Nuance, context, and perspective tend to drown in the deluge of ink the U.S. media spill on the Middle East. Where so many mainstream and indie outlets have floundered, Bidoun , a quarterly out of New York, has soared-covering a swath of cultural terrain in all its contradictions and complexity. And it has done so by using the arts as a point of departure.
Relying on a growing network of contributors stationed in galleries, studios, and caf?s from Beirut to Berlin, Bidoun mixes columns by curators, reviews of upcoming exhibits, and profiles of innovative artists with essays on the region's shifting political and social landscapes. The publication itself looks like an art book, something to be displayed and kept out for all to see.
Part of this aesthetic force stems from the sheer ambition of its creative mission. Each issue is redesigned cover to cover-new paper stock, new typefaces, new color palettes-in an effort to merge form and content. The winter 2006 issue on envy is electric with green ink, pumped with fluorescence, on thick paper that calls out to be touched. And the fall issue on 'the interview' evokes the theme's inspiration-Andy Warhol's iconic Interview magazine-with newsprint (a reference lost on some subscribers, who worried that the cheaper-quality paper meant the privately funded magazine was in financial trouble).
Despite this mandate of constant reinvention, each issue's uniquely structured layout manages a coherent feel that's easy to navigate. Full-page photographs and two-page spreads that sporadically feature nothing more than simple, playful illustrations allow readers a place to pause and reflect-a necessity considering that the articles ask us all to reconsider our preconceptions.
Take, for example, Seif El Din's piquant account of the Al-Hamra Hotel's transformation from cosmopolitan Baghdad haunt to mercenary central. The piece, like so many in Bidoun, gives readers an unusually intimate level of access that represents the best of what the social/cultural coverage category celebrates: It chips away at that wall in our imaginations that has kept so many of 'us' from identifying with 'them' over 'there.'
This is a task for which Bidoun's young creators are well suited; the small editorial team straddles a diaspora rooted in Egypt, Georgia, Iran, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. And it is this sense of statelessness, a lack of a fixed geographic or ethnic positioning, from which the magazine takes its name: Bidoun is the Arabic and Farsi word for without.
Though they shun the label of spokespeople (senior editor Negar Azimi: 'We are privileged kids'), Bidoun's makers are trying to fill a blind spot in Americans' perceptions. They're also trying to start a conversation. Staffers routinely curate shows and host panel discussions. And they're working to distribute Bidoun more widely in the Middle East. That's not a tough task in open cultural hot spots like Beirut. In Tehran, it has required more creative problem solving: Azimi is not above loading up a friend's father with copies before a business trip to the city.