Theatre director and writer Eyad Houssami, who is also the managing editor of the compelling new Beirut-based journal Portal 9, corresponded with ArabLit about the journal’s broad internationalist vision:
ArabLit: Journals (historically) have been a place around which a group of people have coalesced to shake out new ideas, new forms, new genres. I’m thinking for instance of Souffles, Sh’ir. How did this journal come together? How are you finding your writers/contributors? How do you imagine this journal becoming a part of local, regional, internationalist discourses?
Eyad Houssami: Portal 9 was established just over two-and-a-half years ago when the creative director Nathalie El-Mir and editor-in-chief Fadi Tofeili began collaborating to envision and found a new Arabic-English publication about “the city,” in the broadest sense, with roots in downtown Beirut, Lebanon. Nathalie brought to the table the experience of a publications designer focusing on urbanism and architecture whereas Fadi, a writer, poet, and English-to-Arabic translator, contributed a literary perspective, grounded mainly in Arabic.
From the outset, the process was consultative and collaborative, and they organized workshops with writers, publishers, editors, and artists to share nascent ideas, seek feedback, and generate a debate about the possibilities – and limits – of the mission, vision, content, and scope of the project. In 2011, the Beirut duet became an international septet of editors, writers, designers, and photographers: I joined as managing editor in the spring, and Malu Halasa, Todd Reisz, Omar Kholeif, Dalia Khamissy, and Karine Wehbe all hopped on board that summer. So, half the editorial and creative team was in Lebanon, and the other half in the United Kingdom and The Netherlands. We also ran the gamut in terms of age, with a rich and dynamic spread of three decades.
I’d say that what drew us all together was firstly, an interest in “the city” in the Arab Middle East; secondly, a belief in the potential of inherent bilingualism; and thirdly, an ambition to break new ground in the literary, academic, and cultural universe as well as in the world of publications by adopting a multidisciplinary lens. A few of us were also ardently committed to exploring a new approach to Arabic publishing, characterized by nuanced integration of text, design, and image and fine printing.
Our passions were complimentary, with each person mixing in a unique expertise and background to the stew: theatre, architecture and city planning, visual culture, art, photography, design, academic scholarship, and of course editing. None of us had worked together before Portal 9, so it felt – and continues to feel – like we were charting into the unknown. It is an exhilarating challenge, verging on all-consuming at times.
For the first issue, which was for all practical purposes a grand experiment, we mainly relied on our networks of writers and photographers. Some editors took a risk by reaching out to contributors whom we did not know and who were writing in a non-native language about urgent topics. Since the release of the first issue, we have formed a clear identity, we have a precedent, and we’ve been able to cast a wider net, reaching out to writers completely beyond the range of our predetermined radars, for instance emerging fiction writers in Moscow whose work features in our forthcoming autumn 2013 issue. We just launched the call for proposals for our spring 2014 issue and, as Portal 9 raises its profile, hope to reach an even wider array of contributors in the years to come.
All of us are attending and participating in conferences, lectures, and exhibitions in the region and around the world; reading new work; and following publication trends. We’re embedded in a bilingual discourse, and Portal 9 directly engages in that discourse by reviewing and critiquing books and culture and by publishing writing based on rigorous research, be it academic scholarship or reportage. We aim to see Portal 9 featured prominently in local and international platforms, such as architecture and art biennials or literary festivals, but it takes time to build a reputation, particularly as a semiannual journal with two issues under our belt.
AL: Many of these journals had a particular vision (political, social). Does Portal 9 have a particular vision?
EH: Certainly. We state that Portal 9 is “an intensive exploration of the urban condition from architecture and planning to metropolitan mores and cultural pursuits.” We also privilege multidisciplinary thinking: we publish the work of a range of academics, critics, and essayists alongside commissioned pieces by artists, designers, photographers, and novelists. We investigate urbanism within and through literature just as we feature creative writing that reveals the city.
I think it’s fair to say that primary and secondary education in most every country in the Arab Middle East vehemently espouses rigid boundaries between disciplines and pedagogical techniques like memorization and repetition. In many instances, this segmented pedagogy is a legacy of colonialism and has influenced not only the structure of the public sphere but also how citizens maneuver – or not – through economy, politics, and society. The education system sets a trajectory for students at a very young age just as it delineates, and I’d argue restricts, the scope of knowledge.
To establish and develop a semiannual journal like Portal 9 in a region characterized by a rigid education system and by some of the lowest literacy rates in the world is to assert the significance, if not necessity, of a pluralist discourse that embraces criticism. Portal 9 champions translation, and therefore cultural exchange, just as it values the role of the writer, artist, and photographer as a stakeholder in the city, a citizen with indispensable and penetrating insights that can shape and influence the “urban condition.”
AL: Why the intersection of social planning, architecture, and creative writing? What do these things bring to one another?
EH: By publishing “stories” and “critical writing” about the city, Portal 9 combines interpretation with argumentation, reflection with analysis, and the poetic with the expository. I think that the experience of reading Portal 9, whether from start to finish or with intermittent spurts, is unique in that it triggers the intellect and the gut. It’s as much an emotional activity as it is a scholastic enterprise.
In issue 2 “The Square,” for example, as I read Mario Sabino’s short story, “Place du Palais Bourbon,” I feel ennui. I feel restless. The prose translates the visceral experience of exile, of the quotidian confrontation with scenic public spaces: “The moon over Place du Palais Boubon is a dead rock that casts its dead light on dead stones.” In contrast, I read Khaled Adham’s academic article, “Backwaters, Edges, Center: Tahrir Shaped,” with distance from the subject, with contemplation, scrutiny, and questioning. Together, the two texts lend singular depth to the experience of reading about the city.
Portal 9’s signature medley encourages me as a reader to perceive my own city, my own urban environment, through a multitude of lenses. It insists that it’s impossible to apprehend the city without a multidisciplinary perspective: the city demands as much.
AL: What is the relationship between Portal 9 and Solidere?
EH: Portal 9 is published and backed by Solidere, and the Multidisciplinary Design Department of the company is the journal’s kitchen. Ten of us – Sumaya Baroody, Dina Boustany, Antoine Ghanem, Zeina Naccache, Mohamad Rhaymi, Mario Razzouk, and Limassol Zok in addition to myself, Nathalie, and Fadi – work together on Portal 9 as well as other corporate Solidere publications. We are designers, administrators, managers, editors, and printing experts, and we interface with other departments, from legal to financial, in the company to publish the journal. We’re fortunate to employ the procedural and operations infrastructure in the service of the journal, a cultural endeavor sans advertisements.
AL: From a practical point of view: Why print vs. going wholly or almost-wholly online? How will (potential) readers in Cairo, Rabat, Amman, Abu Dhabi, Nablus, Tunis, and elsewhere get a copy?
EH: We debated the print versus digital matter quite extensively in the preliminary workshops about Portal 9.
We all agreed that we had to publish everything on portal9journal.org, particularly in Arabic, since the web offers few navigable, user-friendly, and carefully designed websites dedicated to Arabic arts and letters or critical writing. Furthermore, Portal 9 is not a commercial initiative. It is an educational and cultural project. For the time being, we have the great fortune and tremendous responsibility to operate without the burdens that encumber publishers reliant on profit or relentless fundraising.
So there was no question about publishing the content online even though many academic and literary journals, especially those published in the United States, do not make their content easily accessible and widely available to the general public on the web. We publish material online on a rolling basis, and by the time a new issue hits the shelves, all of the articles of the previous issue are available on portal9journal.org. All of the articles of our inaugural issue “The Imagined” are available on the website.
In terms of our dedication to paper, we were all passionate about print, and despite the panic and hubbub, of course it’s here to stay. Portal 9 isn’t a daily or monthly or bimonthly periodical. It is a semiannual journal. We have a temporality more akin to that of a book, or a mook as the French would say. We aim to publish content for the present and the years, if not decades, to come. We aim to produce a multilayered object that readers and libraries can treasure. We’re committed to the activity of reading and interacting with a publication that accrues notes, crinkled pages, tea stains, and layers of fingerprints through time.
Technology breaks: it is always discarding and reinventing itself. Print lasts. Print is personal. Like compelling stories. We want the work, research, and insights of the Portal 9 writers, photographers, artists, and urbanists to last. We’re also aware that paper and print are the bedrock of historical archives. As evidenced by our research and publication of archival documents, from the 1939 World’s Fair or the architectural design competition of the National Museum in Beirut, we’re committed to enriching and engaging with “the archive.”
In terms of sales and distribution, readers worldwide can order Portal 9 online and pay a very low shipping cost. We also work with two distributors: Idea Books distributes globally, and Colidi covers the Arab Middle East, including Jordan, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates.
AL: The issues will all coalesce around a given theme? And be solicited globally? Do you have future themes that you’re planning? When is the next issue due out? What’s its theme? Can you say anything about future contributors/contributions?
EH: Indeed, the first two issues revolved around a theme, “The Imagined” in autumn 2012 and “The Square” this past spring, and we will always welcome submissions from the Middle East and the rest of the world. The next issue, due out in the autumn, developed not around a theme but a form: fiction. We’ve commissioned a novella, short story, visual narrative, and Arabic and English translations of two pieces of new short Russian fiction. The combination is electric, throwing into relief the contradistinctions of contemporary fiction in Arabic and Russian.
We’re thrilled to have initiated collaboration with the Moscow literary scene. Of course, many Arab capitals, Cairo and Damascus in particular, have for decades exchanged ideas and culture with Moscow, but the axis of contemporary cultural exchange has become dominated, if not entirely monopolized, by longitudinal currents as of late. So, we’re hoping that our next issue charts untrodden literary courses.
AL: Are discussions like the “Open Studio” part of the Portal 9 project? What issues were raised during open studio? Do you hope to have any similar discussions outside of Beirut? Are there other outlets working along similar lines (Cairobserver?) with which Portal 9 is working or might in the future?
EH: Certainly! For the launch of “The Square,” we organized the “Open Studio” and welcomed dozens of students and readers, including the art students from Baghdad of the Sada Beirut Intensive. Artist Saba Innab, whom Portal 9 commissioned to conceive and create “Disco,” a stunning insert for issue #2, spoke about her illustrated contribution to the journal, and editor-in-chief Fadi Tofeili discussed the challenge of pulling together “The Square” and balancing historical and contemporary perspectives in a time of ongoing, epic political turmoil.
With regards to collaboration with similar platforms and institutions, we had the privilege of publishing an article by Mohammed Elshahed, “Port Said 1957: Egyptian Modernism Unfurled,” of Cairobserver in “The Imagined,” and as we build a wider network of contributors and as Portal 9 gains traction, we will seek partnerships with those who share our mission to cultivate a conscientious debate about architecture, planning, culture, and society in the city.