Arabpop: Artistically challenging Italy's anti-Arabism
When Egyptian-Italian singer Mahmood won the Italian music festival Sanremo in 2019, then-Deputy PM Matteo Salvini of the right-wing Lega Nord party was quick to display his barely hidden disgust on Twitter.
While Mahmood’s career experienced a meteoric rise – becoming one of the most popular acts in contemporary Italian music, with other Italians with Arab roots embracing their identity and proudly claiming a dynamic space in the country they call home – anti-Arab sentiment in Italy is still very palpable, continuing unabatedly and unabashedly.
"In Italy there is an idea of the Arab world that is still a bit old-fashioned and retrograde. The things that kind of come to mind to most people are terrorism, religious fanaticism and the veil. So we wanted to change the imagination a little bit – especially with images"
This inspired translator and editor Chiara Comito to build on the book about Arab culture and literature she had written with fellow Arabist Silvia Moresi which was met with enthusiasm and positive feedback by both readers and critics. The book dedicates a chapter to 13 different kinds of art in the Arab World.
Befittingly, Arabpop the magazine found a home in the Neapolitan indie publishing house Tamu — the Italian South has always been more ready to embrace its Arab culture, often being mocked by right-wing Italian politicians and their supporters, who openly dream about dividing Italy into North and South and often refer to the South as ‘Africa’, ‘Morocco’ or something along those lines.
More and more Southerners are (re)claiming this identity by creating more space and curiosity towards this complex cultural identity.
The 140-page colourful magazine is as diverse as the particular corner of the world it intends to highlight. And simultaneously as dynamic as the spaces its contributors inhabit all over the world.
While the team of editors is fully Italian, some contributing journalists are Italians with an Arab background while most of the writers are Arabs.
By curating and translating the work of contemporary Arab poets, writers, visual artists and journalists based around a specific theme, Arabpop aims to fill a gap in accessibility to Arab stories specifically catering to people who are interested in what goes on in the Arab world beyond the daily headlines.
“We intentionally decided to publish a magazine in Italian because while there is a wealth of academic texts to be found, little is written about Arab culture that is suitable for the general public,” Comito says. “In Italy, there is an idea of the Arab world that is still a bit old-fashioned and retrograde. The things that kind of come to mind to most people are terrorism, religious fanaticism and the veil. So we wanted to change the imagination a little bit – especially with images.”
While this intention could have easily gone the other way – a trap in which many foreign media fall, whereby they obsessively seek to promote the idea of exception within the ‘otherness’, such as photographing or describing a woman in a revealing outfit as if she were exotic in that particular context – Arabpop instead offers refreshingly random normalcy.
Whether you’re being immersed in the stand-up comedy and punk rock scene in Egypt, dropping by the queer feminist festival Chouftohonna in Tunisia, or browsing through the Educational Bookshop, a tiny unwavering beacon of resistance in the heart of East Jerusalem, there’s never a nagging feeling of otherness that creeps up on you.
Quite the contrary; you feel like for a moment you step away from the noise and negativity that is often synonymous with news from the Arab world. “That was exactly the idea we had in mind,” Comito says with an audible smile. "We wanted to change the dominant image with different stories but respectfully showing the countries and the people the way they are and not how some people would like to perceive them.”
"Not only does Arabpop successfully challenge the notion of otherness, but playfully demonstrates the fact that creatives in the Arab world struggle with the same demons and celebrate the same joys as they do in Italy and anywhere else in the world"
While it’s merely a coincidence that Arabpop came out almost exactly 20 years after 9/11, Comito does refer to the extreme rise in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment that manifested itself since then, both in politics and society. “I say this at every presentation: a large part of the problem is the media, which in the last 20 years since the attack on the Twin Towers have unleashed a terrifying anti-Islam and anti-Arab country propaganda.”
While the official theme of the first issue is “Metamorphosis”, two red threads that can be discerned throughout the 140 pages packed with words and visuals are anti-establishment activism and solidarity with the oppressed. Although not necessarily in a preachy or pushy manner, often they’re just subjects 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 many Italians who choose to do so”, is prominently featured, with an in-depth look at the mediamorphosis of Palestinian cinema since the Nakba by Giovanni Vimercato, and a stunning poem by Palestinian poet Carol Sansour.
But the real treat is being able to visit so many specific scenes in such an immense variety of places seen through an almost dizzying array of eyes and minds.
The reader begins their journey in Tangiers, in a story translated for the first time in Italian by Mohammed Said Hjiouij, and end up on the border between Tunisia and Libya in a heart-stopping graphic poem (calling it a comic would do it a disservice) It’s Not Our War by Rania Majdoub and Issam Smiri. With sometimes contemplative and occasionally whirlwind stops in a variety of cities in Iraq, Kuwait, Algeria, Syria and Oman.
The first issue features a special dedication to Beirut, which is still reeling from the horrific August 4 port blast last year and the myriad of other indignities its citizens have suffered since then. The city is both lamented and celebrated by artist and filmmaker Roy Dib in his story The Apartment: "They stole my city from me. My city. Since then, my apartment has become my city.”
Rasha Chatta does a deep dive into the world of Lebanese comics, trying to figure out how people draw the beat of a changing city, after which the reader is regaled with 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 through the streets of Beirut from the start of the October revolution until the day of the port explosion.
Other highlights include an excerpt from the 2016 book Paolo by celebrated Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha, which is so thoughtfully translated that you wish everyone could read Arabic translated into Italian – the cadence, the poetry of the mundane, the flow of the story shows how perfectly the two languages sway together when approached with a passion for language and culture and attention for detail.
Not only does Arabpop successfully challenge the notion of otherness, but playfully demonstrates the fact that creatives in the Arab world struggle with the same demons and celebrate the same joys as they do in Italy and anywhere else in the world.
This might seem like a small feat, but in a world that runs on clicks and likes, where there’s increasingly less space for nuance and ambiguity, it might be considered a small act of resistance.
Farah-Silvana Kanaan is a Beirut-based freelance journalist