What Comes Next? Questions, Agitations & Experiments in Middle Eastern New Media

Prologue.

Apart from half-baked commentary that has populated this blog, it hasn’t been the most personal of spaces. This makes it’s pretty impossible to talk about what comes next without some personal context. This is the final post in a three-part series on where I’ve been, what I’ve learned, and where I’m going. Drawing from memory and reflection makes the past easier to write about. But the future is always too fuzzy. It’s a dream populated by question marks and few answers. It’s uncertain and unpredictable. And we’re all trying to make sense of our blurry blueprint as it twists and turns with time. With that said - this is a post about what comes next for me. It essentially chronicles the past 11 months of my life, as of this writing.

Warning: some of this might get poetically existential and/or pseudo-philosophical. I’m just taking you through the thought process, so bear with me. Consider yourself warned.

I. The Questions That Agitate Success & Failure are answers, above all.

So there are these two interlinked ideas that have been really gnawing away at me for the past year or so. The first has to do with a really great quote by Nietzsche that I like:

People are made of stories, not atoms.

“Success and failure are, for him, answers above all.” I like that. It helps put things in perspective for me.

What Nietzsche says basically sums up how I define and look at a meaningful life: a series of questions driving you to hunt for answers, and through that process, define a pursuit – your pursuit. As you grow older, the questions, the hunt and that pursuit all become more focused – more refined. For example: in the category of course-changing questions are the infamous “what ifs?” – such as, “what if I major in that other field I’m interested in?” or “what if I took that job abroad?”

I’m pretty sure I found my way into media by pursuing answers to questions that tickled my curiosity, and I’m sure that’s true for a lot of us that are busy pursuing – something.

The second idea’s that been driving me is questioning the place of online media in the Arab world today.

If I took out a map of the region and scribbled question marks all over it, that would pretty much sum up my view of the online Arab audience. What’s media doing right, and where’s it getting it wrong? How can it be better? What does this continuously expanding audience look like? What are the issues that transcend borders?

Those are just some of the questions I’ve been pursuing in the past 18 months, or so. Success and failures are answers, above all.

Media has become this fluid term. It’s a world where anyone can make media, but not everyone can do it well. It’s also a world where audiences share an intense love-hate relationship with media: they love it when its working, they blast it when its not. It’s a world where everyone’s a media critic (including me).

What we love about media are usually the moments where it reveals something new, where the information it relays has an impact on the tangible and intangible, and when it manages to agitate the status quo. Well, at least these are the things that I love. What is the point of media if not to have an impact on a world it can help shape?

And if there’s ever a word I love to associate with media’s role, it’s “agitate”. Yes, media should agitate. The role of its practitioners – its storytellers – is having the responsibility of “crafting the narratives” that can yield agitation – as Jason Silva euphorically captured it. The writers, the filmmakers, the illustrators, the animators, the reporters, the producers – they’re all trying to transfigure our paradigms.

And when I say “agitate” I mean us – agitate, us. If we’re not using these tools to incept new experiences and new contexts from which to build on, or at the very least, simply break the cookie-cutter mold we’re accustomed to – then it’s a waste of the information age.

So how does one “agitate” this space? What does its audience look like? Whom are we talking to? Understanding what’s out there in that vast space requires spirited, risky and rigorous experimentation. Akhbarek.com became that experiment; our Hubble telescope launched into that dark space we call the Web.

II: Akhbarek Comes to Life Getting to know a regional audience.

It’s late fall, 2014.

From our living room in Marj il-Hamam, streams of conversations begin to shape something. Friends, peers, and comrades from different backgrounds – tech, media, design, community organization – all debating the future of online media, the fate of ideological battles in the region, and our generation’s place in it all. These conversations end up spanning weeks, and our home whiteboard has seen better days. We have shared interests. Our love for the Web, our love for creating things, and our love for Doritos.

So we started working on putting together a platform that could accomplish two initial things:

a) allow us to produce a variety of content on an issue we were passionate about, and

b) allow us better insight into what an online audience actually looks like in the Arab world.

When it came to the first point, the status of women in the region was at the top of our list. Whether it rights, gender roles, violence, sexism, detrimental legal systems, or simply just everyday stories from everyday women – the landscape is void of media that takes women of the region seriously. Simply put, where mainstream media alienates these issues – and women generally – we wanted to create an inclusive platform for their stories, and help agitate the conventional gender roles within society. Hence, Akhbarek.

When it comes to the second point, it has been a crash course of sorts. Akhbarek has attracted some early and humbling attention in the region since we launched it in January, including places we weren’t initially really thinking of, like the meghreb or Iraq for that matter. We’re getting to know where there are information gaps, and what formats to pursue if you’re engaging with, say, a very young audience that’s accessing you on their mobile, during that 30 minute ride to class, or work.

As the site slowly grows, it will continue to serve as an ongoing experiment; allowing us to seek out those answers, test assumptions, and take risks. Much of that will be reflected on the site over the next few months as its team begins to grow, and its identity begins to be shaped. I intend to write about that process as it happens.

III: The Shaping of Zumra A media collective in Amman.

Soon after the Akhbarek ball got rolling, we managed to attract a few like-minded people along the way, all with interesting digital and online media projects of their own. What we have in common perhaps is a deep-seeded belief that media needs to agitate and produce something new, as well as an understanding that it will take persistent experimentation to figure out how to actually sustain that work.

Obsolete Studios is one of those projects, consisting of a young group of early 20-something year olds, still grappling with higher education, but producing some of the trippiest, audacious, Arabic hip hop out there (and that’s a story I’ll be publishing here in the coming weeks).

So we all moved in together into a beautiful space on Kulleyeh Sharee’a St in Jabal Lweibdeh, and there, we’re slowly carving out a home we call Zumra.

Zumra is essentially a media collective that serves to bring together projects, and facilitates their collaboration, their fusion, and their development. It’s tough to put an exact label on Zumra. I’m not a fan of the word “lab” or “institute” – I don’t think “good” media (or stories for that matter) come out of either. But a “digital coterie” is perhaps the best description.

On a personal level, Zumra is really a place to experiment without restrictions. It’s a place to take theory, and put it to the test. It’s a place where “no” isn’t an instinctive answer to a new and threatening idea. It’s a place to take what lessons I’ve learned, and whatever mistakes I’ve made, and create something novel.

Zumra is already occupying a big chunk of my life, so I’ll likely be talking a lot more about it, and what its various projects are producing, as time goes on.

IV: The Blog What comes next, here.

Lastly, the black iris.

One of the things that turned me off blogging in recent years was the noise. The Arab Spring has become about who’s the loudest, and in all that uproar, it constantly feels like everything that could’ve possibly been said, has been said. Of course, that’s not true. But still – it’s the same issues, over and over again.

Writing an opinion on these issues takes it toll. There’s an overwhelming feeling of redundancy, of pushing on the ocean. As a writer – it sucks you down, deep in to the microbes of an issue, into that labyrinth that feels nothing short of hopeless. Everything starts feeling like its black or white, and the nuances of any other color, are absent.

So for the next while, I’m going to be publishing stories on the black iris.

These are stories about people I know, or people I just met. They are people working on things I find curious, compelling, or innovative. People that try and bypass the system and find other mechanisms of getting things done. People that represent a more diverse spectrum than what we’re typically sold about Jordan, or the Middle East for that matter. And people that simply have a good story to tell. Altogether, these are people that offer me a glimmer of inspiration and hope – and in a region such as this, I’ll gladly take it.

This place will also be home to select contributors – people that want to publish an idea or a story in their own words that fit nicely with the spirit of this space.

I don’t know what the black iris will look like a year from now, but my hope is that it will be home to some decent stories.

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