Thursday, January 31, 2013

new Beirut-based journal Portal 9 digs deep into urbanism and culture

The Beirut-based journal Portal 9 makes an auspicious debut 
Susannah Tarbush

In his first editorial as editor-in-chief of the new Beirut-based journal Portal 9 - which describes itself as "an exploration of the nexus between urbanism and culture by people who care about cities and think rigorously about them" - the Lebanese poet, journalist and translator Fadi Tofeili turns for inspiration not to a renowned architect or city planner but to the great Portuguese poet, author and philosopher Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935). This indicates the breadth of vision and multi-disciplinary approach of Portal 9's editor-in-chief, who has three poetry books to his name and has translated many literary works. The full title of the publication whose editorial team he leads is Portal 9: Stories and Critical Writing About the City.

Fadi Tofeili

Tofeili introduces his editorial with an extract from Pessoa's acclaimed The Book of Disquiet in the Penguin translation by Richard Zenith. He points out that Pessoa's works include a  guide book to the city the Portuguese poet loved: Lisbon - What the Tourist Should See.

"In a journal about the city, place, and urbanism, we call upon and seek inspiration from Pessoa because his body of work stands as a paragon of how to render the city - its places and spaces - a field for unbridled interplay of the imagination," Tofeili writes.

The theme of Portal 9's first issue is The Imagined. "Does imagination call for the city? Or does the city call for the imagination?" asks Tofeili. "These questions will forever remain open to debate, a debate that will continue to affect our relationship to the city itself - for whenever we believe the city to be complete, we return to the imagined that challenges our presuppositions. And so, the city regains its dynamic, its premise."

Tofeili writes: "'The Imagined' in the city through time is an exploration of the metaphysical and probable realities, as well as the internal unbound logic of the city. It is an open path to unexpected passages and countless gateways. 'The Imagined' has no destination, no boundaries, no port of call. Its meaning eludes conclusions. If 'The Imagined' leads to and reveals a particular place, then that place will embark with 'The Imagined' on a journey of endless self-discovery."

Cities are like socio-economic being, always under construction, forever in formation, Tofeili observes. And cities that witnessed profound change in history, cities like Beirut, despite its troubled history and successive shocks, "have the privilege to deepen and broaden the meaning of urbanism. It is a privilege with the risk of cruelty, but a privilege all the same. For who is to say that cruelty is not intrinsic to the city?"  Tofeili concludes: "This journal aspires to be a new gateway, a new portal, to Beirut. We invite you to enter this portal and to reflect on its many prospects."

Portal 9 is backed by Solidere, the Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of the Beirut Central District, and is published twice a year by Solidere Management Services. Its  website is at . It is on Facebook and  Twitter and has a  Blog . The printed edition of Issue #1 can be ordered via the Portal 9 website from Antoine Online for $20.

Why the name Portal 9? An explanatory note in the journal explains that in the 19th century there were seven fortified gates, or portals, in the walls around Beirut. The number was considered a symbol of perfection and represented the seven families who guarded those entrances. As the walled town grew, an eighth gate was added. "Portal 9 is an imaginary opening into the city, an intensive exploration of the urban condition from architecture and planning to metropolitan mores and cultural pursuits. It is a gateway to endless possibilities."

While it is regional and international in outlook, the Lebanese origins of Portal 9 are evident. The first article in the English edition of Issue #1 is an excellent, moving piece by Lebanese poet and writer Youssef Bazzi,  entitled  Before With My Father, After for My Son: Three generations live in the shadow of a fractured city. (Bazzi is the author of Yasser Arafat Looked at Me and Smiled: Diary of a Fighter.)

Bazzi meditates on the changes he witnessed to downtown Beirut in 1975-91 during the civil war, and then since 1991. Over the past few years he has come to believe that the city centre is not his city any more. "It is my son's city. But why is it that, so far, he does  not have a real relationship with downtown? I began to imagine him and his generation, writing a life for the city center and for themselves, different from the one that we had lived." Bazzi spins an imaginary journey for his son through Beirut threading "the invisible strings between the city's parts and parcels, making memories on pavements, balconies, entrances, exits, alleys, streets, rooftops, rooms."

Portal 9 is published in the form of a handsome, elegantly-designed journal in separate English and Arabic editions, which fit snugly side by side in a cardboard sleeve open at both sides which serves as the cover. The cover text and illustration is displayed in English on one side of this cover sleeve, and Arabic on the other. The beautiful design is greatly to the credit of Portal 9's creative director Nathalie Elmir, who has been involved with the project from the start.

Nathalie Elmir

The striking cover image of Issue #1 shows a woman in a red summer dress and yellow scarf standing in front of body of water with a building in the distance, her arm waving in the air. The building is in fact the Suez Canal Company in Port Said, and the picture was published in Al Musawwar magazine in 1957. The same image accompanies an article by New York University doctoral candidate Mohamed Elshahed on Port Said 1957: Egyptian Modernism Unfurled.

The English and Arabic editions have cream covers with a minimalist design incorporating just the title and some main highlights from  Issue #1 including South Sudan's new Capital City - Baghdad visionary Kahtan Al-Madfai - Reconstructing Port-au-Prince - Chinese City in the Fast Lane -  Beirut through Three Generations.
Master plan for Rawabi, the first planned Palestinian city to be built on the West Bank, from Malu Halasa's article Building Statehood from the Ground Up

The list of contributors includes well-known names from Arabic journalism, culture and the arts, including from Lebanon Rasha Atrash, Hazem Saghieh, Hazem Al Ameen, Waddah Chararah, Mohamed Soueid and Hatem Imam. From Egypt there are Youssef Rakha and Omar Kholeif (who is Portal 9's reviews and critique editor). From Iraq, novelist Shaker Al Anbari interviews Kahtan Al-Madfai: Baghdad Visionary Octogenarian Architect.

Among the non-Arab contributors to Issue #1 are Brian Whitaker of the Guardian newspaper (writing on  Express Delivery of the Arab Revolts ), Pooja Bhatia (who writes on Haiti's capital Port au Prince two years after the earthquake, and Copenhagen-based anthropologist Michael Ulfstjerne. 

 Amman: illustration from Hazem Al Ameen's article No Place to Call Home

The content of the English and Arabic editions is not identical. "The English and Arabic editions have some similarities but they are not mirror images of each other," says the London-based editor-at-large of Portal 9, editor, journalist, and curator Malu Halasa. And in addition, the Portal 9 website carries some online-only articles.

Clearly much thought has gone into the design of this new journal devoted to the interplay of architecture, culture and society in urban environments in the Middle East and elsewhere. The journal has high production values and succeeds in combining readability and wide interest with scholarship. It is  packed with articles, colour and black and white photographs, and graphics.

The content is organised within sections including Narratives; Documents; Photo Essay; Numerology; Urbanography; Conversations; Correspondence; Flaneur; Episodes; Creative Writing; Reviews and Critique; Arabic Inserts. The creative writing content in Issue #1 includes a beautiful story set around a bridge in Isfahan, by Tehran-based writer and critic Alireza Mahmoudi Iranmehr, translated by the Iranian writer, translator, editor, monitor for the BBC Nilou Mobasser who died last year at 52.

And there are detachable inserts, tucked like hidden goodies into the pages. The Arabic inserts include a fold-out of a sketchbook by Beirut visual artist and designer Hatem Imam entitled Where Majnoun Roams. 
Where Majnoun Roams

The English version includes a pamphlet: The Republic of Lebanon at the New York World's Fair 1939 prepared by Portal 9's managing editor Eyad Houssami. And there is an eight-page booklet Reading Gaza Through Dubai, compiled by Joumana Al Jabri and Karim Elgendy, a comparative portrait in facts and figures (for example, the 828-meter height of Dubai's Burj Khalifa tower is slightly greater than the 800-meter length of the Gaza tunnels across the border with Egypt, of which there are more than 1,000). 

As someone interested in Middle Eastern music I was pleased to find Portal 9 has an interview by Manal Nahhas with Kamal Karim Kassar, founder of the Foundation for Arabic Music Archiving and Research which comprises the "largest Middle Eastern music collection in the world".

Portal 9 has made an impressive beginning, executed with real flair. I am enjoying savouring Issue #1 and look forward to seeing Issue #2 later in the year. Malu Halasa tells me the theme is to be The Square.  There could hardly be a more topical Middle Eastern architectural theme these days.

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