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Friday December 10, 2010

A Political Economy of Topics: “Jadaliyya”

Posted by Paul Brown at 2:59 pm

A Google news search of the phrase “Palestinian Israeli negotiations” yields few heartening terms: “halted,” “delayed,” “stalled,” “crumbling,” and “doomed” are a few of the cheerier ones. Recent developments, indicating that motions toward peace are not exactly moving at autobahn speed, certainly add another bright brushstroke to the rosy picture painted by the media.

This is an unfortunate reality in nearly all coverage of affairs in the Middle East. Seldom do Americans read or hear the word Lebanon without it being in close proximity to “Hezbollah”; Iraq without “insurgents”; Egypt without “political unrest”. U.S. news outlets often portray the Arab world as region of endless strife: Islamic terrorists, merciless dictators, and abhorrent human rights conditions adequately describe the Middle East, if one’s view of the region was cultivated solely on a diet of American news. The picture of a hyper-malignant Middle East is problematic not only because it focuses on  the gratuitously jaw-dropping – to be fair, the Middle East has its share of terrorism, dictators, and human rights abuses – but because it depicts a dimensionless, static Middle East where any event inexorably centers around conflict.

Furthermore, the accepted authorities on current events in the Arab world tend to be a bit flat themselves. Rarely from the region in which they “specialize”, news commentators have a habit of speaking obtusely about conflict and resolution in terms that would leave viewers thinking that heads of state and negotiators are the only ones with anything at stake. With this kind of coverage, the average news consumer comes away with an anemic knowledge of the Middle East and its people.

Working to fill this gap with substantive writing is Jadaliyya – Arabic for “polemical”– an online magazine covering the topics that affect real people and communities in the Middle East. Jadaliyya’s aim, according to a press release, is “to discuss the ‘Arab World’ or the ‘Middle East’ as a place and space that is inhabited by communities, and not solely as an object of foreign policy or social-scientific inquiry,” a destination for “laypersons and experts alike, especially those who feel that mainstream world-views on the region (emanating from the region itself or elsewhere) leave much to be desired.” Just a quick glance at the website’s homepage reflects a unique collection of topics that receives nary a mention on any given mainstream media outlet.

Bassam Haddad is the Director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University and a co-founder of Jadaliyya. When I spoke with him he echoed this sentiment of trying to touch upon issues that rarely get exposure. He said overall, the primary goal of Jadaliyya is to create a “political economy of topics,” a space where writers can explore any and every subject that concerns the diverse people of the Middle East – and to highlight that diversity as well. Although the majority of the contributors are from the Middle East, of Middle Eastern descent, or living in the region (about 30%, according to Haddad), being so is by no means requisite and Jadaliyya seeks out a colorful group of writers (Haddad mentioned North Africa and the Gulf as areas in need of more coverage).

“The driving principle is people who have an intimate knowledge [of the region], so that involves experience, visceral knowledge, and also analysis…that is what we promote but increasingly we have writers who don’t live in the region, who are not Arab but who have experiences there and who are connected intimately with the region.”

Hot topics are not totally ignored in Jadaliyya – multi-part series about political shifts in Egypt and Syria are great reads – but these issues are side by side with a collection of scholarship covering all kinds of issues. Ever read a story about drug addicts in Amman? You can on Jadaliyya. Interested in Lebanese law concerning “perverted” sexual acts? Jadaliyya can help you. These are more than just eye-catching stories about taboo subjects; they’re in-depth analyses on the things that concern a multi-dimensional array of people in the Middle East.

Beyond the need for more diversity, Haddad also spoke about the medium itself being a key element to the magazine. “In today’s world trying to wait until you publish an article takes a very long time. To try to penetrate the mainstream media is a hapless action and the views don’t make it into the press. And writing for the non mainstream press is a good idea but again it takes a long time.” For Haddad, the speed of social media is necessarily tied to Jadaliyya’s success.

Ultimately, what Jadaliyya seems concerned with is plurality. Articles are written in both English and Arabic and, as Haddad stresses, “Anybody can write [for Jadaliyya].”  So next time you get that tingling sensation of frustration listening to talking heads wax witless about peace talks or civil unrest, go to your computer and check out Jadaliyya. Or better yet, write something down and submit it. You never know—what you have to say just might be what everyone needs to read.

Visit jadaliyya.com to read articles and to find out how you can submit your own writings.

Tagged as Issues, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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