Twin brothers Rashid and Ahmed bin Shabib’s thriving bi-monthly magazine Brownbook is the essential guide to the contemporary society in the Middle East and North Africa.
From their Dubai headquarters, they tackle design and travel alongside culture not covered in traditional or Western media. Publishing Brownbook is just one aspect of their larger, multidisciplinary practice, Cultural Engineering. Through this, the brother’s overarching aim is to address the challenges modern identities in the Arabian gulf through research, urbanism, and education.
Over the last ten years, Brownbook has become a fascinating catalog of the lesser-seen aspects of the Middle East—both home and away—from Syrian communities in Sweden to snow on the Saudi mountains.
On a recent European trip, the bin Shabib brothers stayed at the FvF apartment while exploring Berlin. Sitting down over coffee to tell us more about the publication, Rashid revealed some fascinating insights into how he and his brother constantly unpack how they view the Middle East is in an increasingly globalized world.
Tell us a little more about your background
My brother and I were born in Dubai, and we grew up there. Later we studied economics and property development in Boston, and when we continued our studies we did our undergraduate and Master’s degrees at Oxford University. There, we focused on urbanism and the sustainability of urban areas.
What was it like growing up in Dubai?
It was a small town, very quiet.
Dubai was a small town?
[Laughs] Yeah, it was a very small, quiet town, very little trade or outside influence. It was very local. I think things really started to change in the mid-’90s. There was a succession, and the new leader was a young, well-traveled, ambitious person. He had all of these visions of a new capital.
What kinds of projects were you working on in the early days?
About 10 years ago, we took over an old nail factory in an industrial area of Dubai. We renovated that factory and opened it up as a co-working space for a lot of independent artists and freelancers. We also integrated business processes and held all of these local programs to engage people—it was very diverse. Now, that industrial area has changed a lot, it’s full of galleries.
I feel that there’s a tension between adapting and adopting in the Asian context. We need to start looking at our identity more, to try to adapt it in the way we build our cities. When you look at cities like Sydney or Auckland you see them reflecting European or American cities, trying to adopt things. There’s this tension between adopting something rather than taking something that is local and trying to adapt it, to make it more contemporary.
How did Brownbook come out of this?
It came from this notion of trying to explore who we are. We started Brownbook ten years ago, around the same time we renovated that nail factory. Both projects were part of a self-exploration within a broader sense of Dubai—a city that’s trying to shape a lot of Middle Eastern culture.
Was Dubai changing a lot at this time?
I would say the city was well-established by then. When you look at that side of the city, the big skyscrapers and so on, it’s all very foreign to us. As someone who’s indigenous or native, we represent only about 7% of the population. Dubai is this very successful commercial capital of a region, but there’s a lot of work to be done on what it can represent from a cultural perspective. The heritage is so rich, and that heritage is being alienated by an attitude of starting afresh rather than looking back at the language, culture, etiquette, and ethics—all of these things shape who we are.
How did you first source stories for Brownbook?
We started initially looking at syndicated stories. Back then it was about a year before that huge wave of independent publishers like Monocle and Apartamento, so it was stressful to launch an independent magazine. We looked at subject matters that made sense to us, like ski culture in Morocco. We’d hear about these juxtaposed ideologies and do a lot of research until we created this web of stories.
There was a lot of hustle to begin with, trying to get licences. A lot of our journalists were getting into trouble for driving in weird places. We did this nice feature on Oscar Niemeyer’s University of Constantine in Algeria, and there they speak French and Berber. It’s very hard to find a journalist who speaks French, Berber and Arabic. That was eight months of our lives just trying to build that feature!
“Brownbook came from this notion of trying to explore who we are.”
What’s the publishing scene like in your part of the Middle East?
It’s very well established, we have some excellent magazines that are being published now. Even as far back as the 1970s there were some excellent magazines around. One of the challenges we face in the industry is that you have publishing houses that produce several magazines with a commercial motive, whereas we have one publication. We do it every other month and there’s this holistic effort by 50 or so contributors from all over the region.
The current issue is all about snow in the Middle East so we’re talking to people all over, finding out about snow in Jerusalem, or this place where it snows once a year in the southern mountains of Saudi. We sent a photographer there to live for a month just to shoot pictures.
Is the idea of skiing in the Middle East a quintessentially Brownbook topic?
The main aim is to challenge stereotypes. We’re trying to get the reader to challenge their beliefs and rethink primary issues. The previous Brownbook issue was about Baghdad. That was six months of work trying to treat every story with a great deal of research. We’re taking the origins of that kind of research-led journalism and trying to push it within the publication.
Why do you think challenging people’s beliefs is necessary?
It’s very simple: we’re not satisfied with the news that’s been published and the current dialog around the Middle East. Brownbook is an extension of a format of research that we’re constantly looking at. We’re challenging this stereotyping rhetoric in the news around the world and offering another perspective. Traditional media is constantly stereotyping a region that is challenged with conflict, social and political tensions. The Middle East is broader. There are issues, but we move on, people still study and live life here.
Are you also setting out to challenge internal views of the Middle East?
There’s an etiquette on how journalism should be pushed in the Middle East when it comes to issues like religious rights, gay rights, and other social tensions. There’s a whole universe of media with many established publications that are handling that very well. We try to take a politically neutral, culturally savvy approach and because of that we’re able to talk in a broader way. We challenge sensitivities in a more progressive way rather than in a Western whistle-blowing way.
This notion of media being the advocate for the underdog works in a very established Western democracy. That approach doesn’t go a long way in the Middle East because of the etiquette of our region. For us it’s very important that you communicate something with a positive rhetoric, then you’re able to promote something in a much more positive tone. So instead of pointing fingers about gay rights, for example, we advocate tolerance, and tolerance is a very important sensibility that we need to encourage.
You also tackle the issue of diversity in the Middle East very well, even following communities that have migrated abroad. Tell us about that.
Over the past century the Middle East diaspora has developed naturally. There are huge Lebanese communities in Brazil, we have a lot of Emiratis traditionally moving to Iraq and India, so this migrant culture is very well established.
Among migrant communities in the Middle East there’s always this tension between a nostalgic past that is no longer there and the current discomfort with the political system. I think what makes this world much more colorful and attractive is diversity in culture.
Why do you choose to publish in English?
We do supplements in Arabic and French, but English is the common language so we publish in English. I would say our audience is a mix of local, regional, and international. It’s a journal, so it appeals to a lot of universities, libraries, and design schools around the world, too.
“I think what makes this world much more colorful and attractive is diversity in culture.”
What do you hope Brownbook will achieve in the future?
As much as Brownbook is important, the broader practice is the research we end up doing. We publish six times a year, always taking subject matter from a primary source and republishing—archiving information. We’re trying to be this machine of information. The exhibition and education part of what we do is equally important to the research. The exhibitions are about the tensions of identity in a globalized world, to try and make sense of this issue. Having something documented is one thing, but for me, to sit down and experience an exhibition is equally important.
What other projects are you working on now?
Research, education, and exhibition. The other thing is urbanism, which is taking existing buildings to refurbish and repurpose them. We’ve worked on ten buildings in Emirates so far; old factories, military barracks, old offices, right now we’ve taken about 80 containers and we’ve reassembled them. All of the buildings have been repurposed for civic purposes, so we give them back as common ground.
What keeps you in the Emirates?
It’s who we are. There’s a true bond between us and the city, we feel we have a duty to that. Also there’s a lot of work to be done.
Cultural Engineering: The creative practice behind Brownbook
The bin Shabib brothers’ agency works across mediums from urban design to print projects
Thank you, Rashid, for telling us the story of Brownbook and for exposing us to some amazing stories from your region. To find out more about Rashid and Ahmed’s projects visit Brownbook and Cultural Engineering, and read more of our stories about magazine culture from around the world.