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What is Jadaliyya? "Portal 9" Interview with Jadaliyya Co-Founder Bassam Haddad

[Screenshot from Jadaliyya] [Screenshot from Jadaliyya]

[This interview was published recently in the innaugural issue of  the Portal 9 Journal, by Nat Muller and Omar Kholeif. However, the interview was conducted many months prior, and awaited the launching of the publication.] 

The modest launch of the bilingual English-Arabic online magazine Jadaliyya in September 2010, an initiative of the not-for-profit Arab Studies Institute (ASI) in Washington DC and Beirut, could not have anticipated its current status. The Arab uprisings, which gained momentum only a few months after Jadaliyya was established, firmly catapulted it to the forefront of critical debates and analysis of the Arab world. With its constant feed of articles, reviews, video reportages, interviews, and tweets, the platform is run mainly on a voluntary basis, and it has become an essential resource for many in and outside the Arab world. Its editorial team, especially co-founder Bassam Haddad, have become oft-quoted pundits on mainstream broadcast media, such as the BBC and Al Jazeera.

Jadaliyya combines the individualist voice of the contemporary blogosphere with scholarly gravitas and the kind of in-depth analysis of a current affairs magazine. It hosts reportage that could be found in a political affairs magazine such as Majalla, rivals contemporary art and culture platforms like Bidounand Ibraaz, and boasts the immediacy of Al Jazeera and the academic spice of the Middle East Research and Information Project Online – woven into an eclectic virtual canvas. Culled together using an open-source ideology, Jadaliyya is fuelled by an urgency and responsiveness that befits the current political climate in the region. Portal 9 sits down with its Bassam Haddad, co-founder of Jadaliyya and also founding editor of the Arab Studies Journal published by ASI, to discuss the new platform.

Portal 9 (P9): Can you tell us why you established Jadaliyya and talk about the process by which it came to fruition? 

Bassam Haddad (BH)Jadaliyya is the product of fifteen very hard-working co-editors and a robust research team, all listed on the website. After finishing my PhD in 2002, a vacuum erupted. My friends and colleagues at the Arab Studies Journal (ASJ) – Sinan Antoon, Sherene Seikaly, and Nadya Sbaiti – were still working on their own doctoral degrees. Sinan and I were toying with the idea of a publication that would have a wider circulation than our all-too-serious but solid peer-reviewed ASJ (launched in 1992). We felt that good knowledge was being hoarded in journals that are largely inaccessible to the general public. And while it is crucial to continue to produce researched scholarship based on primary sources, we were ready to reach beyond the academic community.

The war on Iraq got in the way, and we decided to shelve the idea, which we also discussed with Asaad Abu Khalil, who had just started his own blog. In 2008-9, as new (social) media began to overtake other forms of producing news, knowledge, and analysis, I drummed up the idea of an electronic magazine anew. A group of six of us – including Sinan, Sherene, and Nadya, in addition to Noura Erakat and Maya Mikdashi – ended up launching Jadaliyya privately, writing and posting articles for three months starting in the summer of 2010 before going public, so we could have a thick launch. Our team continued to expand through mid-2011. I promised everyone Jadaliyya would not take up a lot of their time. I didn’t realize I was lying at the time! We could not keep up with the work. What kept us all going was the demand for continued and continuous coverage by our readers who saw something fresh in Jadaliyya.

We all shared a desire to produce an electronic publication to fill the vacuum in analysis on the Middle East between individual blogs and peer-reviewed articles and books. We also wanted to produce the kind of analysis that would put a dent in the dominant discourse on the region. We developed our idea and practice towards producing, in due time, the first truly peer-reviewed daily journal in magazine-ish form, in both Arabic and English. It’s essentially endless work, the kind that ruins social relationships and makes leisure time a thing of the past – for now. The solution was to marry people at Jadaliyya so that partners can’t complain! It only worked for a few of us. 

P9: We’re curious about how the relationship between the Arab Studies Journal and Jadaliyya has evolved. How has the web platform influenced the print? And vice versa?

BH: From the beginning, we decided to make a serious break between the Arab Studies Journal (ASJ) and Jadaliyya precisely to preserve the identity and mission of both publications. Established in the early 1990s, ASJ is a biannual peer-reviewed journal that has its own scholarly standards and standard operating procedures, and Jadaliyya is an electronic magazine that produces daily analysis based on an insanely faster pace, all the more so as we try to approximate a peer-review process.

But there are points of intersection. The projects are brought together by a particular ethos. They were both volunteer-based until November 2011, when we received our first penny of funding. From the first minute of Jadaliyya, we set out to create an anti-corporate and solidarity-based model of work. Whenever possible, our mode of operation is largely non-hierarchical, though not without leadership. Joining something for which you are not getting paid already filters so much! Worse, some of us invest so much of our own income to stay afloat. Thus, the personalities and political mindsets that these organizations attract are similar in sufficient ways so to make the work and associations we build quite harmonious, long-term, and effective.

Beyond that, ASJ has lent Jadaliyya gravitas, and Jadaliyya has in turn alerted more and more people to ASJ through very simple advertising of its published issues. Jadaliyya has also brought a “cool” element to ASJ, in an odd way. They co-exist nicely.

P9: Jadaliyya has become a talking point for many groups interested in the Arab world – groups, as you say, that aren’t necessarily a part of the academic community. Did you ever imagine it would be the platform that it has become today? 

BH: We never dreamed that Jadaliyya would expand so much and so quickly to reach audiences by the tens of thousands, sometimes on a daily basis. Surely it was in part because it offered something new and missing, but in all honesty, it was the Arab uprisings that catapulted Jadaliyya into the big leagues. I am not trying to be too modest, for we all have learned of dozens of new blogs and magazines that started shortly after we did but have either folded or reached a plateau in terms of their circulation and readership.

P9: One of the most fascinating elements of Jadaliyya is the platform and interface itself – its social element and its mixed identity as a forum and a space for academic writing. How have you developed this identity, and what are the challenges and results of this process? How did you go about designing the platform?

BH: Well, this is a bit embarrassing. But because we did not have the funds, I had to rely on my design and typesetting experience based on putting together ASJ’s former design platform. As for the social media and other bells and whistles, we actually wanted to make the website as interactive and as user-friendly/accessible as ever. We are trailing behind in this regard as the demand for solid content always takes precedence.

In a sense, we do not take ourselves too seriously, but we take the issues very seriously. The development of our platforms mirrors that approach. We refused to do certain things on political and epistemological grounds. For instance, we refused to take a cookie-cutter approach to our submission guidelines. You can see an 800-word post next to a 3500-word post; a rational choice analysis next to a poem in Arabic by Sargon Boulos; a review of a forty year-old classic book recently translated from Arabic next to an irreverent thesis on sexual identity, in Arabic. They are all important. 

Finally, it is worth noting that our division of labor also reflects our attitude toward content. As I share with new recruits at all levels, we like to operate like the Holland soccer team of the 1970s, known as the initiators of “Total Football,” where all players know/can play all positions despite having single formal positions.

P9: What about social media? How do you engage with it, and how does this enable you to interface with your readership? Was it always something integral to you? 

BH: Even before we launched, we were on Facebook, Twitter, and all of us had jadaliyya.com email addresses. We then actually worked very hard to develop iPhone and Android apps and immediately followed that by ReadSpeaker, which allows readers to listen and/or download the audio of any article, both in Arabic and English, with the press of a button. If you want to reach a broad audience, especially one that increasingly includes young readers for whom email is an ancient mode of communication, you have to diversify the means by which you disseminate “knowledge/information.”

P9: How critical are reviews to Jadaliyya’s identity, especially to the overall meaning and intent of Jadaliyya and its editors? For instance, many Arab cultural magazines have been criticized because their reviews are not critical enough. Can you situate Jadaliyya within this context?

BH: We sort of have the opposite experience. We have been bitten a few times because some reviews were not too kind to the authors/editors/directors. But we go on. The entire idea of critique is central to what we are doing, including critique of our own articles. Though this is not the kind of “review” you are asking about, our comments section reveals the extent to which we are happy to post scathing critique of articles, including our own, so long as personal insults are avoided.

We are keen on presenting innovative approaches to “reviews,” especially in what we call the NEWTON section, where we feature new books/articles by asking the authors questions that ultimately produce a self-review/evaluation, which is then used by other reviewers. Bringing the personal/intellectual context to authors’ book-writing helps to break the often artificial construction of knowledge production as wholly “scientific” or impersonal or objective in the crude sense.

P9: What is user traffic like? 

BH: We have currently reached 1.5 million readers, but that does not account for forwarded articles and other means by which Jadaliyya is read. At this point, we are at 70,000 visitors a week, read in 210 countries, and the numbers are rising. We are read most in the United States, United Kingdom, and Egypt. We currently have almost 6,500 Facebook followers and 7,000 Twitter followers. [Facebook followers are at nearly 15,000, and Twitter at nearly 14,000 in November 2012]

P9: Can you tell us a bit about the editorial process? How does it work? Is most of the work commissioned by the editors or gathered by open submission? 

BH: We no longer do much commissioning of pieces as the flow of submissions has become sufficiently steady. Nearly every submission goes through a rigorous review process that includes at least two reviews before going to the copy editor. If there is some sort of urgency, we might post first after a quick(-ish) review and edit, and then copyedit thoroughly later. The faster we can move and the more we can publish while maintaining the highest standards, the better.

P9: What is the ratio of Arabic to English submissions and indeed published contributions? What does their geographic spread look like? Have the editors noticed any trends in any of the submissions they are receiving? 

BH: The ratio of Arabic to English was 1 to 5, but we are currently expanding our Arabic section under the editorship of Ibtisam Azem and Sinan Antoon. Most of our submissions come from the countries where Jadaliyya is read most: United States, Egypt, UK, and Lebanon.

P9: There isn’t any advertising on the site. Do you intend to continue without advertising? Why or why not? 

BH: We were approached dozens of times to place paid advertisements for others, but we turned them down. It was not the route we wanted to take, even during the first year after September 2010 when we were in dire need of more funds. We preferred to stay away from advertising generally; however, if we do change our minds, we might allow only for certain kinds of advertising, such as book publishers.

P9: In this respect, can you tell us who is your main funder?

BH: We never received funding from any individual or institution, but we became too costly as our work and projects expanded in the last year. Beginning in November 2011, we received our first penny of funding from the Open Society Institute. But we always assume that funding is “extra,” that it can disappear at any moment. Most of our big projects so far have been done by barter: we offer brains, organization, and networking, and our co-sponsors handle the financing of projects.

ّ[For  the Arabic version please press here]

If you prefer, email your comments to info@jadaliyya.com.

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