Radio Alhara: Five friends set up a community station to stay connected during self-isolation

Broadcast from Ramallah, Bethlehem and Amman, it provides a space for music and politics

An announcement for the Flee Project on Radio Alhara. Courtesy Radio Alhara
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When in doubt, create. A group of five friends comprising an artist, architects and graphic designers have responded to the quarantine by producing an online radio station, Radio Alhara. They broadcast music and other programmes from their homes in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Amman.

“Very quickly in Palestine we were put under strict lockdown,” says Elias Anastas, an architect in Bethlehem. “So the radio was a way of communicating among ourselves. We were trying to exchange our music, and have conversations about the Middle East and the world situation.”

Anastas and his brother Yousef, along with Yazan Khalili, Saeed Jaber and Mothanna Hussein, came up with the idea last month during a Facebook discussion, and by the next day they were broadcasting. “On March 19, we spoke, and on the 20th it was on,” says Khalili, an artist in Ramallah.

One of Radio Alhara's founders, Mothanna Hussein, DJs as Atlas for Radio Alhara. Courtesy Radio Alhara

The group got in touch with Yamakan radio, which hosts platforms in Beirut and Tunis, and asked to set up a third outpost. Jaber and Hussein, who are graphic designers in Amman, came up with a logo, and Radio Alhara – or the neighbourhood radio – was born.

It's a way of finding freedom in these times

“When the quarantine began, we were bombarded by emails from cultural institutions saying: ‘We are opening our archive, just sit and listen,’” says Khalili. “It was overwhelming. We are tense, we are worried – you cannot sit and watch an experimental film. Instead of being a passive consumer of culture, the radio provides a space to be proactive, to produce things, music [and for] discussions.”

Radio Alhara’s programmes are filled with energy, slaloming from soul to house to classical Arabic to disco music. The five have designed segments with quarantine time in mind, something you could have on in the background: cook dinner to Afro funk; answer emails to techno; dance with your children to the Beatles.

For many, it is a breath of fresh air into what you might call a household soundscape. During self-isolation, repetition sets in: you might find yourself wearing the same clothes day after day; shuffling from bedroom to kitchen to computer and back; or having the same conversations with the same people on the same topics. Radio Alhara cracks open a window to let other voices in.

“It’s a way of finding freedom in these times,” says Anastas. He and the others believe Radio Alhara is more than simply a radio station: “It is an opportunity to question what is a cultural centre in the future, or how we could think about culture in a more common way, as less clustered and more open.”

An announcement for the writer Karim Kattan's nightly programme, 'Midnight Ocean', from 1am to 4pm Palestinian time, on Radio Alhara. Radio Alhara

The focus is global, albeit rooted in the Arab world. Guests such as curator Reem Shadid and artist Basma Alsharif are invited to curate slots, while unsolicited submissions are encouraged via an open Dropbox on Radio Alhara’s website.

Musicians simply play what they are listening to themselves; Hussein, who also DJs as Atlas, hosts a popular music programme. During the graveyard shift, titled “Midnight Ocean”, Palestinian writer Karim Kattan selects ambient Japanese music inspired by a novel he is writing about his grandparents’s exile in Japan.

“Nothing is planned,” says Anastas. “We think, we adjust, we plan new programmes, replace other programmes. It is organic.”

This radio is about a voice, about music, talking about politics of space, or food in the morning, classical music in the afternoon

Radio Alhara was quick to gain an audience, with word travelling along the circuits of the art, design and music communities. A group of dedicated listeners has also formed in Dubai. But organisation is a challenge. As is de rigueur for quarantine life, the group communicates on WhatsApp and Zoom, and they monitor a shared email address. Alongside discussions around music and notions of cultural space, terms such as “efficient workflow” raise their heads. While other offices shift existing infrastructures to the web, Radio Alhara has the added task of starting a whole new project from scratch.

It helps that, as creative practitioners go, the five have a rare gift for organisation – or at least are not afraid of it. Khalili has been the director of the Khalil Sakakini Foundation for the past four years, one of the key art centres in Ramallah. Anastas and Yousef set up the architecture company AAU Anastas in Bethlehem, which has now acquired a trailing list of accolades in the press. Jaber and Hussein are the co-founders of Turbo, a design agency that also hosts pop-up exhibitions, a recording studio, and a general space for congregation on the outskirts of Amman’s hipster Weibdeh neighbourhood.

Like everyone, they have been affected by lockdown measures, and the lo-fi, so home-broadcasting aesthetic comes as much by choice as by necessity.

Plans have been upended: Khalili, for example, opened a new show on March 14 at the KW Institute of Contemporary Art in Berlin, exploring how digital archives can complicate histories of unrest – but the show closed after only one day. He did not even make it to the opening. Khalili left Berlin just before the lockdown in Palestine.

And although Palestine is familiar with curfews, he says the coronavirus quarantine feels different.

“Twenty years ago, we were confined in our home during the Second Intifada,” he recalls. “There was no social media; we were fighting for one hour of internet a day. At that time, the idea of the lockdown was something happening to you by your enemy, and therefore your task, in a very basic way, was to break this curfew; find the streets that you could use to see your friends, find out how to connect to your neighbours. It was not fear of the human, but fear of the enemy.”

The coronavirus, by contrast, is a universal concern, but built upon contradictions; it unites communities at the same time as it requires them to isolate themselves. Radio Alhara’s success so far, as a community radio station, might just be that it is a reminder of a more expansive idea of togetherness.

“This radio is about a voice, about music, talking about politics of space, or food in the morning, classical music in the afternoon,” says Hussein.

“A voice that is trying to narrate different stories.”

Radio Alhara can be streamed via its website: