Six Qs with

Chitra Kalyani
8 Min Read

“Fen” is the Arabic word for “art,” and the driving force of the online zine, A site that covers “all things Arab, American, and art,” FenMag was co-founded by 20-somethings Seif Hamid and Marwa Helal, themselves budding Arab-American artists. Hamid is a music producer and both founders share a passion for writing.

On her recent visit to Cairo, Daily News Egypt caught up with Helal to talk about all things “Fen,” using their own “reader-friendly” format of posing six questions.

Q1: How did Fen start?
Marwa Helal: Fen started as a conversation, or email exchange between my (now) business partner and I. Since I was in Egypt and he was in the US, a few years passed and no one did anything with the idea.

After working in Cairo a few years as an editor and a journalist, I found myself in cold Michigan, jobless, not really wanting any of the jobs I was applying for. So my friend said, “Hey remember that email you sent me about that magazine idea. I’m ready to move on it, I have the time and the energy.” So we started planning the business, researching what the potential for it is in the US and Canada, and started building a website.

Q2: Why Fen?
There are a few prominent artists — K’Naan and Nancy Ajram for example — that are well-known names in the Arab world. But instead of a throwing a seed and having another generation of artists come up, you don’t feel that Arabs, especially in the West, are encouraged into art.

The idea behind Fen is to not only promote and cover the artists that are currently creating art, but to grow another generation of artists in the West who see that art can be a career, an option; that it is doesn’t have to be engineering, medicine and law. That’s important if we’re going to break stereotypes.

If we want to recreate our image, we need artists like [American-Lebanese actor] Tony Shalhoub of “Monk.” Even if he’s not necessarily portraying an Arab image; the fact that he’s an Arab out there being a good person, not a terrorist, or a negative perception, kind of breaks the mold. We need more artists like that.

Q3: Writer, editor, web designer, how would you describe your role in Fen?
Right now we’re a really small team — it’s me and Seif, we do everything. In terms of design, it was a collaboration. We had a vision and we put our visions together. From the technical aspect, Seif did all the designing and the web work, but in terms of the content, ideas, editorial direction, that’s where I came in. We both do a lot of the writing. He does a lot of the photography when he can but it really is a nice balance.

…and what is the best part of working with Fen?
The best part is that I didn’t have to apply for the job, or interview (laughs).

Actually, the best part is meeting these artists who completely love what they’re doing and taking the truly the infectious enthusiasm that they have, and that we have towards them, and spreading that through writing and coverage.

Q4: Who is your audience? Tell us about the responses you’ve received.
We started about thinking that our audience is Arab-North-American (American and Canadian) which is a term we are trying to coin. But the main thing is that we have got a lot of great response from people as far off as Thailand who are non-Arab as well as Australia, some followers in UK, and of course, Egypt. So, we’re getting hits from all over the world and the responses have been enthusiastic.

It’s really refreshing, and people are recognizing that there has been nothing like this, and appreciating that it’s there, in going to it, or their music recommendations or updates. They also come to us as a source to gather videos from other television channels videotaping events or concerts.

Q5: Where does Fen go from here?
We want to go beyond North America, perhaps even beyond Arabs, and really see if we can go on an international scale, and cover more international artists. We are still covering more ground, still need to add more multimedia, add more videos. We’re still growing as a team. Plus or minus, we’re about 12 people, so still a ways to go.

As for going into print, that is a surprise.

Q6: As someone who talks about all things Arab, American, and art, what are your thoughts on the movie “Asal Eswed” (Black Honey)?
It does a good job of capturing the inherited image of Egypt — the image our parents idealize and give us as we’re growing up. So that nostalgia, I’m going to call it inherited nostalgia, is for a motherland where they grew up and their parents are. It’s a much less crowded Egypt, an Egypt where neighbors, Christian, Muslim, doesn’t matter, grew up together in peace. There wasn’t this constant honking at each other, and the bustle that we now know as Egypt.

That is portrayed as well as the American ideal of being a grown, independent adult. We see Said, a 31-year-old still living at home, and how that’s perceived as a good thing in Egypt, versus the American ideal of growing up and being on your own, and the concept of “el-hamdul-illah” (Thank God).

As to how that relates to Fen, a lot of Canadian and Arab-American[s] hang on to that nostalgia, that culture of the motherland all over the Arab world. They keep it alive through art, whether they’re Palestinians expressing their resistance to Israel through a hip-hop song, or a piece of art, or a movie, or an Egyptian novel about identity crisis.

Even comedy, I think, is very powerful to be laughing at some traditions, while dispelling stereotypes about the Middle East in the Western world. That’s where Fen and “Black Honey” intersect.

As you see in the movie, the person who comes back is a photographer with the ideal that he is going to capture this wonderful Egypt that he’s missed out on all these years, only to find himself get the boot, left and right, Egyptian passport or American passport, doesn’t matter.



Screen capture of the website.

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