How Kim Ghattas is changing the narrative around the Middle East with her podcast

'People Like Us' is the award-winning Lebanese journalist and author's way of challenging assumptions by westerners

Kim Ghattas is a Dutch-Lebanese journalist, author and host of the podcast 'People Like Us'. Photo: Tarek Moukaddem
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Award-winning journalist and author Kim Ghattas has launched a podcast that draws connections between the Middle East and the world, informing listeners in the Arab world and abroad how regional concerns reverberate on an international scale.

The Beirut-based podcast, People Like Us, was released on major audio streaming services last month, produced by Project Brazen in partnership with PRX.

Ghattas says it is intended to challenge the way international media typically cover the region and the way they break down stories in bits for western audiences to easily understand. A great deal of nuance and context is lost in this brevity. It also gives the impression that the issues are taking place at a distance, without consequence to the western world.

People Like Us intends to upend that assumption. The core team behind the podcast are all women and mostly from the Middle East, and the music as well as the logo of the series are commissioned works by Lebanese talents.

“I felt there was something missing in this space about conversations about the Middle East and making it accessible for a global audience,” the Dutch-Lebanese journalist tells The National.

“We are all dealing with some of the same issues. There is no ‘over there’ any more. What’s often lacking in coverage of the Middle East as well as other regions is this ability to explain to the western audience why it matters and why, at the end of the day, we are all the same, whether it comes to issues of impunity and accountability in the US with the January 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill or whether it comes to corruption in Lebanon.”

These issues, Ghattas says, are not so dissimilar and neither is the way we are dealing with them.

“It’s sort of been the great revelation of the Covid-19 pandemic,” she says. “That we are all in this together, that we’re all making some of the same mistakes.”

Initially, the podcast was envisioned as a narrative or investigative project. However, Ghattas says she instead wanted it to fill the glaring vacancy she saw in the way the Middle East was talked about in English-language coverage. Inspired by the format of Hillary Clinton’s podcast You and Me Both, Ghattas says she wanted to bring people of different cultural and professional backgrounds together to discuss a unifying theme.

“I think a lot about what binds us and what I can do to explain the Middle East better to a western audience,” she says. “What can I do to make them understand that we’re not that different? This is current affairs in a storytelling fashion. We’re telling stories in current affairs with conversations with incredible people.”

The first episode of the podcast, called What the Hell Happened?, brings together: Muqaddesa Yourish, a deputy minister of commerce and industry in Afghanistan until she had to flee Kabul in the wake of the August 2021 Taliban takeover; Lebanese writer Lina Mounzer, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, LitHub and New Lines Magazine; and US-Chinese journalist Shawn Yuan, who has covered Hong Kong and the Middle East for Vice, Al Jazeera English, BBC and Bloomberg.

The episode takes its cue from an article that Ghattas wrote last year for The Atlantic titled What the Loss of Freedom Feels Like, which points out similarities in the sociopolitical issues that Kabul, Hong Kong and Beirut are facing.

“It is inspired by some of the conversations I have around my writing,” Ghattas says. “When I was writing my article, people were wondering how I was going to put it all together. But it works. People are going through some of the same upheavals in different places around the world, and to be able to make sense of the chaos around us is something that has driven me as a journalist.

Ghattas has more than two decades of experience in broadcast journalism. She worked for the BBC covering the US State Department and is a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is also a New York Times bestselling author for the 2020 book Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry that Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East.

“I decided to leave [broadcast journalism] in 2017 to focus on writing books and articles,” she says. “Part of that was because I was a bit tired of the frenetic pace of news broadcasting. The other reason was because I felt something was missing in the way we approached journalism and coverage of the region.”

While Ghattas found more freedom to explore unexamined connections in her writing, People Like Us offers another dimension to her quest for meaningful coverage of the region. The podcast is not limited to exploring the Middle East in news, but also how regional stories are represented in other forms of media.

“The second episode is about Netflix, the power of online streaming, how directors deal with taboo issues, and how they are telling stories from the region for a global audience,” she says. “How do we tell our stories, for us, across 22 Arab countries in a way that is also accessible to an international audience?”

Netflix, Boundaries and Film in the Arab World features Lebanese Perfect Strangers director Wissam Smayra, Jordanian Al Rawabi School for Girls director Tima Shomali and Cinema Akil co-founder Butheina Kazim.

“This week we have the issue of impunity, from Syria to Ukraine,” Ghattas says. “There was an international rally around Ukraine when it was invaded by Russia, and there’s talk of pursuing Putin at the ICC. But there was very little attention paid to Putin when he was bombing Syrian cities. It was thought of as being ‘over there’. It wasn’t until refugees made their way to Europe that they began thinking about the issue. But they never tried to deal with the core matter.”

The episode features Janine di Giovanni, co-founder of The Reckoning Project Ukraine, Olena Sotnyk, a former member of parliament in Ukraine, and Syrian activist and journalist Wafa Mustafa.

“[Mustafa] has an incredibly mature approach to the western outrage to Putin’s attack on Ukraine,” Ghattas says. “Her response isn’t ‘why don’t they care about Syria?’ Her response is to explain why they should care about Syria, and to unite with Ukrainians to tell them what we learnt about dealing with Russia in Syria.”

Yet, Ghattas says as much as she wants to inform her audience on the wide-reaching consequences of the issues in the Middle East, she is careful “not to talk down to anyone”.

“It is one of the bigger challenges of this podcast. I don’t want to present something to the region where people will think 'that doesn’t represent me'. At the same time, I cannot do something that’s so specifically targeting a regional audience that it becomes unintelligible to a global audience. Sometimes that requires me interrupting a guest when they start talking about an event to shed context.

"At the end of the episode, you don't need to know everything, but you need to have connected, or we hope that you have connected with the people at the heart of the story.”

Updated: November 04, 2022, 6:02 PM