‘A’ is for Avant-gard

Browsing in Barnes & Noble yesterday, I came across a magazine I so desperately wanted, despite the fact that I have forbidden myself from spending money until I get my next paycheque (the price tag was too high for me to talk myself into it). Ah, the life of a graduate student! Anyway, the cover attracted me as soon as I looked over at the magazine rack: big, bold Arabic script in white on a striking black background: Alef magazine.

I’ve always had a soft spot for fashion magazines, no matter how many times they lack models of color, no matter how many times they do stupid, Orientalist features, no matter how youth-obsessed they may be. It’s one of my flaws: a visually striking color palette and dynamic poses always wins me over because I’m a sucker for fancy packaging. So Alef automatically intrigued me as a high fashion and luxury goods magazine for Middle Eastern women. It’s something of a Middle Eastern version of Vogue, covering topics like art, music, fashion, film, etc. Some of the copy is in Arabic, some in English. The magazine currently sells most of its issues in Dubai, New York, and London (where it is currently based), though it is stocked in most of Asia and Europe.

Alef is published six times a year, the brainchild of Kuwait’s Sheikh Majed al-Sabah. The magazine wants to “showcase a modern and progressive Middle East and to spotlight the cultural and creative contributions of people of Arab origin,” according to the website, but content shows that they highlight anyone of Middle Eastern descent or nationality with the achievements they wish to highlight. It also claims that “Alef is the premier indigenous pan-Arab fashion, lifestyle, and culture magazine that is wholly devoted to covering the Arab world.” This doesn’t seem to translate to using Middle Eastern models, however: on the website, under the “Stockists” category, we see several covers, many with non-Middle Eastern models. Why use white western models when there are models of either Middle Eastern descent or nationality what are waiting for their chance? Hypocritical?

However, the magazine covers western and Middle Eastern designers, architects, musicians, etc., who concentrate on projects for the latter’s demographic. And in an interview with a Dubai newspaper in October 2007, Paul de Zwart (the publisher), said that the magazine is currently looking to fill more positions with Middle Eastern-based writers and photographers.

I don’t know what to think of this magazine yet, since I haven’t been able to take notes. Though it’s something of a fledgling magazine, I hope to see it grow. It has a good aim: to promote an often ignored or unseen image of the Middle East as fashionable, modern, and perhaps even progressive. And I like the idea that all religions and Middle Eastern nationalities and descents are welcome. But, at this point, the magazine needs to get fully behind its purpose and concentrate more on Middle Eastern women—get those non-Middle Eastern models out of there, already! Focus more on Middle Eastern women as agents of change and modernity in the Middle East through their careers or philanthropic projects. This will bring true discrimination between a modern Middle Eastern market and everybody else.

  • Amre El-Abyad

    As far as I understand there is no one in the middle east except Arabs, Iran and Turkey. So, they highlight Iranian and turkish fashion as well?Also I am bit confused, you say that the magazone is to show the creativity of Arabs, yet you say that it is for middle easterners?I mean is it an Arab or middle eastern magazine?I mean can you elaborate on this point?

  • Zeynab

    Salaam, Amre. Take a look at the magazine for yourself: I quoted what their aim is, but they feature white expats who live in the Middle East as well as American born people of Middle Eastern descent.

  • Duniya

    Interesting. This reminds of the many Pakistani fashion magazines. You won’t find those at Barnes and Noble or Chapters but in Pakistan, and among ex-pat Pakistanis they are quite popular. For instance check out Libas (http://www.libasinternational.com/index.html) The website is scant compared to the massive hard copy magazine.And then there is She Magazine (http://www.shemag.com.pk/newsite/2006/dec/index.html)

  • fatima

    i understand your point about middle eastern models being represented…its important to for us to see people who have been deemed “beautiful” that look similar to us in order to validate our own self-worth and self-esteem.with that being said…i think that even if that is the case, the message the mag would be sending would still be negative. i mean, if we really want to shake things up, we should be striving for fashion magazines that have woman of all colors and ALL shapes and sizes (and i know when cosmo or glamour do that they include women who are like a 10 or 12…thats AVERAGE its not even plus size). we should have fat and disabled women and lesbian and genderqueer and racially diverse women’s bodies be presented to us as “beautiful”, right?

  • Amre El-Abyad

    Salamo Alaikom Zeynab,I checked the magazine, thanks for introducing the readers to it. However, I am still confused as the magazine clearly states that it is dedicated to Arab creations, yet they feature foreign models. At the same time yo say that it is a magazine for all middle eastern women. From where exactly did yopu get that notion?

  • Zeynab

    Fatima, I agree with you. The major problem with fashion magazines is that they feature the ideal, which is currently thin and willowy (in the West). Whenever western magazines feature women of real sizes and shapes, it’s a “special” issue dedicated to “special” women, which reinforces the idea that these women aren’t the same kind of special as the usual models. The problem with most women’s magazines (fashion or not) is that they have inherent sexism between their pages that reinforces what “beautiful” looks like, and this is echoed even behind the magazine (the publishers of Alef are male, as is the editor).Amre–Looking at Alef’s website, I read up on their press coverage, and in many articles, the magazine representative would refer to either Arab or Middle Eastern women as Alef’s target demographic. Why does it have to be either/or? Why can’t it be both?

  • Forsoothsayer

    dude, there are dozens of women’s fashion magazines in the arab world, in both arabic and english. cleo, enigma, lounge….and there are a bunch of them for just veiled chicks too. want me to send u some for ur research?