“National Geographic”: the world in Arabic

Ehsan Masood
22 February 2007

In February 2007, National Geographic magazine joined Newsweek, Scientific American, and other international magazine brands jostling for space in roadside kiosks and bookstalls across the Arab world. After 120 years and thirty-one earlier language editions, the world's original glossy has begun publishing in Arabic.

The Arabic edition of National Geographic is the first blue-chip foreign-magazine venture in Arabic for several years. But it will be different to its predecessors in its effort to implant itself firmly and genuinely in the Arab world's own realities.

Arabic Newsweek, by contrast, is (for the most part) a word-for-word translation of its English parent publication, down to the level of individual headlines, images, even photo-captions. The Arabic edition of Scientific American, an accessible and authoritative periodical of US science, is much the same, even if it carries a different title (Majalla al-Uloom, or Science Magazine) and is part-subsidised by the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science, the country's main science-promotion agency.

In this light, National Geographic has in four important ways torn-up the guide to foreign-language publishing and has written its own set of rules.

First, much of its content will include news and developments in scientific research, and stories of people, history and wildlife from around the world - and thus be global in its reach.

Second, it will do something that its predecessors have so far avoided: to search for and showcase content from within Arabic-speaking countries, including news, features, and developments in research from universities and research centres from across the region.

Third, and somewhat controversially in current conditions, the magazine will also include content on the interplay of science and Islam - both recording stories from the present, and mining material from the past.

Fourth, the magazine departs from conventional publishing in its decision to target young adults. Its very title - National Geographic Shabab (Shabab means "young people") - reflects the fact that its target audience is far from the traditional market for foreign titles, namely corporate executives (and their spouses). The publication wants to excite the next generation.

Ehsan Masood is a writer and journalist based in London. He is the author of British Muslims: Media Guide (British Council/Association of Muslim Social Scientists, 2006), and co-editor (with Daniel Schaffer) of Dry: Life Without Water (Harvard University Press). He has also edited How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations (Pluto Press). He writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network.

Ehsan Masood blogged the African Union summit in Addis Ababa on Nature Newsblog

Among Ehsan Masood's articles in openDemocracy:

"Why the poorest countries need a WTO" (December 2005)

"Doing the maths" (January 2006)

"Bush's 'war on science' through the microscope" (January 2006)

"Measuring miracles" (April 2006)

"The aid business: phantoms and realities" (July 2006)

"Millennium Development Goals: back to school"
(August 2006)

"The world's thirst"
(26 January 2007)

"Africans and climate change"
(7 February 2007)

The next page

At one level, the magazine's decision to launch an Arabic-language science-based title aimed at young people seems risky. The fact that spending on scientific research even in some of the richest Muslim countries (if calculated as a share of national income) is equivalent to that of some of the world's poorest countries, National Geographic Shabab will not be over-supplied with ideas for content; nor will there be lengthy lists of top-line scientists to interview. Whether it will be able to collect enough quality material is an issue that editors and publishers will have thought long and hard about before going ahead with the venture.

Magazine, newspaper and book publishers are famously risk-averse. In choosing to launch a new title, National Geographic's instincts will have been to look closely at the competition. All publishers would much rather enter a crowded market and poach readers from rival magazine publishers than attempt to create a market where none exists.

In the world of popular Arabic science publishing, the competition is, to say the least, thin. The only other pan-Arabic-language publication to report on science in the Arab world is the free web portal IslamOnline. And when it comes to Arabic-language periodicals for the young, no other global publisher (apart from Disney, which publishes Mickey magazine in Arabic), has seen fit to venture into the Arabic-speaking world.

If this was not enough to keep would-be foreign investors from taking the plunge, emerging data on reading habits in the Arab world and the Maghreb should have vetoed any decision to come forward. The 2003 Arab Human Development Report, Building a Knowledge Society, brought to global attention how scientific research, reading and book-publishing in Arabic-speaking countries is less well-developed when compared with countries of similar national incomes.

This report sparked off a good deal of debate, but also additional research. Some of the most interesting work has come from Gregor Meiring and Natasha Mullins of the Next Page Foundation, a project of George Soros's Open Society Institute, which helps to promote reading and publishing in east-central Europe and the middle east.

The Next Page team have for the past two years been exploring reading habits in five countries: Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. Their findings, launched at the Cairo Book Fair in January-February 2007, show that reading is most common among children attending schools and colleges. They also confirm one of the findings of the 2003 Arab Human Development Report: books on religion are among the most popular categories - especially in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Across all five countries, time spent on the printed word drops dramatically as people leave school and college. Reading habits, broadly speaking, fail to recover for all groups beyond the age of 19. The reasons given for this are at once financial (books are too expensive), institutional (a desperate lack of libraries, in schools as well as communities), and personal (a lack of time because of commitments to work and families). The researchers also found that there were no schemes, such as book-clubs, to keep reading alive beyond school.

The future is Arabic

To some, the Next Page survey and the 2003 Arab Human Development Report might look like a list of reasons to stay away from the world of Arabic-language publishing altogether. But this is not how National Geographic read the state of the market. Instead, they saw a region in which the most avid readers are young people of school and college-age, and whose numbers are increasing in line with increases in educational attainment. The overall population in the middle east and the Maghreb is increasing by 6 million people every year, and the region is making steady (if unremarkable) progress towards the developed-world average in which a child will have experienced ten years of schooling by the age of 15.

European-language magazine-publishing is a notoriously low-margin business. This is even truer of science magazines, because the potential pool of readers is small, tends to be better educated, and is likely to fall as populations continue to age. In the middle east, the opposite conditions apply. The publishers of National Geographic have spotted an opportunity in what their competitors would regard as adverse business conditions. They deserve to succeed.

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