A couple of months ago, I caught up with my friend Bassam Haddad, Director of Middle East Studies at George Mason and a co-founder and editor of Jadaliyya, and interviewed him for Guernica Magazine. The introduction is below, followed by a link to the main body of the piece.
Also, here’s a crowdsourcing challenge to the Lebanese expatriate readers: I’m going to be in Cambridge, MA this weekend, giving a talk to the annual convention of the Lebanese Collegiate Network. My brief is to give advice to students and young professionals who want to “further develop their understanding of life and society in Lebanon,” and to “enrich their connection to Lebanon” through their studies and work in the US. If you have an opinion on this topic, post it below. How many of you return regularly to Lebanon? How often do you go? Are you involved in any cultural, humanitarian, or political organizations? How do you stay in touch with the day-to-day, if at all?
In the fall of 2010, I was crossing a crowded hotel lobby at the Middle East Studies Association convention in San Diego when a friend introduced me to the writer, editor, and scholar Bassam Haddad. “Bassam is starting a website,” she said. “You should know each other.” He slipped me a business card with the word Jadaliyya (Arabic for “dialectic”) on it. “There isn’t much online yet,” Haddad explained. “We just launched.”
A few weeks later, Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, setting off a mind-bending chain of uprisings from Libya to Yemen. In the four years since, dictators have fallen, elections have been held, constitutions drafted, political parties established and banned, and presidents elected and jailed, as millions have protested and millions more have become refugees of civil conflicts. Meanwhile, Jadaliyya—which Haddad co-founded and co-edits with several other writers—has emerged as one of the most widely read sources of commentary on the politics, literature, history, and culture of the Middle East. More specialized than a mainstream periodical but more nimbly attuned than an academic journal to the evolving microclimates of expertise on the Middle East, Jadaliyya now reaches nearly two million readers each week, and is run by a growing network of volunteers around the world. Together they commission and publish a couple hundred articles every month—opinion and analysis, poetry, criticism, news roundups, book reviews, conference reports—in four languages: English, Arabic, Turkish, and French.
In the context of contemporary debates over the irrelevance of the academy, the corporatization of higher education, the end of scholarly publishing, and the disruption of old media by new media, Jadaliyya seems to be portentous of something. Is this the perfect marriage of informed scholarship and public engagement, or is it just a larger bubble of academics speaking to each other and few others? In our many conversations, Haddad has appeared allergic to both the trivialization of the region’s complexities by the mainstream media and the obscurantism of much academic writing. “We are trying to publish the most interesting work,” he told me over coffee in Beirut a couple years ago, adding, “but we don’t need every last footnote.” (keep reading)