Anti-Arab sentiment is still lingering in Italian politics and society, but a new literary and cultural magazine aims to challenge these damaging stereotypes and Orientalist framing by focusing on the daily lives of people in the Arab world.
When Egyptian-Italian singer Mahmood won the Italian Sanremo music festival in 2019, then Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of the right-wing Lega Nord party was quick to display his barely hidden loathing on Twitter.
As Mahmood’s career has seen a meteoric rise – becoming one of the most popular acts in contemporary Italian music, with other Italians of Arab descent embracing their identities and proudly claiming a vibrant space in the country that they call home – the anti-Arab sentiment in Italy is still very palpable, continuing unabated and unabashedly.
âIn Italy, there is an idea of ââthe Arab world that is still a bit old-fashioned and backward-looking. The things that sort of come to most people’s minds are terrorism, religious fanaticism, and the veil. a little imagination – especially with pictures “
This inspired translator and editor Chiara Comito to build on the book on Arab culture and literature that she wrote with her Arabist colleague Silvia Moresi, which garnered enthusiasm and positive comments from readers and critics. The book devotes a chapter to 13 different types of art in the Arab world.
Like it should be, arabic pop the magazine found a home in the independent Neapolitan publishing house Tamu – the Italian South has always been more willing to embrace its Arab culture, often mocked by right-wing Italian politicians and their supporters, who openly dream of dividing Italy into North and South and often call the South “Africa”, “Morocco ‘or something like that.
More and more Southerners are (re) claiming this identity by creating more space and curiosity towards this complex cultural identity.
The colorful 140-page magazine is as diverse as the particular corner of the world it sets out to highlight. And at the same time as dynamic as the spaces inhabited by its contributors around the world.
While the editorial team is entirely Italian, some contributing journalists are Italians of Arab descent while most of the writers are Arabs.
By organizing and translating the work of contemporary Arab poets, writers, visual artists and journalists around a specific theme, arabic pop aims to fill a gap in accessibility to Arab stories aimed specifically at people interested in what is happening in the Arab world beyond the daily headlines.
âWe have intentionally decided to publish a magazine in Italian, because while there is a multitude of academic texts, there are few texts on Arab culture that are suitable for the general public,â explains Comito. âIn Italy, there is an idea of ââthe Arab world that is still a little old-fashioned and retrograde. The things that come to the minds of most people are terrorism, religious fanaticism, and the veil. So we wanted to change the imagination a bit, especially with the images.
While this intention could easily have gone the other way – a trap many foreign media fall into, through which they obsessively seek to promote the idea of ââexception within “otherness”, such as photographing or describe a woman in a revealing outfit as if she were exotic in that particular context – arabic pop instead offers a refreshing random normalcy.
Whether you’re immersed in the comedy and punk rock scene in Egypt, popping into the queer feminist festival Chouftohonna in Tunisia, or browsing the Educational Bookstore, a little beacon of unwavering resistance in the heart of East Jerusalem, there is never a throbbing feeling of otherness that invades you.
Quite the contrary; one has the impression for a moment of moving away from the noise and negativity which are often synonymous with topicality in the Arab world. âIt was exactly the idea we had in mind,â Comito said with an audible smile. “We wanted to change the dominant image with different stories but respectfully showing countries and people as they are and not how some would like to see them.”
“Not only does Arabpop successfully challenge the notion of otherness, but playfully demonstrate that creatives in the Arab world are fighting against the same demons and celebrating the same joys as in Italy and everywhere else in the world.”
Although it is only a coincidence that arabic pop released almost exactly 20 years after September 11, Comito refers to the extreme rise in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment that has manifested itself since then, both in politics and in society. âI say it with every presentation: a big part of the problem comes from the media which, in the last 20 years, since the attack on the Twin Towers, has unleashed terrifying anti-Islam and anti-Arab country propaganda.
While the official theme of the first issue is âMetamorphosis,â two red threads that can be discerned across the 140 pages filled with words and visuals are anti-establishment activism and solidarity with the oppressed. While not necessarily in a judgmental or arrogant manner, these are often just topics that pop up or can be read between the lines.
Palestine, which Chiara says is the reason she decided to study Arabic at university “like a lot of Italians who choose to do,” is highlighted, with an in-depth look at the mediamorphosis of Palestinian cinema from Giovanni Vimercato’s Nakba, and a magnificent poem by Palestinian poet Carol Sansour.
But the real treat is being able to visit so many specific scenes in such a huge variety of locations seen through an almost dizzying array of eyes and minds.
The reader begins his journey in Tangier, in a story first translated into Italian by Mohammed Said Hjiouij, and finds himself on the border between Tunisia and Libya in a breathtaking graphic poem (calling it a comic book is not would do him a disservice) This is not our war by Rania Majdoub and Issam Smiri. With sometimes contemplative and sometimes lightning stops in various cities of Iraq, Kuwait, Algeria, Syria and Oman.
The first issue features a special dedication to Beirut, which is still reeling from the horrific port explosion of August 4 last year and the myriad other indignities its citizens have suffered since then. The city is both lamented and celebrated by artist and filmmaker Roy Dib in its history The apartment: “They stole my city. My city. Since then, my apartment has become my city.”
Rasha Chatta delves deep into the world of Lebanese comics, trying to understand how people draw the rhythm of a changing city, after which the reader is feasted on contemplative gems by Lina Merhej, Lina Ghaibeh and JAD (George Khoury) . In an excerpt from his recently published book Lebanon October, Camille Ammoun guides us in the streets of Beirut from the beginning of the October revolution until the day of the explosion of the port.
Other highlights include an excerpt from the 2016 book Paulo by famous Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha, which is so carefully translated that you wish everyone could read Arabic translated into Italian – the cadence, the poetry of the socialite, the flow of the story shows how the two languages ââare sway perfectly when approached with passion for language and culture and attention to detail.
Not only arabic pop successfully challenges the notion of otherness, but playfully demonstrates the fact that creatives in the Arab world fight against the same demons and celebrate the same joys as in Italy and everywhere else in the world.
It might seem like a small feat, but in a world that runs on clicks and likes, where there is less and less room for nuance and ambiguity, it can be seen as a small act of resistance.
Farah-Silvana Kanaan is a Beirut-based freelance journalist