“Most mainstream media in the Middle East isn’t created for us, it’s created for our parents,” said Hebah Fisher, CEO and co-founder of the podcast company Kerning Cultures. Four years ago, Fisher and her partner Razan Alzayani decided they wanted to produce stories that they found interesting, “The kind that we can actually see ourselves in,” she remarked.
Modern day podcasts can be considered the digital descendent of the long tradition of oral storytelling, a strong and time-honored tradition in the Middle East. The podcast format allows storytellers to dive deep into topics typically avoided or only skimmed by mainstream media. Arabic-language podcasts are not meant to replace traditional media reporting, but to offer niche discussions around which people across the region and in the diaspora can connect.
There are currently some 1,000 Arabic-language podcasts produced in the Middle East, compared to nearly 800,000 in the United States. Although the podcast scene in the Middle East is still maturing, listeners there can now hear shows on an array of topics, such as long-form narratives about relationships, the body and the self, and the concept of statelessness, or simply listen to a couple of Saudi guys engaging in a roundtable discussion about cartoons.
“What we like about podcasting is that it allows us to do whatever we want and say almost whatever we want,” said Ammar Sabban, co-founder of the Jeddah-based production network Mstdfr, or “Speaking Out” in Arabic. “It's liberating for us.”
One of the goals of Mstdfr is to provide an alternative to traditional media, which Sabban sees as saturated with political agendas. “People are fed up with more structural, old-style media. They lost trust in it,” Sabban asserted. “We wanted to hear about films. We wanted to talk about why Pluto isn’t a planet [or] why young people aren’t getting married like they used to.”
Sabban and Rami Taibah, his roommate and Mstdfr co-founder, decided a few years back to record themselves talking about things they cared about and share it with people on their original self-named show. Today, Mstdfr is a platform with 14 different shows that gets 40,000 clicks a month.
Some podcasts do get political, like a number of shows produced by the Jordanian network Sowt, or “Voices” in Arabic. Network co-founder Ramsey Tesdell explained how Sowt tries to create a holistic narrative, an approach that differs from the partisan views mainstream media outlets often present. Tesdell said that they try to get beyond assigning people to ideological categories like liberal, communist and Muslim Brother.
“In some ways by ignoring them, we reject them,” Tesdell said. “And by ignoring them and doing something else, we are trying to create an alternative [way to talk politics].”
Antoun Issa, communication strategist for Atlantic 57 and non-resident scholar at the Washington, D.C.-based Middle East Institute, warns against lumping all traditional media into the same category, saying that countries across the Middle East and North Africa variety greatly in terms of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
To this end, Issa pointed to a degree of press freedom in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, albeit marginal. Meanwhile, in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the state controls the mainstream media, as exemplified in the recent crackdown on the Egyptian independent outlet Mada Masr and the great lengths the Saudi government went to silence the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, killing him in 2018 at its consulate in Istanbul. In these countries, Issa said, “There is no room for investigative journalism or critical thinking in the media and [even] storytelling.”
This is where the podcasts fit in. Much like social media, podcasts provide a platform where virtually anybody can pick up a microphone and upload what is on their mind, cutting out the middleman by forgoing editors and skirting government censorship.
When asked whether the Jordanian government had responded to any of Sowt's political podcasts, in particular one dedicated to the parliament, Tesdell replied, “There have been a few conversations.” So far, there's been no escalation to the point of censorship or removal. “We haven’t pissed anybody off that much yet,” Tesdell added.
Mohd Awwad, who lives in the West Bank city of Hebron, prefers to get his news from podcasts. “[I like to] understand what’s happening from the perspective of the people, not the perspective of the government and following the official media,” he explained.
Awwad has a background in media, but citing a potential peril of the profession, chose to leave the field. “It’s a dangerous job in the Middle East,” he said. “I’m still receiving calls to meet the security services each month [for interrogation].”
Bisan Abedrabbo, a Ramallah resident, listens to Arabic-language shows produced by Sowt and Kerning Cultures on gender and sexuality, topics that aren’t typically discussed in the public sphere of the Middle East.
“I like that we have Arabic content that’s controversial,” said Abedrabbo, who is working on launching her own podcast. “But to be honest, I still haven’t listened to a podcast in Arabic that amazed me or interested me so much.”
The amount of high-quality Arabic content is limited. Tesdell of Sowt explained, “I think it’s kind of a chicken-and-the-egg-type situation, where people are like ‘There’s no content,’ and the content creators are like, ‘Well, there’s no people.’” This dynamic certainly accounts in part for the slow progress of podcast listening in the region, especially considering that a market and audience of nearly 420 million Arabic-speakers is being overlooked when it comes to technology.
As of 2018, Arabic content constituted less than 3% of online web content, despite the region’s internet penetration rate, 67.2%, being higher than the global average, 56.5%. For an idea of how this can be, consider that Facebook only added an Arabic app for the iPhone in 2018.
In terms of Arabic audio content, the three-year-old tech startup Kitab Sawti is the main downloadable app dedicated to Arabic-language audiobooks and podcasts. English-based apps, like Apple Podcasts and SoundCloud, remain the top platforms for listening to Arabic podcasts.
All this means that the Arabic-speaking market is wide open for new shows to take off, an advantage that Arabic-content creators have over those in larger markets, like the United States, where, Tesdell said, “The saturation of podcasts … makes it much more difficult to get discovered.”
“If podcasting is trending globally, it will come to the Middle East,” Issa said, adding that the idea of the Middle East being “exceptional” when it comes to global trends is a fallacy constructed by the region’s leaders as a censorship tool. “It’s a matter of when, not if.”