Esra’a Al Shafei: The Quest For World Domination
August 14, 2011
Most of the world’s perception of places off the internet radar is a little skewed. We’re torn between what we see in mainstream, and most independent, media outlets and what little experience we have had with people from those regions. One such place has started getting positive much more attention these past two years, the Middle East and North Africa. For years during most of Bush Sr. and his son’s years in office, that part of the world has gotten quite a bit of negative attention. They have been objectified like most races by the American people and it seems that the stigma never really wore off. It has not been until the spread of the internet during the past decade in these regions that individual voices and stories have started to reach our ears. Some scream while others whisper and one of the loudest that I have heard is that of Esra’a Al Shafei. Her mission was a little different than most of the people that reach out. She wanted to unite people one way or another against whatever oppression they are experiencing in their part of the world and help spread awareness of it across the globe. This desire coupled with her tenacity heralded the birth of Mideast Youth which spawned off several individual cause based sites like CrowdVoice, Migrant Rights, and several others; almost all of her project have garnered a ton of media coverage from abroad including an interview on TED where she is also a TED Fellow. One project that I was delighted to see was Mideast Tunes because it gave me a pretty valid excuse to push myself into reaching out and making contact with her. This interview was sort of a byproduct of that initial mental push and it’s a great one at that. Please enjoy getting to know her as I have.
How important has music been through-out your life to you? What do you feel should be the main purpose or drive of music?
Music has been the most inspirational force in my life. There is a soundtrack to everything I do. I can't imagine my life without this kind of energy. It's so limitless and there appears to be a genre for each mood. It's something I've always taken for granted until I witnessed the way it was being used in advocacy. That really changed the way I look at and feel about music.
Out of all the genres that fit your different moods, which genre did you find yourself going back to the most? Have you ever been a fan of your native traditional folk music and what got you into the European styles? Consequently, which band opened your eyes to the potential for activism via music?
That's a difficult question! But I think I'd have to say electro/experimental. I have always been a big fan of our native traditional folk music and I love how some artists bring that into their own modern tunes. I've heard traditional folk music making it to everywhere from metal to techno. I think it's great to bring one's own roots and culture into the mix and exposing that for the world to experience. When it comes to European styles, I'm a really big fan of trance, and I think it's the local trance DJs that drew me to underground scene in general.
There are two musicians that opened my eyes to the potential for activism via music, Siwan Erdal and Foad Manshady. One is a Kurd and the other is a Baha'i, both are persecuted minorities, so they use hip hop as an expression of their thoughts, their identity, and as a way of bringing awareness to this oppression that their people are facing. Siwan was amongst the Kurdish musicians that brought me more and more into the cause for Kurdish rights. It says a lot about the power of words and how music is beyond just "entertainment" - it can transform causes, lives, cultures and identities.
Would you say that music is the main reason why you took up sociopolitical activism? If it's not the main thing that motivated you, then what was? Which came first, Mideast Youth, Crowdvoice or Mideast Tunes and how did the initial project get started? What was the evolution like once you started forming other projects?
I wouldn't say it was the main reason I took up activism, but it's definitely a primary influence in some of the causes I'm involved with. The main reason I took up activism is because I spent my childhood witnessing the outrageous abuses against migrant workers in Bahrain and throughout the Gulf region. I first founded Mideast Youth in 2006, and in early 2007 I founded a selection of cause-specific websites, including Migrant Rights, and finally came Mideast Tunes andCrowdVoice in that order. I really didn't expect Mideast Youth to be this big of a network, but there were many opportunities that other people weren't committed to that I felt compelled to create, it's what made the organization very unique. The growth has been very organic. Each project we created generate tons of support from people, who volunteered their team and efforts to help expand these ideas and taking them to new heights.
Interesting progression. It seems like you've been the spearhead of the entire organization for the most part. Before I ask more about Mideast Tunes, what kept you going when things seemed at its worst for your projects?
I went through a lot to sustain these efforts, but I never once thought of giving it up. People would always question the usefulness of having such sites, but I know that our strategy is necessary and effective. Even with Mideast Tunes, some people would say "I could just visit these bands on MySpace, I don't need this site." The reactions from many of the bands was the opposite, however. They felt the site was extremely timely and they all thought it helped them seek recognition for their hard work. That's the kind of feedback that has got me going. One positive response cancels out 10 of the negative ones. I had a lot of team members who walked out because they couldn't handle the pressure of running this network, even those that were just handling one of the sites. That's tough to deal with because when you're in love with your projects and spending 18 hours a day working on them, you kind of expect others to show the same kind of commitment, but that just doesn't happen without a slow and gradual process that I had to be patient with. I finally gained some of the support I needed and people's belief in me and in my team's capabilities gave me the encouragement and motivation that keeps me going. None of this is really possible when you're doing it alone.
Very true. Moral support is very important. How did the idea, concept and final realization of Mideast Tunes come about? I imagine that it was a bit different than the process for the other causes.
That's right, it was a bit different than the process for the other causes because it wasn't anything planned or some kind of injustice that I've been witnessing. It was a simple need that I felt should be met, and I didn't see anyone else doing it so the next step was pretty clear, I just told myself "get it done." I have a friend who plays for various metal bands in Bahrain and he helped inspire the idea. He invests so much of his time in the music and really taught me how influential one can be as a musician. I spent many months trying to find good music in the region and it proved to be a tedious task. From one MySpace profile to a Facebook page to a bandcamp page to some file sharing site ridden with viruses, it was harder and harder finding underground musicians. Even while I was happy to find at least some kind of web presence for all these bands, I was always dissatisfied knowing that thousands remain undiscovered. I told that same friend "wouldn't it be great to have one site to find all of these bands from here?" He enthusiastically agreed. That same night I registered the domain name and went from there.
So I'm guessing that the evolution from just collecting bands in Bahrain to collecting bands from all over the Mid-east was rather natural. When did you decide to take on the entire region? Given the nature of all your sites, have you been met with some resistance from your government or any other ones in the region?
We have been met with resistance from all kinds of people, agencies and governments. Some of our sites are censored in several countries, including here in Bahrain. I have always been interested in areas beyond this country. I feel there are a lot of shared issues that can be tackled collectively through open initiatives that involves an active and diverse community, this is why I knew that I would always seek to reach musicians to include that aren't from Bahrain, hence the domain name.
Unity is always key. Has Mideast Tunes been specifically targeted by any of these opposing forces? If so, what is one of the hardest obstacles that they've thrown in the site's way? How do you normally bypass or overcame resistance to your projects overall?
Occasionally, but fortunately for us we have been attracting the right kind of audiences. It's either the bands or their fans, or people worldwide listening to them and trying to discover decent music. When there are comments that are negative, such as "I don't like this band's message, because Kurds don't exist" or other such nonsense, we just ignore it or refer them to some of the other projects we are working on that deal with these kinds of issues. This is actually the one project that comes with no headaches whatsoever, except for bugs and technical challenges here and there, but aside from this it's been really fun working on it and watching it grow.
If you don't mind this question, but I know that once we get entrenched in the technicalities of things, we tend to forget why we started the path we have walked on. Despite the fact that your decision to become an activist is inspired by an accumulation of events, is there one experience that motivated you the strongest? The single experience that tipped you over and actually made you set out to do something in your own way; the one that you possibly use to touch base with your original mission.
There is nothing more traumatizing to me than the memories of the various migrant workers, especially housemaids, that I had to witness being abused in Bahrain and also in the other neighboring countries that I spent a lot of time in. When I was around 9 or 10 I saw a very young housemaid being beaten while I was waiting outside our school building awaiting my older sister to pick me up. For many nights after that I wasn't able to sleep, so I made myself the promise that I was going to pay attention to these violations of human rights so I can take action at some point in my life. That's when I started becoming aware of how people of other ethnicities and faiths were being treated, especially the ones we often hear little to nothing about. But when you feel so small and insignificant there's only so much you can do, so I just kept thinking about these issues until years later when I founded Mideast Youth and made it the platform for all these ideas to come to life.
Your dedication to that has been admirable. On a lighter and more music related note, is there a song, band or a particular sound that makes you relive a particularly pleasurable memory? Also, do you have a favorite instrument and have you ever tried playing music at one time in your life?
I love "Drama in Manama" by DJ FawazO. It's just a really fun song that subtly brings in elements from Bahraini culture in a very interesting way (traditional drums from decades ago.) He's a Bahraini DJ that I respect very much as he's always been supportive of the music scene in the country and was very responsive and helpful when we reached out to him for support. As for instruments, I used to play the drum set. I actually took lessons for about a year until I realized I was failing out of school and had to focus on surviving my high school years. I think it's generally a dream of many teens to be in a band.
A case of work over pleasure, huh? Do you still hold that small dream of being in a band? I heard of Scarlet Tear recently due to Mideast Tunes, but I haven't heard of many female artists coming out of the Middle East in general. What is the underground scene like for females in Bahrain and other places in the region? Are they generally accepted when they make a genuine effort in the direction of creating music?
Although I'm a huge fan of music, I accept that by now I suck at creating it. Even my drumming skills deteriorated significantly. It doesn't stop me from playing any chance I get though. I think there's a lot of females involved with music here, it's just that not many of them commit to it full-time or on a professional basis. As a result, their music doesn't reach the production level necessary to release it on a demo CD and some shy away from releasing it online if they're not as happy with the quality. I've met a lot of aspiring musicians here who treat it more as a hobby that they keep amongst their friends than something they're willing to risk their reputation for. In regards to whether or not they're accepted, I think it depends who you ask, and where. I know some women whose families completely support their music and decisions. Others completely forbid it. It differs from one family's values to another's, and one country's culture to another. Although the majority of underground bands currently appear to be led by men, I really see this changing. In Bahrain for example, we have up-and-coming female hip hop artists and soon I think we'll see women leading metal bands, like some women do in Iran.
It's good that women are getting more seriously involved and I hope that despite cultures, women will be accepted in the undergrounds all over. What are your future plans for Mideast Tunes? Got some exciting things planned for us?
I feel very strongly about this project, so I will do everything in my power to ensure its growth and development. The site is still in its early phases and we have a long way to go to build upon it. I hope more people will help and support me in this effort so we can get there faster. It's a young but ambitious initiative and aside from what the site offers, we have a lot of other things planned in the near future! So stay tuned.
It has been a pleasure and an honor interviewing you! I can't thank you enough for the opportunity to get to know you a bit better. Are there any last thoughts that you would like to impart upon our readers in closing?
I'd just like to take this opportunity and thank you as well for the interview and the chance to let your readers know about the project. I'd also encourage these readers to visit Mideast Tunes and support the bands by interacting with them and providing feedback. It would be great if people everywhere help get these bands the kind of exposure they really need to reach as many audiences as possible. Thanks again for your interest and support in this!