A Podcast Changing the Narrative of the Arab World

A storytelling renaissance is flourishing in the Middle East, driven by podcasts from the region. Kerning Cultures, based in the UAE, is challenging perceptions about the Arab world one story at a time.

A storytelling renaissance is flourishing in the Middle East, driven by podcasts from the region. Kerning Cultures, based in the UAE, is challenging perceptions about the Arab world one story at a time.

While the U.S. is seemingly in the midst of a podcasting frenzy, the podcasting culture in the Middle East and North Africa is still in its infancy. In 2006, only 22% of adults in the U.S. were familiar with the term “podcast,” according to data from Statista. Just over a decade later, this figure has risen to 60 percent in 2017, highlighting the growing popularity of this medium in America.

One UAE-based podcast is trying to redefine the Middle East’s narrative by sharing unique content about the region with the world. Kerning Cultures is a podcast that tells “brilliant human-centered stories from the Middle East and its diaspora,” according to the Khaleej Times.

The podcast’s co-founders are Hebah Fisher and Razan Alzayani. Fisher, who is Egyptian-American, grew up in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the U.S., and the United Arab Emirates. Similarly, Alzayani grew up in Bahrain, the U.K., the U.S., and the United Arab Emirates. With their diverse multicultural upbringings, Fisher and Alzayani immediately clicked when they met, and their friendship paved the way for the Kerning Cultures podcast.  

The name is unusual. In typography, “kerning” is the process of adjusting the space between letters in a font to ensure that it is easily read and aesthetically pleasing. Fisher and Alzayani felt that this typography term was perfect for the title of their podcast.

“We loved the metaphor of cultures kerning through our stories,” they wrote on their website. “As children of the Middle East, we have grown up surrounded by regional and international media that pigeonholes the Middle East and North Africa into politics.” The Kerning Cultures team has made it their mission to change the narrative of the region.

“[W]e tell the kinds of stories in which we can actually see ourselves, the kinds of stories we want to discuss with our friends over warm cups of coffee on cozy sofas. Because we love stories — really good stories, and there are so many from our region just waiting to be told.”

“[W]e tell the kinds of stories in which we can actually see ourselves, the kinds of stories we want to discuss with our friends over warm cups of coffee on cozy sofas. Because we love stories — really good stories, and there are so many from our region just waiting to be told.”

Not only does the Kerning Cultures podcast delve into the rich culture of the Middle East, it also tells the stories in a manner that is very specific to the region.

“We realised that there was nothing [out there] like the style of storytelling we wanted to do in podcast form in the UAE,” Fisher told the Khaleej Times.

She describes their approach as being in the nostalgic style of “the [hakawati] — the oral storytellers in the streets around which crowds would gather to hear long-form tales. We wanted to transport people into worlds of the characters, with a combination of rich sound designs, relatability, and intrigue.”

These stories span the spectrum: a narrative of a Syrian asylum-seeker’s journey from Istanbul to Norway; interviews with Arab women rebuilding their lives after divorce; and the identity crisis that the American census causes for Arab-Americans.

However, because podcasts are not well-known in the region, many podcasters in the Middle East struggle to get their stories out there. This can be frustrating for podcasters like Fisher and Alzayani because every Kerning Cultures episode takes an average of three months to put together, between research, interviewing, scripting, editing, narrating, and post-production sound design. Despite the challenges, Fisher believes that the work is not without its rewards.  

“It means a lot when listeners tell us how much they love the show or how they cry when they’re listening to it because they feel like we’re telling their own story,” Fisher told the Khaleej Times.

The internet has democratized the world of radio by giving passionate creatives like Fisher, Alzayani, and the Kerning Cultures team a unique opportunity to produce content that shares an authentic Middle Eastern voice. Each podcast is not only from the region and for the region, but it is also intended to educate an international audience about the complexities of the region.

So, the next time you are stuck in traffic or feel like travelling to the Middle East from the comfort of your own living room, put on an episode of Kerning Cultures and enjoy one of the many podcasts that is heralding a new era of storytelling.