In April 2010, Danah Abdulla left what she thought was her dream job, and booked a plane to Amman, Jordan in order to pursue a new dream.
Backtrack a few months and you’ll find Abdulla protesting in Egypt. After getting into a minor brawl with police officers there, she realized the importance of verbal, not physical, communication in the Arab region, and the dire need of a venue in which differing opinions could engage.
“You couldn’t have discussions and there was just so much tension,” she says. “These people — and not only these people, we, as well — needed this something to really speak our mind.”
That particular something turned out to be a magazine. And that’s when the idea for Kalimat was born.
“Kalimat” is Arabic for “words,” a title inspired by the Majida el-Roumi song of the same name, originally a poem by the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani.
As a magazine, Kalimat urges both readers and writers to ask questions, implement change in their communities, and above all, to do as the magazine’s motto states, “Challenge the Status-Quo.”
But in a political climate as heterogeneous (and downright confusing) as the Arab region, most publications either don’t dare to cover current affairs, or don’t know where to start.
“Everything was shying away from politics and that was the problem,” says Abdulla, founder, creative director and editor of Kalimat Magazine. “We had this idea built up that there were no politics but there was so much of it, and if you play it in a tasteful manner you get a good result.”
At the start of every issue in Kalimat, there is a map of the Arab region with accompanying blurbs next to each country highlighting that area’s latest political happenings. Past issues have discussed everything from the Egyptian revolution to the musings of an art school student to contemporary Arabic music.
“It’s important to highlight those things that make you cringe and make conversation awkward because if we continuously avoid them, we pretend that they’re not there,” says Abdulla.
And, politics haven’t been the only thing that has been generating controversy for Kalimat. The magazine is “by Arabs, for everyone else.” In other words, Kalimat only allows Arabs to write articles. Although this might seem exclusive, Abdulla explains the motives behind this particular facet of the magazine are by no means political.
“We have a lot of people that speak on our behalf,” she explains. Abdulla says that as a result, Arabs haven’t taken control of the media as an outlet for their opinion, and have had their opinions distorted along the way. “This is our voice,” she says. “If you don’t identify as an Arab person, then there’s that disconnect.”
But don’t let the magazine’s focus on politics fool you. Although it predominantly discusses Arab current affairs, Kalimat also covers culture, art and design, and new media. The magazine might start out with a map highlighting political happenings, but it also ends with what appears to be a clipping from a Sinbad coloring book.
“Basically whatever is inside Kalimat is whatever I like to read, think about and do,” says Abdulla. “I love coloring books and I’m pretty sure a lot of people do too.”
Educating by Design
Above all, education will always remain Abdulla's primary goal.
After spending time at An-Najah University in Nablus, Palestine in 2010, she witnessed the grim realities of the “tawjeehee” system, and realized something had to be done.
As in many countries in the Arab world, emphasis in the educational realm was placed on science and engineering, while all other subjects, including the liberal arts, were scoffed at — especially the field of design.
“This field is extremely underrated in the Arab region,” she says. “We see design as just making things pretty.”
Abdulla, who has a background in media studies and a graduate degree in design, wants to help other people in the Arab region realize the importance of design as a visual communication tool.
That’s where the driving force for Kalimat comes in. The magazine is, above all, a media vehicle that is not only looking to change how design is viewed in the Arab region, but one that wants to elevate its status.
“There are students who have a lot of stories to share and they’ve lived through a lot, but their voice is not there,” she says. “Regardless of how well they write, I wanted to give them a space where they could build these writing skills so they can gain the confidence to submit their stories.”
Kalimat’s projected goal is to one day develop comprehensive media and design-oriented education workshops, courses, and university curricula that can train writers to use design as a visual communication tool in their respective communities. “We’re really trying to develop a curriculum that takes into mind the cultural heritage of the design and art-making practices of the Arab region and its culture,” she says.
But for now, they are starting small. For a lot of their writers, English is not their first language. So far, the publication’s first step has been to help writers build their confidence by improving on their language skills. Abdulla hopes that over time, these writers will have the confidence to submit their stories not only to Kalimat Magazine, but to other publications as well. “They have potential to not only change their landscape but to really give a voice to people and transform society,” she says.
A Safe Space
The publication was designed alongside Lebanon-based designer Joseph Marouf, and relies on a very minimalist aesthetic.
Abdulla, a self-described minimalist herself, mainly relies on the use of four bright colors and lots of white space, a layout meant to convey a safe space for all kinds of opinions. Kalimat also takes care not to use particular colors for certain articles lest they insinuate that the magazine has a specific political inclination.
“We want to let writers talk about what they want without being judged for it,” says Abdulla. “We really want different opinions, ones that contradict each other, to live on this space, and that plays into the design of the magazine as well.”
As for English being the language of choice for the publication, Abdulla says this was always a given. Kalimat is designed in a way that is welcoming and accessible to westerners, and as such, the use of Arabic text is limited. Above all, a predominantly English language publication makes it possible for the magazine to gain recognition elsewhere in the world.
“Coming from an advertising background and looking at all the awards and never seeing an Arab country on there [made me think], why aren’t we on the international stage?” she says.
To challenge the status-quo, whether it’s through politics or rethinking how we view design in the Arab world, Abdulla believes that in order to give back to our communities, we must first speak up.
“I want you to pick up Kalimat and realize that things like this are possible,” she says. “You can speak your mind and you should speak your mind, whether it’s through my outlet or anybody else’s outlet.”
– Kawther AlBader
Images Courtesy of Renata Kaveh