What would be the political power of music without radios? For this second interview, we talked with Elias and Yousef Anastas, two of the five founders of Radio Alhara in Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Amman. We discuss more particularly Radio Alhara’s internationalist programming during the #SaveSheikhJarrah Palestinian revolt of May 2021 against ethnic cleansing.
Léopold Lambert: Yousef, Elias, you are the founders of Radio Alhara along with Yazan Khalili, Said Abu Jaber and Mothanna Hussein. You started it in March 2020 during a lockdown that was relatively synchronized around the world. Yours was even more intense, since you both live under Israeli occupation in Bethlehem. Can you tell us a little bit about the genesis of Radio Alhara? I was very lucky enough to be one of the witnesses myself, with my small daily contribution. Do you have a favorite moment?
Yousef Anastas: The radio started indeed in March 2020 at the beginning of the complete lockdown in Palestine. It started as an initiative, with no real ambitions and no goals. It was a very simple initiative of sharing music in times of lockdown during which public space was made completely inaccessible. The first lockdown in Palestine was super severe, so it was drastically changing our lives. It was comparable to what we had during the occupation lockdowns and curfews. So the radio started as a very spontaneous initiative, and it kept evolving. It kept on having new shapes and new forms as the programs were initiated on it. It started with us five, and now we have a new member of the team, Ibrahim Owais. The radio at the beginning was a public space, but an exclusively sonic public space. The idea was that people would send their contribution to the radio through a Dropbox link that was completely public, and we would program everything that we would receive as in a public space. Now the system has evolved a bit. We have an email based system, because we had a big load of files coming in. But the main idea stays that it’s an exclusively sonic space. The radio as an initiative is not really a project in the sense that it has no preconceived objective, no preconceived goal. It keeps on evolving and reacting to whatever is happening around it, in its closed environment but also in a wide sense. With you, Léopold, we started these two programs that you did on the radio, including A Moment of True Decolonization and I think it was really relevant. In a certain way it influenced the evolution of the radio because it has something that is very particular as it speaks about very personal stories. And when put all together, they have an impact that is greater than any big speech or any big discourse or any big theory. I think it’s the essence of the radio to have small stories, small personal stories, very subjective stories, that put together create a movement of solidarity and a movement of coming together.
Elias Anastas: Maybe I would just add to what Yousef was saying that one of the strongest moments, or maybe the moment that really represents the best functioning of the radio — how it became this communal project — is the “Fil Mishmish” campaign. Last July, there was the plan to annex West Bank territories by Israel and backed by the U.S.. When we started the radio, it was basically a project that is connecting different people from different areas of the world, sharing music, and sharing as well sonic content. It was broadcasting for Palestine and out of Palestine but it wasn’t a project that had a direct relationship with the political context. But this situation with this total unilateral and illegal annexation plan made us think that, as we have this platform that’s running online and that is conglomerating a certain number of people and bringing audiences from different parts of the world, we need to think of what content would make sense. And we wanted as well to activate the way we were feeling about this totally illegal political plan.
So I remember that day, it was a Sunday, and we were thinking that the best thing to do would be to invite a certain number of people to come together and participate in this online protest on the radio, where everyone is raising their voice, or a sonic content protesting this annexation plan. And gradually, within a certain number of hours, this kind of protest transformed into a protest against many more forms of oppression, and injustices across the world. It transformed into something that created relationships with other parts of the world, with other parts of Palestine, and with other communities. It was really interesting, because through sonic content, through music, the audience that was reached during this four-day protest was a very diverse one. And maybe some of the people that tuned in to listen to some of the contributors or some of the protesters were listening, hearing for the first time something about Palestine in a very deep way. So I think it’s a very representative way of illustrating what the radio is today and how it’s been functioning for the last almost two years.
LL: Were there some historical examples of (political or not) radio stations that you admired or that inspired you?
YA: I think the radio may not be inspired by a particular radio station or any historical radio station, but some programs certainly inspire us. We had this program on Radio Alhara called Sonic Liberation Front. In the beginning it had something to do with Palestine directly, but then it expanded and became something that had to do with the injustices and protests all over the world. So people would contribute to the Sonic Liberation Front on Radio Alhara to protest something else. They were all connected in the way they protest their oppressor or any kind of situation they were in. There’s an experimental music sound artist called Dirar Kalash, who worked on a sequence of interventions that were also inspired by radio programs that used to be found in Palestine, where actually the families of prisoners would speak to the prisoners through the radio. The prisoners would listen to that radio at this specific moment. Dirar recorded protest sounds on a daily basis, and created new sonic pieces that were played for at least 20 consecutive days. I guess the idea is that the radio reacts to some situations. In that sense, it is inspired by programs that used to be found on the radio. The radio medium is also a way for us of speaking about what cultural centers are becoming in Palestine and elsewhere: very institutionalized. Anything that is in relation with cultural centers is becoming very bureaucratic. The idea is that the radio also responds to that, and tries to understand what the cultural center could be without any kind of administrative burden. In that sense it reacts to what’s happening, not only inspired by radio in itself, but using the sonic experience to speak about other realms.
EA: Yeah, I think that’s extremely important. And the radio is basically an online platform that we use to broadcast sound, but it’s also a moment where we are trying to question how cultural content can be created in a different way. How can we create a way that is totally independent and autonomous, and that goes beyond the structures of arts and culture nowadays within these institutions? Even online, one of the things that helped the radio to reach the audience and reach the community that it has conglomerated throughout these times is social media. Everything that is related to promotion through social media has been focusing a lot on the idea of algorithms that are shaping what you’re looking for through these social media platforms. But I think the radio in reaction to that is very different, because the content that is published on a daily basis on the platforms of the radio is created directly by the community. So it’s not based on any form of algorithm, but rather on a kind of communal and collective production.
LL: You already mentioned it, but could we please go deeper into the Sonic Liberation Front and the sort of international solidarity that was developed through it — I’m thinking of shared programs with Colombia (with Edna Martinez who’s also part of this issue), Mexico, South Africa, Peru, Chile, etc. Also, last year, it was very important for you guys to also do something in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Could you tell us a little bit about this?
EA: Basically, the Sonic Liberation Front started during the ethnic cleansing that happened in Sheikh Jarrah earlier this year. It was again a moment where we had our regular program that was scheduled for the radio, and it didn’t make any sense to broadcast what we usually do on normal days. For a moment, we really didn’t know what to do, so we just decided that the best thing to do would be to shut down the radio for a certain number of hours or days, to try to think about what would be the most adequate response to this kind of situation. And after a certain number of hours — I think one day — we just posted an announcement saying that we’re opening up the waves of the radio to anyone that would like to show any form of solidarity with Palestine, or maybe to reflect on the situation with parallel forms of oppression and injustices that are happening throughout the world. And that was incredibly rich, because we were flooded with content that basically filled the hours of the radio for over 40 days with different forms of content every hour. And as you said before, it was really diverse. Various contributions are recurrent from institutions or by individuals, under the forms of lineups of artists and DJs coming together. Or we also had, for example, an afternoon of poetry with the Delfina Foundation in London. We had as well this very intense 24-hour lineup from Colombia curated by Edna Martinez. It was like a solidarity project between Colombia and Palestine and vice versa. And it basically was the start of a new form of collaboration with them. So it was this 24-hour line up that started, and now it’s growing into various other projects. I think what’s really interesting is to reach an audience that isn’t usually interested in the media that is covering any social or political news or events that are happening specifically in our region.
LL: And maybe talking more specifically about music itself. There have been some conversations, documentaries, debates on the radio, but most of what Radio Alhara plays is music. So perhaps we should insist a little bit, especially in an issue dedicated to music and the revolution. What makes those solidarity ties so special when it happens with music?
EA: In contrast to this massive image content that is available online, and especially during the pandemic where everyone was basically relying on social media and keeping connected through the internet, the radio and the sonic form of content kept a certain degree of freedom. And to respond to your question, I think during that specific month of the Sonic Liberation Front, we had very different and various forms of content that were juxtaposed one next to the other. Some of them were curated discussions about transversality in the social and political situation that are found in Palestine or in other parts of the world, followed by lineups of DJs that come together to show their solidarity with Palestine. So the juxtaposition of all these forms of content created a very unique soundscape as well.
LL: Maybe one last question would be about the place from where the radio is emitted, because that’s something you’re also trying to emphasize a lot. I mean as a default, the radio is based in Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Amman. But you’ve also been doing some special broadcasts from other places, and I think you’ve been talking recently about trying to make a mobile broadcast station. The three of us are architects so of course, the place from where the radio is coming is important, isn’t it?
EA: Yes, I think it’s important to think about how the radio is operating now, compared to one year ago, where we were all stuck in our own homes. And now, the idea is that there’s a big amount of the content that is being
created really all over the world. The vision is that now some of the events or some of the contributions can occur and can be produced in a live format, where they can basically trigger a totally different audience. And maybe that can be archived in a totally different way. So one of the projects we’re working on will happen next year, in April or May 2022. It will be in a museum in Essen in Germany. It will be the first iteration of a mobile station of Radio Alhara. We are currently designing a device that will be produced here in Bethlehem, and which will be able to broadcast in a totally independent way — whether on a sidewalk or in a museum, or anywhere with an internet connection. And the idea is that, very similar to the Sonic Liberation Front, this device would be accessible to anyone to come and use it and be able to air directly on Radio Alhara. So that first iteration will happen in Germany in April, and it will station in this museum for a period of four months. Afterwards, we’re working as well on different stations. We’ve been working a lot with Lebanon, and we have an important number of contributing residents who are based in Beirut. This idea of having a physical station is as well connected to some other partners of the radio such as the Ballroom Blitz which used to be a nightclub in pre-covid Beirut, and now they are currently trying to restructure what this nightclub is today and what it should be in the near future. ■