Since its founding in 2004, the Middle Eastern art and culture magazine Bidoun has presented a distinctive, Technicolor vision of a complex region. It has given voice to important Arab feminists, analyzed Pakistani horror films, documented Egypt’s Tahrir Square uprising and published interviews with rapper M.I.A. and gallerist Larry Gagosian. It even explored the influence of “Star Wars” on Saddam Hussein’s son Uday.
This month, Bidoun put its entire archive of thousands of stories and artworks online with free access and asked cultural figures, including Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, to create small collections of their favorites. The archive, at turns zany and poignant, is a photo album of a long and dramatic decade, from the aftermath of Sept. 11 to the reverberations of the Arab Spring.
“Bidoun was born of a particular moment — the post-9/11 period — and was founded by a bunch of people who are Middle Eastern in a broad sense,” said Negar Azimi, a senior editor. She described her cohort as “people who grew up speaking multiple languages, maybe all of them badly,” or who came of age “listening to heavy metal in Tehran or Egyptian tape metal in Kuwait.”
Azimi, who is Iranian-American and grew up in Europe and the United States, added: “Our vision of the Mideast extends to India, it extends to L.A. It certainly doesn’t fulfill the expectations of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ vision that’s so pervasive.”
For a magazine whose circulation has never gone above 10,000, Bidoun has had an outsize influence, especially in the art world. “Bidoun’s arrival was a clear signal that a new digital cosmopolitanism had arrived with the early aughts,” said Stuart Comer, the chief curator of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art.
“Conceived in the spirit of an era in which citizenship is no longer a secure certainty,” he said, “it has become a hub for a sprawling network of artists, writers, curators and designers” who he said are also drawn to offerings like Home Works, at the Ashkal Alwan cultural center in Beirut; the Sharjah Biennial; the Cinémathèque de Tanger; and Art Dubai.
Bidoun means “without” — as opposed to “within” — in Arabic and Farsi. “When I came up with the name, I was struggling,” said Lisa Farjam, the magazine’s founding editor and an Iranian-American who was then living in Europe. “I felt like I was without a place,” she said. “I belong to many places and none. That was when I found that word. It meant a lot to me.”
Farjam’s father, a businessman based in Dubai, backed the magazine until it became a nonprofit in 2010, based in New York. The magazine’s most recent print edition came out in 2013. Since then, its staff members, all but one of whom are now volunteers, have been working on curatorial projects and events with institutions including New York University, the Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Beirut and the Serpentine Gallery in London.
Over the years, Bidoun has been a testing ground for artists including the French-Moroccan Yto Barrada and Sophia Al-Maria, who is half Bedouin Arab, half Norwegian and whose work in Bidoun later became her 2012 memoir, “The Girl Who Fell to Earth.” Next year, she is to have a show at the Whitney Museum.
The magazine has also allowed readers to rediscover writer and artist Etel Adnan, who was born in 1925 and whose life traces the complexities of the Arab situation in the 20th century. (Adnan was interviewed in Bidoun and also wrote on the little magazines from Beirut and Morocco that influenced her in the ’50s and ’60s, an era of transformation across the Arab world.)
In Bidoun in 2008, the Chicago-based U.S. artist Michael Rakowitz did a series of cartoon drawings called “Strike the Empire Back,” about Saddam Hussein’s son Uday and his obsession with “Star Wars.” The first Iraqi screening of “Star Wars” is believed to have been held at a private event at Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party headquarters in March 1980, six months before the start of the Iran-Iraq war, and the 15-year-old Uday attended.
In 1995, Uday formed the Fedayeen Saddam, a violent paramilitary organization, and presented his father with a prototype for its helmet, modeled on that of Darth Vader. In July 2003, U.S. forces found and killed Uday and his brother Qusay. In 2010, Rakowitz’s piece became part of an exhibition of his work at the Tate Modern.
In 2011, Bidoun produced an issue on the Tahrir Square uprising that led to the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, before the return of military rule in 2014. Called “a rather brief moment in time,” the issue is fractured, impressionistic “like a French film,” said Michael C. Vazquez, a senior editor. The aim, he added, was to capture “whatever it means to betray a moment of revolutionary possibility.”
To make the issue, Bidoun held meetings, often at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery, and produced a kind of oral history. Interview subjects included teenage bloggers; newspaper editors; a tour guide at the Egyptian Museum of Cairo (the issue also featured lists of artworks stolen from it during the uprising); a journalist whose books on the Mubaraks had been banned; and Egyptian novelist Mahmoud Othman, whose self-published novel “Revolution 2053” in some ways anticipated the rebellion.
Bidoun has also sought to broaden the conventions of travel writing by giving space to writers who are often hard to categorize. It published Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina reflecting on the viral success of his Granta essay “How to Write About Africa,” and personal essays by the Los Angeles-based writer Gary Dauphin, a former editor-in-chief of Africana.com and BlackPlanet.com; Indian writer Achal Prabhala; and cultural critic Sukhdev Sandhu.
In 2009, Bidoun began a library project, a collection of about 3,000 books ranging from pulp fiction to more intellectual works, that “documents the innumerable ways that people have depicted and defined — that is, slandered, celebrated, obfuscated, hyperbolized, ventriloquized, photographed, surveyed, and/or exhumed — the vast, vexed, nefarious construct known as ‘the Middle East,’” the magazine’s website reads.
The library has been put on view in six cities, including at the New Museum in New York and the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh.
Bidoun was sold at high-end bookshops from New York to Paris but often struggled with distribution in the Middle East. Putting the archives online is a way to reach more readers.
“So many times someone said, ‘Oh I wish I could see that issue.’ And now it’s finally there,” Farjam, the founding editor, said. “Now it’s cemented in the ether forever.”
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