Dalia Al-Dujaili

KHAMSA chats with Dalia Al-Dujaili, who bridges the gap between SWANA and the world through her powerful storytelling.

Dalia Al-Dujaili (@dalia.aldu on Instagram) is a self-made journalist who writes about arts and culture in the SWANA region. She is the Digital Editor of ‘Azeema’ and the founder of ‘The Road to Nowhere’. She has also written for GQ Middle East, The Guardian, and WePresent.

Born in the suburbs of London and from Iraqi parents, Dalia has always wanted to tell the story of the creatives of her region. KHAMSA went to meet this ambitious journalist to talk about her journey and her career.

١. What is your academic background?

I studied English Literature at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland for four years. One day, my tutor encouraged me in class to apply to a journalism competition at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. I took their advice and applied, and to my surprise, I was accepted. We were a group of selected young people who attended the Film Festival to watch movies and write reviews. The best reviews had the chance to be published in The Skinny magazine in Edinburgh. I reviewed a documentary titled “Down Under” about life in Beirut, and I believe that was the spark that ignited my interest in covering arts and culture from the SWANA region and its diaspora. It was also my first published article.

٢. Why did you choose to talk about arts and culture in the SWANA region?

Image courtesy Dalia Al-Dujaili

I wasn’t interested in becoming a film critic at all, but I did use that opportunity to start writing and getting feedback on my articles. I clearly had an interest in covering arts and cultural topics. More specifically, I was interested in my region, artists and filmmakers that were Arab, and have come from the region, or were born there, like my family. I noticed that we get very little coverage in mainstream media, so I just started to really focus on that and it kind of spread and grew into me pitching stories to more publications.

٣. We all get inspired from people in our work, who or what you inspired you to become a journalist?

Image courtesy Dalia Al-Dujaili

I was fortunate to be mentored by an amazing individual named Adam Baidawi, currently the Deputy Global Editorial Director at GQ and the Head of British GQ. He served as the Editor-in-Chief of GQ Middle East at the time of our interaction.

During the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, there was a growing demand for content that wasn’t Euro-centric or Western-centric. People were finally recognizing the long-standing marginalization of voices from diverse backgrounds, including those of people of color. Recognizing this shift, Adam posted on Instagram offering to mentor a few young journalists. I applied and was selected, and for a month, he generously provided me with invaluable guidance. He taught me essential skills like pitching stories, structuring articles, building myself as a journalist brand, and establishing professional connections.

I highly recommend finding a mentor to aspiring journalists. While it doesn’t have to be someone as prominent as the Editor of GQ, it should be someone actively working in the industry with expertise in pitching, writing, and networking.

٤. How did your upbringing influence your work?

I was born in Surrey, in the suburbs of London. It was a very white area, very middle class, there were not many Arabs around me. It was an awkward upbringing with a lot of code-switching and trying to fit in, assimilating to British culture as much as possible. But this identity crisis only made me more curious about my Arab heritage and finally learn to deeply embody it, keeping it at the core of everything I do. My family is from Iraq, my parents were born in Baghdad and my dad is half Egyptian.

Then I moved to Edinburgh for University. I really loved it, it was amazing. I have always been a reader, I can’t think of any journalist that doesn’t like to read. When you study literature, you don’t get formal training in how to be a journalist, so that’s the kind of thing you have to teach yourself or find a mentor who is willing to give you that experience.

٥. What was your first job in journalism ?

Immediately after my graduation, I got a job offer at It’s Nice That, a big arts publication based in London. They were looking for a news writer to publish articles about the design and the art world. I don’t think it was the right role for me. Nevertheless, the publication itself is incredible, the people that I got to interview were amazing, the experience and the network I was able to grow there was really the key to opening up my current network now. I just needed to exercise more of my own creativity, that is why I began working more on The Road to Nowhere and Azeema.

٦. You launched your own newsletter called Misfit, what was your idea with it?

Image courtesy Dalia Al-Dujaili

At that time I was still a student at university, and I was writing for a student publication called “Mxgyny” that was about women’s rights. I was the editor-in-chief of that publication, we were writing small things for fun. With my interest in social issues, I told Adam that I really enjoy this, but I wanted to start my own thing. I had ideas and I really wanted to focus on Arabs and Middle Eastern creatives. I also wanted to focus on the artists that don’t get the same attention as others for whatever reason – they might be women, they might be gay, they might be black, they might be disabled. I wanted to focus on the marginalized  creatives.

So he said to me to launch something, it could be anything, and he asked me “What do you like out there currently?”. I said I really like the New York Times newsletter, so he said, “Why don’t you start your newsletter?” MisFit was a newsletter that came out once a week, and I was interviewing artists. My friend Cat Duncan, designed all the posts. I was young, and I wanted to speak to creatives about their journey and how they got to where they are. After a while I stopped the newsletter, but I loved doing it, and it gave me a lot of experience, on how to contact creatives, how to interview them, how to do short form profiles. I had a lot of fun doing it.

٧. Why did you launch The Road to Nowhere ?

Image courtesy Dalia Al-Dujaili

I was inspired to launch ‘The Road to Nowhere’ as an extension of the idea of platforming creatives. The Road to Nowhere started in 2020, during the Black Lives Matter protests. The conversation after BLM was focused on opening up to the creative industry and the world of arts and culture. I wanted to focus on diaspora and immigrant narratives because I really love being part of the diaspora and I noticed there was nothing around it at the time. Now there is a lot of stuff about diaspora, but at the time there wasn’t so much. So I was like, “Why don’t I do it?” It was very fun, we raised money, and Cat also designed the first issue.

I didn’t intend for it to become a yearly magazine, I wanted it to be a limited edition, because I didn’t have the time or the money to make a magazine, but people really loved it, and they kept saying “When is your next one?”, “I want to contribute, I want to write for you, I’ll send you my work”. So I was like, “Okay, why not if people are asking for it?” So I made another one, and now we are on Volume 3 and inshallah, we can keep going.

٨. What advice would you give to young people who want to become journalists?

Image courtesy Dalia Al-Dujaili

Other than mentoring, I think the thing that helps me the most is my network. Of course, you make it based on the quality of your writing and the merit of your pitches, but at the same time you don’t even get to pitch an idea if you don’t know someone at a publication, so your writing has got to be good and your ideas have to be good, but they have to be as good as your people skills.

Writing is really subjective, there are a lot of writers out there with very different styles, not everyone is going to like the way you write or what you write but as long as you’re getting into the right places, that is going to take you very far. So honestly, for journalists, I wouldn’t focus so much on perfecting your writing when you’re starting. I would really focus on trying to build your network by getting yourself out there and that means publishing things, even if you are not comfortable with your writing. The important thing is having a few bylines, you’ll perfect your craft over time, don’t stress about it being perfect.

٩. What do you hope for the future of journalism?

I am hoping for more independent journalism. I really hope there is more funding available for independent platforms like Azeema, (and) The Road to Nowhere, because that opens up the possibility of being able to write about whatever you want. You don’t have to seek permission from anyone. Of course, it feels good when you get an article published in a big magazine – it’s very rewarding, they have a name, and they are respected, it’s got a good reputation. But they edit your work so much that you don’t recognize your writing, and you’re not allowed to say a lot. It’s a mainstream news platform – that’s a problem for me, who is trying to tell a story.

I think in terms of Middle Eastern, North African creatives and the journalism that we do about our region, of course, I really want to see that grow, but I’m not really worried about it growing. It will take its time in places like France or Italy, and places that are still growing in terms of coverage of the region and its diaspora, but it’s going to happen.

Selma Chougar is a French independent journalist of Algerian origin who writes for several magazines based in Paris, London, and Dubai. Culture and societal phenomena in the Arab world are her areas of expertise. She contributes to both French and English-language magazines.