Former ASJ staff gather for a retreat. Founding editor Bassam Haddad is present (back right) as are co-editors Nadya Sbaiti (front left) and Sherene Seikaly (back third from left) (Bassam Haddad).
Interview by Lizette Baghdadi
On April 19, 2013, CCAS will host a reception celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Arab Studies Journal (ASJ). As the journal’s managing editor since September 2011, MAAS student Lizette Baghdadi used this milestone as an occasion to interview the founding editor Bassam Haddad and co-editors Sherene Seikaly and Nadya Sbaiti about the history of the journal, how it has developed, and where the editors see it going.
How did the Arab Studies Journal begin?
BH: I was a young graduate student at Georgetown University in 1992 and wanted to start a student-run scholarly journal, one that would become peer-reviewed rather than becoming another student journal that would fold in three or four years. I proposed the idea to then-Director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) Ibrahim Ibrahim. He patted me on the back and said, “Good luck.” He gently explained that the project was ambitious, that the Center did not at that time have the resources to pay the journal’s staff, but that it could help with production costs. This is when my colleagues and I realized that the project had to be based on volunteer labor, and that we had to prove ourselves during the first year or two. The rest is history.
Nadya and Sherene, how and when did you two become involved?
SS: I first joined the editorial staff of the journal in 1998 when I started the Master of Arts in Arab Studies (MAAS) program at Georgetown. I started as an assistant editor, the following year I was promoted to managing editor, and in 2000, I became a senior editor. This was the same year that I started my PhD program at NYU, so I moved the book review section to NYU. This started a development in the journal's history whereby it was agreed that editors could live in different places but still work together for the journal. Consider, for example, our current senior editorial team: I am based in Cairo, Nadya is based in Massachusetts and in Lebanon for the year, Bassam is in DC, and Dina Ramadan and Allison Brown are in New York. The book review team is based in New York, but the editors are also in many different places. Thus everyone is spread out, but we are all always in constant communication with one another.
NS: I started with ASJ in 1997 as a first-year MAAS student. I then became book review editor, next assistant editor, and in 2000, was promoted to senior editor.
How is the journal different today from when you all first started it?
NS: At first, we were accepting and publishing articles in Arabic, in addition to our articles in English. But after a few years, we began noticing that the quality of the Arabic submissions were not up to the standards of the English-language articles, and we were finding it difficult to solicit the pieces we did envision publishing. We decided not to publish an Arabic section that did not meet our standards lest the whole reputation of the journal suffer, so around 1998, we opted to table the Arabic section until such time as we could revive it to match the rest of ASJ.
SS: Another thing that has changed about the journal is that we are fully peer reviewed, and have been since 1999. Before we made that switch, our editors internally reviewed the articles. But we realized that to really make the contribution we wanted to in the field and take the journal to another level, we needed to be peer reviewed. Peer reviews are also a way to tap into a growing circle of scholars and a great way to know who is in the field and to measure the pulse of the field itself.
What has been a constant for ASJ? What are some things you all have stuck to from the beginning?
SS: We have an amazing editorial staff that works hard to make sure that our turnover is quick. Our work is a rare sort of volunteer collective project. This is something that sets us apart. ASJ has been gathering momentum for a long time. Now we are at a point where we are receiving really high-quality and unsolicited submissions. Young and established scholars are also approaching us at an unprecedented rate to suggest themed issues. So the future is exciting.
NS: As far as the production schedule is concerned, we publish one volume per year, comprised of two issues. Depending on resources, those two issues have either been combined under one cover or two separate covers.
BH: We would like to increase the rate of publishing to twice or even three times a year, however. This will help us achieve an even stronger reputation with scholars. With all that is happening at the Arab Studies Institute and Tadween Publishing (ASJ's sister organizations) in terms of knowledge production and scrutiny, we would like to consider the past 20 years of ASJ as just the beginning of even greater productivity!
Speaking of sister organizations, what is the relationship between Jadaliyya and ASJ?
NS: We have become a sister publication to Jadaliyya under the Arab Studies Institute (ASI) umbrella. The relationship between Jadaliyya and ASJ is mutually beneficial; we post calls for papers and previews of ASJ articles on Jadaliyya, and this greatly benefits people submitting work to the journal, and vice versa. The more people that read Jadaliyya, the more they become interested in ASJ.
SS: Jadaliyya and ASJ have been mutually re-enforcing one another by tapping into overlapping but distinct readerships as well as scholarly talent. In some ways, Jadaliyya has challenged us to put what sometimes feels like a limited academic audience in conversation with a broader readership.
What is in store for the future of the Arab Studies Journal?
NS: We have been fortunate to create a niche for a journal that is “critical, comparative, and progressive”—that was our tagline for the journal. And I think that we will continue to be a critical, comparative, and progressive journal that grows and expands our pool of talented writers and scholars. We have several themed issues planned for the next few years, and our agenda is really full. We also are working more closely with CCAS, and we are all excited about where this partnership will take us. The journal could not have survived thus far and it would not be where it is today without the CCAS and MAAS students. The students who work with us on a volunteer basis are dedicated, conscientious, and share the vision of the journal. The relationship between CCAS and ASJ is represented by the fact that a MAAS student started it and that MAAS students have continued to hold most of the positions at the journal. It says a great deal about the quality of the students that come through the Center as well as the quality of this project.