The publication of this collective piece, co-authored by five members of the Jummar team, coincides with the first anniversary of the website’s launch. It also marks the fourth anniversary of the Tishreen (October) uprising that swept through much of Iraq in 2019. Inspired by the 2019 uprisings, Jummar emerged with the aim of amplifying the voices of the young generation in Iraq.
What’s in a Name
In our effort to choose a name for the website, we engaged in lengthy discussions, poured through poetry collections and dictionaries, consulted with colleagues, friends and family. We came across countless names only to quickly realize that they were already taken or didn’t feel quite right.
In the next round of brainstorming, we focused on terms that were uniquely Iraqi, taken from Iraqi society. That is when we thought of Jummar. It refers to the heart of a date palm tree in Iraqi dialect. This name was chosen with the aim of establishing Jummar as a media platform on and for Iraqi society, especially one that would delve deep into the core of the issues affecting it. We were enthusiastic about the name and felt there could be no term more apt than this.
Then we began imagining the reactions of different groups to the name we had chosen: Would it be appropriate to assign a name of something that is eaten to a respectable media platform? If a journalist from Jummar were to contact a government official and say that she is from Jummar, a media platform, would she be taken seriously, especially in a country where those in power already do not regard the press or journalists with seriousness? We then wondered, since the palm tree in Iraq is facing the threat of extinction, would everyone know the meaning of Jummar? Especially the younger generation or the generation of Iraqis who were born outside Iraq who may not know such colloquially used terms. What about those Arab readers, too, who are unfamiliar with the word’s meaning or even its correct pronunciation?
We reassured ourselves by reaffirming our intention to have a uniquely Iraqi name and hoped that by keeping this name, we would add a beautiful word to the lexicon of our readers. We understood that journalists would eventually get accustomed to the name and so would the public and press sources.
It was now important that the design of the name and the visual identity of the website, including the logo, be complementary to the meanings we envisioned the name to convey. In other words, Jummar should serve as a platform which emanates from the heart of Iraqi society and speaks to it. We selected the current logo from the various designs that we considered, inspired by modern Baghdadi architecture.
From November 2021 until September 2022, while we were engrossed in preparing the institution and the website’s infrastructure, we began simultaneously searching for writers who would form the initial nucleus of the platform—women and men from our network of writers within Iraq and from the Iraqi diaspora. We gave free rein to our journalists to suggest topics. What followed was many conversations and discussions to explain the editorial line of Jummar: journalism for society.
The launch was delayed for months due to technical reasons. But from our side, the work continued as if we had already gone public. Our team began to grow steadily.
The adrenaline kept steadily building. One week after another would pass, and with each week, we would tell ourselves, “Definitely, it will happen this week!” It turned into a joke among ourselves to keep up with the growing anticipation.
We eventually realized that there was no such thing as a perfect launch date, and we decided to take off and see. Finally, we launched on October 2, 2022—the third anniversary of the Tishreen uprising.
Writing and Editing Within and For Iraqi Society
Before the launch, the editorial team spent several months finding early career writers in addition to more experienced writers to contribute articles to the platform. Everything from the topic of articles to our editorial policy were all in place and ready for the launch. The articles varied, but they all leaned towards one common purpose: “highlighting the issues affecting the people and places of Iraq, be they major issues or day-to-day affairs…and to also break the geographic centrality common in the media coverage of Iraq.”
We decided not to specify topics and instead opened the field to our writers. The topics could be social, political or economic. They could be issues that have already been covered or not, in the form of a report or even a journal chronicling day-to-day affairs. The crucial thing was to ensure that the perspectives were not repetitive or lacking a social story or voice.
The pitches that poured in from the writers revolved around various issues, for example drug smuggling and how its infiltration into cities is affecting youth and children. Other topics included discussions about the smuggling of Iraqis through perilous routes to Europe and even more sensitive topics like the harassment of minors and queer women in Iraq. There were subjects drawn from everyday life, such as walking routes in Iraq, green spaces for the population and the country’s environmental future. Where we could, we also decided to include a balanced analysis of breaking news and events. But the time at our disposal before the launch was not the same as the time that followed it.
Time constraints are inevitable in any media organization, especially one that operates in a country with a population of over 40 million, teeming with events every day. The pace of production must remain swift. Herein lies the great challenge for every media organization: to strike a balance between speed and the quality of our content, which needs to uphold the principles we had set for ourselves, to be creative and ethical.
We did not want Jummar to become restricted by confining itself to the voices of a few specific writers. Our editorial directive to journalists was simple: to identify the questions that occupy the minds of Iraqis wherever they may be and then scrutinize and analyze possible answers.
We discovered that the greater challenge was in emboldening the writers and getting them used to addressing societal issues in light of the tumultuous political and security reality, which suffocates the youth and erases their horizons. All of this kills the imagination!
While the eagerness of our journalists is inspiring, it demands immense efforts, most importantly obtaining accurate information. Amid the multitude of rumors, allegations, hidden agendas and the near absence of any reliable official statements—which themselves contribute to this chaos—Iraqi journalists must obtain precise information with minimal margin for error and without jeopardizing themselves or their sources. Any minor lapse from the journalists and from us can feel like stepping into a minefield. Therefore, from the very outset at Jummar, it has been crucial for us to integrate a fact-checking methodology as part of the editorial process.
All of this work requires a significant amount of time, and we are operating with only a small team and a demanding schedule to produce articles. We decided that it was better to progress slowly and steadily, rather than being hasty, faltering and quitting in between.
Sailing Toward the Sun
Just like the stories we publish, the story of our visuals is also worth telling. We make sure to pay attention to each detail however small it may be. Some of us, when describing our work, would say, “Jummar consists of two halves. One half involves editing while the other half is designing.”
At times, the emphasis on design by those working on it may seem excessive. But we believe that journalism can co-exist with all forms of writing and the arts as well. Consequently, every design should be the result of contemplation and a whole lot of effort.
When we decided to use collage designs to accompany our articles instead of the press photos of traditional journalism, our goal was to provide a vivid reflection of the story and capture the imagination of our readers.
Within each text lies a narrative, individuals and a topic that is explored, requiring our designers to condense, recreate or even incorporate supplementary elements as needed. Sometimes the images have to go further by indirectly hinting at what was deleted from the text due to the self-censorship that journalists, unfortunately, have to impose on themselves.
The designs accompanying our articles enhance readability and make them shareable and memorable for readers of all ages, particularly among the youth. Our designers, like our writers, are equally appreciated for their contributions.
Within our design department, we adopted “Al-Shamisah,” (the small sun) as a pivotal component of our visual identity. It symbolizes an intimate relationship between the bright sun in all seasons and the palm tree.
The sun for us is symbolic. It represents hope. Some in our audience perceive us as pessimistic. In reality, we aren’t pessimistic, but the pervasive state of devastation throughout Iraq compels us to amplify our critique with the belief that our circumstances will eventually improve.
Knowing Our Audience
Naturally, social media is a platform where Jummar must strive to establish its presence and actively engage with its audience. But crafting content for these platforms without falling into the trap of oversimplification is a challenge.
Many of us came from journalistic, research and artistic backgrounds. And we did not have much experience previously working with social media. While we received a wealth of advice, much of it did not resonate with our editorial direction, community engagement policies or the specificities of the virtual landscape of the Iraqi context: What is happening in the Iraqi public space extends to the virtual space, as there is threat and surveillance by political parties and their armed factions. But, at the same time there is also a society striving to engage and take part in public debates.
And so, we started experimenting with templates in writing and design for social media. We wanted to reach the widest possible audience, but we did not want to be sensationalist and present topics merely to provoke emotions.
Our goal was to present information in a way that allows readers and followers to form their own opinions about a certain issue rather than us imposing a specific viewpoint on them. This desire, of course, does not mean that we are neutral. The founders, the staff, the writers, all of us write about social and human issues from a critical perspective. We stay well away from prevailing narratives established by the sectarianism and regressive structures that took root in Iraq even before 2003 and which were exacerbated after the US invasion.
Our steadily growing audience consistently validates our work with messages on Instagram and Facebook, providing words of encouragement, constructive criticism as well as pointing out our errors.
The biggest challenge for Jummar is to ensure that it does not drown in the vast expanse of the virtual realm by sacrificing journalistic content merely to capture an audience. We work hard to abide by our principle of placing creative and ethical journalism before all else—including in the way we function on social media.
Managing Across Space and Time
What remains hidden behind the scenes, hiding behind the content we publish on our website or social media, is our institution and the team responsible for production and management.
Each of us operates from different countries, cities, time zones, facing different life situations and at a rhythm which is unique to each.
Nonetheless, we must ensure that we operate at a steady rhythm and keep up with the demanding pace the work entails. At the same time, we must also ensure that we work toward developing our platform and ourselves, learning new skills, which may not have been required at our previous places of work. Everything from designing to writing content, from archiving to managing the finances and the workflow, were all skills we had to learn and continue to learn. We understand that if our institution demands creativity from its journalists, then the institution should also adopt creativity as a basis and a motivating factor for its staff.
Administrative work takes a lot of our energy away from the journalism that we want to write. We are essentially writers and journalists before anything else, so we try to steal as much of our time as possible for investigating and writing.
The greater challenge—and one that every media organization faces—is funding and financial viability, and our organization is no exception. We are currently supported completely by international civil society organizations based in the Global North. Independence is a term that can naturally create some confusion. How can we be independent when we are dependent on the funding of specific entities? This question is one our audience poses to us. It is a very important question especially in the Iraqi context, where corruption has spread to every aspect of the state and society, including the media.
For a media institution operating with a high standard of professionalism, it is necessary that our staff and network of contributors receive reasonable pay. There also must be sufficient financial resources for the development of the website. We are in a constant struggle to ensure the sustainability of our organization by seeking funding and putting forth ideas and proposals in the absence of any other viable profit-based income models at this stage.
In spite of all these challenges, Jummar is an attempt that is absolutely necessary. It is an accumulation of experiences across generations that must be passed on to future generations.
And in spite of these challenges, our bet is on its success because of the importance and the need for a media institution like Jummar, which is proven every day and by every writer—woman or man—who researches, writes, analyzes and strives to explore their social imagination so that it may open new horizons for them. With them and us on this journey, are our readers, our audience, who are ultimately the essence of the society we write for and about.
This piece has been translated into English by Tariq Huq, an MA candidate at the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies.