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In a preview from our forthcoming book, The Kinfolk Entrepreneur, Pip Usher meets Rashid and Ahmed Bin Shabib—the twin brothers giving voice to the modern Middle East.

Rashid Bin Shabib is seated behind his desk at the offices of Brownbook, the bimonthly Dubai-based periodical he launched with his twin brother, Ahmed. Wearing a kandoura, tousled dark curls bidding an escape from his white thobe, Rashid cuts a dashing figure. He’s internationally educated and erudite, as comfortable in Emirati national dress as he is in slim-cut trousers and owl-shaped glasses. He looks around him and sees the Middle East and North Africa as a region rich in tradition and beauty. And yet, whenever he flicks
on the news, it’s the same old story. Death. Destruction. Dark, heavy stuff. It’s hard not to let it wear him down.

“You read it, and then see it reinforced and reappropriated. It becomes an echo chamber to some extent,” he says of the mainstream media’s myopic portrayal of the Middle East. “We’re always hearing about topics of religion, tolerance, different value sets. That’s important, without a doubt. But that agenda is not our fight. Our job here is to show the progressive and optimistic side of the region.” Cue Brownbook, the brothers’ decade-old magazine that comes out of a desire to showcase a lesser-seen side of the Middle East that other media outlets largely ignore. Born and raised in the United Arab Emirates, the pair credit their grandfather—a businessman who later became Minister of Transport and Infrastructure—with instilling an academic interest in the evolving role of cities and society. Their mother, who raised them alone, was another powerful role model (“She’s very liberal, open-minded, progressive,” says Rashid). This conflation of interests and values can be seen on the pages of Brownbook, which describes itself as an urban guide to the Middle East and North Africa and unpacks the region’s modern identity.

“In Bahrain, Algeria, Alexandria, in Tripoli, Abu Dhabi and Jeddah, of course there’s normality,” says Rashid. “Not only is there a sense of stability, but there are progressive ideologies and a beauty that’s constantly evolving.” A recent issue of Brownbook showcased culture in Palestine; on its website, an accompanying short film featured a Palestinian-Belizean politician reflecting on his life. It’s an intimate and humanizing look at the ordinary—and extraordinary—individuals that make up the region and its diaspora communities. Or, as Rashid grandly de- clares, it’s “a periodical that audits the evolution of a culture.”

The brothers have witnessed the transformation of Dubai from small town to shiny metropolis. With the speed of a California gold-rush town, Dubai’s fortunes skyrocketed when crude oil was discovered in the 1960s. Frenetic development followed, an accompanying boom in real estate, finance, tourism and retail drawing a wave of migrants from around the world. Today, 83 percent of Dubai’s population is expatriate—a startling statistic that helps explain Rashid and Ahmed’s desire to map out who they are in a “post-modern, post-Oriental, very complex world.”

The brothers launched Brownbook in 2006—a bold move considering that many better-established magazines were disintegrating into financial disarray. But their decision was driven by practicalities; as Rashid explains, a magazine was the most practical vehicle for their ambitious storytelling. “Magazines are still the most progressive medium in which you can compile and build a narrative about a specific topic,” he says.

Even when dealing with subjects as complex as Palestine—the mere mention of which can send people into the political trenches—the Bin Shabibs are careful to remain neutral. They see the confrontational tactics employed in other countries as counterproductive in light of the more subtle social codes of the Gulf. “The whole whistle-blowing, finger-pointing style of journalism is well positioned in a liberal, democratic society,” says Rashid. “Whereas in a region that is extremely autocratic and driven by sheikhism, whistle-blowing and finger-pointing is not seen as the norm. It’s a Western approach toward journalism.”

  • Words:
    Pip Usher
  • Photography:
    Alexander Wolfe

To illustrate his point, he recounts the story of a friend who was beaten up as a teenager. When the attacker was let go because of his father’s political connections, the victim’s mother went to the ruler and read a poem that she had written praising the ruler’s sense of justice. The ruler asked why she had chosen that piece, the sticky situation was explained and the attacker was subsequently punished. Justice prevailed—but it was reached through a circuitous route of artistic expression, flattery and gently applied pressure. “Unspoken language is still very much embedded in our culture,” says Rashid. He believes that Brownbook’s success lies in its intuitive approach to such etiquette, the resolutely optimistic slant of its stories and its encouragement of readers to look at what’s working in other countries in the region as an impetus for progress in their own. “Instead of saying,‘All of this is wrong,’ we rephrase it as, ‘Here’s what’s going right,’” he adds.

Alongside Brownbook, the brothers explore what they term “cultural engineering” in its many guises—publishing, exhibitions, and most notably through urban development projects. Both brothers studied economics and property development at Suffolk University in Boston, before completing degrees in urbanism at the University of Oxford. The imposing architecture and storied histories of their alma maters left a lasting impression that has guided their ideas to this day. “Boston is Boston, whether you like it or not. It imposes itself on you and you enjoy it for what it is,” says Rashid of the city’s crusty New England temperament and grand Georgian architecture. “When you come back to Dubai, you start to think about the beauty of the past.”

Their fascination with the importance of civic spaces led to the duo’s first architectural undertaking around the same time that Brownbook launched. They settled on repurposing an old nail factory in Al Quoz, a largely industrial area of Dubai that The New York Times once deemed “the gritty opposite of glamorous.” A warehouse space was transformed into a co-working campus called Shelter. The idea was to bring small business owners together; local entrepreneurs and freelancers were enticed to its desks by free rent, a relaxed, open-plan layout and regular networking events. On a deeper level, it was a bid to forge community.

“I’m far more interested in how we can create spaces for people to come together, whether that’s formed in a physical place or a non-physical one—as in being a member of a regional collective,” says Ahmed. He points to their recent work at Al Khazzan Cadillac Park, an inner-city green space, in which they launched a free public library with content curated by Brownbook©. Again, the aim is to foster meaningful interaction and, Ahmed hopes, to encourage these exchanges to take place outside of Dubai’s ubiquitous shopping malls. “It brings people together to meet around productive social experiences,” he says. “It allows people to meet, create workshops, set up markets and so forth without the need to just consume.”

When it comes to Dubai’s metamorphosis, the brothers are gently mocking: “The agenda is eggs Benedict with protein shakes and kale salads,” Rashid jokes of the city’s fondness for the type of imported trends that are at odds with the genuine cultural movement they are seeking. “It would be more refreshing to see an authentic movement within Arabic literature,” he adds, “Or craftsmanship in ornamentation. That’s not happening.”

“Instead of saying, ‘All of this is wrong,’ we rephrase it as, ‘Here’s what’s going right.’”

But the twins aren’t despairing. They know that it will take time to reconcile Dubai’s swift globalization with its cultural heritage and traditions. For Ahmed, the Emirati national dress is a symbolic reminder of the enduring strength of the khaleeji (Gulf) identity. “Development came to the country at a late stage, so we entered the modern world with the past very visually present,” he says. “If you look at a photograph from a G20 summit, every leader wears a suit or a pantsuit, but one person is still wearing the kandoura.”

Ahmed is also heartened by the tolerance practiced between Emiratis and the city’s expatriates. “I think kids in Dubai have more national holidays than in any other city,” he says, citing the steady influx of Arabs, Iranians, Indians and Levantines over the past century, all of whom brought new customs. “This mix forced people to have a strong sense of empathy for one another in a way that I’ve not seen before in the region.”

Open-minded and hopeful: These are words perhaps not usually applied to the Middle East. But then again, Western media tends not to look in the right places. In their battle to balance progress with tradition, Rashid and Ahmed document their region’s complexity without trying to provide easy answers. They know there are none. “Brownbook and our other projects try to reinforce our identity to the world because that’s what the rest of the world does—constantly reiterates its identity,” Rashid says. “And that serves to reaffirm our identity within ourselves.”

  • Words:
    Pip Usher
  • Photography:
    Alexander Wolfe
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