The Outpost writes an alternate narrative of the Middle East
On the shelves of indie bookshops across the world, wedged between various lifestyle titles and solemn political journals, sits a one-fingered salute to the current grim portrayal of the Middle East. The Outpost, a magazine founded by Ibrahim Nehme, is more than just an optimistic rallying cry for fellow Arabs. Through rich, original storytelling, he’s determined to show them the beauty of their own countries, while also nudging foreign readers toward a more well-rounded perception of the region. The magazine’s very existence, Nehme hopes, can become a catalyst for change for all involved.
“I was growing sick and tired of the narrative of impossibility that comes out of this part of this world—that it is impossible to live, to exist, to speak out as you are,” Nehme tells me over coffee in a Beirut café. “That’s why this magazine of possibilities came about.”
Nehme and I were first introduced in 2013, when a mutual friend suggested me as an occasional copy editor. The rates were lousy, but I was intrigued. I’d just moved to Beirut, and, according to the news, it was a giant sandpit of human suffering. Partially circling Lebanon was Syria, plagued by civil war that has raged since 2012. To the south sat Israel, at war with Lebanon and enemies with most of its neighbors. Yemen was slowly self-destructing, and Egypt’s revolution was marred by bloodshed. Nehme’s project introduced humanity to the current cast of bad guys and bereaved mothers. “I want to turn The Outpost into a hub for great storytelling: well-written, perfectly structured narratives that make for a thrilling read,” Nehme had written to me in an email when first explaining his vision. “But also, because they’re very powerful narratives, they should trigger certain emotions: make your heart beat a little faster, make you stop to think about the world or your world or yourself.”
Founded in the midst of the Arab Spring, The Outpost was meant to embody the exhilarating, short-lived idealism in which it was conceived—mirroring this time of wild optimism as dictators fell and citizens demanded more from their futures. As Nehme puts it, it was “a space opened up for people to hope.” But despite this new political order, Nehme was disheartened to see pervasive narratives of “defeat and disappointment” churned out by the media world. There was all this change afoot, and still, as Nehme saw it, the internationally held perspective remained the same. So, Nehme teamed up with his best friend, Raafat Majzoub—a multitasking artist, architect, and writer—who came on board as the founding creative director, and the pair retreated to Majzoub’s studio in the Lebanese coastal city of Tripoli to craft an alternative.
For The Outpost’s pilot issue in September 2012, a pair of hefty scissors dominated the front cover; inside sat a revised map of the Middle East, parts cut out and then stitched back together to represent an idealized region where, as the magazine states, “people move freely between borders, and these exchanges allow for ideas, economies, and cultures to flourish.” A novella accompanied the map: the tale of a young man seduced by his region through his grandmother’s vignettes, mirroring the map’s sentiments. The Middle East presented as a road-tripping, united utopia of peace? It was a bold challenge to its existing international narrative as a sectarian-riddled hot mess.
Eventually, the Arab Spring stumbled to a halt. Revolutions were replaced with resignation. However, Nehme’s small, hopeful idea was gaining momentum. “There wasn’t one turning point, but different points when I felt this was going somewhere,” says Nehme. “Like when Sherine from Cairo emailed saying how we inspired her to start her own literary publication, when random readers sent us messages from different parts of the world telling us about how the magazine is inspiring them in different ways, when The Guardian referred to us as a ‘successor to The Economist,’ or when BuzzFeed named us as one of 15 magazines you need to read.”
The Outpost’s latest issue continues on its mission to portray the complexities and modern-day realities of the Middle East. Investigating “the possibilities of our body,” it delves into ripe terrain for a region with, at the best of times, a complicated view of the human body. In Dubai, a woman explores the boundaries of her physicality and sexuality through pole dancing. More than 2,000 miles away, an NGO in Ramallah trains young Palestinians to become dance teachers as a way of coping with trauma. Beautifully textured paper, heavy use of color, and a roster of talented contributing photographers help to weave together a rich, colorful portrait of life in the Middle East. The Outpost doesn’t ignore messiness and ugliness, but flipping through the magazine’s pages, I’m struck by the joy that radiates from a photo essay of people swimming in the sea. “If we keep telling stories of defeat and disappointment, we’ll never get there,” Nehme insists. Instead, he gathers these moments of beauty—then shares them with the world through a gorgeous, tangible medium.
In his white t-shirt, Nike sneakers, and an untamed beard that has become synonymous with hipsters around the world, it’s easy to see why Nehme makes for an appealing advocate for his region’s creative community. “Ibrahim is an immensely likable guy, invested with a mission and a strong sense of the world,” says Nasri Atallah, managing director of media and publishing at Keeward, a local digital agency and publisher. “That’s a potent mix.”
But a few years back, the 29-year-old considered ditching Lebanon, like most of the country’s bright young things are wont to do. As the result of low salaries, a high cost of living, ongoing political instability, and crippling corruption, the country has fallen victim to a “brain drain” ever since its devastating 15-plus years of civil war, which began in 1975. For Nehme—once an aspiring filmmaker whose dreams of film school were replaced with the more realistic rigors of business school followed by employment at the local branch of advertising giant JWT—success in the corporate world meant looking to a country with greater opportunities.
“I wanted to live in a place where I could exist and live without having to deal with all of the shit,” Nehme says. “I think there is so much potential, but this potential is being lost.” Yet as the idea for The Outpost began to percolate, Nehme realized that he wanted to inspire young, educated Arabs like himself to create the future they wanted for their countries—and a big part of that started with sticking around.
Today, he continues to push the limits of what people believe is possible for the Middle East. The Outpost “has been very smart about finding its audience, respecting them, then asking them for help to stay alive,” Atallah says, referring to the crowdfunding campaign that was launched to raise investment for the magazine’s second year in print. “They’ve created an honest, tactile relationship with people, and they are sincerely loved for it.” Now, Nehme is considering expanding his reach to include a digital platform that would connect others pushing for positive change in the region. The Outpost is, for now, a print-only publication, but the medium through which it inspires change seems unimportant to its founder. All he wants is to see that change come to life.
One day, he hopes, these stories—“pieces that read like fiction but are grounded in facts”—will be the ones that reflect his region. He’s not calling for a revolution, at least not like the deafening uprisings that brought nearby Egypt and Libya to their knees. Instead, he wants people to dream without fear. If their lives can be bigger and bolder, the narrative of the Middle East will be reshaped, too. “We say our mission is to inspire people to do different things: to inspire a businessman in Libya to start up a business, to inspire a lawyer in Tunis to fight for human rights,” he says. “It seems impossible, it seems far-fetched—but brick by brick, we can get there.”