Middle East Lockdowns Provide a Sense of Liberation For Arab Artists

Middle East Lockdowns Provide a Sense of Liberation For Arab Artists

Lockdown is no new phenomenon in the Middle East. As it happens, neither is live-streaming.

But their polarising energies are bringing an ironic sense of freedom to artists channelling a new lease of life in quarantined climes, with live streams that are dismantling borders and opening frontiers like never before.

Creativity can emerge from the gloomiest of places, and as Palestinian techno artist, DJ Sama said: “Music has always evolved and emerged from surreal moments like this, and I hope some incredible stuff can come out of a dark time.”

But she said it was “crazy” to have lived in six countries and experience lockdown for the fourth time. “I feel like I’ve spent half my life in lockdown. And while the world is in panic, I feel a sense of calm because I know these things happen and they pass.”

Amidst the calm, a creative storm is brewing. Seriously eclectic high-octane sounds are emerging from projects that are being live-streamed from the Middle East as we speak.

Over in Palestine, live techno streams by Unite – a music collective launched by Sama with DJ friends Dar and Darbak – are replacing regular raves that were held BC (before Covid) at an underground kitchen restaurant where “the stove became the DJ booth.”

Meanwhile, in Beirut, Radio Yamakan, a network hosting several streams from across the Middle East, was conceived overnight as the reality of quarantine began to kick in, launched by 32-year-old systems design engineer Majd al-Shihabi.

Al Shihabi, a third-generation Palestinian refugee born in the Syrian capital of Damascus told The New Arab that Yamakan was inspired by Radio al Hai – a live stream launched in March to fill the void left by the lack of public spaces in Beirut where he lives.

He said it was to help substitute the absence of ‘Mansion’ — an abandoned building transformed into a collective space and used by the city’s underground arts community for eight years before it closed for lockdown. The building’s owner wants to take back the property by the end of this year.

As lockdown reality kicked in, Al Shihabi said al Hai Radio inspired Arab artists to livestream from Syria, Palestine, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon and Berlin – thus leading to the launch of Yamakan – meaning ‘once upon a place.’

“Politically, we’re all progressive. We don’t allow homophobia, racism or sexism, and we operate from a place of solidarity.”

But he said the principle of streaming was not just a reactionary response to the short-term lockdown. It was also a response to the long-term lack of public communal spaces in Beirut.

At the same time, he said streaming also presents a window “for the rest of the world to see what it’s like to be under lockdown, planting a seed for empathy on their side.”

Archived music and discourses around decolonisation inspire al Hai’s curation. In March, it broadcast a 14-hour program emulating the day in the life of a pre-1948 revolutionary radio station called Jerusalem Here, and which became the voice of anti-colonial resistance before the creation of Israel.

Al Shihabi said Jerusalem Here began as a “propaganda machine by British colonial forces” but quickly consolidated the voice of Palestinian resistance.

“In our replica of the show, we went from village to village recording music and broadcasting it live; emulating the energy of that time through music, commentary and historic evaluation.”

Palestine’s Al Ahara Radio (Arabic slang for ‘hood’ — as in ‘neighbourhood’) — is one of the streams hosted by Yamakan and has a 5,000-strong following that stretches from Brazil to Taiwan.

Its weekly underground music segment ‘Asaas’ (meaning ‘bass’), features contemporary beats and pieces like experimental electronica, techno, Brazilian soul funk disco and Arabic hip-hop.

Curator Rojeh Khleif told The New Arab it includes acclaimed artists who would “otherwise be unavailable outside a quarantined climate.”

With its eclectic cultural program, it’s just one of two alt-media channels inspiring a young generation of Palestinian listeners.

Khleif added: “Quarantine has brought me to life. I’m doing all the things I normally do like booking artists, contacting graphic designers, organising events, except it’s all online.

“We’ve always lived in a climate of curfew so this is nothing new, except it allows us to consume less, spend more family time and get creative with new projects, which we’re doing.”

Co-founder and architect Elias Anastas added: “It’s interesting, because as Palestinians, it’s very difficult for us to travel abroad. All our frontiers are totally controlled by Israel. So through this channel, we are opening up all these resources and frontiers, connecting with so many different people, artists, cultural practitioners and researchers.”

Anastas said while the world remains “shocked” over lockdown, people in Palestine are “more accustomed to such closures and aware of different systems of curfew since the First Intifada.” The difference, he said, was this time it was “health not political conflict related”.

Live streaming is not a new phenomenon either. But it has played a small albeit significant role in Palestine over the last five years with Radio Nard – meaning “dice.” It’s the only other alt radio channel in Palestine to influence growth of the Palestinian underground music scene.

Nard was launched by 27-year-old electrical engineer ‘Nrd’ who began to randomly stream a vast collection of sounds, inspiring others in the process. Quarantine though, he said, has pushed Nard to stream more than ever, an eclectic range of music spanning acid jazz to various strains of techno.

He added: “So many artists we want to invite to Palestine, but as an Arab you can’t enter without a European passport. So streaming is a bridge to the world. And now in lockdown there are more listeners too and its nourishing the connection between different stations in the region — not just in Palestine, also in Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia. They are shining more than before.”

It’s evident that the Middle East is not as struck with panic about lockdown as the rest of the world. When curfew is already a ‘normality’, quarantine is like a lockdown within a lockdown for people accustomed to such a reality.

But as Sama says, “Who knows where this current rollercoaster we’re all on is going. But I’ve learnt that life can be crazy, and sometimes, great things can come out of the worst situations.”

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