Hatem Imam and Maya Moumne, who not only founded Studio Safar in Beirut but also the amazing magazine Journal Safar, are pushing design to new, meaningful heights – and like to take a stand
“Safar” means travel in Arabic, and Maya Moumne and Hatem Imam are doing so on their very own paths, crossing cultural barriers and shifting design boundaries. Just like in their Journal Safar, which, far from any commerciality, not only explores significant topics like migration or power, but above all what design is capable of. In a call between Beirut, Los Angeles, and Montreal, where Maya moved to after the horrible explosion in Beirut in 2020, we talked about finding your own voice, nostalgia as a trap, and what it’s like to run a studio that’s working around the clock.
Bored by the utilitarian problem-solving approach to design, you founded Safar in 2012. How did you escape that take? Hatem Imam: For us, it’s essential to situate design within cultural production and to advocate the idea that designers are culture practitioners. That they have a voice and have something to say that is relevant within society. To this day, there is this division between fine arts. Cultural production is defined as social processes involved in the generation and circulation of cultural forms, practices, values, and shared understanding, and graphic design does very much that, whether it’s content production, designing publications, or working on communication strategies and identities.
In doing so, you say that you always try to keep your Arab identity. Maya Moumne: The conversation about Arab identities is a little bit of a double-edged sword for us. Because it’s giving a false sense of nationalism that we particularly don’t have. For us, it has much more to do with shifting the narrative about what we’ve been taught about visual culture. Because that was always fixated on the global West. Hatem: But it’s also important to clarify that with things so cross-pollinated, there is no such thing like a homogenous Western culture or an Arab one. We don’t believe in this purist idea of preserving something that is original or authentic. What we’re interested in is reflecting on the centuries of influences and mixing of different cultures.