What do Jimmy Wales and Iyad Allawi Have in Common?

….or, Why Does Sami Moubayed Get No Sleep?

It’s an open secret of publishing that you are as important as you make yourself out to be. A big name paper gets nowhere with humble intentions. And there’s nothing stopping a regional magazine from the obscure locale of, say, Syria, from having big-league dreams. Something like this seems to be happening at Syria Forward magazine, which is very different in origins and purpose from another publication called the Forward, and which I stumbled upon in a coffee shop in Damascus the other week. I wasn’t finished reading it when I left, so I stole the copy. (Sorry.)

Here are some articles from their November issue (not yet online):

Ok, it’s not always the most sophisticated writing, and there’s a good deal of Syria cheerleading throughout, as is to be expected. (Some sample heds: “Returning expatriates fuel the private sector”; “Syria’s rising presence on Capitol Hill”; “Syria’s microfinance sector going from strength to strength.”) The story about golf in Syria takes at face value the potential for Syria to become “a world class contender as a prime golf destination,” which sounds improbable. But the articles are thoughtfully composed, and, moreover, the subjects are surprisingly wide-ranging. (In their September issue they wrote a series of articles on the role of Jews in Syria.) It’s clear that Forward has more-than-usual creativity and ambition.

Credit for much of this goes to Sami Moubayed, the Forward’s editor in chief, whose byline seems to be on virtually every article in the November issue. He is not without controversy. Syria Comment’s Josh Landis calls him “Syria’s best reporter in the English language – perhaps in any language.” His magazine has also been called “pro-regime,” and Moubayed himself has been accused of being closely aligned, in spirit or practice, with the Syrian leadership. (Moubayad has previously responded to this, saying, “My views in no way represent the official positions of the Syrian government but I firmly support its foreign policy, with regard to the Arab Israeli conflict, Syrian-US relations, and most importantly, restoration of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.”) Certainly, he is wildly industrious. In addition to his work at Forward, Moubayed has published four books, writes a pair of regular newspaper columns, is producing a 100 part documentary on famous Syrians, is a research fellow at St. Andrews University in Scotland, and maintains the website Mideastviews.com. He attended AUB, here in Beirut, for university, and did a PhD at the University of Exeter. He is said to have a photographic memory. He is 32 years old. (Argh.)

Last week, Moubayed answered a few questions from me about the November issue:

The Faster Times: What do you say to someone like Jimmy Wales when you tell him you want to interview him for a Syrian magazine? It must have seemed quite odd to him, no?

Sami Moubayed: The connection to Wales came through our CEO and publisher Abdulsalam Haykal, who is a Young Global Leader like Wales. They met at the World Economic Forum. You would be surprised it was not the least bid odd for him and he answered our questions very swiftly, within 48 hours. It was an email interview, by the way. But as far as I know it was the first interview for him with an Arabic publication.

TFT: Why did you chose to pursue the interviews of Allawi and of Jimmy Wales?

SM: The Allawi and Wales interview are part of a trend we have began at Forward to bring regional and international heavyweights to our pages. Who says that international names will not appear in an Arab publication if they are approached in a decent and professional manner? We have already had Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, the ex-Foreign Ministers of Turkey and Austria, the CEO of Nissan Motors, the Brazilian author Paolo Coelho, and last but not least Jimmy Carter. Carter was the first, and last, US President to speak to a Syrian publication.

TFT: How much of your content is related explicitly to Syria, or do you feel, because you are in English, like you have to focus on the rest of the world as well?

SM: The main scope of Forward, as you have seen, is Syria-related. We always have a Syria-edge to any article. Even the Wales interview, had questions related to Syrian entrepreneurs. In as much as we would love to cover everything, we simply cannot because of space constraints. Therefore we cover regional and international affairs, taken into account how they affect Syria.

TFT: But there’s also been a lot of coverage of events in Washington, D.C., yes?

SM: We had an ongoing coverage of the US elections, from stringers in Washington DC, because the results of these elections would have a direct effect on Syria.

TFT: Who reads this magazine?

SM: Our readers are mixed: Syrians at home who read English (many and rising in number), young people in Syria (whose audience is a special section called Forward Shabab), the diplomatic community in Damascus, Syrian expats, and basically anybody looking for a source of reliable information on Syria, in English, coming from Syria. Most of what you read on Syria is written either by people who are living off the luxury of being on another continent, or those who come here for 2-3 days, and think that they have had enough exposure to write objectively about this country. Most of our writers, by the way, are Syrians living in Syria who know the country inside out.

TFT: By and large that seems to mean you.

SM: This issue was an exception. I usually write my editorial, and conduct a political interview, given that this is my domain. I don’t write business — we have a wide array of business writers for that. I also don’t write society or culture. It just so happens that this issue had several heavyweight interviews, that needed me to write, being the editor in chief. In the October issue, for example, I only wrote one inside story. In November, I did the interviews with Wales, Allawi, and Shora, and wrote my editorial.

Joshua Hersh is a writer who lives in Beirut. He was previously a fact-checker at the New Yorker, and his work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New Republic, the National (Abu Dhabi), and the New Y ...read more

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