Words by Rafe Arnott. Above: Original graphic for Resistor Mag courtesy Mothanna Hussein.
Launching a Sonic Liberation Front as a means to highlight the ongoing conflict in Palestine is just one form of cultural resistance that Radio al Hara manifests in its listener-driven programming schedule. The online Middle Eastern and North African radio station, which started as a way to cope with the isolation of Covid-19 lockdowns in March of 2020, has grown from a small entity curated by five friends and 20 contributors to a 24-hours-a-day global juggernaut, boasting a roster of 200 full-time residents.
Founders Saeed Abu-Jaber, his partner Mothanna Hussein, Yazan Khalili, and brothers Elias and Yousef Anastas all have a longstanding connection to music in their lives, so when the pandemic hit and they found themselves separated due to lockdowns, they looked for a way to connect – which for Palestinians is nothing new ("...living under occupation keeps you indoors a lot," lamented Abu-Jaber). Floating the idea of starting a radio station one day turned into streaming live the next after setting up shop via the online broadcast platform Yamakan. The friend’s experiment rapidly became a cultural hub for not only the Arab world, but individuals with a need to share music, the arts, philosophy, literature and ways of life from New York to Tokyo and all points between. Radio al Hara translates to “community radio,” and the variety of programming in its daily schedule is a reflection of this ethos.
Photo above: Yousef Anastas sends a shout-out across the virtual airwaves from the AAU ANASTAS studio space in Bethlehem. Image courtesy of Radio al Hara.
The group pulled their experiences as architects, artists and graphic designers together to kickstart the station, which even in its basic offering (an online portal with a player and a chatroom) grew exponentially as friends, and friends of friends started tuning in and turning on to what was happening. There is no physical "station" per se, just the few spaces founding members inhabit or work out of, so residents cannot come together and produce a show as the core progenitors are scattered; located in Amman, Bethlehem and Ramallah. The basic premise comprises a global network of selectors, hosts and DJs who upload their sets onto a cloud-based drive for Abu-Jaber or one of the others to format and slot into the daily schedule.
Organic is the term to best describe the genesis and appeal of Radio al Hara. The success of the not-for-profit could be directly attributed to the laid back and relaxing manner with which it presents, not only through the international cavalcade of renowned DJs, music producers and low-key selectors who contribute, but the litany of homespun personalities interspersed with them. Whether it’s a show about cooking, regional politics, or discussions of music and recording artists, much of the milieu feels like a dinner party segueing into cocktails while everybody pitches in with clean-up after the meal. This lack of pretence resonates globally because everyone knows the best parties happen in the kitchen, add-in the fact that al Hara offers an outlet for artists who can no longer perform in venues in light of the stay-at-home measures in effect almost everywhere, and it should come as no surprise that despite its humble Internet presence, by its very definition, it unites far-flung individuals with a commonality of purpose: a meeting place for those left to their own devices.
Photos above: Original promotional art for programming on Radio al Hara. Images courtesy TURBO.
Resistor Mag recently caught up with Abu-Jaber of design studio TURBO, and Elias Anastas of AAU ANASTAS Architects during a Zoom call. The following transcript has been lightly-edited for grammar and continuity.
Resistor Mag: First off, with everything that’s happening in, and around Jerusalem, how is everyone doing?
Elias Anastas: “Yousef and I were in Italy last month for the Architectural Biennale in Venice… We left Palestine for the Biennale on the 10th of May. That was the day everything started here, so we were not present for all the uprisings that happened in Jerusalem and Gaza… it felt totally odd to be away and see it all happening back home. But now things are resurgent a bit, especially in the Old City and Sheikh Jarrah. It doesn’t look like things are going to settle into the quiet we had for the last 10 years… people are still dying at the end of the day… the most important element is that there’s an international stand, for one of the most offensive, illegal occupations. I think the different things we’re engaged with – the radio, through our own practice – we’re lucky to be working in this kind of creative and cultural sphere. There’s something in what we do that contributes to hopefully build a better future. We don’t pretend that the work we’re doing is a kind of resistance, but it does build up something solid on the ground that is championing the occupation and it’s creating a kind of response that there’s still life happening here.”
“The beauty of the radio, like Elias said, is it’s not attached to another organization. I mean if we were an actual radio station we wouldn’t be able to do most of the shit we do…”
Photo above: A live performance in the AAU ANASTAS Architects studio space. Image courtesy Radio al Hara.
Resistor Mag: How has the current situation affected station programming?
Saeed Abu-Jaber: “What’s happening now in Palestine has been happening for years… the media in the West is all “Oh my God, this is happening now…” the Israelis declared a ceasefire and everyone is “What does this mean?” It doesn’t mean shit. It’s a media stunt, for them to cease fire means they can’t win the media race at the moment. I mean, even the ceasefire is funny, it’s not like a ceasefire between military people, it’s guns and rockets against stones.
"We decided to use the radio as a platform… we emailed all the residents and said we’re stopping the normal programming, if anyone wants to send in a set that’s more in context with what’s happening right now, then please do – it became the Sonic Liberation Front. So, suddenly our normal scheduling lineup completely stopped, then immediately more and more people started contacting us and co-ordinating eight, 10, 12, or 24-hour takeovers from all around the world.
"I think the main point of what we’re trying to do with the radio is that the ceasefire is not going to change anything – we didn’t want it to be a trend online for people to suddenly be activists for one week and then forget all about it. As long as we can make noise and use our own platforms and the radio as a platform, we’re going to keep doing that. [al Hara] is online, so we can be anywhere.”
Elias Anastas: “The independence and autonomy of the radio is allowing us to be flexible and make decisions on a daily basis. For example, today the bombings were non-stop on Gaza. We were like “What do we do? Should we maintain our usual content?” We didn’t have an answer and we decided to go silent for 24 hours until we could figure what exactly we wanted to do. What’s really beautiful is the different takeovers that we had from people showing their solidarity with Palestine were transversal to other issues happening in the world… this massive lineup curated by Edna Martinez showing solidarity between Columbia and Palestine… it was an important moment… and a way of communicating about other issues found in other parts of the globe by using the platform of the radio as a structure that is virtual, but is nonetheless bringing people together.”
Resistor Mag: Does what’s happening now have a long-term effect on the station?
Saeed Abu-Jaber: “The beauty of the radio, like Elias said, is it’s not attached to another organization. I mean if we were an actual radio station we wouldn’t be able to do most of the shit we do…”
Elias Anastas: “It’s basically always affected, but it has the ability to transform. One of the things we’re planning to do now… this very historic theatre from the 1950s located in Sheikh Jarrah – this conflicted area – this massive theatre is reopening this week and we’re in touch with them in order to broadcast all the plays from that theatre. That would be a way to continue this sonic protest on the radio in a different way, in different mediums, new ways, new forms of communicating about dis-locality on a global scale.”
Photos above: Programming graphics for International connections highlighting solidarity between Palestine, and countries undergoing political upheaval like Columbia. Images courtesy TURBO.
Resistor Mag: Backing up, let’s talk about how the the station was formed in 2020. It was a way of connecting Arabs during the ongoing Covid-19 quarantines and lockdowns – yes? Can you discuss your own backgrounds/relationships with music?
Saeed Abu-Jaber: “At the beginning it wasn’t about the world or the Arab world, it was us. “Heeeeyyyyyy… we are all locked in the house. What the fuck do we do now?” So, there was this Yamakan, this person created this [online radio] platform and Radio in Tunis started playing on it, and it was a very easy setup. And we were all, “OK, we’re starting a station tomorrow.” We’re all into music, we [partner Mothanna Hussein] and the guys have been working together for the past four years and between us we know so many musicians and DJs in the scene between Palestine, Jordon, Egypt and Beirut so when we started it was very easy. We could call a friend and ask "Do you want to do a show tomorrow?" It grew exponentially.
"It’s a culmination of our lives over the last 10 years that made it happen to an extent. I love radio as a format – listening. It’s like a dream come true for us. After it got bigger and bigger, I was able to contact people that, in my dreams I’d like “Why the fuck would they even get back to me?” From big labels, to producers, to DJs because [al Hara] is evolving and growing and it’s made noise and allowed us to reach out to people for shows – I mean Nicolas Jaar decided to release his new album on the radio – and people were like “What the fuck is Radio al Hara? Why is he releasing it on some small radio station with a chat room and a very basic website? But like we say, “Growing up in the Middle East, politics is like oxygen – it’s always there.””
Elias Anastas: “The listeners of Nicolas Jaar who tuned-in at that specific moment, they were just expecting Nicolas Jaar, but then they were facing something that was more based on reality. For us, this was really important because it was a new channel of reach and a new way of reaching out to people who maybe wouldn’t be interested to hear what’s happening here.”
Elias Anastas: “We run an architectural studio here in Bethlehem, and the way we run it is multi-disciplinary – that’s where the music has a very specific influence. We don’t run our practice in a way where we’re commissioned to design a public building and we design it for a year-and-a-half and then face construction, clients, etc. We work in an immersive way with end users on different levels and this is pushing us to re-examine the whole process of producing architecture. This is very much linked to the way [al Hara] is running, this sense of community that is very important to our work. For example, we are starting a project called The Wonder Cabinet, it’s a not-for-profit institution that is a cultural platform focused on production in a very broad sense. It can apply to the physical production of artwork, creating links between designers and artists, creating a professional learning centre with carpenters, blacksmiths, etc. But, also hosting a residency for sound artists or musicians that could work closely with a blacksmith to come up with a very specific instrument. I mean, we’re not working together because we needed graphic designers or because Saeed needed architects, it’s about complimentary modes of thought. It gives another depth to the work, because it’s trying to explode the entire system. If you look at the community created since the station went live a year-and-a-half ago, synergies have been created just through the al Hara chatbox online. People got to know each other while listening to the radio and now they’re working with one another on projects… this is really the way we think.”
Photo above: Mothanna Hussein's setup in Amman, Jordan. Image courtesy Radio al Hara.
Resistor Mag: Radio al Hara, I believe, translates to “neighbourhood radio.” Is that correct? Is that what the station is to all of you?
Saeed Abu-Jaber: “Elias said let’s call it Radio al Hara… really, at the beginning there was no planning… when we started no one knew if Covid-19 was going to last a month or what, so it’s now much more al Hara then when we started.”
Resistor Mag: Did you imagine that a Middle Eastern and North African radio station, one that is powered by listener’s contributions, would become this far-reaching?
Saeed Abu-Jaber: “No. No, no, no, no… and we always say the day it stops being relevant or fun, for us or everyone else, we’ll close it down.”
Elias Anastas: “We always think that maybe in a week this will end and the radio won’t be relevant. The degree of listening will decrease over time, but in reality the most interesting aspect is to think of it as a cultural platform, a cultural public space. For example, I received a call from one of our residents who is a sound artist who wants to give workshops in rural areas of Palestine with the idea of starting the first Palestinian national electronic orchestra. Commuting even 15km here is a nightmare because of the roadblocks and checkpoints, and if we use [al Hara} as a platform to broadcast these these workshops then this national electronic orchestra is born through the radio. This is the power of the medium, this flexibility to transform and respond to very specific needs.”
Photo above: Saeed Abu-Jaber's setup in Amman, Jordan. Image courtesy Radio al Hara.
Resistor Mag: The predominantly low-key vibe of the station reminds me of an ongoing party in someone’s kitchen where more people, food and drink just keep showing up. There’s an aunt in there cooking, children running around… Yeah?
Saeed Abu-Jaber: “That’s a very beautiful way to put it, by the way, I really like that… yeah, yeah – and no knows who the owners of the house are anymore.”
Elias Anastas: “It’s funny you mention the kitchen, because we’re working with an organization based in Lebanon called The Great Oven, they produce these massive ovens and place them in geographies where people are struggling to have access to food. So, the entire community uses these ovens to collectively cook, and this act of collectively cooking and collectively eating is super powerful. The idea of combining food with music is interesting because the best parties are where you have a dinner at your place and it transforms into a party.”
Resistor Mag: Pirate radio stations operate without a licence, and they have a long, storied history. There’s no licence on the Internet, carving out a niche to reach listeners seems more like guerrilla warfare. Is there a lot of noise to overcome?
Saeed Abu-Jaber: “I always dreamt of having a station on the airwaves, and I [looked into it] in Jordan specifically. It’s very expensive, there is lots of red tape, there is lots of censorship… but it never occurred to me an online station could be this big, could have this much reach. I was always looking through rose-coloured glasses – I wanted an FM station. I can only imagine if we were on FM in Jordan or Palestine. We would’ve been closed down a long time ago.”
Resistor Mag: I read an interview where Saeed said “I think this large variety of music keeps our radio fresh and this is what’s missing in the shitty radio stations we have on the FM. I mean if you alternate between a hundred FM channels in the car, you’ll die.” Why do you think it sucks compared to Internet programming?
Saeed Abu-Jaber: “Commercial radio stations stopped being about music at all, it’s just about something in-between ads. What we’re trying to do with Radio al Hara is to open it up. I know there’s NTS and stuff, but for us in the Middle East, we were bored. People would tell you “My mix is going to play on NTS…” Ok, but why don’t we have something of our own? Where you can be “I’m playing on Radio al Hara.” It always seems that it’s stuff from outside that people are looking up to.”
Resistor Mag: Radio al Hara celebrated one year on the air March 20th. Has much changed in the intervening year?
Saeed Abu-Jaber: “We had no idea to begin with. It just grew. We’re not a political radio, but we’re in a highly-political part of the world. For us, it still feels we have this platform to use. Nothing has really changed, but we love the fact we have met so many people. We can now land anywhere and throw a Radio al Hara live party from Athens or Guadalajara. Also, importantly, people ask why we don’t make money off the radio, why don’t we apply for grants… but the fact that no one is getting paid keeps it fair. It’s a communal baby. It takes a village to raise a child, yes, that’s it.”
Elias Anastas: “On the one-year anniversary we counted our residents and we’re over 200 now – 200 people contributing on a regular basis – we started with about 20, with a circle of friends, and then another circle of friends contributed. It’s different layers of friends that is creating what is Radio al Hara today.”
Resistor Mag: What’s next for Radio al Hara?
Elias Anastas: “One of the things we’re working on is a mobile radio station. We’re actually designing a device in the form of a case that will be able to travel in a very robust way. It will kick off next year in a museum in Germany, in Essen. This device will be stationed in the museum for six weeks and artists from the area will come and produce sonic works from that specific room and then it will travel to other parts of the world and people will contribute wherever it is. It could be on the sidewalk, a record shop – anywhere. We would catalogue all the locations as well.”
Saeed Abu-Jaber: “It could be in a public square, wherever – the way we’re thinking of it, there is a switch on the website and you can just switch to “The Box.” There you can listen to wherever the box is and what’s happening there. It could be ambient sounds, birds, a subway station…”
Saeed Abu-Jaber: “We’ve always said that Radio al Hara will have a home in our studio downtown (TURBO) once Covid is over and we open the café we’ve been talking about for years. We’re leaving it as such, and seeing what works.”