine in a broken system.

1. Find Your Voice

Nathalie Elmir, co-founder of Portal 9

“Journals have always been a place around which a group of people coalesced to shake out new ideas, forms, and genres. They emerge from socio-political realities,” says Nathalie Elmir, who co-founded Portal 9. Indeed, many independent magazines are born as a response to these very realities. They have a well-formulated agenda, are driven by a persistent desire or idea, and are guided by clear values:

Portal 9, for example, was born to assert the significance, if not necessity, of a pluralist discourse that embraces criticism. The Outpost wanted to produce a new narrative that is grounded in radical possibilities. a Dance Mag believes that our moving bodies have stories to tell and should be given a space in which to tell them. The Carton opens a gateway into the Middle East through its food culture. Bidayat publishes themes and subjects of interest to their audience, without trying to answer trends, the agenda of funders, or the concerns and questions dictated by today’s main centers of knowledge production.

The different elements of an issue of Portal 9
The different elements of an issue of Portal 9

The clear standpoint of each one of these magazines lends them a unique voice. It is their voice that allows them to first break ground and eventually break through. Their voice echoes their intentions, ideals, and dreams, and informs the editorial process. Ultimately, it is what sets them apart and makes them different.

However, publications are not only influenced by the realities in which they are created, but also the other way around: In some ways, their existence gradually affects or even alters the culture.

2. Find Your Way and Be Willing to Improvise

While mainstream publishing relies on established structures, the independent press tends to rely on individual ingenuity and underground networks. It’s very much a do-it-yourself type of culture. But in Lebanon, the DIY nature of indie publishing has to contend with dysfunctional political and legal systems, and it exists in a space devoid of cultural policies. This means that publishers can depend neither on the state and its public bodies nor on private institutions and their funding programs.

Bidayat‘s art director Jana Traboulsi by Waraq

Independence from the state and the market, however, allows for the dissemination of fresh, groundbreaking views and oppositional content. For Bidayat, “this means managing to ward off various forms of control—for example we don’t have to deal with ideologies dictated by funders or imposed by political backers, and we don’t really have to publish a consumable kind of content that ‘sells,’” explains Jana Traboulsi, the publication’s art director. “It gives us freedom in our choice of topics, how we tackle them, the kind of themes we develop, and the authors we work with; and it also keeps the magazine’s pages free from any kind of advertisement or publicity,” Traboulsi goes on, as the shadow of the explosion on August 4 hangs over our conversation (she had just published a piece in Bidayat in which she channels her rage onto the page and recounts the experience of surviving the explosion). “We see value in this system, despite its limitation, as a way to preserve a space of opposition. Now many of these systems rely mainly on private funding, as opposed to state funds or sales from readership and subscriptions. The lack of state support also implies there are no public policies that encourage and facilitate setting up such initiatives, alleviate expenses or taxes, and contribute to their reach or sustainability.”

An illustrated article in Bidayat
An illustrated article in Bidayat

To survive, magazines design models—editorial, creative, financial, distribution, marketing, etc.—that best encapsulate their needs and optimize their resources. Photographer Mohamad Abdouni learned from a previous publishing venture—a bi-monthly arts and culture journal that remained active for several years—and decided to do things differently with Cold Cuts. The first two things he got rid of in the new model were a publishing schedule and the need for a physical headquarters. “Cold Cuts travels with me, it is as much of a nomad as I am, and it follows no editorial release calendar. Issues come out as content organically forms,” says Abdouni, who now splits his time between Beirut and Istanbul. He thinks that getting rid of these two aspects alone allowed him to feel more at ease with periodic publishing and the systems put in place.

3. Nurture Your Ecosystem

Magazines exist and thrive as part of a larger community of readers, contributors, crowdfunders, donors, friends, supporters, and well-wishers. Without them a magazine cannot exist. All the magazine makers we spoke to for this article seem to have a keen sense of who constitutes their community and what their community values are.

Both The Outpost and a Dance Mag have mobilized the support of their respective communities and launched crowdfunding campaigns to fund the printing of the magazines. The Carton ventured into retail, and its shop became a display of artworks by its community aside from generating a new revenue stream for the publication.

In Beirut, one of the pillars of the publishing community is PaperCup, an independent bookstore that was home to the city’s burgeoning independent press. But after the shop was completely destroyed by the Beirut explosion and eventually closed down, the publication scene lost one of their main arteries. In the face of this tragedy, the community came together and supported one another. A group of artists set up a crowdfunding campaign to help rebuild PaperCup, as well as Studio Safar, the design studio that publishes Safar Journal, whose offices were also wiped out by the explosion.

Rima Rantisi, Rusted Radishes‘ editor

“The one thing that has kept us is each other, our friends, families, colleagues, and all the strangers who give us reason to empathize every day, to feel like there’s this mass body of soldiers there to support you,” says Rima Rantisi from Rusted Radishes, who seems to be very disheartened by the exacerbating situation in the country, but has not yet lost hope. “We haven’t lost any team members even though we each struggled somehow. So, you ask how we publish in this system? With difficulty, day by day, and in solidarity with each other—the only true security.”

4. Find Your Resources

“Funding is a major challenge whereby both local public and private support for magazines is negligible. This makes it very difficult for publishing to be sustainable,” says Traboulsi. She explains that Bidayat’s challenges and politics have evolved over the last decade. “While we first relied on the generosity of individual private donors and functioned partly on a voluntary basis, we recently operate on the basis of more regular funding from foreign institutional funds. So far, we’ve gotten substantial funds from two foundations mainly—Heinrich-Böll- and Rosa-Luxembourg-Stiftung, whose politics we generally align with. Sales are not really a defining priority in our model since readership of printed matter is not enough to finance the magazine, a problem most publications face today to the point that some have even cancelled their print form,” explains Traboulsi.

When flickering through Rusted Radishes; image by Nour Annan
When flickering through Rusted Radishes; image by Nour Annan

In contrast, print sales are a key component of the financial equation for Samandal, accounting for 70% of their work, combined with workshop fees and additional funds they use to pay their artists. Yet, the collective behind the magazine, which has been publishing for twelve years, operates as an NGO and actively decides to ignore the pressure of breaking even. “As a non-profit focusing on publishing all sorts of styles (even the most experimental), we embrace the risk of selling less but give more space and freedom to artists,” says Joseph Kai, one of the magazine’s current editors.

5. Be Brave

Censorship in Lebanon works in mysterious ways. The country prides itself for its free speech, but in reality this has not always come without a cost. The kind of censorship that publishers grapple with is a social one, in which certain topics create a social backlash against the magazines.

Cold Cuts-founder Mohamad Abdouni by Ayla Hibri

The interesting thing about publishing in Lebanon is that there are many blurry lines that a magazine can navigate. But it requires bravery.

After the first issue of Cold Cuts was ready to go to print in 2017, Abdouni shopped it around every printer in Lebanon and was turned away at the door. They would not print “such filth,” they told him. While he knew there would be difficulties in printing a queer photo journal (emphasis on photo) in Lebanon, he didn’t think the printers and bookbinders would actually collude against printing it. He was finally welcomed at Chemaly & Chemaly, a printer that even went as far as to bring people in to bind the issue in-house since no bookbinder was willing to take the job. However, Abdouni says, “once in the factory overseeing the printing process, it’s a completely different story. We always seem to provide the men there a show with each issue. Cold Cuts’ printing station becomes an event for two days, with everyone hurdling over the test prints, launching homophobic comments.”

A spread you would find in Cold Cuts magazine
A spread you would find in Cold Cuts magazine

What seems to connect all these different efforts in independent publishing is a deep desire for change, systemic transformation, and sustained hope. The pages of these magazines provide a space for honest, intimate, and courageous conversations. They openly challenge outmoded ideas and narratives and propose new ones along the way. They do so while pushing the established modes of print publishing. Lebanon, where there seem to be only few rules for doing things and a a lot of room to play and experiment, is not an exceptional but rather an ideal place for this development to take place. The existence of these publications constitutes a rebuke to those who want to tame dissenting voices. It is a spark in the surrounding darkness, poised to catch flame at any moment.

A Brief History of Magazines in Lebanon

Interestingly, the origin of the word “magazine” has its roots in the Arabic “Makhazin” (storehouses). Magazines have been published in Lebanon continuously since the 1870s. Prominent titles include Al-Muqtataf (“The Digest”), a monthly magazine published by Yakoub Sarouf, Fares Nimer, and Shahin Makarious in 1876, and Al-Tabib (“The Doctor”), a biweekly magazine founded by Ibrahim Al Yazigi, Bshara Zalazal, and Khalil Saade in 1884. Even back then, the Lebanese territory was volatile and prone to breakdowns. Both Al Sarraf and Al Yazigi relocated to Cairo where Sarouf continued to publish Al-Muqtataf and Yazigi established two magazines: Al-Bayan (“The Statement”) and Al-Diya (“The Illumination”).

Al-Sayeh (“The Tourist” or “The Traveler”) was published by Abd al-Masih Haddad in New York in 1912 and featured the most prominent literary figures known back then as The Pen-League—a union of Lebanese and Syrian writers and poets who fled the rough conditions in the region during World-War I to the United States. The magazine also printed Gibran Khalil Gibran’s illustrations, some of which made it on the magazine’s covers. Gibran and the Pen-League members also contributed to Al-Funoun (“The Arts”), another notable title published in New York by Nassib Arida in 1913.

Text Ibrahim Nehme, Jana Al Obeidyine
Images provided by magazine makers
Arab Spring
Independent Publishing
Petri Dish