| 26 July - 1 August 07 |
Issue No. 855
| Dabour; Fahmi and Alaa going over the articles |
Muslims in the 11-18 age bracket together with bibliophiles of all ages are likely to find all they've been looking for in three new magazines. The winners of the annual Faculty of Mass Communications graduation project competition at Cairo University -- now in its sixth year -- Kotob Khana (Book Shop), the English- language Youthink and Bokra (Tomorrow) were chosen by 22 well-known journalists who made up the competition jury out of seven year-long, theme-based graduation projects proposed and completed from start to finish by seven larger groups of students: a tradition established at the faculty eight years ago, to which the competition was added two years later; they won first, second and third place respectively, while Missed Call, on the mobile phone industry, won a special award from the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. Reflecting what the students thought the market lacked, all seven magazines proved not only accomplished but different, filling crucial gaps in a whole range of areas within the local print media.
At the café where we met, Haitham Dabour, who would rather be coordinator than editor-in- chief of Bokra, sits with his laptop in front of him, a copy of the magazine to one side. "21, single and looking," he says, but judging by his work in the media since age 13 -- script writer of the satellite TV youth programme Shababik, he is now with Al-Masry Al-Yom newspaper -- Dabour has evidently been too busy to look. "I don't call myself editor-in-chief because we are all a group," he says, referring to the 11 students with whom he produced the magazine. "We don't boss each other around." And yet his own spirit has evidently marked Bokra. A poet and a rebel, never without camera and pen around campus, he is informed by the same fast-paced, future-looking attitude as this magazine, aimed at 11- to 18-year-old readers. "There has always been a problem with graduation projects -- the fact that you started with the concept and then thought of the audience. This time we reversed the whole thing. The audience came first, and in my opinion this is very important considering how important those years are in people's lives, when you begin to form your personality and move from one educational phase to another." The topics were all different, but the Bokra crew approached them all in the same, new way. "We wanted to cover the incident after it happens. Not the where and when, not the how and why but rather what to make of it all. We didn't offer ready answers, we just encouraged people to make sense of reality for themselves. And especially to think of tomorrow." In his opinion, Young people's magazines on the market are often either not written by young people or simply too childish for the age group intended. Bokra tries to be different.
Serious ideas, Dabour explains, are dealt with in simple language and accompanied by appealing photos and cartoons. Young people give their own views on development and political participation, the culture of Nubians, their dreams and aspirations, are revealed in situ; belying the myth that college magazines have only so much freedom, taboo topics like sex are broached with remarkable openness, with one article on girls' right to sex education and another humorous one by Dabour himself on the six lies in a porn movie. All of which impressed not only the judges but faculty staff, with the deputy dean for students' affairs, Laila Abdel-Magid, feeling that the aims of the project -- "we hoped the students would project what they learned through their college years and at the same time embrace the idea of team work as well as market research and sales pitch; they had already proved they were creative, so what we were concerned with was their ability to abide by ethical and professional standards" -- have all been met. Some magazines have shortcomings, she concedes, but "the way to learn is to make mistakes". Youthink deputy editor-in-chief, Amr Fahmi, 20, who now works at the Spanish News Agency, agrees that there was much to learn from the experience: "we wanted to direct our magazine to young Muslims not just in Egypt but throughout the world, and also to those who are living in Muslim countries." The 17-strong team covered Iraq, Turkey and a series of lifestyle- related topics; local affairs had rather less space but, "when there are urgent topics like Turkey in the European Union or war in Iraq, these should take priority."
Youthink does cover campus demonstrations, and while it contains little about Islam as a religion -- its rulings or fatwas, etc. -- the idea was "to present Islam as more of a cultural background than a set of rituals". Regarding misconceptions about Islam in the West, Fahmi feels that the way to deal with this is not so much to correct them as to direct the message at Muslims themselves: "If I tell them Islam says so and so, they won't listen. Our reality is rather bleak, so as Muslims we need to hear each other out first, then look into our relationship with the West." The flashy, colourful layout reflects this: "we wanted to get rid of the stereotype of the Muslim magazine, white and green with a bunch of roses on the side. We are young, energetic, and we tackle issues with the same vigour and humour as anyone else." For her part Marwa Alaa, a member of the Kotob Khana team, the concept of the magazine was first proposed by the students' supervisor, and even though the students were all bookworms, the idea of producing a magazine on nothing but books and publishers in Egypt was not immediately tempting. Yet they managed to make the best of it, in time: "All 15 of us fell in love with the idea as we started working on it. We became very attached to each other as a group, and we also found renewed pleasure in discovering books other readers would enjoy." Their accomplishments included interviewing scholar Abdel-Wehab Elmessiry and novelist Sonalla Ibrahim. Here, too, according to Alaa, the magazine fills a gap in the market: "the present magazines cover cultural issues and maybe a bit of politics. We managed to cover culture, sports, entertainment and politics as mirrored in books. We also managed to overcome the idea that if you write about culture, you have to use dense and unreadable Arabic. Writing in simple, good Arabic, we focussed on attractive layout and ways of appealing to the young." The winners got the highest grades, but once they finished they were faced with the daunting task of marketing the magazines.
This turned out to need rather more than competence per se, namely money. The faculty provided LE3,000 for each magazine, but according to Dabour, 2,000 copies of Bokra cost LE30,000. Students pooled their own modest funds, but it was with the sponsorship of a publishing house that Bokra came to light. Although they can offer it for sale at no less than LE45, Dabour says the team is proud to have produced a special issue for the blind. Since graduation, all three groups have been trying to market their magazines, and Alaa for one has high hopes: "we had a promise from a publishing house when we won the prize, but so far nothing has happened. Still, we can't believe that we as a group will go our separate ways, so we are going to try other ways." For their part the Kotob Khana team had trouble procuring copies of the books they were writing about: "we shared the costs, but since there were some that we could not afford, we had to review the reviews -- a fault we are eager to overcome in the future." Fahmi is very realistic about the prospects for Youthink, which points to a high level of professionalism. At first the team thought they could reach countries like Nigeria, but since then they have realised that if they are to succeed they must limit their work to certain countries in Asia and Europe, eventually to spread out from there. "If Playboy circulates all over the world," he laughs, "why can't we?" Aware of the harsh realities of the market, Dabour emphasised the fact that graduation projects are one thing, market rules quite another. He held up the cover, which features a photo of a young man held up by strings like a marionette, with the caption expressing doubts about whether he is a child or a grown-up. "I know I am today's son," one sentence reads, "but I am more the son of tomorrow." Pointing out that the boy in the picture is Walid, the brother of one of his friends, Dabour expresses doubts that such a cover could sell. The market will inevitably have a negative effect, he concedes, but although they will sometimes have to succumb -- "a picture of one of the pop stars like Tamer Hosni on the cover" -- at other times they will hold their own. "We either cope with reality and do our best or we get depressed," he concludes. "I choose the first option."