by Susannah Tarbush
The squares of Arab cities and towns have been constantly in the news over the past two and half years as places and symbols of demonstrations, uprisings and revolutions.
It is therefore highly appropriate that the Beirut-based journal on urbanism and the city, Portal 9 (in Arabic Al-Bawwaba al-Tasi’a), has chosen The Square (al-Sahat) as the theme of its recently-published second issue.
In his editorial essay "The Square" introducing the second issue, Portal 9’s editor-in-chief, the Lebanese writer, poet and translator Fadi Tofeili, explores the roots and history of the two main Arabic terms for square - sahat and midan. He looks at the ways in which the ideas associated with these two words intersect in various ways with what has happened over the past two and a half years in the squares of cities and towns across the Arab region. The diverse movements unsettled a long period of stagnation. “The crowds of activists, like water over the earth, gravitated toward the squares and open spaces and breathed new life into the original meanings of sahat and midan.”
Fadi Tofeili Editor-in-Chief of Portal 9
Portal 9 is backed by Solidere, the Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of the Beirut Central Districtand is published twice a year by Solidere Management Services. Its name was inspired by the historical gates of Beirut. In the 19th century the walls of Beirut had seven gates. With the growth of the city an eighth was added. Portal 9 is an imaginary opening into the city, “a gateway to endless possibilities.”
When the first issue of Portal 9 appeared in early 2013 it was immediately clear [as reported on this blog] that here was an original, exciting new kind of publication, dedicated to "Stories and Critical Writing About the City". The theme of that first issue was The Imagined. The second issue of Portal 9 has sustained and built on the quality of the first.
Each issue of the journal consists of separate Arabic and English editions, which are sold together and fit sugly side by side within a durable sleeve made of card, on one side of which is the Arabic cover words and images and words and on the other side the English. The journal’s articles are in-depth, and well-informed, yet highly readable. The journal is beautifully designed and the text is interspersed with copious high-standard photographs, drawings, maps and plans. It is a journal that readers will want to keep, and is set to to be a collector’s item.
Editor-in-chief Fadi Tofeili was born in Beirut in 1973. Asked about Portal 9’s aims and philosophy he says: “We hope to make Portal 9 a platform for city thoughts, histories, studies, and writings. A publication that deals with unwritten and oral stories and transforms them to documents and texts.” He adds: “Its ambition is to be a think tank that may produce multidisciplinary products and publications.”
The second issue of Portal 9 contains a variety of articles and stories inspired by squares and other public spaces that became vital areas of dissent, in the Arab world and elsewhere.
There are articles on Tahrir Square, on public spaces in Tunisia, on Martyr’s Square in Algiers, on the battle for Belgrade’s Streets, and on the gap between Casablanca city centre and its slums as seen in the novels of Muhammed Zafzaf. From Yemeni journalist Jamal Jubran there is the essay "Sanaa’s Walls and the Myth of Security".(Jubran is also a contributor to the recent I B Tauris anthology of essays Writing Revolution: The Voices from Tunis to Damascus.)
The creative writing section includes a powerful short story by Tofeili entitled "Bones". It also has a moving essay-memoir by Syrian novelist and activist Khaled Khalifa who is originally from Aleppo, entitled “In Search of a Tahrir Square”, translated into English by Maia Tabet.
Like other contributors, Khalifa was specially commissioned by Portal 9 to write his essay. “Every piece in Portal 9 is a commissioned piece written exclusively for our journal and dealing with the theme of the issue,” Tofeili says.
Portal 9’s creative writing section contains a piece by Mario Sabino, editor-in-chief of Brazil’s most influential weekly, Veja, in which he reflects on the square on which he lives - Place du Palais Bourbon in Paris.
The new issue of Portal 9 has a lively interview, conducted by Todd Reisz, with the outspoken veteran Egyptian architect and urban planner Dr Abdulrahman Makhlouf, under the title "Plans the Earth Swallows". And there is an extensive photo essay by Ziyah Gafic on the architect Oscar Niemeyer and his designs for the Brazilian capital Brasilia, built from nothing in the 1950s.
One of the journal’s attractive features is the folded, removable, inserts placed in its pages like small treasures, each one individually designed. Tofeili says: “The inserts in Portal 9 are part of its identity. They give spaces for different styles in approaching our themes and topics. These ideas are related to our multidisciplinary backgrounds as a team of writers, editors, designers, and artists.”
There are four different inserts in the second issue, two in the English edition and two in the Arabic. In the English edition is Palestinian-Jordanian artist and architect Saba Innab’s folded insert “Disco”– on how radical Italian architects in the 1960s deserted the public space as a site of experimentation in favour of the underground city: they built discos.
One of the two inserts in the Arabic edition is by George Arbid, Professor of Architecture at the American University of Beirut. On the basis of old documents he recently discovered, he compares the three competing design projects for the National Museum of Antiquities and Fine Arts in Beirut in the competition of 1928.
Tofeili attaches much value to the research of old documents and other archival material. “Photographs, objects, old newspapers articles, and keepsakes from personal archives are always sources of fascination, so we seek them,” he says. “They are great sources of knowledge about a place and its inhabitants, and they merit special consideration in print and publications.
Formulating the presentation of these important sources, with academic research and creative writing pieces, makes a very special identity for Portal 9.”
What kind of readership is Portal 9 aimed at? Tofeili says an idea of the type of readers can be “concluded from the map of our contributors in the first and second issues. Because what we aimed for as contributors mirrors what we have in mind as the audience.
“We had young writers, in their early 20s, publishing their first writings, and we had professional researchers, academicians, novelists, journalists, photographers, a taxi driver, artists, historians, and critics. This circle of contributors includes a wide range of audience, interested in reading stories, research texts, and images as well.”
He adds that the Arabic and English bilingualism of the journal ”widens the map of contributors and audience, which lends diversity to Portal 9. It gives us incentives to look for new possibilities with each theme of the journal.”
The English and Arabic editions of Portal do not contain exactly the same contents in the two languages. The photographs illustrations in the two editions are different. Some articles appear in only one of the printed editions, but the translation into the other language can be found on the journal’s website. And the website recently added two videos supplementing articles in the new issue of the printed journal.
Tofeili says the project to launch Portal 9 started as an informal conversation around two years ago between him and his friend Nathalie Elmir, who is now creative director of the journal.
Portal 9's Creative Director Nathalie El-Mir
“Our common interest in publications drew us together,” he says. “I was a freelance writer and translator with years of experience in newspapers, and Nathalie was a designer producing publications for Solidere. She had received several communication design awards, such as the notable German Design Council Gold Award for a corporate annual report.”
Their initial conversations “investigated how to re-engage people with their city center in Beirut – which has endured intense and devastating experiences of war and division – and how to re-involve them in their city’s existing public realms.”
They then held “a brainstorming workshop which included an architect, urban planner, novelist, photographer, publisher, artist, journalist, academic, theatre director, and designer, from Lebanon and abroad. “
The three-day workshop took place in Beirut city centre – “the location of the Solidere Multidisciplinary Design Department, and also the ‘kitchen’ of Portal 9. We discussed the structure of the journal and its possibilities.”
The workshop resulted in the formation of a team of editors based in Beirut and abroad. Editor-in-chief Tofeili and the managing editor Eyad Houssami are based in Beirut. The editor-at-large Malu Halasa, a curator and a writer of books on Middle Eastern visual culture, is based in London.
The journal’s reviews and critique editor is Egyptian-born Omar Kholeif, a curator, writer and editor who was based in Liverpool in the North of England but now works in London. The urbanography editor, architect and writer Todd Reisz, who is a visiting assistant professor in Urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture.
Tofeili’s academic background is interior architecture, which he studied in the Institute of Fine Arts at the Lebanese University. While studying, he started to write for An-Nahar newspaper’s literary supplement Al Molhak. He wrote poetry, essays on city and urban issues, and reviews and critique pieces.
After graduating from the Institute of Fine Arts he worked for a year as a designer in an architecture studio in Beirut. “But I didn’t like what I was doing. So I decided to make a major shift in my career... and found myself involved completely in writing”
His first professional position as a journalist was as a reporter in Assafir newspaper. Then, in 1999, he joined the team of novelist Hassan Daoud who was establishing the cultural supplement, Nawafez, of the then new Al-Mustaqbal newspaper.
“My experience in Nawafez was a great opportunity in writing, editing, and translation,” Tofeili says. In addition to Hassan Daoud, the team included the prominent poet and translator Bassam Hajjar (1955-2009); poet and journalist Youssef Bazzi, and the anthropologist Chawky Douwayhi. “The result was a very significant weekly supplement that covered a wide range of culture.” He spent ten years at Nawafez, gaining major experience as a writer.
“During that period I decided to continue my studies. I did an MA in American Studies at the University of Amsterdam. I focused on metropolitan America, as I was fascinated by the American metropolis.” At the same time he continued to send weekly articles from Amsterdam to Al-Mustaqbal.
Three books of his poetry have been published: Aw Akthar (2000), Hal Jarahta Yadak? Hal Jarahta Khaddak? (2008) and Shajara Baydaa' Touhawelo t'tayaran (2010).
In addition Tofeili translated several books including the novel Shame in the Blood (Aa'ron fi Al Solalaby) by Japanese writer Tetsuo Miura, and the classic study The Myths of the Cherokee (Al Hikayat al Shaa'biyya Li Kabilat Al Cheeroke), in three parts, by the American anthropologist James Mooney.
The inclusion of Tofeili’s short story "Bones" in the second issue of Portal 9 prompts the question, has he written other fiction? “Yes, I do write fiction,” he says. “I am trying to finish a book which is a collection of stories linked with a thread of characters and certain places in Beirut. It is a sort of novel – but I don’t call it a novel yet!”
The theme of the third issue of Portal 9 is to be Fiction. “It will contain a novella, and many other stories.” Tofeili says. The journal welcomes submissions of new writing in English and Arabic: the Portal 9 website provides a form for submissions, and a downloadable PDF of an eight-page style sheet.
Copies of Portal 9 can be ordered via the journal’s website, which links to stockist AntoineOnline. The journal is distributed to book stores and subscribers in the Arab countries by COLIDI. The international distributor is Amsterdam-based Idea Books which distributes the journal in the EU, US and Australasia. It is hoped that in the future it may also be possible to distribute Portal 9 via Amazon.
As editor-in-chief of a journal devoted to studies and writing on the city, which are Tofeili’s five favourite cities? He names: 1-Beirut 2-Amsterdam 3-Istanbul 4-New York 5-Berlin “The reasons for the first 3 are very personal,” he says. “I favour them because I know them very well, or because they are very nostalgic to me.” His choice of New York is “because of cosmopolitanism.” As for Berlin, “it is because of art, culture - and tragic historical lessons.”
[a version of this article appeared in Arabic translation in Al-Hayat newspaper on 25 August 2013]