In its early decades, MERIP provided an important outlet for voices and perspectives marginalized in the academy and mainstream media, including those of scholars, activists and political figures from the region. Launched as MERIP Reports, this first-of-its-kind publication on the Middle East played a critical role in transforming Americans’ knowledge of the region by advancing a critical political economy approach, documenting popular struggles and articulating opposition to the foreign policies of the United States and its regional allies.
For this issue, we solicited pieces from long-time editors and members of the MERIP collective as well as a few whose connection to Middle East Report is as readers. We asked them to survey and reflect on aspects of MERIP coverage across a range of topics including labor, Palestine, the War on Terror, the Lebanese civil war, the Iranian revolution, women and gender, Arab Americans, culture and poetry. (There are clearly many more topics critical to MERIP’s legacy that could have been covered.) These mini essays offer a guided tour across the MERIP landscape, facilitated by links to related articles, the majority of which are housed on MERIP’s open access website: www.merip.org.
Looking back through the MERIP archive, readers will likely be stunned by how much of the reporting and analysis not only documented the complex politics of the past, but now constitutes a valuable historical archive in its own right. The on-the-ground coverage provided by writers with deep knowledge of their subject matter and ability to conduct research in local languages often stood in stark contrast to dominant approaches in most of the academy, to say nothing of the mass media. MERIP always viewed popular struggles through the perspectives and aspirations set by the region’s political actors, not from the interests or concerns of governments and elites. Indeed, as political scientist F. Gregory Gause noted in an essay on how many scholars of the Middle East missed the signs leading up to the 2010–2011 Arab uprisings, “The perspective ‘from below’ represented by the scholars publishing in MERIP…provides an extremely useful set of lenses for understanding the politics of the region. They captured political dynamics … not sufficiently appreciated by those working out of more ‘top-down’ paradigms like the stability of Arab authoritarianism authors. They capture elements of regional politics that others miss.”
Readers perusing MERIP Reports from the 1970s, for example, can trace in detail America’s growing military involvement in the region, propelled by the Carter Doctrine, increasing arms sales and the propping up of authoritarian regimes in the face of popular struggles for social justice, political representation and economic rights. These articles provide context for more recent events, such as the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq, mapping a consistent story of what Toby Jones would call the US strategy of “embracing crisis.” The coverage of the Lebanese civil war helps readers understand the country’s current economic collapse, the popular uprising against the ruling elite and what may be the establishment’s bloody response.
Palestine was also central to MERIP’s mission and we think the magazine’s editors, writers and readers have played a role in shifting the way many progressive-minded Americans view Palestinians and their struggle for self-determination as well as the larger Arab-Israeli conflict. More recently, readers were offered some of the most incisive running commentary on the long, slow death of the so-called peace process and thoughtful consideration of issues such as the comparison of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the system of apartheid, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and the one-state reality.
Design and layout of the magazine was handled at times by outside organizations, such as the artist Johanna Vogelsang and Art for People. But the most important influence on MERIP’s look came from artist and longtime design editor Kamal Boullata who was involved from the first issue until the mid-1990s. In addition to contributing his own drawings and articles, he designed the logos and established the basic layout of the magazine pages. The MERIP look that he created was maintained, with modifications, until the print edition of the magazine was discontinued in 2019. Geoff Hartman contributed his design skills after Kamal, and Jimmy Bishara was MERIP’s designer and production manager from 1998 until 2019 (and designed all the covers after 2007).
Flipping through paper copies of Middle East Report it is easy to see the importance MERIP gave to visuals in creating an engaging and accessible publication. Early issues of MERIP Reports included original images such as line drawings, woodcuts, cartoons, maps and some photographs, but by the late 1980s photography had become the most common creative contribution to the magazine’s visual style. Two photo essays, one by Marisa Escribano on Egyptian women in 1979 and the other by Eva Cockcroft from Iran one year after the revolution, are examples of a more intimate and immediate perspective on the region that MERIP hoped to continue to provide through photography. A full issue in 1986 was devoted to a traveling photo exhibit about Yemenis in the United States called Sojourners and Settlers. Up until the early 2000s, the type of photography in the magazine ranged from images made by authors during their fieldwork to standard news shots to documentary photography acquired from accomplished professional photographers, such as Hannes Wallrafren, J.C. Tordai, George Azar and the collective Impact Visuals. After 2002, when the position of photo editor was reestablished by Michelle Woodward, the pool of photographers was widened to include more freelancers, many from the region such as Dalia Khamissy and Hossam el-Hamalawy, and a broader range of photo agencies. Throughout MERIP’s history, images have been the subject of discussion and deliberation by editors and staff with the goal that the visuals themselves would convey meaning and tell stories that enhance and add to the text, not simply illustrate it.
Following Joe Stork’s move to Human Rights Watch in 1995, Geoff Hartman and Laurie King served stints as editor. Chris Toensing came on in 2000 and, as funding dwindled, quickly combined the jobs of editor and executive director, which he continued until 2017 with the assistance of dedicated staff including Barbara Neuwirth and Amanda Ufheil-Somers. To further stretch finite resources, MERIP then closed its office and moved operations fully online. MERIP’s next executive director and editor, Steve Niva (2018–2019) and managing editor Michelle Woodward (2020–present) along with executive director Mandy Terc (2019–present), have worked remotely to continue the online publishing of Middle East Report and intervening essays.
Throughout these staff changes, the editorial direction and content of the magazine continued to be governed by a broader editorial committee. It is in this capacity that generations of mostly junior scholars would be integrated, playing essential roles in the organization’s longevity. In reflections collected to mark the fiftieth anniversary of MERIP, past members recall the editorial committee meetings as workshops of debate—sometimes sharply expressed—as well as opportunities to be exposed to new ideas and, for many, to make long-lasting friendships. As a group with common values and politics, it often functioned as a sort of family, “the good kind,” as Zachary Lockman remarked at a 2020 MESA roundtable about the impact of MERIP on Middle East Studies (to be published in a special issue of the Review of Middle East Studies). MERIP sustained a collective-based organization across five decades without the support of research institutions or government funding and with very few foundation grants. The main resources that kept MERIP in operation were always individual donations and volunteer efforts from its unpaid authors and editorial committee members.
It could be argued that the organization endured also because its diverse readers—scholars, students, activists, journalists and the interested public—continued to value what it offered. MERIP’s circulation grew steadily in the 1970s, growing further with the Iranian revolution and increased direct US involvement in regional conflicts with spikes in readership around the 1990–1991 Gulf War and then again around the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Some readers might recall the days when Middle East Report could be found at newsstands and in popular bookstores. MERIP was forged in a media ecosystem before the internet and digital publishing and its circulation steadily declined, even as the US occupation in Iraq continued.
Still, for decades, MERIP punched well above its weight. At a 1986 event marking the organization’s fifteenth anniversary, activist and scholar Eqbal Ahmed noted that “MERIP remains a modest and austere outfit, limited in its outreach by the meagerness of its resources.” But he also observed, “It is by far the most used Middle Eastern journal on American campuses. MERIP editors are teaching at institutions of higher learning; they are undoubtedly producing young scholars of humane outlook and radical inclination.”
The founding generation of MERIP, coming out the counterculture and anti-war movements, had much hope for change. By its tenth anniversary, however, MERIP editors would accurately note that, “Coming at a time of resurgent US militarism, it portends a period of grave danger for peoples everywhere.” In the same issue, Peter Johnson and Joe Stork remarked that “The decade ahead, we are sure, will be one of great danger and some opportunity. We intend to struggle against the dangers and seize the opportunities.” That MERIP would continue that struggle for another four decades is impressive but also dispiriting. In any case, the very existence of a fiftieth anniversary issue, not to mention MERIP’s 50 years of reporting surveyed in the essays it contains, reflects how all members of the greater MERIP collective, from the founders through today’s editors and authors, can feel confident that MERIP did indeed “struggle against the dangers and seize the opportunities” and can only continue to do so.
[The editors of issue 300, “MERIP at 50,” are Waleed Hazbun, Lisa Hajjar, Najib Hourani and Guest Editor Chris Toensing.]