An Interview with the Founder of OMER

On November 27, 2021, Managing Editors of the Oxford Middle East Review Sawsène Nejjar and Juliet O’Brien sat down with Andreas Björklund, one of the co-founders of OMER in 2016 and current Anthropology DPhil student. Andreas reflects on the process of founding a new journal at the University of Oxford, establishing an academic framework and preparing OMER for future success, and learning how to lead amongst a passionate peer group.

JO: What inspired the initial idea to establish OMER? Set the scene for us.
AB: Me and a colleague on the MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies, Martyn Rush, came up with the idea to establish the journal in the spring of 2016. We had a cohort full of people who were writing lots of essays and talking about important regional issues–could there be a way to bring these discussions outside of the classroom and into a wider forum, and to bring more community to the course and to St Antony’s College generally, by starting a new project? Walking around the library in the Middle East Centre one day, we came across four volumes of an old journal called Middle East Affairs, which included both scholarly articles and commentary on policy the British government was pursuing as well. Albert Hourani had established the series at the Middle East Centre in the late 1950s, when the Centre was newly founded, in this university which already has a dark colonial history. We wondered if establishing a journal at St Antony’s would open a space for a more critical stance, a space to acknowledge this colonial history as well as the university’s relationship with the policy world, as Oxford and its graduates have had policy involvement which still has consequences on the lives of people in the Middle East. On the other hand, we wanted to understand how academia worked more deeply–how difficult is it to start a journal? How does one publish? We wanted to give students practice in this space, and we wanted to learn ourselves. So, we had quite humble ambitions in one sense, but we also wanted to emulate what Albert Hourani had done at the Centre previously on a student-run level.

SN: What was the process of establishing the journal like at Oxford? What kinds of things–planning, rustling up funding, figuring out printing–did you have to consider during the first year of the Oxford Middle East Review?
AB: I think the first hurdle we had to overcome was justifying the niche purpose of why we should start a new project when other academic outlets did already exist. We knew nothing like the Oxford Middle East Review existed at St Antony’s, but we had to explain to colleagues and professors why we believed in this project. I would say the main difficulty during that first year was attracting pieces to a new journal that no one knew about yet, making a website for an organisation that did not have anything to show for itself yet, and promoting something that does not have an established background. People (rightly) thought twice about submitting their work to a new journal, and we did not drown in submissions the first year, but we did receive really good quality pieces. In terms of managing the journal, we realised how difficult it can be to lead an organisation when you are working with your friends, and when you ask people to complete tasks without pay. There is a lot of work that goes on to get seemingly small things to happen: getting people to attend meetings when they are so busy here, keeping track of tasks, taking minutes, encouraging people to meet deadlines and in some cases work faster.

JO: Could you talk a little bit about the branding of the journal? What is the story of the OMER logo?
AB: I think we recognised early on that it was important to have a brand and to be recognisable. First, we had to talk about what to call the journal itself. We wanted a broad enough name to attract submissions, and we also talked about the implications of different ways to refer to the region in the journal’s title. Ultimately, this conversation could have been endless, but we decided to call it the Oxford Middle East Review, in part because it was straightforward and also we needed an acronym that would work well enough. We also recognised that the Oxford name would attract people to submit, but we discussed the sometimes problematic history of its name and legacy as well. We wanted to establish a journal that could look at these issues critically and deeply. For the logo, me and Martyn at first tried to make our own logo, but it was really hard. We started by wanting to explore a design based on a Middle East-inspired tile, but we did not have the skills to make it happen. I contacted a friend who is a designer and explained our desire for some kind of geometric, circular tile. This friend asked us what a typical image that would represent Oxford would be, so we sent in a picture of the Radcliffe Camera library (amongst other things). She ended up finding one of the architectural blueprints of the second floor, and interestingly enough, it looks like a geometric tile. We thought this was a really powerful image because it is a view from inside, representing the examination of everything that is supporting the image of Oxford and using a symbol of Oxford that was built during the colonial period. There was a nice symbology there, using the blueprint of the RadCam, about questioning the institution and digging at what is underneath.

SN: Could you discuss what you are working on now as a DPhil student in Anthropology?
AB: Right now I am working on my DPhil thesis, which looks at the moral and ethical issues that stateless refugees from the Gulf face when seeking asylum in Europe, as well as the moral and ethical issues which connect with the implications of anthropological thesis research. Those that work on forced migration discuss Karen Jacobsen and Loren Landau’s idea of a dual imperative to publish academically solid work that is relevant to the policy world. It is sometimes tricky to engage with real-world issues as an academic, and particularly as an anthropologist when you are often seeing the intimate details of someone’s life. But it is important to think about this policy world when doing academic work, and that is certainly something we considered when establishing OMER. We talked extensively about not wanting to be a journal that served as a political mouthpiece for powerful or imperial forces that already have several fora and media in which to promote their viewpoints.

JO: That’s a good transition into our final question–how has the experience of founding and running OMER impacted your work and study?
AB: I think it was a great training exercise for all of us on the team to get insight into the backstage issues of academic publishing at an amateur level, and to see just how much work goes into the process of sifting through submissions, finding peer reviewers, and providing feedback for each submission that would be valuable and respectful. On this last point, sometimes that is difficult to do when people have shared their work with you–especially if they had longer academic careers than you might (i.e. as a second-year MPhil student). We learned a lot about time management of a publishing schedule, talked a lot about the consequences of publishing and sharing one’s views on important subjects, and thought deeply about the (sometimes unequal) repercussions of making one’s opinions known on certain issues. Once you put something in print, it’s there, and we did spend some time thinking about the implications for those that would want to work in the policy world later on. We rejected the idea behind this totally–democracy means one should feel free to share their opinions and indulge their curiosity, and we wanted to challenge the notion that we need to be apprehensive about publishing our opinions. But I think having those discussions was really useful, because it made us more attuned to the ethical and other implications of publishing, especially at early stages of our careers.

Post prepared by Juliet O’Brien