Aswat al-Raseef: Radio broadcasting and psychogeography in Jordan
It’s not too uncommon to find it hard to think in a city where congestion, construction, and conversations seem only to serve the interests of those who you would expect. Amman is in an identity crisis in which policymakers remake a space that is ill-suited to a diverse demographic largely seeking refuge in the city.
"Jordan is defiantly pursuing ambitious plans towards modernization particularly within Amman, creating an image of a prosperous and hyper-modern city akin"
Jordan is ranked in the top ten globally for hosting refugees; its population has increased twenty-fold since 1950, with 70% of the city’s people under the age of 30.
Simultaneously, Jordan is defiantly pursuing ambitious plans towards modernization particularly within Amman, creating an image of a prosperous and hyper-modern city akin to the likes of Dubai or Doha through large-scale construction of high-end residences and recreational spaces.
Yet, increasingly it is the young population whose voices get lost in the noise of the newest high-rise residency being built.
It is within this context that 7Hills Skatepark was born in 2014. Mohammed Zakaria, the co-founder of 7Hills, recalls how the park was created “out of necessity,” “there were no public spaces for children; the intention was just to build a skatepark, but like all things found with 7Hills, it grew organically, slowly it developed into a programme that responded to the needs of the community. We develop out of necessity, not desire.”
From these beginnings with commitments to supporting the Jordanian grassroots, Zakaria explains how “skateboarding isn’t just a sport, it’s a culture and we want to support the children to experiment in all components whether that’s through clothing, magazines, or sound.”
In 2021, 7hills created a wider Urban Education Programme under the name Al-Raseef 153 as a space to bridge public-private space within social work in which young people of Amman can contest the right to the city through cultural and artistic production such as screen printing, woodwork and now, radio workshops.
However, as the programme developed, a new issue arose: the paucity of the Arabic language.
“Most of the children speak English to look cool and that’s depressing, we have such a rich language that the younger generation is just not engaging in.”
Aswat al-Raseef was a radio project launched in May 2022 by 7Hills Skatepark, Refuge Worldwide and Zaatari Radio to build a recording studio within al-Raseef maker space alongside a four-week curriculum of practical workshops on digital, technical, and creative radio production skills. As with all projects 7Hills, the radio was born out of a response to the gaps that they were experiencing.
“Language is an indicator of power, so we need to fight the homogeneity of English. That is why storytelling and creating podcasts about the real problems the youth of Amman are facing and expanding our storytelling can give us back our authority and our own culture,” exclaims Zakaria.
The project has been underpinned by a celebratory notion that the beneficiaries do not need to look to the West for influence but engage in artistic practices that draw eyes to what is unfolding in Jordan.
Over the course of the project, participants have produced podcasts discussing various topics such as mental health, pharmaceutical corruption, and integration into wider Jordanian society.
These have been shaped by tuition from some of Jordan and Palestine’s most prominent artists that have been turning heads toward a new wave of contemporary Arabic culture.
“The censorship that we have from our governments; it’s limiting our visions,” laments Odai Masri, founder and curator of Exit Festival Palestine, Exit Records and one of Aswat al-Raseef's workshop facilitators. “We live in a conservative society, most of the people here care about the image that they reflect, so to host events, to get venues to agree to create safe spaces or even to play certain genres of music is a struggle.”
This external sense of otherness is insidious, “we’ve resorted to pop-up events in abandoned shooting ranges or old Turkish Baths for our festival because even bars are not prepared to host such events, that means we have to rent the whole equipment, set up our own bar, its super expensive but we make it happen.” Within the backdrop of a hostile city, young people reclaim private space to shape the future sounds of their generation.
Perhaps this also alludes to the transformative power of radio; the voices of a disheartened yet determined youth take to the airwaves and occupy space which encompasses both public and private spheres.
In vain to a rich heritage of pirate radio whereby empowered communities organise in solidarity and fringe narratives become centred, Aswat al-Raseef intends to negotiate the right to the city whilst simultaneously celebrating all that becomes marginalised within it.
Maria, a participant in the project, explains how “over the past maybe 10 years there's been a much bigger focus from artists on finding and creating spaces that are inclusive, safe, and accessible for fostering community and creativity.”
"Aswat al-Raseef intends to negotiate the right to the city whilst simultaneously celebrating all that becomes marginalised within it"
Yet, “the hardest part about creating arts spaces in Amman is that inclusivity and public accessibility can be at odds with one another, so many spaces have to remain more private for their own safety and continuity, so communities can become insular. I think Al-Raseef has incredible potential to become the all-around arts space that is public, all ages, and free that Amman needs.”
Likewise, workshop host Mariam Elnozahy, and manager of the online radio station and Arabic culture platform Ma3azef explains that “the uniqueness in sonic narratives comes from the fact that they transcend language and are not as loaded with high context cues as is the case with visual narratives.”
Perhaps more encouragingly, Mariam noted “the commentary of the students in the workshop, who were discussing the ways that Jordanian artists can sometimes get stuck – whether because of a lack of spaces or a tendency to imitate pre-existing genres and forms. There seems to be an awareness that there is lots of room for growth in the Jordanian music scene, and it was exciting to see young people eager to facilitate that growth!”
Aisha Kherallah is a freelance journalist and researcher focused on media freedom and cultural outputs in the MENA region. She holds an MSc in Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics and also works for the Rory Peck Trust.
Tom Critchley is a researcher and tutor in the Design Department of Goldsmiths University, London. He has been developing Zaatari Radio since 2017 and also works for Concrete Jungle Foundation.
Knots is a research collective founded in 2022, focusing on the exploration of urban design, culture and geography across the globe.