“I Am Interested in Human Stories”: Iain Akerman on the Alternative Scenes of the Middle East

Journalist and editor Iain Akerman has spent many years covering the culture and politics of the Middle East — focusing on the region’s underground movements and the people who animate them.

Iain’s pieces on street art in Beirut, parkour in Gaza, and Dubai’s emerging club culture (among many other topics) have appeared in magazines across the Middle East and Europe, as well as on his blog. Here, we chat about freelance writing, the challenges of creating art in places like Syria and Palestine, and his knack for finding fresh angles from which to cover an often-misunderstood region.

You’ve been dividing your time between Dubai, Beirut, and London. What path led you to this split existence?

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A mix of practicalities and a love of the Middle East, I guess. I lived in Dubai for nine years, using it as a base for work as a journalist, but also as a hub for travel across the Levant, Iran, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa. In the summer of 2014, I moved back to England for my son’s education. That’s when I went freelance. I ended up splitting my time between the UK and Dubai primarily, with short bursts of time spent in Beirut.

Has the constant moving back and forth between cities and cultures affected your writing?

I’m not quite sure. What has, though, has been the freedom to write about the things I enjoy, or the subjects and places I have a genuine interest in. And this comes from freelancing — the luxury to choose what it is you write about. The biggest impact remains my decision to move to the Middle East back in 2005. The complexity, volatility, and emotion inherent in the region are such that it’s hard not to be moved in some way. And that emotion and complexity can play out in your writing.

Dubai and Beirut are strikingly different cities — do you have a favorite between the two?

I have a strong affection for Beirut. Its allure may have faded slightly over the course of the past year, mainly due to the garbage crisis and Lebanon’s inability to shed its sectarian hatred, but it remains an exceptional city. It’s ugly and pockmarked but there’s a vibrancy that perhaps only exists because a permanent state of being on edge prevails. It’s also hard not to admire the Lebanese for all they’ve been through and continue to endure. Creatively, culturally, and politically the city is also inspirational, provided, that is, you’re willing to invest time in Lebanon and its people.

Photo by Iain Akerman
A party in Dubai. Photo by Iain Akerman.

On the other hand, Dubai is far less interesting in terms of culture, art, and people and does not inspire, but is more liveable and secure. It’s not really a place I could ever love, but it has been good to me. It gave me opportunities to work and travel across the Middle East and introduced me to a diverse collection of individuals from across the world who have had a huge impact on my life. It is criticized for being soulless, ultra-capitalist, and exploitative — and not without reason — but usually by those who have invested little or no time in the place or bothered to remove themselves from their expat bubble. There is a far greater diversity of people and environments than the city is credited for.

From vinyl collectors in Addis Ababa to breakdancing in Gaza to street art in Beirut, you seem to find your way into alternative and underground cultures wherever you go. How do you gain access into these scenes? What is it about them that attracts you?

Subcultures or countercultures have always fascinated me, especially within oppressive or challenging circumstances. I want to know why they’re doing what they’re doing, what inspires them to do it, and why their particular expression manifests itself in a particular way. In the Middle East these underground movements or alternative scenes often have the added intricacy of being forms of nonviolent resistance — particularly in Palestine, but increasingly in Syria and areas of the Maghreb, where resistance or protest is often in the form of music or art or film. There is a river of injustice and inequality that runs deep through the Arab world, and those who opt to fight for political, social, or individual rights deserve to be heard.

Subcultures or countercultures have always fascinated me, especially within oppressive or challenging circumstances.

They also deserve to be listened to. There is an excitement to their work because of the crazy environments they live in. This is not because of war, but because of oppressive regimes and limits on freedom of expression and personal choice. The interference of the state and religious laws in a person’s life is, in my opinion, outrageous, and this applies as much to Christians as it does to Muslims. And women take the brunt of much of this.

I have always been involved on the peripheries of these underground cultures somehow, particularly with regards to music, so finding and accessing the people behind these movements is an extension of both my work and my personal life. You meet people in Dubai or Beirut, for example, such as the Lebanese/Algerian rapper Malikah, the experimental musician Asma Ghanem, or the Palestinian/Jordanian band 47Soul, and are introduced to others through them. It’s a knock-on effect.

But you have to invest time on the ground talking to people, getting to know them, and showing a genuine interest in what they do. It is also a case of constantly reading and researching. No matter how many people you meet and how often you travel, you will always have to rely to some extent on the words of others. I have also been lucky in that I’ve been introduced to the world of alternative Arab cinema via my partner, and it’s there that you are given a window into the discontent and travesty of the modern Middle East.

You often report from places that are considered dangerous and volatile — to a large extent because of the way they’re represented in Western media, but also because of certain recent events (the civil war in Syria and the rise of ISIS come to mind). To what extend does danger — perceived or real — play into the way you work and the topics you cover?

A lot of it is down to perception. When all you see on Western TV channels is war and violence in the Middle East, then naturally the belief is that all of the region is in flames. Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya have only acted to cement these beliefs. But that’s not the whole story. Nowhere near it in fact.

I have no desire to see the world at its worst. I am not interested in the conflict of arms. I am interested in nonviolent resistance.

I’ve never felt in danger in the Middle East. But then again I’ve never entered a war zone, and hope I never will. I have no desire to see the world at its worst. I am not interested in the conflict of arms. I am interested in nonviolent resistance. I am interested in human stories. So I guess this in itself plays into the way I work and the topics I cover. I do not wish to die for an article. I will not write about the mechanics of war. I cannot, therefore, cover certain things. I will not travel to Damascus, although I wish to. I will not cover the political revolution of the Kurds, although I wish to. I can, however — and do — write about certain elements of the Syrian civil war, such as the music of resistance or the conflict as expressed through film. These are what fascinate me, and they can be tackled by talking to the musicians and directors outside of Syria.

Photo by Mahmoud ‘Moody’ Al-Riyashi
Surfers in Gaza. Photo by Mahmoud ‘Moody’ Al-Riyashi.

That said, I will travel to what most people will class as dangerous places. Although please bear in mind that you’re more likely to be shot by a policeman in the US than you are to be the victim of violence in most countries in the region. And even if some of those places — such as Gaza or the West Bank — are difficult to get into, you can always Skype. The article I wrote on surfers in Gaza, for example, was the end result of a whole host of communication tools, including email and Facebook Messenger. But it’s important to visit the places in person. To get to know them and the environment. Otherwise you’re essentially writing in the dark.

You mentioned talking to Syrian artists and musicians outside of Syria, so I wanted to ask about Middle Eastern diasporas: do you sense a difference between the art produced on the ground in Syria, Palestine, and other areas of the region, and stuff being made outside the region, by those who are no longer there?

There is a noticeable difference between those who live in Palestine or Iraq and those who live abroad as part of the diaspora of those countries. There is a stark difference, for example, between Palestinian artists who live in Gaza or the West Bank and those who live in Lebanon or Jordan or North America. The former are primarily engaged with the reality of living under occupation. The rhetoric is defiant, combative, and accompanied by the very real threat of imprisonment or death. Those in the diaspora, on the other hand, are dealing with an often overwhelming sense of loss. They are refugees, and with this comes issues of displacement, a longing for the homeland, and a sadness that can sometimes lead to a mythologizing of Palestine. There is tension between the two (between reality and memory), but mostly there is a unity of anger and a search for justice.

Contemporary Middle Eastern culture has practically no visibility in North American media. Who are some of the artists we’re really missing out on?

I’ve been enjoying the Aleppo-born DJ and live visual artist Hello Psychaleppo, who moved to Beirut after war broke out in Syria but now lives in the US.

He blends dubstep, drum and bass, and trip hop with the golden age of Arabic music. I’m also a big fan of Zeid Hamdan, although he’s been around since the late 90s and was one half of Lebanese trip hop duo Soapkills. For a band that has the potential to do well globally, Lebanese indie outfit Mashrou’ Leila are going places, but I’m more of a fan of 47Soul these days. The group’s futuristic sound of dabke is an upbeat re-working of traditional styles of music.

For me, the best filmmaker remains Hany Abu-Assad, the Palestinian director of Paradise Now and Omar. Then there’s Ahmad Abdalla, the poster boy of Egypt’s new wave of independent cinema. His Rags and Tatters was a near-silent experimental masterpiece. I also loved the Jordanian film Theeb, directed by Naji Abu Nowar. And although I haven’t seen it yet, Lebanese director Ely Dagher’s Waves won the Palme d’Or in the official short film selection at Cannes last year.

You described earlier how in the societies you cover, underground culture becomes, almost by default, a form of nonviolent resistance. How do mainstream audiences receive these artists? How do the regimes under which they work react to their art?

Many are completely ignored or attract only marginal interest. Others, particularly within the Arabic hip hop community, gain traction amongst certain elements of youth but remain underground. But some are on their way to mass appeal. 47Soul would be amongst them. They’re more focused on music than any expression of nonviolent resistance, but they sing for a free Palestine and for a universal Arab identity of tolerance and acceptance. They’re based out of London now and doing the festival circuit.

I guess Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila is one of only a handful of alternative groups who have reached a sizeable audience, both in the Arab world and abroad. I wouldn’t class them as any form of nonviolent resistance though. They’re more politically and socially outspoken, criticising the Lebanese establishment and exploring sexuality in a region where it’s dangerous to do so.

The reactions of the authorities depends on where you are. Lebanon is largely tolerant of these things, but criticism will come in the form of social backlash, as it has done in the past against Mashrou’ Leila. Syria is a different ball game altogether. The list of Syrian artists who have been killed, tortured, or imprisoned by Bashar al-Assad is long and distressing. Many more have fled.

What’s next for you — are there any upcoming projects you’re excited about?

It depends on whether I get the time to write them or not, but I’m attempting to put together pieces on modern Syrian film and an influential but short-lived record label based in Beirut in the late 1970s. I also want to explore female youth subcultures of Morocco and Algeria, but that’s going to take some time.

Follow Iain on his WordPress.com blog, on Twitter @themightyrouge, and on publications like Campaign Middle East and Vision.