For the past year, I’ve been studying Arabic intensively while living in Cairo, the capital of Egypt, and in recent months my teacher and I worked our way through a textbook called Media Arabic: A Coursebook for Reading Arabic News. Written by Alaa Elgibali and Nevenka Korica Sullivan, this fascinating little book covers a lot of ground with chapters on such weighty subjects as elections, demonstrations, and terrorism, as well as a glossary of common words you’ll read in Arabic-language news articles. It includes half a dozen ways to say “terrorist” or “militant.”
There’s one thing that this book doesn’t have, however, and that’s a chapter pertaining to arts and entertainment. Though the Arab world has a rich history of music, visual art, and film, the authors, frustratingly enough, found no reason to include any discussion of this in Media Arabic. There are no diagrams in this book outlining the stylistic conventions of an Arabic-language music review or artist profile. There are no synonyms listed to help you parse the technique of a Lebanese rapper or Algerian raï singer. There's no vocabulary identifying the various components of an oud, the notes of maqam scales, or the structure of a mawwal performance.
It’s a glaring omission, but not exactly a surprising one. Many Arabic students take on this complex and beautiful language as part of Middle East and Islamic Studies programs that center around on politics and policy. There are also many ethnomusicologists who have published fascinating (if often dense) books about Arab artists like Oum Kalthoum and genres like Algerian raï. But the region isn’t home to the same rock-crit tradition as the United States or Britain. Though there are tons of Egyptian street anthems flooding Soundcloud and a vast array of electronic producers, sound artists, rappers and rock bands playing shows and releasing albums across the region, there’s comparatively fewer writers out there picking up on this stuff and making sense of it all with a steady supply of reviews, profiles and hot takes.
Maan Abu Taleb, the editor and co-founder of Ma3azef—the premier Arabic-language online music magazine—says that many Arabic musicians who do get media attention are appreciated less for their actual music and more for whatever political statements they make on hot-button issues like the refugee crisis, sexual and gender identity, the Arab Spring and the war in Syria.
“It’s almost like if you’re an Arab, you don’t have a right to make art,” Abu Taleb says. “You can only make political statements. You can only be a victim.”
It’s this limited discourse that Abu Taleb hopes to flesh out with Ma3azef. Launched in December 2012, the website regularly runs a mix of longform features, album reviews, and quick-hit blurbs on the latest singles of the week. Some of the site’s most ambitious pieces stretch to 8,000 words, delving into legendary artists like Syrian singer George Wassouf, the music of Islamic militancy, and the history of drum machines and synthesizers. Abu Taleb—who grew up in Amman, Jordan, holds an MA in philosophy, and recently published a novel, All the Battles, that’s now available in English translation—also has an abiding passion for hip-hop, and Ma3azef is an indispensable resource for discussion on the latest from regional rappers like El Rass and Abyusif as well as Run the Jewels, Kendrick Lamar, and Kanye West.
While covering music, Abu Taleb has also been working to mentor young scribes, running workshops and an annual music writing school. Hoping to appeal to a young, savvy readership, he and other editors urge Ma3azef’s contributors to avoid the conventions of Arabic news writing and scholarship, take their time with their writing and aim for a fresh, clear voice. (Full disclosure: In recent months I’ve written several articles for the site myself, mostly writing in English and having the articles published in Arabic translation.)
“There’s this myth that Arabs don’t read. Have you heard this before?” Abu Taleb asks. “Arab intellectuals, they flaunt it all the time: ‘Arabs don’t read, Arabs don’t read, Arabs don’t read.’ But the truth is, man, you write like shit! That’s why they don’t read you.”
Earlier this year, I spoke with the erudite and pugilistic Palestinian writer on Skype and we talked about the mission of the website, the challenges of discussing Arabic music, and his simple advice for how best to write an album review. As we talked, he sat in a high-backed chair wearing silver wraparound headphones—looking like the captain of a spaceship, venturing to new horizons of language and sound.
Noisey: How did Ma3azef all come about originally?
Maan Abu Taleb: Do you know Tamer Abu Ghazaleh [musician based in Cairo]? He’s my cousin, and he’s always wanted to start something like this. I was busy doing a philosophy MA at the time. I was somewhere else, my head was in Heidegger and Hegel and I was writing about constants of time and futurity. I love that shit, to be honest. So him and another friend of ours, they said we’re going to start this thing. [They told me,] “We both filled out too many applications for funding, we’ve got our names all over the place, so we just want to use your name for the application, you don’t have to do anything.” I’m like, “Alright. Whatever.” So then we do do it and we do get the funding, and then both guys just sit on their asses and don’t do anything. My name is on the fucking website for like six months, and they’ve given us the money, and then nobody’s done anything about it. I start getting embarrassed.
So I realized I had to actually get into this thing, you know? And then I got into it and I realized that I really enjoy it. It took us a while to sort of get to know what kind of content we want, what style of writing we want. It took us a while to realize that I don’t want to write, like, you know, the majority of Arabic music cultural writing or news writing or sports writing. I wanna be more opinionated. Sometimes more aggressive, sometimes more nuanced, you know?
Are you referring to the dry, formal style of news-writing common in Arabic newspapers?
Not necessarily. I mean, I don’t want to mention names but there’s some really well known writers who’ve sent us articles—like really well known and they claim to be progressive and avant-garde and all that shit—and you look at what they write and it’s just not worthy of publishing at all. It’s just badly written. So this is one thing. The more important thing we try to avoid—which I think is a problem with all writing on Arab culture—[is] whether it’s Western or Arab—whether The Guardian writes about Arabic music or whether it’s Al Akhbar who writes—it’s always, always the political message that is being reviewed. Never the artistic value of the work. It’s almost like if you’re an Arab, you don’t have a right to make art. You can only make political statements. You can only be a victim. So you see an album come out by some dude or some girl and it’s always, “Oh this guy is a refugee, or this girl has been oppressed that way or this way.” With no actual attention or any engagement done with the work of art itself, you know? And that to me is a disaster. The message it sends to young musicians or young artists is that you do not need to care about the quality of the work, you just need to say the right things.
You can have a totally wack album, but if you have a good back-story to it, then it’s like, “Oh that’s what matters.”
Exactly. And you get a lot of these people, like white people, middle class people, who mean well, but they’re very patronizing in the way they consume this stuff. You’ve got really, really formidable artists, really serious and brilliant artists like Kamilya Jubran, for example, and nobody knows about her. She’s a brilliant, serious artist. But she doesn’t flaunt that shit. She’s not gonna come and try and tell you, “Oh, I’m a suffering Palestinian artist.”
People are not up on Arabic music in the US. So every single time I want to write about a dabke artist or something, I have to go into this long explanation of what it is. You can never really get to a level of engagement with it where you’re just talking about it in a way that everyone sort of understands where you’re coming from.
This is exactly the reason that we—or one of the reasons—that we decided Ma3azef should be in Arabic and only in Arabic. Because if you write about something as ubiquitous as Oum Kalthoum, for example, if you write about her in English, you’re gonna have to explain everything. Because there is no shared cultural heritage, no shared cultural background to build on, and therefore you never get to serious engagement. It’s always on the level of explanation and description.
Whereas when I write about Oum Kalthoum in Arabic, and I say "Enta Omri" everybody knows what I mean when I say “Enta Omri.” People love that shit. You can get past that and actually get to new ideas. But if you’re writing in English and you have to explain every single thing, then at face level, you’re gonna have to be limited to being shallow. The only way to do it, I think, is to not explain. But then you lose a serious amount of readership.
Has there been a big precedent for music writing or cultural writing in the Arabic language?
There used to be. Back in the heyday of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, you used to have serious music writing going on. That all died in the ’80s, ’90s, because when you have people like Hafez al-Assad [president of Syria from 1971-2000 and father of current Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad] in power, or Saddam for example, or even Hosni Mubarak [former president of Egypt], when music is commissioned by the state and approved by the state, then there is no room for criticism. Because critique of the music becomes critique of the state, and that’s a very dangerous thing to do in Syria, for example. So that sort of died.
There was still some serious music writing going on in Syria. But it was very, very serious, very heavy, very academic. There isn’t any sort of reviews journalism or like a music magazine as we know it. Like Pitchfork, like a Metal Hammer, like a Q, like The 405—nothing like that in the Arab world, and therefore there isn’t a reference for music writing in the Arab world. And this is what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to become the reference for music, and this takes us to another problem, which is there are no music writers now. So how do you build a team? Now we actually have a music writing school that happens once a year for four months.
How many regular writers do you have contributing to Ma3azef?
Regular, we have about, say 12 to 15, and we get a lot of people who do like one or two every three or four months. But I’m trying to limit that and I’m trying to focus on a core team. Because we’re trying to develop a style, we’re trying to develop a voice. It’s a lot more doable if you sort of build a relationship with a writer. And it’s not like we want all the writers to sound the same. It’s just that we don’t want them to sound a certain way, and that is the way that the vast majority of writers are writing in in Arabic right now. And it’s simple stuff, like using too many commas. Quoting philosophers for no reason, man.
We used to get that shit all the time. I used to do it, to be honest. Reviewing an album by Maurice Louca, there is no way in hell you should quote Heidegger. No way. There’s just no reason whatsoever, you know? It is so, so, so self-important and just patronizing to the reader and smug and just bad writing to quote a philosopher in a fucking album review, man. That shit is just stupid. Just write clearly, write well, have an idea, have the idea develop in the review, make an argument, and let it be pleasant, man. Let it be a nice read. That’s all it is.
That’s pretty solid advice for any music writer in any language, I imagine.
I agree. I think a lot of people fall into this trap, not just Arab writers. But I think it is epidemic in the Arab world.
Do you have an office?
No man, we just have Slack. We have a couple people in Cairo, someone in Berlin, I’m here [in London]. There are a couple of people in Tunis. That’s the core day-to-day team, and we’re just all the time on Slack. That’s where we fight, that’s where we argue, that’s where we curse each other. It’s where it all happens.
What are you looking for in terms of who to write about?
What we’re looking to write about is interesting music, man. Things that excite us as music lovers, basically. When it comes to features then we’re looking at a cultural phenomenon that we find interesting. So George Wassouf, for example. A lot of people were upset with us for the George Wassouf feature, because he’s pro-Assad. But you cannot deny that George Wassouf has had a humongous impact on contemporary Arab culture. Everybody, everybody, everybody knows his voice, everybody knows what he sounds like. Everybody has a song stuck in his head of George Wassouf. He is a cultural phenomenon, and so it is within our mandate to write about him. Especially since he’s never been written about properly. Or the jihad feature. We were nervous about it. But then we also felt, this is a cultural phenomenon. It’s at least 25 percent of the Arab music listened to in the Arab world. And it’s out there; we can’t just deny it. We can’t just shut it down and say, “Oh, jihadi music doesn’t exist.”
With the George Wassouf feature, how do you approach a feature like that when his pro-Assad stance is out in the public eye. Did you make an issue out of that?
We just didn’t address it. We don’t care. [There’s] this idea as well—which is also very prominent in Arab culture today—that you should always look for artists or novelists or poets for moral guidance. But, you know, fuck that, man. You being a great poet doesn’t mean that you’re a nice person. So we just didn’t address it. We don’t care that the guy is pro-Bashar. He could be pro- whatever he wants to. It’s not a problem. What we’re talking about is his influence on popular culture, and that was in the ’80s and the ’90s and the early 2000s.
How do you come up with the vocabulary to talk about music, in a similar way that a lot of English-language music writing has its own buzzwords and terminology?
We’re building a dictionary actually. We’re building a Google Drive. Because every once in a while you have a word that just—“Man, how the fuck do you say that in Arabic,” you know? Like the other day we translated the article of the most important 14 synthesizers. And like, man, how the fuck are you going to write “synthesizer”? Are you gonna write mu’alajat electronaya soutaya [which means “electronic sound processors”]? Fuck that. And also you write “synthesizer” in Arabic, all these “tha” and “za”s are gonna look bad. So we said, “OK, from now on we translate ‘synthesizer’ as ‘سنث.’” Seen, noon, tha. So it becomes “synth.”
I notice living in Egypt, there’s this feeling among some young people that Arab culture isn’t as cool or interesting as Western culture. For example, I’ve met middle and upper class young people who hang out with other Egyptians but speak in English.
For sure. And that’s why we had a lot of resistance when we started. A lot of people—especially middle class people and upper middle class people and posh people—they were like, “Oh, those dudes write in Arabic, they must not know anything about the world.” This is the assumption. So us writing in Arabic, the assumption was that, first of all we don’t know English, right? Second assumption was that we don’t have any exposure to popular culture or high culture in the West, right? The third assumption was that we write badly. And I think a huge achievement of Ma3azef has been to first say, OK, this is a magazine in Arabic, that is written by people who know what the fuck’s going on in the world, and we write well. When we have kids in AUB [American University of Beirut] who read Ma3azef and quote it in their essays, then I think we’re on track. When these kids look up to Ma3azef, then I think we’re onto something.
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