Live from quarantined Palestine, it’s Radio Alhara

An online radio station playing from the occupied West Bank wants to connect Palestinians — and the world — during a pandemic.

At a time when countries are closing their borders to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, an internet radio station playing out of Palestine seeks to create community in the absence of physical presence. The project has brought together segregated Palestinians communities, while also amassing a global following.

Radio Alhara, which means “the neighborhood’s radio” in Arabic, went on the air for the first time on March 20. It was conceived in a Facebook conversation between brothers Elias and Yousef Anastas, and Yazan Khalili, who broadcast from Bethlehem and Ramallah respectively.

The project was inspired by and modeled on Radio Alhay in Beirut, launched by Majd Al-Shihabi and friends as a way to stay connected while in quarantine. “They were very supportive,” says Khalili. It was easy to set up a page for Palestine on their platform, since Radio Alhay already had experience branching out with Radio Alhoma in Tunis. Wanting to maintain the alliteration, the Palestinian founders chose a name beginning with the same Arabic letter. The project is now a family of five, with radio stations in Berlin and Syria as well.

The one-page website is relatively bare. Following Radio Alhay’s presentation, the founders set out the project’s story in a few sentences of white Arabic text on a black backdrop: “This is a participatory project starting in Bethlehem and Ramallah, but it will expand to other cities across Palestine and the world,” they write. “We will open this space for listening, discussion and debate, so that we can spend isolation communicating with each other and remembering one another. We send love and hope to everyone, and we shall meet again in good health. Stay tuned, from the bedroom to the living room, and the other way around.”

The homepage also features a photo of late Palestinian Liberation Organization head Yasser Arafat whispering sweet nothings into the ears of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. “To be completely honest, it was a photo that was on the desktop,” Khalili says.

Besides convenience, the photo is also an attempt to inject humor into the dystopian reality the world is experiencing due to the pandemic, Khalili adds. Choosing a photo that conveys intimacy is an innocuous tease at the social distancing orders.

“Between the photo and the name ‘Alhara,’ it’s as if the whole world has become one neighborhood,” says Elias. “At a time when physical proximity between us is impossible, the radio is bringing us together. And the photo expresses the same thing, more or less.”

Setting up an online station is simple — all you need is a laptop, Yousef explains. The group broadcasts using Radiojar, a software that allows them to run both live and recorded segments. In a mix of Arabic and English, the three take turns in hosting from their homes. Listeners usually hear the clicking sound of the microphone switching on and off.

“You’re basically playing alone from home. I mean, I’m here with my wife and kid, of course, but we’re not dealing with a live audience, where you can sense their reaction,” Khalili notes. “You sit alone, and you begin to imagine, is the sound coming through to the audience? Is there an audience at all? Are the levels okay?”

Design for Rojeh Khleif's segment on Radio Alhara, by the Amman-based Mothanna Hussein/Turbo.
Design for Rojeh Khleif’s segment on Radio Alhara, by the Amman-based Mothanna Hussein/Turbo.

Every morning, they share the day’s show schedule via Instagram stories. While setting up the radio required little effort, figuring out the programming is proving to be a challenge, says Khalili. “This is what’s taking time. But let’s say nowadays, time is abundant.”

This is not the first online radio to come out of Bethlehem — Radio Nard preceded it, and should also be credited, says Rojeh Khleif, the director and founder of the Haifa Independent Film Festival, who has been playing sets on Radio Alhara. But while Radio Nard gathered only 750 Instagram followers over the course of several years, Radio Alhara has attracted as many followers in days. “It’s growing quickly,” he added.

“The question is how you bring content, and the community you build around it, and how you share it,” Khleif adds. By investing in marketing, and selecting trendy DJs who play a similar “color of music,” Radio Alhara is taking the right approach, he says. The timing also helps. “As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.”

The radio offers several daily shows, starting with a 10-minute food segment at 11 a.m. with chef Fadi Kattan, called “Sabah al-Yasmine: Ramblings of a Chef.” The morning of its debut, Kattan told the story of a family bakery in Bethlehem, and went on to talk about two different kinds of Palestinian bread: taboon (flatbread baked in a taboon oven) and shrak (flatbread baked on a saj griddle).

At 3:30 p.m., Leopold Lambert, the editor-in-chief of The Funambulist magazine, goes on air from Paris with a show of the same name. In each episode, he asks a guest the same question: “What is, for you, a moment of true decolonization?” On March 25, Yousef introduced the segment by playing “Your Queen is a Reptile” by Sons of Kemet, a song brazenly challenging nationalism and the British monarchy.

At 1 a.m., Karim Kattan (Fadi’s brother) takes over with Midnight Ocean. “Unpretentious city pop, surf and cosmic stuff for your smoothest anxiety-fueled sleepless night yet,” is how he promoted the show on Instagram one night.

In between shows, people from Beirut to Brazil play music. Yousef points to a segment that someone from Amman aired, of the city’s soundscape during quarantine. “You could hear more natural sounds, but also the sirens of police, although in an abstract way,” he said.

The audience profile is as diverse as the producer list, says Yousef, with people tuning in from Jordan, France, the United States, Canada, Sweden, and Malaysia, among others. A week into the project, the radio had a peak of 200 people listening simultaneously, he said, with around 20-35 listeners following the daily shows.

Design for the
Design for the “Atlas” show on Radio Alhara, by the Amman-based Mothanna Hussein/Turbo.

In the chat column on the platform, there are messages from people in Egypt, Scotland, and Australia. “Hello from Bucharest, Romania. Stay safe and enjoy the radio,” one listener wrote. Another listener cautioned: “Guys your mic is on I think.”

“Sometimes the mic is on while my son is yelling, and it goes through on the radio,” Khalili explains. “In my opinion, this is beautiful. After all, the broadcast is coming from our homes, from our lives. It’s not a studio, we’re not broadcasting from a closed space.” The raw, organic feel is part of the project’s identity, he explains.

When asked how they imagine that identity, Khalili jokes: “A green one, for the most part,” referring to the color of the identity cards used by Palestinians in the occupied territories.

While they experiment and streamline their process, the founders have been relying on a network of family and friends to keep the broadcast running. “The first people who played were friends. It’s personal connections,” says Khleif. “In five minutes, they were able to put on a live stream by recruiting their crew, who are DJs. Each person contributes what they can.” Mothanna Hussein, the Amman-based graphic designer behind the radio’s logo and visual aesthetic, creates the posters for Khleif’s film festival. He also plays the “Atlas” show at noon, showcasing music from a different part of the Arab world each time.

In an attempt to expand this network, the welcome prompt on the homepage encourages people to submit ideas for content — certain music they’d like to hear, an interview they’d like to conduct, or perhaps a text they’d want to read — either by email or via a link on the homepage. “We’re not looking only for spectators or a passive audience. On the contrary, we want a proactive audience,” says Khalili. “What we’re aiming for is live digital production that’s rooted in community, and that is up-and-coming and relevant.”

The communal, cooperative structure that is still in the making is as much of the project’s identity as the content, they explain. The overarching vision, says Elias, is to re-imagine cultural production spaces, and the radio is merely one tool to accomplish that.

“The project is a cultural center on air, and it’s a space for artists and producers and culture makers to present their ideas,” he says. “We hope this will foster experimentation among ourselves, and in the community more widely.”

The three share a background in arts. The Anastas brothers come from a family of architects in Bethlehem. After returning from their studies in Paris in 2010, they expanded into furniture design, and founded a community of artisans dedicated to industrial furniture-making. Khalili is an architect and visual artist, and a faculty member at Bard College’s MFA program.

“The radio began spontaneously, but it’s rooted in our past and current cultural activity,” says Khalili. “With the outbreak of [the coronavirus], rather than bringing our activity to a stop, we pivoted quickly to other platforms.”

The ability to make that transformation quickly and smoothly is part of being Palestinian, he adds. Finding ways to work together from segregated geographies is not a temporary circumstance, but one that Palestinians under Israeli occupation have had to learn to do for decades. “This division, and the lack of ways to reach each other, kept us thinking of alternative ways of communication,” Khalili adds.