A project meant to stave off quarantine boredom, the Bethlehem-based station is on a community-building mission, amassing a following with its offbeat mix of Iranian pop, Afro-funk, Bahraini wedding songs, talk shows, news, and debates
Taken from the autumn 2021 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here
On May 10, 2021, Radio Alhara, the Palestinian online radio station, went silent. The plan was simple: broadcast nothing but static for 24 hours in protest of the eviction of families in the occupied district of Sheikh Jarrah and the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people.
Within days, messages of solidarity began flooding in from other sound platforms and artists across the globe. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands flocked to the streets of major cities to protest the Israeli regime. “There was an urgency to come together collectively and reject all forms of injustice and oppression,” explains co-founder Elias Anastas. The station suspended its regular programming and opened up its airwaves to anyone who wanted to share in the act of sonic revolt. “We received enough contributions to run the radio for over a month.”
As global protests spread, so did the sound of resistance. From Cape Town to London, Armenia to India, community radios disrupted their daily programming to mirror the station’s hourly takeovers.
Soon, this global act of solidarity became known as the Sonic Liberation Front. “The asymmetric relationship between those who give orders and those who must obey is always demonstrated by who controls access to the soundscape,” read a statement on Radio Alhara’s website. In a state of occupation – where movements are policed by checkpoints and words are silenced by bullets and teargas – anything that goes against the regime is innately political. With the words “No one is free until we are all free” underscoring each broadcast, sound became Radio Alhara’s most valuable form of ammunition.
Founded by Elias and his brother Yousef, Yazan Khalili, Saeed Jaber, and Mothanna Hussein, the radio launched in March 2020 under the name Alhara (‘the neighbourhood’). Initially, the project was meant to stave off quarantine boredom but quickly amassed a cult following when people across the world were confined to their homes. Its experimental programming meant that listeners could tune in to everything from pre-revolution Iranian pop to Afro-funk and Bahraini wedding songs. Talk shows hosted chefs who discussed the making of Palestinian bread, while academics debated the wild boar epidemic in the city of Haifa. “The most beautiful thing about the radio is its capacity to adapt to different programmes,” explains Yousef. “Its entire structure is built around collectivity, and that makes it very inclusive.”
Yousef compares our current state of global confinement to the intermittent lockdown Palestinians have faced over the past 30 years. “The lockdown in the West Bank looked very similar to curfew contexts that we faced during the last decades in Palestine,” he says. “Maybe what was special this time was that the lockdown wasn’t only happening here, but globally. It was the first time we didn’t feel lonely – the whole world shared the lockdown with us.”
The pandemic offered Radio Alhara a unique opportunity as clued-up music lovers from across the globe rushed online in search of a digital community. Their neighbourhood became the entire world, with shows in Arabic, English, and French – and a public Dropbox folder inviting anyone from the community to upload a show and have it scheduled for broadcast. “We were very interested in blurring the line between listeners and producers from the beginning,” says Yousef. “We feel that there is a family that keeps on growing, that is bringing in new forms of content and culture every day.”
Radio has been a potent tool for Palestinians and their Arab neighbours, who share the same culture and language but are divided by physical and colonial borders. “Since day one, I couldn’t shake the need to contribute and work with the team in Palestine,” says Moe Choucair, a resident DJ with the station and co-founder of Beirut club The Ballroom Blitz. “Being Lebanese, you don’t get the chance to collaborate with your neighbours so much. Palestinians hold Israeli phone numbers, and those lines are heavily monitored in Lebanon. Talk to the wrong person and you might get someone knocking on your doorstep the next day. Luckily, I got Elias.”
“The lockdown in the West Bank looked very similar to curfew contexts that we faced during the last decades in Palestine. Maybe what was special this time was that the lockdown wasn’t only happening here, but globally... the whole world shared the lockdown with us” – Yousef Anastas
“Beirut has got a lot of opinions about everything,” Choucair explains. “I was brought up by sympathisers and I’ve always found a way to surround myself with friends and co-workers who support the cause. We never had an issue while programming, though: perhaps musicians see things differently.”
Underpinning Alhara’s grassroots approach is the desire to shift focus away from cultural institutions towards a more inclusive way of thinking. “Cultural institutions have become very dependent on donor economy and proposal writing,” says Khalili. “They have lost their ability to be authentic, both in their programming and towards the communities they work with.” This applies to online spaces, too: “Social media has become a space that is controlled and exploited by the companies that own it. Many digital platforms are corporate and algorithm-led.”
In contrast, says Khalili, the radio “is fuelled by the content brought in by its listeners, who also happen to be its producers”. This gives the platform an authenticity, where programming isn’t dictated by algorithms, clout and follower counts, but rather, a shared love of music.
“The richness of the content (our station) has been diffusing comes from our very diverse community throughout the Middle East and the world,” says Elias. As the world opens up, Radio Alhara is moving into the physical realms, with the first edition of its pop-up station taking place at Germany’s Folkwang Museum next spring. “As the family grows, the radio evolves,” says Elias. “(We want to) gather a community without having any particular predefined shape, but by adapting, transforming and interacting with the world – or, with alhara.”