ALO Again: New Lifestyle Magazine More of the Same Old Orientalism

By Special Correspondent Fatemeh Fakhraie. An expanded version of this piece can be found at Muslimah Media Watch.

Last summer saw the launch of ALO Hayati, “America’s Top Middle Eastern Lifestyle Magazine.” Thanks to a gracious donor, I finally got my hands on a copy of the July 2008 issue.

All lifestyle magazines have an aspirational feel to them, and this one was no different. Chock full of advertisements for Dubai hotels and Swiss watches, ALO wasn’t particularly different than any other lifestyle magazine. Considering the economic situation of magazines, it doesn’t seem like an incredibly auspicious time to launch one aimed at a materialistic lifestyle. I wasn’t able to find any updates about the magazine’s publication on the website, and as far as I’m aware, this is the only edition, though in the magazine they refer to an earlier issue in some places.

As someone who enjoys a good glossy every now and then, I delighted over advertisements with Kim Kardashian, and interview with exclusive designer Bijan, and a fluffy piece on intercultural relationships (though I did not care for the cover teaser: “Shocking Intercultural Stories”).

The magazine featured an interview with Leila Ahmed, which was a great one, likening the current western media representation of Muslim women to the same patronizing Orientalism that played out in the first wave of colonialism in Middle East. Her interview shed lots of light on the history and future of the headscarf. Despite the educational qualities of her interview, I kept thinking, “Who is this educating?”

While not every Middle Eastern person is going to be familiar with the history behind the headscarf, it seems sort of odd to have an educational feature about hijab in a magazine aimed at a demographic that has a fairly lengthy history with headscarves, even if many of them aren’t Muslim. Something about this piece tugged at me. It almost felt as if it was aimed at people who were not Middle Eastern.

Other pieces confirmed my suspicions. A photography section, entitled “Faraway Faces” (cue Aladdin soundtrack!), featured lots of “natives.” Lots of women wrapped up with only their eyes showing, lots of traditional attire, wizened old men, and even a camel. And the website isn’t any better. There are tons of shots of women wrapped up to look mysterious in glammy scarves (one such example is pictured at left).

This wasn’t even the worst part. This issue featured a special section on weddings, complete with all the typical wedding stuff (dresses, rings, honeymoon destinations). But it also contained coverage of an actual wedding. Neither the bride nor groom had Middle Eastern heritage. I assume that if they had, the magazine would have mentioned it, because otherwise, why would they be in a magazine about Middle Eastern lifestyles?

Because their wedding was entirely Ancient Egyptian themed.

(sigh)

Now, I don’t want to go dogging anyone’s special day. I know people who’ve had themed weddings of other time periods. And I can even dig that they have a lot of interest in Ancient Egypt (when I was in sixth grade, I would devour anything and everything related to the time period. It was interesting.)

But this? In a Middle Eastern lifestyle magazine? I mean, they did their homework and everything (the article mentions that the bride wore custom-made accoutrements modeled on those of ancient Egyptian queens), but the cake was in the shape of a step pyramid. Come on. It’s like attempting to have a traditional Mexican wedding with a cake in the shape of a sombrero. It just plays up the stereotypes that they’re (hopefully) trying to avoid.

The article conjured up not only some major Orientalist vibes, but reminded me of a similar craze in the Gulf: Arab brides dressing up in saris for their wedding celebrations. The dynamic is further complicated by the fact that many of them have South Asian maids, lots of whom aren’t treated well. It’s called cultural appropriation, people.

Fuckery aside, I did like a lot of the articles in the magazine. They profile not only legendary designer Bijan, but also civil rights activist and author Jack Shaheen. They interview not only Jordanian princess Sumaya bint El Hassan, but also Lebanese chef Viviane Chamieh.

I like the aim of the magazine: peace, regional association (despite the region being an ambiguous Western-defined term), and intercultural and interfaith collaboration. I liked the emphasis on “Middle Eastern” rather than religion or lineage (profiling those who are both born/raised in the Middle East as well as those born in the U.S. with Middle Eastern heritage on either side of their family). I liked a piece on double standards when it comes to sex that I found on the website (yes, admittedly fluffy, but we already covered that). I liked the fact that the wedding section had designs by Middle Eastern designers (more of that, please! There are plenty of them!). I liked that ALO uses Middle Eastern Americans as their cover models. So I really wanted to like this magazine as a whole.

If ALO can cut down on the exoticizing and play up the actual Middle Eastern angle of things (wouldn’t hurt to incorporate more Middle Eastern writers on staff, would it? Or cover things actually happening in Middle Eastern countries rather than covering countries themselves as tour destinations? And profiling more Middle Eastern Americans, like you did in your interview with director Mark David?), it can fully live up to its name.