Three years ago, when Ibrahim Nehme launched The Outpost, the Arab region was in a state of flux. In Tunisia, one year earlier, Mohamed Bouazizi had set himself on fire and unknowingly become a catalyst for what was soon to become the Arab Spring. Years of suppressed frustration across the Middle East and North Africa were unleashed in the region's various public squares by a politically-active youth with a vision for a new Arab world, free of corruption and dictatorial regimes.
The Outpost is a bi-annual magazine published out of Beirut. It calls itself "a magazine of possibilities" and believes in the power of editorial to inspire a new wave of change in the Arab world – not an easy task back in 2011, and even less so today, with Syria still engulfed in both civil war and the rise of the Islamic State.
I spoke to Nehme, the editor in chief, about the magazine.
VICE: Hi Nehme. So why did you start the magazine in the first place?
Ibrahim Nehme: It was in 2011-2012. The state of print media in the country was really sad and depressing, and I felt like doing something about it. At the time, the Arab Spring was happening, which was a sort of kick in the ass.
Yeah, the perfect time to start, really.
There was an inspiring energy flowing throughout the region. It was something I'd never witnessed or felt before. Thousands of young people wanted to take control of their own future. They believed that change is actually possible, despite the bleakness of the situation. It's true that the spring quickly descended into winter, but it was a turning point, and in many ways a point of no return: the entire establishment was shaken to its core, and you can sense that young people are now more empowered to speak out and express openly their fears, frustrations and dreams, despite the crackdown that is happening on freedom of expression and liberal thought.
So what's the mission now?
The Outpost was born as a magazine of possibilities from the womb of the Arab Spring. Its mission is to help ignite the much-needed and long-awaited cultural renaissance in this region. It's a tall order, I know, but we think it's possible. And The Outpost is just one small initiative among hundreds of thousands of other initiatives sprouting across the region and pushing for change in every way possible
You call The Outpost "a magazine of possibilities". What do you mean by that?
I think that the magazine's tagline – a magazine of possibilities – is in, and by itself, reflective of what the magazine stands for: it's optimistic, forward-looking and believes that change is possible in a place where change seems to be so impossible. We believe that the Arab region has so much untapped potential and that there are possibilities on all levels – socially, culturally, economically and politically. We believe that this is our time as young Arabs to unlock these possibilities and reclaim our future. When more and more people start exploring and unlocking these possibilities – empowering women, including the minorities in the conversation, lobbying against outdated laws, fighting corruption and inequality, inventing new technology, writing new narratives, etc – then change will happen eventually.
That sounds great. How are you able to do that through a magazine? Can you talk about its structure?
The magazine is divided into three sections, each a different state of possibility, in a way. The first section, "What's Happening", is about the possibilities that are being realised, and it has a positive spin, shedding light on young change agents who are pushing the Arab region forward through their work, creations and activism.
The second section, "What's Not Happening", is about the possibilities that are not being realised. So we talk about the projects that are not happening, the ideas that are not being discussed, the laws that are being broken and other loopholes that we think need to be fixed in our social, political or legal systems.
The third section, "What Could Happen", is about the possibilities that could be realised. In a way, it's our playground to imagine a more inspiring future. Taken together, the three sections reflect a region that's being unmade and made on a daily basis by legions of young and ambitious Arabs. It's a region that is facing tremendous challenges and attempts to reinvent itself on a daily basis in the face of extremism and terrorism. The stories we publish capture this period of transition the region is going through in order to help us understand how change is actually happening, and who is leading that change, while attempting to inspire the reader to become part of this movement.
Do you ever run into problems because of stories you publish?
So far we haven't encountered any real problems. I think the reason is mainly because we are not a political publication in the general sense of the word. It's true that we do have a political stance and that a lot of our stories are politicised, but we do not cover news or run political analysis. What we're more concerned with are stories of people and places that capture the zeitgeist and allow us to understand and make sense of the transformations that are going on around us.
These transformations may still be small, silent and, in some ways, insignificant, which is why they're not on the mainstream radar yet – and probably why we haven't run into trouble so far – but taken together, they're powerful and indicate to profound changes that will happen in our societies in the near future.
Why did you decide to publish in English and not in Arabic?
It's not either, or. We started out in English because we wanted to reach a lot of the young people in the region who consume their media primarily in English. It was also an attempt to reach a global audience and help to break the stereotypes about this region. Publishing in English allows us to reach a critical mass of young Arabs while, at the same time, inform a global public opinion. That said, we do have plans for Arabic media projects in the future.
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There's been a fair amount of enthusiasm for the magazine since its first issue. Did you expect it?
Not at all, to be honest. Without sounding pretentious, I knew we had a really good product, but I didn't expect that it would go a long way – at least not from the very first issue, which I now hide, by the way! A few months ago we won "Best Magazine of 2014". Before that, The Guardian referred to us as a "successor to The Economist". And we've been receiving a lot of great feedback from great people. Which is incredible, especially when you realise that, three years ago, we were here in Beirut trying to make plans for a magazine from nothing.
We just finished wrapping up a big book project that we were involved in. In the past year or so, we realised that we could actually leverage our editorial and creative capacities to generate revenue, and this is important for us as independent publishers. We're also working on our upcoming issue, which started after a lot of conversations about taboos and social restrictions on young people in the region.
We're looking for stories about people pushing the boundaries of their micro-worlds and then looking at how this affects their immediate communities and moves societies forward. We're also working on other projects that intend to take The Outpost to the next level, like our web platform and a series of events with change agents from across region.
Best of luck with it all. Thanks, Ibrahim.
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