Giving Voice to British Arab Culture – And Its Discontents

When Reem Maghribi, a 26-year-old British Arab designer, realized that Arabs lacked a voice in the United Kingdom, she founded Sharq, a magazine devoted to the promotion of “British Arab Culture.” With an increasing number of British Arabs questioning their identity amidst a climate of “Arabaphobia,” the self-supported publication is offering them the opportunity to delve into their unique position in society. In addition to political issues which deeply affect British Arabs, the magazine also focuses on topics ranging from pop-culture, design, cinema and travel. In fact, although Sharq partly resembles the traditional image of an Arab magazine, it is unique in its mission to cultivate the aspirations of a new generation. With its third issue hitting the newsstands on July 1, however, it remains to be seen whether or not Sharq can appeal to its advertisers and reach its intended audience. –YaleGlobal

Giving Voice to British Arab Culture – And Its Discontents

Sharq magazine looks to combat 'Arabaphobia'
Omar Waraich
Wednesday, June 29, 2005

LONDON: What does it mean to be young and Arab in modern Britain? That question of identity is one that many young Arabs in the United Kingdom - students, creatives, professionals - first and second generation, are increasingly asking today.

Along with a strong reluctance to embrace their British identity, young Arabs here are resigned to viewing the Arab world at a remove - and it appears that the last few years of war and bloodshed and "Arabaphobia" have only irked them further.

Last May, however, the first issue of a new magazine was launched to soothe these concerns and address the subjects and interests affecting the more than half-a-million Arabs currently living in Britain.

The 110-page per issue Sharq magazine, produced bimonthly in English by Reem Maghribi and her dedicated team has set out on an agenda to explore and promote "British Arab Culture" - and its discontents.

Maghribi, an ebullient 26-year-old designer, writer and mother, and now Sharq's editor and publisher, conceived the idea of the magazine just over a year ago.

"I feel that we, as British Arabs," she says in an interview at the magazine's London offices, "lacked a voice. We haven't had the opportunity to represent ourselves."

In terms of print media and publications Maghribi has a point - with the exception of a few paltry pamphlets, Sharq is the sole British English-language publication on sale in the U.K. to offer an entry in to British Arab culture.

Another factor that has driven the magazine is a desire to cultivate the aspirations of a new generation. Not prepared to repine for "a loss of Arab pride," any longer, Maghribi is also keen to use Sharq as a platform to "promote this huge pool of talent that exists here in London - whether it's singers, actors, models, writers, photographers, poets or professionals."

Of course, the magazine industry, especially in the U.K., is a cutthroat one and many publications geared to Arab audiences - especially those in Arabic - are often financed either by wealthy single investors or families, or Arab governments with a specific agenda.

Sharq, however, is different Maghribi says.

"We have no backing or financing from Arab governments whatsoever. This magazine has been put together through a group of young professional British Arabs who have invested in the magazine because they believe in it. We print with British printers and in the long term we hope to arouse enough advertising and sales to push the magazine forward.

"For now however we are independently financed and we use our cash wisely, not like one of these new start-ups that throw away cash," she adds.

One of those financiers is Maghribi's father, Mahmud Sulayman al-Maghribi, a former prime minister of Libya during a brief period from 1969 to 1970 and later Libyan ambassador to the U.K.

It remains to be seen how much of the Arab population in Britain Sharq can actually reach and whether it will appeal to advertisers. With a print run of 30,000 and a large, if optimistic, projected audience of 150,000, those advertisers may well be knocking at the door.

"Our third issue will be the real test," Maghribi says.

Sharq has so far produced two issues - its launch prototype in March/April and its current May/June issue with the third due to hit newsstands on July 1st. And in the short period of its existence it has already seen a marked improvement in quality.

The opening pages of the launch issue were awash with photos of various society events and rather smacked of Layalina and Mondanite and the like - magazines full of pics of glammed up weddings, birthdays and launches. But while certain other sections persist in conveying an image of a self-referential community, the magazine somewhat redeems itself a few flicks further on. Talented calligraphist Rima Farah, and eclectic hip-hop artist, Clotaire K both feature in thoughtful interviews. And there are insights into the world of design, a furtive glance at Palestinian cinema, and a couple of travel diaries.

But the real page-turner is Abdulhadi Ayyad's unconventional approach to horoscopy. Drawing on the lives of Arab luminaries, both past and present, and flashpoints in modern Arab history, Abdulhadi gazes forth at the coming weeks and their portents with great wit and verve.

On the face of it, the current issue's format faintly resembles that of Vanity Fair. Judging by the back copies strewn across a desk in the office, it appears to have been a conscious decision. Rising Palestinian songstress Mona Ibellini graces the cover and is interviewed in the center pages. Other features include a profile of pop sensation Outlandish and a scathing look at the phenomenon of Arab men tearing off to the Middle East in pursuit of a partner. The fashion section, despite being a touch gaudy, carries impressive photography. It's not quite Annie Liebovitz, but Amy Gordan nevertheless treats readers to a swathe of striking images throughout.

Like Vanity Fair, Sharq doesn't eschew the political.

Sharif Nashashibi is chairman of Arab Media Watch and now a regular columnist for Sharq who has contributed pieces on Palestine, the representation of Arabs in the media, and "Arabophobia."

"With events of late in the Middle East," Nashashibi argues, "politics has grown to deeply affect Arabs, not least those in Britain."

He hopes to provide readers "key insights" in the midst of "a media climate that is rife with misrepresentation."

With the efforts of Abeer Maghribi, Reem's sister and Sharq's marketing director, the magazine is now available at several outlets throughout London, has secured advertising revenue from half a dozen companies, and boasts subscribers from as far away as Abu Dhabi.

Ultimately, though Sharq is not quite on par with other English language glossies that are available in London and it does, in part, still cling to the traditional image of an Arab magazine, critics must concede that the magazine has set something of a precedent - as well as acting as "a voice," it aims to cultivate the talents of a new generation.

And it might just answer those questions of identity faced by young Arabs in Britain. As Maghribi writes in the editorial of the launch issue: "We are hybrids - united by our language, our parents, our loss, our heritage, our distant cousins, our summer holidays.

"We are not a race and therefore not easily identified. We must therefore identify ourselves. We need not let go of our history to embrace our future. They can co-exist if we let them. If we let go of the guilt."

© 2005, The Daily Star.

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