On September 1, shortly after joining Mada Masr, new Chief Editor Wael Gamal made a comment at the end of our weekly editorial meeting: “Why do we refer to ‘local media’ in such a way that positions us outside of it? We are local media.”
This of course raises many questions about what is meant by “local media” — Egyptian media? Arabic media? Egypt-based media? And who gets to claim a “local” perspective? Someone with a passport, an ID card, residency, language?
It is a useful question to revisit at a time when Mada is moving into a new phase three years after it was established: More than half of Mada’s founding members have moved on, founding chief editor Lina Attalah has passed on her role to Gamal, we’re now publishing more content and news coverage in Arabic, and that content is far more widely read now than our English content.
“As Mada seeks to inhabit a more implicated space, a space more inside, with all the risks this entails, we also carry a heritage of in-betweenness.”
Mada Masr came out of a moment of crisis, when its co-founders were fired from a major local newspaper for which they ran an English edition. For years, they had told stories about Egypt’s politics, economy, social dynamics and cultural production in English. “At times, we were too local for our international audience and too foreign for our Egyptian readers with no access to English,” Attalah told me in a discussion about this article.
On June 30, 2013, as nationwide military-backed protests challenged the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, these journalists felt the need to be present, as reporters and witnesses, to the political realities that were emerging. Mada went live with this ambition, publishing at first in English, the language many of its co-founders were accustomed to writing in, but with the ambition to step out of this comfort zone and publish in Arabic.
With time and a more developed Arabic page, Mada is starting to become less “foreign” in the eyes of many here. However, we are also misfits of various persuasions, and Mada’s insider-outsider position has reflected on the way we critically engage with our surroundings. For example, in translating content between Arabic and English, moments of foreignization and estrangement emerge and become sites of discovery. This process also forces us to constantly ask who is reading us and who we are writing for.
Many of Mada’s founding team were Egyptians who lived abroad, or went to language schools. Some are foreigners living extensively in Egypt or have other hybrid identities, whether inherited or adopted. Some think in Arabic but write more comfortably in English, and vice versa. Many of our more interesting conversations stem from writers noticing how their work is mutated through languages and editorial processes.
In academia, the notion of who is a “native” anthropologist has developed greatly throughout the history of the discipline, and now takes into account much more than geographical borders and nationality. “Native” or “insider” anthropologists were initially believed to be those who wrote about their own cultures from a position of affinity, but scholars critical of this discourse argue that culture is not homogenous and the extent to which anyone can be an insider should be questioned.
Lina Attalah sees in Mada’s hybridity the potential for “redefining the power of the margins as a place for seeing, grasping and writing.”
As a British writer and editor at Mada, although at times I’ve felt more solidarity with friends and colleagues in Egypt than elsewhere, I am still always an outsider here. To an extent, this is a space I’m quite comfortable occupying. It allows me to be critical but not entirely culpable, to claim solidarities as and when I want them. I had a moment of confusion when Attalah asked me to write about Brexit and when Hossam Bahgat asked me to write about Jeremy Corbyn. Their assumption that I might write from a position of “inside knowledge,” or with some authority associated with that, was unsettling.
Beyond this linguistic or cultural in-betweeness, Mada thrives on a hybridity of practices, in which journalism is performed through the subtle lenses of its team’s other disciplines and experiences, be they art, business, engineering or academia.
In our conversation, Attalah said she associated hybridity and in-betweeness with the idea that marginal spaces are sometimes a place for deeper insight. Rather than positioning the margins in opposition to the mainstream, she sees in Mada’s hybridity the potential for “redefining the power of the margins as a place for seeing, grasping and writing.”
She cited German filmmaker Florian Schneider writing about this kind of conflictual participation in a 2006 essay titled The Dark Site of the Multitude. In speaking of collaboration, he argues that an agility that allows a constant passage from the outside to the inside and back is what makes critical engagement possible, but also what challenges power structures. He gives as an example the human smuggler or “coyote,” who supports undocumented border crossings between the US and Mexico, and who undermines the nation state, both through its physical and imagined boundaries. “Against the background of postmodern control, society collaborations are all about exchanging knowledge secretly and apart from borders,” Schneider states.
“As Mada seeks to inhabit a more implicated space, a space more inside, with all the risks this entails, we also carry a heritage of in-betweenness, a certain agility that protects us from being unable to see, or too rigid about how we interpret what we see because we are restricted to one window, that of the inside,” Attalah told me.
So after this long, meandering reflection, perhaps I can say in response to Gamal’s question that Mada’s trajectory thus far explains why, at times, we have viewed or positioned ourselves as being both “inside” and “outside” the context of “local” media.