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A New Beirut-Based Journal About Urban Change

BEIRUT—A new journal, Portal 9, started as a conversation between two long-time friends who share an interest in Arab publishing, and who saw a need for a regional platform for intellectual dialogue.

It has evolved into a carefully crafted publication, filled with long-form essays on cities and their interaction with culture, printed in both Arabic and English.

In these days of fast, bite-sized information and overtures of the death of publishing, a Lebanese poet, Fadi Tofeili, and a designer, Nathalie Elmir, have created an ambitious project in Beirut, soon to publish its third issue. They believe it is filling a need.

“People are very interested in starting dialogues about urban change, about city change,” says Tofeili, now the magazine’s editor-in-chief. But, they found, “it needs a spark.”

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The magazine’s first issue, which came out in Autumn 2012, took “The Imagined,” as its theme. That theme was developed in articles on Beirut’s neighborhoods, the destruction and rebirth of Port Said after 1957, and the search for identity in South Sudan through its new capital, among others. The second issue, released this spring, and entitled “The Square” is a more direct look at the importance of such public spaces, particularly in Arab cities: including the development of Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Beirut’s Cola junction, and the history of Algier’s Martyr’s Square.

The journal uses a variety of forms to elaborate on a theme, including reportage, reviews, conversations, and even inserts such as booklets, sketches and maps. Its next issue, due out in November, will change the format, this time focusing on fiction. The journal is published by Solidere Management Services, the Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of the Beirut Central District, and also maintains a blog.

The pair of editors is driven, in part, by a desire to make the removed spheres of academic research more immediate. “We want to build this link between academia and a general audience,” says Tofeili. “In my view, most academic papers are very limited in audience, they don’t reach a wide range of people who could be interested in them. We wanted to bring this academic approach to a platform that we are starting, to open up to different kinds of people and a wide audience, in both languages.”

In Arabic, in particular, Tofeili says, academia is too closeted. “In Arabic you rarely read academic papers or well-distributed journals. Mostly if they publish, they will deal with them in very academic, closed circles.”

Both Tofeili and Elmir – the magazine’s creative director – are passionate that the magazine be printed in both Arabic and English, despite some critics who say it makes the publication, distributed as two separate volumes, one in Arabic and one in English, too cumbersome.

“What was very important for us was to maintain the bilingual approach,” says Elmir. “The whole idea is for Arab writers to be read in English and English writers to be read in Arabic.”

Contributions come from a broad range of sources, and much of the editors’ energies goes into finding writers and working closely with them to develop ideas.

“We do our research, we look for writers,” says Tofeili. Along with searching for more established writers and academics, they are also keen to encourage new talent. In its call for submissions, Portal 9 deliberately makes it clear they want emerging writers and graduate students alongside “seasoned authors,” and they have included work from current students, such the examination of Beirut’s Cola transport hub, an intersection in the city where taxis, vans in buses depart. The article was written by Tarek Abi Samra, a Lebanese psychology student.

“It’s very important to put well-established writers with new blood and imagination, to work together,” says Tofeili. “So you get everything fresh, even from established writers.”

Though varied, what all of Portal 9’s submissions have in common is a search for context that Tofeili and Elmir say is important, particularly in the Arab world.

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“In Lebanon – some fields [at university]…are not researched or customized to our culture,” Elmir says. “You always have the prototype of the West. The curriculum is not customized for our cultures and our moods.”

“The research that we’re doing and our persistence in having topics about the region, and urban planning in the region, as our main focus, is because of that,” she adds. “It’s about inspiring people, inspiring writers to look at their context, to write about their context, to reconsider and, to re-evaluate.”

Given the radical change in the region, a re-examination steeped in local history and context becomes more imperative.

“Every day this approach is becoming more urgent,” Tofeili says. “[The context] exists and we need to deal with it. If we want to think about Beirut, we need to think in parallel about Anatolian cities for example, Aleppo, about Baghdad, about Sanaa.”

Still in its early days, Portal 9 hopes to provoke this dialogue across Lebanon, the region and further afield and, ultimately, to inspire new debates.

Portal 9 is an opening to the city, says Elmir, using a phrase from her editorial partner, the poet. “We want more of these initiatives to come out. And we want to see the dialogue take place.”


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