WASHINGTON, 10 August 2003 — The U.S. government has a message for young Arabs: Hi.
Hi is a new magazine funded by the State Department, published in Arabic, targeted at Arabs ages 18 to 35 and sold on newsstands in more than a dozen countries. It costs consumers about $2 a copy. It will cost American taxpayers about $4 million a year — minus whatever advertising revenues it can generate.
“This is a long-term way to build a relationship with people who will be the future leaders of the Arab world,” says Christopher W.S. Ross, special coordinator for public diplomacy at the State Department. “It’s good to get them in a dialogue while their opinions are not fully formed on matters large and small.”
The premiere issue of the glossy, full-color 72-page monthly appeared in July with a cover story on the experiences of Arab students in American colleges and shorter articles on yoga, sandboarding, singer Norah Jones, Arab American actor Tony Shalhoub and marriage counseling — the latter story illustrated with a photo of Dr. Phil McGraw, the Oprah-spawned TV tough-love guru.
It doesn’t contain a word about the American invasion of Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Afghanistan or Al-Qaida. Nor will future issues. The magazine’s editors and its State Department funders plan a resolutely apolitical magazine.
“This is a lifestyle magazine,” says Fadel Lamen, Hi’s Libyan American managing editor. “It’s a new phenomenon in the Arab world to do a lifestyle magazine that doesn’t touch on the political.”
“Arab Music Invades the West,” proclaims the cover of the second issue, now arriving on Middle Eastern newsstands. That headline touts an article on Sting, Lenny Kravitz and other Western pop stars who have collaborated with Arab musicians. The issue also features stories on Internet matchmaking, digital art and Hispanic life in the United States, plus a short item on Adam Sandler’s revelation of what a lousy student he was in high school.
“There are plenty of political magazines,” says Ross. “This is, in a very subtle way, a vehicle for American values. There have been people in Congress who have said, ‘Why can’t we explain our American values?’ Well, here is one way to do that.”
“It’s like a Reader’s Digest of America — a Cliffs Notes of what’s going on in America from the American point of view,” says Samir Husni, a Lebanese American professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi, who was hired as a consulting editor for Hi. “It’s not going to have in-depth investigative pieces on the problems of America. We’re emphasizing the positive things.”
The magazine is part of a series of initiatives by the Bush administration to create a more positive view of the United States in the Arab world, particularly among young people. For instance, the administration created Radio Sawa, which broadcasts a mix of Western and Arab pop music along with news reports aimed at 18-to-35-year olds. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice outlined on Aug. 7 a broad commitment to encourage democracy and free markets throughout the region.
Hi is funded by the State Department but produced by the Magazine Group, a Washington-based company that publishes magazines for scores of companies and associations — including Concrete Masonry, the magazine of the National Concrete Masonry Association, and Jewish Woman, the magazine of a group called Jewish Women International.
The magazine is edited in Washington, printed in a State Department publishing plant in the Philippines and flown to the Middle East. Thus far, it is distributed in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, Sudan, Israel, Kuwait, Yemen, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, among others. Hi’s publishers are still seeking permission to sell the magazine in Syria and Saudi Arabia. Now, circulation is only 50,000 but the State Department hopes to expand that to 250,000.
Hi’s advertising agency is the Beirut-based Saatchi&Saatchi/Adline. The first two issues have each contained about a half-dozen pages of advertising — most for hotels, airlines and snack foods.
The State Department conceived of the magazine after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Ross says, “as part of a broad effort to create a dialogue with the Arab world.” The State Department has created many publications before, but all of them were given away. This time, State decided to sell the magazine in an attempt to boost its credibility.
“If it’s going to survive as a magazine, it should sell on the newsstand with other magazines,” Ross says. “And it’s useful to have the barometer that sales provide.”
Hi does not hide its connection to the US government. Each issue contains the statement that it is published “on behalf of the foreign media office of the United States State Department.”
The magazine’s debut inspired a fair amount of comment in the Arab press, says Ross, a former ambassador to Syria and Algeria who is fluent in Arabic.
“Some people have said it’s just another tool of American propaganda, brainwashing Arab youth,” he says. “But there was also a lot of serious analysis of the content, and that’s heartening, because we usually just get blasted.”
Arabic-speaking Middle East experts who have read Hi express mixed reactions.
“I think it’s a great magazine. I would like to subscribe to it myself,” says Muhammad Nawawy, an Egyptian-born journalism professor at Stonehill College in Massachusetts and co-author of a book on the al-Jazeera TV network.
But, Nawawy suggests, the magazine is addressing the wrong problem. “The problem with young Arabs is not how they perceive US culture or the American way of life,” he says. “They’re watching American movies and wearing American jeans and lining up to get visas to come to the United States. The problem is how they perceive United States foreign policy, and that can only be changed by actions on the ground in Iraq and Israel.”
Samer Shehata, who teaches at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, agrees. Hi is “clearly well done” and “visually beautiful,” Shehata wrote in an e-mail while traveling to Egypt. But, like Nawawy, he believes that Arabs do not hate America or American culture, but loathe its foreign policy toward the Middle East.
“A magazine directed at Arab youth, regardless of how well done,” he wrote, “will not convince people otherwise.”
Ross disagrees. “We are reaching out to the mainstream,” he says. “Osama Bin Laden would not be convinced by reading that magazine. But a lot of mainstream people have questions about the United States that we can answer.”