One-on-one | Media

Ibrahim Nehme: Change begins in our imagination

By - 11.10.2017

Beirut-based magazine founder talks about the power of the media to provoke radical change.

Concocted in cafes and with uncertain prospects of how far it would go, the Lebanese independent printed magazine The Outpost was born with optimism. Established in Beirut, The Outpost has taken its founder, Ibrahim Nehme, to a few places around the globe, his latest stop being Prishtina.

The first issue came fresh out of the printers in September 2012, and although Lebanon was one of the few countries which the light of the Arab Spring didn’t reach enough, the magazine is inspired by the intrinsic and overwhelming feeling of that movement: challenging the status quo. The magazine was created to catalyze social and cultural change in the Arab region, to break with old and mainstream narratives and offer fresh and unheard perspectives at home and abroad.

Labeled as a magazine of possibilities, the publication has launched beautifully designed and curated editions looking into the lights, darks, and above all, the possibilities of our bodies — of finding home, of getting lost, of warming our hearts, of living here, of moving forward, of rewriting our history, and even the possibility of possibility.

Ibrahim Nehme is in Prishtina as part of K2.0’s Volume Up program, a public presentations program with the aim of transforming our collective imagination, and introducing new conversations around the media, communication, and journalism. Nehme’s public presentation, “The Impact of Imagination,” will take place tonight in Prishtina at Klubi M at 19:00 and will be repeated tomorrow (Oct. 12) in Prizren at Kino Lumbardhi from 18:00.

A creative thinking workshop, “The Lifecycle of an Idea” will be organized on Friday Oct. 13 at Termokiss (click here for registration and information on the workshop).

Nehme’s presentation, “The impact of imagination” takes from over a year’s research into the possibilities of radical media and resistance movements to provoke cultural transformations, research he started after stopping the printers for a while to rethink his publication. We spoke to Nehme about this, his work with The Outpost and much more, right before he landed in Prishtina.

Photo: Jimmy Dabbagh

K2.0: The Outpost is a magazine of possibilities from the Arab world, inspired by and almost born out of the Arab Spring. It’s seeking for more positive narratives, and at the same time debunking stereotypes. This is perhaps even more important for the Arab world, which has suffered a lot of stereotyping, in recent years especially. What role does The Outpost play in this context?

Ibrahim Nehme: The Outpost is a magazine of possibilities in a place where the main narratives are about impossibility: that it’s impossible for you to live here, that it’s impossible for you to affect a change, etc. There is so much complaining and whining about how everything is impossible, [which is] a state that is clearly perpetuated by politics and society, but also very much entrenched in the media narratives and cultural output we consume. All these narratives remind you that you are defeated and powerless and with no prospects of a decent future.

Within this context of impossibility, it was almost intuitive to launch a magazine about possibility. This is something I will touch on in my presentation — on how change begins in our imagination and then trickles down and slowly changes the rules. If you could actually get someone to explore a different possibility, to ponder upon ‘what if,’ what if things could actually be different, then this would be tremendous. Change starts there.

And so, as a magazine of possibilities, we explore a new possibility in each issue, which is usually a topic we care and are passionate about.

Since The Outpost stopped the printers a year ago, what have you been working on?

I stopped printing The Outpost because I wanted to figure out how to move forward with it, not because I was done with it. After four years of publishing, I realized that we’ve reached somewhere interesting, and that was solely done by focusing our energy on the printed medium alone. I felt that there was a space to expand the conversation beyond the printed edition, in a way to reach out to and engage with more people. The Outpost was always a big idea and the magazine was one manifestation of it — that is to say, it can surely take other forms of life.

So I needed some space and distance away from the magazine to find some balance and make a plan. Making the magazine was such a full-time job that I didn’t have space to think of its future while working on it. So I began my research and just couldn’t stop. I didn’t know it would take a year to have it all figured out, though. In a nutshell, my new project picks up from where The Outpost left off and expands from there.

The impact of imagination

Ibrahim stopped publishing The Outpost in September 2016 and has spent the ensuing year reflecting on his work with the magazine, as well as researching the role of culture in advancing movements of resistance and change. In his presentation, he will share what he's learned in the past year, and talk about the power of our collective imagination and how radical media organizations could bring about radical transformations and cultural shifts.

In Prishtina on Oct. 11, at Klubi M, at 19:00.
In Prizren on Oct. 12, at Kino Lumbardhi, at 18:00.

Can you tell us more about this new project?

I will talk about it in my talk this week and I’m quite excited because I haven’t spoken about it in public yet. Basically I am interested in turning The Outpost from a magazine into a space that incubates and supports projects like The Outpost. What these projects have in common is that they’re all somehow platforms that envision and produce new narratives.

I truly believe that in order to change how things are, we need to affect the mainstream conversation and the only way we can do it is to keep pushing our own narratives from the margins to the center. Eventually it could become a force that affects, and possibly changes, the mainstream conversation, which is in many ways very toxic and the root cause of so many of our problems.

So we have media like The Outpost, which is trying to fight narratives that are mainly strengthened or even pre-established by mass media. How does an independent media, that doesn’t reach the majority and generally doesn’t have a big outreach, manage to change those mainstream narratives?

You’ve got to keep pushing your narrative basically, in every possible way you can muster. Easier said than done, and sounds idealistic in some ways, but it’s totally possible.

If you look at civil society movements throughout history, from the movement to abolish slavery to LGBT, women and other minorities, what all these movements have in common is that they all began in the mind — that is to say, in our imagination, in hope, in the belief of a possibility of a better world. It takes time, but the key is to have an unwavering conviction in your cause and the courage to push your narrative in all directions. Along the way, word spreads, more people join in, the narrative becomes too big for anyone to ignore, culture shifts, moods swing, and slowly the world changes.

In your presentation you will speak about the power of radical media organizations and cultural movements of resistance in making cultural shifts. In such a polarized world today, the word ‘radical’ feels like it’s either losing a meaning, or being very misused. What do you think about this? What do you consider a radical media today?

Radical is basically used here to refer to an extreme. Just like you have radical movements rooted in fear and darkness, you could have radical movements fueled by imagination and creativity, movements that could imagine what has not yet been imagined. I am not saying that we’re trying to reinvent the wheel, everything has been done before in a way, but given the grave challenges our world faces today, I think we need really bold and brilliant ideas. We really need radical ideas to stand in the face of all this terrorism, extremism and violence.

In the book “Hope in the Dark,” Rebecca Solnit explains that the root of the word ‘radical’ is ‘radice,’ which literally means ‘root.’ She goes on to make the point that radical, within such a context, is about getting to the bottom of things, to focus on the causes rather than the effects.

In 2011, shortly before The Outpost was born, the Arab Spring had spread through the Arab countries. During these protests, or this movement, which provoked similar ones in the Western world… there was this monumental, unstoppable belief that anything is possible, that change has to come, and it must come right now. There was this really positive belief. How has this influenced your magazine, and has this feeling dissipated over the years? Are we in a more pessimistic time?

Yes, clearly. When the Arab Spring erupted, everyone was supercharged with good energy and with hope. Because after years and years of dictatorships and oppression people had completely lost hope, and then they found an opening, which came in the form of an Arab Spring, and they clung onto it.

That was short lived though, and in some ways it feels like we’re back to square one. It doesn’t help that the media institutions are adamant on pushing and perpetuating narratives of defeat, powerlessness and helplessness. When everything you hear on the news or even in the art and culture you consume, is about how you are a helpless case, then you really have very little grounds for hope.

With the Arab Spring we saw an opening, and we were like, maybe another future is actually possible. Everyone was ignited with this energy, and they started to be hopeful, and the idea of change became relevant and possible to a lot of people.

But then, as you know, the Arab Spring went down the lane, and, if you go to Egypt for example, in many ways it does feel that the situation is way worse than it was before the Arab Spring. If you come to Lebanon, you feel it. I go and sit in cafés, and write and work. I enjoy listening to people’s conversations. Most of the time people are complaining and whining about how bad the situation is, and how hopeless they feel, and again the media and the cultural output that we produce has a lot to do with this kind of narrative that the people are propagating — this hopeless narrative.

If there are media outlets that are pushing a more hopeful narrative and showing people another way, that another way is possible despite all the rotten structures that make it feel like it’s impossible to move forward, if we had such media entities, then I think change begins there, it begins in our imagination.

Workshop: “The Lifecycle of an Idea”

Ideas are like living organisms. They evolve and morph into different forms, take lives of their own, travel across distances, and spread like viruses. What begins as a small idea could slowly transform and become a really powerful idea that captures our collective imagination.

In today's world we are in need of bold ideas that resist the systematic and institutionalized attempts to repress our freedoms; ideas that inspire us to imagine and work towards a better future.
In this workshop, participants will dissect the lifecycle of an idea and learn how to generate, develop and disseminate ideas that have impact. Anyone interested in the creative process, storytelling and general cultural practices is welcome to join in this half-day workshop.

Due to a limited number of places, we kindly ask you to send an email to kosovotwopointzero@gmail.com with the subject “Volume UP” to register as a participant. As places are limited and will be given to the first 20 persons who register via email, please, make sure you join us if you register for this unique opportunity!

In Prishtina you will conduct a workshop, hosted by K2.0 as part of our Volume Up program. The name of the workshop is ‘The Lifecycle of an Idea.’ What can participants expect from it?

This is the first time that I will give this workshop, and it picks up and relies a lot on the work and research I’ve done in the past year. At some point I had this idea of turning The Outpost into a space that does three things: First, to be able to actually attract a lot of people, which would attract a lot of ideas; because when people come and exchange thought — new ideas are meant to be born. Next, I wanted the space to function as an engine, much like an incubator or a facilitator that allows the ideas that are born in the space to manifest and become a reality. And the third role of the space is to act as a transmitter of all the energy and activity in the space. Because I think there is so much value in imagining and creating, but also there is tremendous value in talking about what you’re making and doing.

So what I am interested in doing in the workshop is replicating the idea or dynamic of the space and see what comes out of it. It’s more or less a creative thinking workshop where we will try to generate ideas, think about how we could possibly translate them into something meaningful, and see what kind of impact these ideas can have.

And talking about space… After the war, in Beirut, and perhaps people in Kosovo can relate to this easily, there has been a lot of uncontrolled construction, chaotic urban development, and public spaces have suffered from privatization. How does this affect the proliferation of collective idea-generation?

I was fascinated by how much our cities, Prishtina and Beirut, are alike. It feels that in these post-war countries like Lebanon, and Kosovo, and many others, there is a systematic strategy behind the policies that appear to be very similar. You divide the countries or cities, a strategy meant to divide and weaken people and make them more powerless, and as you add more borders and walls, the worldview of the people who inhabit these lands becomes narrower, and they become playgrounds for greedy politicians and businessmen.

Much like how public space is diminishing, it also feels that the popular cultural space, which is to say the space where ideas and narratives live, is also being conquered and monopolized, which reminds me of a quote by Walter Benjamin, which further emphasizes what I tried to explain above, “Every line we succeed in publishing today is a victory wrenched from the forces of darkness.”

So whenever you find your space is being diminished, it becomes important for you as a person to claim whatever space you could find, and usually, because in our case we are the minority, which means, we don’t have the power, these spaces tend to migrate towards the edges — so you will find spaces coming up in random spaces of the city, just because that’s what they can actually have now. As an independent media, we started with limited resources, trying to make a magazine, and these attempts are usually not in the mainstream, in the main public space, they are usually at the margins.

The Outpost.
The Outpost.
The Outpost.
The Outpost.

When it comes to ‘minoritarian’ narratives, the unheard narratives that aren’t involved in the main discourse, it is important to speak about groups that are also marginalized in society. How is this represented in your magazine?

Most of our stories come from or are about people who are considered to be a minority, in many ways. Be it a minority because of their race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, or class. I think The Outpost was a space for all these voices who are considered a minority to be heard.

Talking about minorities in Lebanon seems complicated. In Kosovo you have reserved seats in the parliament for minorities but in the case of Lebanon it’s about religious communities.

We have a similar but, in a way, worse situation. In Lebanon all the seats are allocated to different sectarian groups. So, the Greek orthodox have a percentage, the Catholics have another one. In total you have 18 sects in the country, all of whom are represented. Also, the president is Christian Maronite, the prime minister is Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the House is Shia. This is not legally binding, as it’s not written anywhere in the constitution, but it started out as protocol and then became the norm. It is a system that further amplifies the toxic sectarian environment of the country, where people identify first by their sect, then by the ‘country’ they belong to…

How do you approach this kind of division as a magazine?

The magazine covered the entire Arab region, it wasn’t strictly focused on Lebanon. We tried to diversify, throughout the region. In the beginning maybe because we’re based in Lebanon, we focused more here.

We don’t try to cover these type of issues specifically, but what we try to do instead is to create a space where people can imagine a better world. And then in that space where they are engaged and empowered, they can actually begin to actively take steps to deconstruct and break down all the barriers and boundaries that we have in front of us.K

Feature portrait image: Jimmy Dabbagh

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