Words by Xerxes Cook
Photographs by Ilyes Griyeb
“Al-Hara” means neighborhood in Arabic, but Radio Alhara’s community isn’t defined by any geographic boundary. Amid COVID lockdowns and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the station’s blend of music and political activism became essential—both globally and locally—as a beacon for collectivism and self-determination.
As anyone who’s stood in front of a subwoofer will know, there’s much more to music than what meets the ear. We use sound to help us visualize what we cannot see, to help us navigate, grow plants, and see what lies underground and below the surface of the water. Only by pumping music through sand and water can we picture the vibrations of particular notes, each of which has its own particular pattern. Otherwise, sound remains invisible, a force that transcends physical or social boundaries.
It is this inherent intangibility that has made sound, and specifically the radio, such a powerful medium of protest. In World War II, Radio Londres broadcasted intelligence to the French Resistance over the English Channel. In the United States the following decade, WENN and WGIV mobilized support for the civil rights movement across the Deep South, while in Algeria, the National Liberation Front’s clandestine station the Voice of Algeria rallied crowds in their fight for independence from France. Radio Free Europe broadcasted news across the Iron Curtain, and continues to do so in 23 countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia where a free press doesn’t exist.
Based out of Bethlehem and Ramallah in Palestine’s West Bank and the Jordanian capital Amman, Radio Alhara was birthed at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020 as an antidote to lockdown boredom. The online platform was put together in two hours, founded by architect brothers Elias and Yousef Anastas, Yazan Khalili (artist and director of Ramallah’s Khalil Sakakini Foundation), and Saeed Abu-Jaber and Mothanna Hussein of the graphic design studio Turbo. In quarantine, Radio Alhara became the unlikely focal point for a global creative community—a focal point with no physical “station.”
In the absence of public spaces, museums, and nightclubs where people could gather, Radio Alhara filled the void—“Al-Hara” means “the neighborhood” in Arabic. Initially, the programming was intended to reflect how we spent our days in lockdown: there was a morning cooking show called “The Ramblings of a Chef” and a midnight show on which curator Jack Persekian interviewed a taxi driver or the artist Michael Rakowitz, or played some free jazz. One host would play the full audio—not just the soundtrack—of films. On another show, from Paris, the editor of The Funambulist magazine posed the same question—“what is, for you, a moment of true decolonization?”—to a different guest each week. Tune in after dark and you might have the Ibiza-based DJ Sadeedo spinning Mongolian hip-hop for a Friday night dance around the living room or a broadcast of the ambient noise of Amman at night.
Like any lively neighborhood, Radio Alhara’s streets are brought alive by its citizens. Alhara invites their audience to submit playlists in a Dropbox account, creating a truly public space and an incredibly broad cast of global sonics. Many of their sounds come from hitherto unheard of—at least in the “West”—microgenres and undergrounds: Palestinian drill, Lebanese trip-hop, ’70s Moroccan disco and Iranian pop, Japanese ambient, and Bahraini wedding ballads, alongside songs that might be on your Spotify playlist and others that are impossible to Shazam. It’s a participatory approach that offers an organic counterpoint to curation by algorithm and a unique example of the mutually cooperative collective as an operating system for twenty-first century Spaceship Earth.
It’s a mood: “accept it or not, there will be vibes,” as Radio Alhara once wrote on Instagram. But let us not forget the context in which this is all taking place. Israel has occupied the West Bank since 1967, with around 430,000 Israeli settlers and civilians living in the territory. Alongside them are 2.5 million Palestinians, who are subject to military law governing their movements in untold instances of daily aggression—not to mention fundamental infrastructural issues, such as the annexation of their water supply. In a year as combustible as 2020, it didn’t take long for this tinderbox to flame once again.
By summer 2020, a cultural and community project became a political one. In early June of that year, in response to the Kushner-Netanyahu plan to annex over 30% of the West Bank, Radio Alhara hosted the 72-hour protest Fil Mishmish. It featured sets from the likes of Mykki Blanco, Ben UFO, and Nicolas Jaar—arguably the defining dance music producer of recent years—who debuted his third album Telas, marking Alhara’s peak audience in the five-figures. “While this 72-hour event arises from events in Palestine, it addresses the anger of populations worldwide and aims to unite struggles against injustice and occupation, while acknowledging the specificity of each case,” they announced.
Alhara’s efforts to connect worldwide struggles against injustice leverages the capability of digital media and social networks to create a critical mass of awareness. That critical mass was visible in May 2021, as Israel began evicting Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, leading to mass uprisings around Al-Aqsa Mosque and airstrikes targeting Palestinian schools, hospitals, and refugee camps—displacing a further 72,000 Palestinians and killing more than 200, including more than 60 children. Millions of posts on Facebook and Instagram spoke out against the gross injustice of Palestinians’ living conditions and Israel’s use of disproportionate force, messages coming from a younger, less jaded generation now attuned to instances of oppression in light of Black Lives Matter.
In turn, Radio Alhara’s protest parties evolved into the Sonic Liberation Front, with networks like NTS, the Turner Prize-nominated artivists Forensic Architecture, and 600 musicians from as far afield as the U.S., Colombia, France, South Africa, Senegal, and Indonesia contributing in solidarity. The effort helped raise awareness of the plight of Palestine and raised $25,000 for grassroots activists and the NGO Medical Aid for Palestinians in the process.
In this interview, we are joined by Radio Alhara cofounders Elias Anastas and Saeed Abu-Jaber, along with the experimental composer Dirar Kalash, the protest singer Jowan Safadi, and singer-songwriter Maya Al Khaldi, to discuss how music, like a tree cracking through concrete, can transcend borders.
What is the music scene like in Palestine?
Maya Al Khaldi
There’s a very strong rap and hip-hop scene here—that’s what young people are into right now. But also, there’s a classical scene as well, a pop scene, and there’s a very tiny, tiny experimental scene, which consists mostly of Dirar Kalash and a few others [laughs]. There are certain cities that are central to the scene. For example, Ramallah has a very big electronic scene, Haifa has a big focus on classical music, and Gaza has a really strong rap and hip-hop scene. But I think it’s really important to talk about how it really crosses the borders that separate the cities. People everywhere in Palestine listen to a rapper called Daboor and relate to him—even though there’s a real, systematic effort [from Israel] not to have any sort of unifying [Palestinian] culture.
What have been some of your favorite moments from Radio Alhara?
When I was at a wedding and the party music was being broadcast from Alhara: the radio played a playlist specifically for the wedding, and we were all dancing along.
Saeed Abu Jaber
In the beginning, we’d get submissions of beautifully mixed house and techno, but it didn’t work because we were at home. I’m not at the club. No one is in the club! We’re all wearing slippers and robes and drinking tea at home. So I would email these DJs and say, “Hey, we are more interested in what you listen to at home.” And the response most of the time was fantastic. So while this didn’t create a unified sound, the radio became like a good housemate, someone you spend all day at home with. There’s so much stuff we haven’t heard before that we need to listen to. From there has grown so much interconnectivity. Like we went to Athens last August, and we just decided to throw a little party with the Alhara resident DJs that we never met, or how a friend from New York is headlining somewhere in Mexico with a group of Radio Alhara artists. That’s the most beautiful part.
In terms of these cross-cultural meeting points, there’s this insane show we have every month called Tokyo Alhara, where these two serious crate-diggers from Japan broadcast Middle Eastern music from Tokyo. But also what we started to do with Dirar. Dirar lives in the north of Palestine, so he is two hours away from Bethlehem. And he comes and he spends one week in Bethlehem, and every day we have something happening. Once we managed to convince some priests to let us take over the church and to blow crazy sounds with the organ for a couple of hours, and everything was recorded. We might even turn it into a public event next time.
What is interesting for me about Radio Alhara is the fact that it’s not really a centralized network. You can’t tell where the center of Radio Alhara is; nobody can tell where it’s broadcasting from. And it’s the same for the audience—for the past three months, I’ve been on tour in Europe, and everywhere I went, I met at least two or three people who knew Radio Alhara, people with no direct connection to the station. I don’t like to talk in binary oppositions, but it’s very interesting to think of it as globally local and locally global.
Is there a particular place where everyone hangs out, or do borders and checkpoints get in the way? For example, is it easy to travel between Ramallah and Bethlehem, where Radio Alhara is based—or is it easier to drive over the border to Amman, Jordan, where Saeed and Mothanna work from?
We face these territorial problems every day, and it’s tough. I’m based in Bethlehem, and if I go through Jerusalem to get to Ramallah it would take 30 minutes. But I’m not allowed to go to Jerusalem, so I have to travel through the West Bank, which takes around two hours, depending on the checkpoints and military apparatus in place. That of course affects everything: it has a real impact on the production of any kind of project. It segregates. But we still manage to create links between Palestinian cities, even those that are under Israel control, such as Haifa and Nazareth. There’s an important underground electronic scene in Haifa, and these artists go out to perform in Ramallah or Bethlehem and other cities, so there’s a real effort to go beyond this idea of territory. But yeah, it’s difficult—it’s easier for me to travel to Jordan than it is to Haifa, which is crazy. This is one of the motivations behind Dirar’s Palestinian Electronic Orchestra project, which delivers music education to schools in different villages all over Palestine.
The main idea is to hold separate workshops for three to five days in different Palestinian cities and towns, villages, and some refugee camps, teaching them how to compose with—and to listen to—different instruments. It’s electronic, as technology is more available than real instruments in Palestine nowadays. The motivation is to keep our musical culture alive. Here, we have limitations on everything: on our being, on our thoughts—even if you want to buy an instrument you have limitations. So the motivation is to open it all up, and it all starts with opening your ears and your mind to what you can actually do with sound. Music is very organic to our social lives, and because everything is connected, it sets up a new way of looking at our reality, and it operates in a kind of feedback loop where we can rethink our reality and our language beyond just music itself.
Our borders are not only geographic. There are limitations when it comes to what we want to say in our lyrics: red lines around religion and politics and taboos around sexuality or the weapon industry’s experiments on children. It’s very sensitive stuff that you just have to be really smart about. People generally know me for my political music and protest songs. Here in Palestine, dealing with our political reality—as people and as artists—is a major interest for all of us. Music is one of the ways to get our message through and to also document our path, what we’re going through, as a narrative, as there are a lot of attempts to delete everything about us—to distort our narrative and to dehumanize Palestinian people. Also, sometimes I record songs anonymously and manipulate my voice—safety for artists is a big issue here. Fear is our biggest restriction, our main taboo. What we did as people, by going out onto the streets [in May 2021] was a moment of breaking that barrier of fear, and I think us artists have to go through the same process.
Radio Alhara started as an antidote to the boredom of the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2021. How did the lockdown compare to other curfews you have faced in the past, during the spring 2005 Intifada for example?
It was a very strange moment because there were parallels to different moments of our recent history, moments when we had to structure our daily life with curfews and military incursions, et cetera. What brought them together is the aspect of solidarity—because the solidarity we had in past times with the curfew was astonishingly powerful. And I think one of the things that really marks how the radio functions is the idea of solidarity, because the radio is a community project that has been built by the entire community—people from Palestine and Jordan and Lebanon, and from all over the world—putting one brick next to the other and creating this structure. There have been some important moments on the radio, such as the Fil Mishmish campaign or the Sonic Liberation Front that came about through intense moments of solidarity. This solidarity has been our resistance.
What is the Sonic Liberation Front, and how did it come into being?
This ethnic cleansing started in Sheikh Jarrah [when Palestinians were evicted from their homes to make way for Israeli settlers], and we’re like, “What should we do?” And actually, we didn’t have a proper response. We decided that since we are totally autonomous, an independent radio, we can do whatever we want. Dirar reached out saying he would like to produce a daily show where he goes out on the street at night and records the sounds of the protests, which he would mix into a very rough product that could be broadcast on the radio. But we decided to turn off the radio for a number of hours, just for us to understand what’s the best response to bring towards this very specific condition. And basically, after several hours, we decided to post an open call to anyone that wanted to contribute to the radio in solidarity with what’s happening in Palestine—to raise our common voices regarding this form of oppression in Palestine and forms of injustice that are mirrored in other parts of the world. For example, we had this 24-hour line-up from Colombia that was curated by Ana Martinez. It was a Palestine-Colombia solidarity project where these artists are remastering historic Palestinian tracks in a new kind of lexicon and structure coming from Colombian culture.
As an architect with a practice that works almost exclusively with stone, what draws you to music, Elias?
We’ve talked about music as being like the root of a tree making its way through a crack in a concrete wall. I think music has this physicality through its fluidity, and this fluidity is very important when you think about space, as it can sculpt space in a very particular way. What is really interesting with the radio are the parallels with the way we use a public space—we see the radio, really, as a public space: a public space where cohabitation is possible. Collectiveness is an identity that was created through the radio—it allowed us to target a new form of audience and democratize the waves. If you look at the structure of the station, 80 to 90% of what’s being heard is essentially music, but we still have cultural content, which contaminates and creates a new context for the music. It’s created a new form of outreach, because for example, if we come back to the Fil Mishmish campaign, where Nicolas Jaar debuted his album Telas, he spent the first 10 or 15 minutes of his contribution talking about the inequality of how water is distributed in the West Bank. It’s incredibly powerful because a lot of people that tuned in to listen to Nicolas Jaar are his usual fans, and maybe a big chunk of them are not really aware of these forms of injustices that are happening here. So you are basically using new channels of outreach that maybe have more consequence and impact.
Can music be considered an organic form, a force that can transcend the physical?
I make music to perform it—which is not a given nowadays—and to connect with people. And I guess for me, it is the voice, the singing voice, that is the most organic way of connecting with people. Now, I’m recording a solo album, produced by Sarouna, which I have never performed before, so while you don’t know exactly how people will interact with it, it does also mean that it goes beyond. It goes beyond a room, or a gathering of some sort—it vibrates across the physical being.
I think music is part of our being. Musicians in ancient times were shamans, healers, people who would transform society, and that’s missing in our culture. Everything today is more like quick medicine to urgent needs, and that’s a problem. We need to rethink our musical culture and the role of music in our society. And that’s a responsibility of musicians but also a responsibility of the audience—if we are talking about an organic musical culture, then the people have a participatory role in shaping this musical culture. Why do I see it this way? I came to music because I believe you can’t disconnect it from your lived experience. I never thought about becoming a musician; it was an outcome of our political situation here. Music is very accessible—nobody can stop you from making music, even if you’re just singing in the shower to yourself.
After a year of global upheaval, one question is on all our minds: What lies beyond the horizon? We know we need a new future, but what does it hold? What exists on the other side of disaster capitalism and colonization? What wisdom awaits beyond binary thinking and Western views of time and space? What does the cosmos contain beyond life on our planet? For Volume 06: Beyond we are imagining a world free from the constructs that have confined our planet and its people for too long.