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Freedom of Speech

'Controversy, not artistry': How the media covers Arab art

Media outlets tend to ignore aesthetics while covering art in the Arab world, instead opting to showcase controversial works. Magazine editor Maan Abu Taleb tells DW why it's his mission to change that.

Maan Abu Taleb is the co-founder and editor of the online Arab-language music magazine Ma3azef.com and a radio show with the same name featuring contemporary Arab music. His debut novel "All The Battles" was published in Arabic in February 2016 and the English edition will be published in September. 

DW: What does freedom of speech mean to you?

Abu Taleb: For me, it means that we can address what we want to address without having to think about freedom of speech. The problem is that you end up having to talk about things because you are not allowed to talk about them or you sort of self-censor and you don't end up talking about something because you are worried about free speech.

What gets lost in those two scenarios is writing about something just for the sake of the topic itself. For example, at ma3azef.com, we do not want to address something just to break some boundaries. We do not write about a band just because they are controversial. We write about bands because they are good, because they make good music. We shouldn't have to think about whether this falls into our (idea of) freedom of speech or not.

Screenshot Arab art magazine http://ma3azef.com/ (ma3azef.com)

A screenshot of the Arab art magazine ma3azef.com

But there is another aspect to free speech that many do not think about and that is logistics. Some regimes limit access to online tools of communication so we have trouble talking to our writers. We are even having trouble paying our writers because sometimes sending money to them would get them into trouble, like in Egypt. If they cannot be compensated for their hard work, it is difficult for them to write for us.

Is it true that media from outside the Arab-speaking world solely covers art that goes against the government or societal norms?

What's happening now is that whether it is the Arab press or the Western press, all of the focus is on the political side and no attention whatsoever is given to the artistic side of a work. You find that books, novels, music and theater do not get covered for the quality of the art in them but for the topic they are addressing. I think this is a disaster in the realm of arts and aesthetics. My interest in arts and music is purely the artistry. Great art is often not black and white but nuanced and complicated.

A lot of people find this reactionary and old-school but we want to write about the aesthetic value of the work. Often you find that both the people who traditionally repress freedom of speech, like censors or governments, and the people who claim to be pro-freedom of speech are wary of this approach.

For our magazine, I want to say that an album is good because it contributes to this genre: it's interesting, it's engaging, it's pleasing or it's a beautiful work.

On the other side, we are not going to ignore a piece of art because we may disagree with the politics of it. This is what I mean about nuance.

But isn't art intrinsically political?

Of course. If you're from our part of the world, then everything is intrinsically political. We are not battling that. We don't want to get rid of that at all. What we do want to emphasize is that you can be political but at the same time you can also do work that is great art.

Maan Abu Taleb Editor and founder of the online magazine Ma3azef.com (C. Salvatore-Pacitto)

The Arab world is a very troubled place right now so artistic thinking does reflect that - Abu Taleb

This view of art - that art is OK because it is sensationally political - is a patronizing view of culture that comes from the Arab world. We do not accept that. Subtlety is being lost for easy-to-understand headlines.

That said, the Arab world is a very troubled place right now so artistic thinking does reflect that.

So what type of art is being missed?

What's interesting is what people are doing in different parts of the Arab world, where they are trying to converse with their own surroundings. We are much more interested in local scenes in Cairo, where they are writing music that they know their neighbors, their friends and their community will enjoy.

This is one of the reasons our magazine is only in Arabic. We find that there is a lot of value in having a discussion in the Arab world about the Arab world.

Interview: Ole Tangen Jr

This commentary is a part of DW's Freedom of Speech Project which aims to highlight voices from around the world on the topics of freedom of expression and press freedom. You can also follow the project on Facebook.

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