Islamic Lifestyle

INTERVIEW-Lubna Al Khamis, the woman behind Abajora, Emirates’ first-ever in-flight Arabic podcast

Photo updated after publication: The Abajora podcast on the in-flight entertainment screen on an Emirates airline flight on Saturday May 5, 2018. Salaam Gateway/Emmy Abdul Alim

On May 1, for the first time in its 33-year history Dubai's Emirates introduced its first-ever in-flight Arabic podcast. Celebrating the milestone is Lubna Al Khamis, who at age 27 is the brains and voice of the Abajora podcast.

What does the milestone mean for Lubna? What is Abajora about? Does it make money? Why is it important for the young Saudi to produce the podcast in Arabic? And how do all of these figure amid the rapid social changes in her homeland?

Salaam Gateway speaks to Lubna in Dubai where she currently lives and works. The interview is in Arabic but you can follow it with our full English translation. 

1. Interviewer, Yasmine Saleh: Lubna, welcome. My first question is: How did you come up with the idea for the Abajora Podcast? Does the project aim to generate profit? And what sources of funding does it have?

Lubna: First of all, thank you for your generous hospitality. I’m proud to be with you today in this meeting and I aim, through it, to share with you a fresh piece of news.

In principle, how the podcast started, in early 2016, I was listening to many podcasts, especially American ones. There’s the Revisionist History for Malcolm Gladwell and Masters of Scale for Reid Hoffman and many other prominent figures in the American society, whether in writing, intellect, entrepreneurship, and other fields.

I was greatly influenced and sometimes felt a burst of inspiration every morning on my way to work, while sipping my morning coffee, and sometimes while playing sports.

I had an intense passion for looking at things differently. And when I decided to check Arabic content as a means of exposure to something different, and out of curiosity as well, I discovered that Arabic content was quite poor and meager in that platform in spite of its rise to stardom internationally.

Instead of lamenting this reality, I wanted to be – as Gandhi said – the change I wanted to see in the world. So I decided to start with myself, with simple tools that consisted of an honest text, deep passion, and a spirit eager to add something to this world, even if it was a word or a line or a poem or musical composition I can add one way or another to the podcast.

The podcast was launched with humble potential, and, thank God, it had a wonderful reception that exceeded all expectations. In my wildest dreams, I never imagined that so many people from different nationalities and across a wide age range would listen to me. There are listeners who are 13 years old, there are those who get in touch with me as they play with their grandchildren and listen to the podcast as a bedtime story, and everyone listens in their own way. That was the beginning of the podcast.

2. Yasmine: You’ve elaborated on details and events. We’ll get to the piece of news in a minute, but first, did the project aim to generate profit? And does it have any source of funding?

Lubna: Honestly, the Abajora Podcast has no profit-generating sources at all, but we aim in the future to work on that.

It’s a one-man show. There’s a very talented audio engineer who helps me with the technical aspect, but as for the preparation, presentation, editing, and other processes, it’s almost entirely a process carried out by one individual, except for some consultations from friends every once in a while.

As for the other matter, why do I – in the coming period – want to attract sponsors who align with my goals? Because we want this project to go beyond Lubna AlKhamis. We want it to be an Arabic cultural and literary movement, a phenomenon, a demonstration that attracts all those who want to light their own lamps.

3. Yasmine: We must now ask you about the news you have to share, which may – I hope – offer a source of funding.

Lubna: What I want to share with you is this: A few days ago, the largest air carrier in the world, Emirates Airlines, informed me that the Abajora Podcast was selected as the first Arabic podcast to be added to the airline’s in-flight entertainment system.

Of course, when we are talking about Emirates Airlines, we are talking about excellence, we are talking about outreach, we are talking about being international. Emirates Airlines flies to more than 156 destinations and carries over 53 million passengers. These numbers are huge.

If there is an Arabic podcast that accompanies all these great numbers of travelers, I believe this is a beautiful step and a true victory for Arabic content through this platform. I also believe it is a victory for all.

And if you ask me what such a step means to me, it means victory for everyone who believed in their dreams and started small, but then the whole world opened its doors to welcome them, because they were honest, persistent, and worked towards making their dreams come true.

4. Yasmine: Would this project be the first stable source of income and the podcast would turn from an idea into a business?

Lubna: The concept of profit does not interest me at the moment. The hero and the goal is the text and the content. If it manages to have an influence, I think this would be the true victory.

Profit would come as a result, not an end in itself for me. And if there is profit, it would be through sponsors who would see in Abajora a potential to grow and spread widely, and through that they would help its growth as a growing project on the intellectual, cultural, and literary levels.

But profit in itself is not an end. I think there are many projects one can resort to, other than polishing the language and expanding knowledge of culture, to make a living.

5. Yasmine: I think the next question should be: why Arabic, and why now?

Lubna: Why Arabic? Because it’s my mother tongue. I grew up in a prime literary and cultural sphere. My grandfather – may God forgive him and have mercy on him – was a journalist, writer, and historian, and he was the founder of Al Jazirah newspaper in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In this sphere, I grew to love words and appreciated the verb ‘to write’. I was surrounded in my childhood by many newspapers and issues of Al Jazirah newspaper.

I always had rich conversations with my father – may God forgive him and have mercy on him – on many topics, including poetry, literature, and culture.

It was only natural then to be the product of my environment and these surroundings. So I grew up with a deep appreciation for the Arabic language, and I think nowadays, we have a shortage in promoting Arabic content, support its power, and its presence.

I also believe it’s not just about the Arabic language per se, it’s about mixing the language with meaningful content. It’s not merely about talking, it’s about what we say. It’s not about the language used so much as it is about how we use it, for which purposes we use it, what we say in that language and how we use its letters to really create content that lasts for decades and centuries to come, God willing.

6. Yasmine: Let’s talk about the episodes. The episodes contain emotions, ideas, sources of inspiration, and life experiences, real experiences. But it also draws on quotes, specific information, and research in some cases. How did you come up with the idea? And I see you’ve added a journalistic touch to the podcast to the content (what happened before that, how the idea came to you). How did you come up with this mix?

Lubna: It’s a good question. I often enjoy talking about content creation, because content itself is one thing, but content creation is an entirely different matter.

I think that at its heart, journalism is the art of storytelling and the art of telling the truth, however different we define it.

The art of storytelling depends greatly on a multitude of factors. Today, we cannot deny the power of storytelling across history. Stories are containers and conveyors of civilizations across history. The Quran says: “We relate to you the best of stories.” And the proof is that even religions spread around through that tool.

I wanted, through the Abajora Podcast, to master as much as I can storytelling through all the tools I can utilize, through numbers, moving words, sound effects, from the sound footsteps to an audience clapping to the speeches of Kennedy and Regan and Trump, and, at the same time, merge them with the clapping of an audience, heartbeats, and many other things that enrich the words visually, because in the end, we want to transport the listener to an imaginary world that you contribute to, one to which he contributes, in his own way and his own experiences, by listening.

All you have to do is tell the story and the listener will receive in one way or another and will transform into scenes or images on his way to work or perhaps while playing sports.

This comes from real effort and hard work in the process of content creation. I take the Abajora Podcast very seriously, in every sense of the word.

In terms of reading, for every episode I write, I have to have at least read three books, or, to avoid exaggeration, I at least skim a large portion of these books before I embark on the writing process, not to mention dozens of articles and documentaries, because sometimes a one-and-a-half hour long documentary may contain thirty seconds that could entirely change the course of the episode from one thing to another.

The audience is very smart, and they really have taste. And I’m proud that those who follow Abajora and like its content have good taste, because many of them offer suggestions and remarks that reveal how observant and cultured they are.

So now I’m obsessed, this person who listened to me and who pointed out I can add this piece of Italian music or that, or a poem about historical ruins, for example. I’ve become obsessed with the need to charm and persuade this listener. I’m very proud of him and I don’t doubt his intelligence, and I don’t, in the slightest, doubt that this person has taste, is smart, is an evaluator and a bit of a tough critic, though toughness is sometimes in its right place.

7. Yasmine: I noted that in one of your podcasts you spoke of the importance of listening and talking, in that particular order. What made you believe this is the right order for those two? Listening before talking.

Lubna: I think Gibran Khalil Gibran is the one who said that we all have the same eyes, but we have a different outlook.

This outlook, that taste, they are formed through experiences and through a lot of hard work and patience to listen. God almighty gave us two ears and one mouth so that we can listen much more than we talk.

You cannot master the art of talking until you master the magic of listening, because there is real magic in your ability to live in the moment, listen to the person before you, and realize the depth of what he is saying. This is a message to everyone – pick the people you listen to. Your time is limited and so you should be highly selective in how you choose to fill those few hours in your day when you can listen to someone else.

You are what you listen to. You have some hours in your day, and you have the freedom to choose how to fill them. Do you want to fill them repeating the same things you have been repeating for years by listening to the same people over and over again, and having the same conversations that will not push you forward and will not evoke any intellectual revolution within you?

We pass through different phases in our lives. I recall that there are some conversations that I had and I was never the same person afterwards. I think that books, or reading are one way of listening, but it’s different from what we imagine. You listen to someone else, and they speak to you.

8. Yasmine: Who do you listen to?

Lubna: I listen to many people and I don’t like to limit myself to one group of people over time. I listen to many American programs and podcasts as I mentioned, and I do my best to get the best of what they offer through the editing process.

I believe all these matters are capable of taking the podcast to new heights.

Today, you have podcasts in Arabic and other languages. I’m proud that the Abajora Podcast has offered a lot of music that is not Arabic. I included a lot of world music. You have African music, Italian music, Frank Sinatra, Umm Kulthoum, Abdel Halim Hafez, Mohamed Abdou, Talal Maddah. All of these, I believe, are content creators, conveyors of a message; they are people who we enjoy listening to and who appeal to our taste. There is no reason against having a different spirit in a podcast. It doesn’t have to be merely intellectual; it could be creative as well.

9. Yasmine: We cannot have a discussion with you without bringing up Saudi women. [Tell us] where they stand and their issues from your point of view.

Lubna: Today, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is reveling in a golden age under the command of His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the new hero we wake up to every day. We wake up to his ideas, to his visits, to his ambitions. Prince Mohammed says if the Saudis have the will and the desire, then the sky is our limit.

We’re talking about a prince who believes in women, who empowers them, who supports them as much as possible.

As they say, can one breathe with one lung? Can one work hard with one leg, one hand? It won’t be with the same level of efficiency and the ability to leap ahead.

We’re not talking about a minority here. Saudi women, specifically young women, constitute 50 percent of the Saudi community and the Prince believes it.

There were unprecedented appointments of women in the Consultative Assembly. Today we anticipate the announcement of the first Saudi woman minister, and after that, there will be a huge influx of women decision-makers alongside the Prince.

The Saudi woman got her rights back. Saudi women were in positions of leadership in many institutions, sectors, and banks long before they were allowed to drive. Driving was merely a crowning glory and a natural right for women after their struggle. And it happened to coincide with how the Kingdom should move to new horizons by being not a mere importer of civilization but its host and an exporter of all its aspects whether cultural, economic, educational, and also the youth who lead the scene on several levels.

We are proud, I personally as a Saudi woman I am proud to see Prince Mohamed. I believe in him and I am ready – God willing – to be part of the social mobility he is leading.

10. Yasmine: There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia is witnessing major changes. But in Egypt, at some point, there were several concerns on civil status and divorce laws. I remember that at that time, the Arab actress Faten Hamama made a film called “I want a solution” that led to laws being amended. Do you feel the Abajora Podcast can play a role like that? And can it be aired from Saudi Arabia to discuss issues that might be sensitive?

Lubna: I currently do not lean towards that. There are many media people who have taken it upon themselves to discuss sensitive issues.

Right now, I believe that inspirational, enriching content needs to spread widely, by competing with superficiality, triviality, and chaos which we find in Arabic content in the media.

There are people who can discuss those issues. I think that expanding the perception of youth, enriching them with topics, and reconsidering many givens and ideas is capable of reviving the capacity to think positively and to help the youth rise to new platforms.

11. Yasmine: I will give you some headlines and I want you to give me a paragraph or a few lines as your reaction or the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear those words. The first word is ‘passion’.

Lubna: Passion is what moves me every morning. It awakens my senses to look at things differently, to feel things differently. I often do not wake up to my alarm clock, I wake up to the alarm clock of the passion that moves me, that enriches me, that nourishes me with all the fuel I need to leave a true print and feel the meaning of God’s use of person in this earth as an intellect, as a mind, and as a human being above all.

12. Yasmine: This one is a little different: Decision-making and the thought industry in the Arab world.

Lubna: I think we cannot jump to decision-making without first investing in the thought industry. The thought industry is the mother of all industries. Before we make airplanes and cars and any brand names, we must create the intellect that will draw, plan, renew, enrich, and inspire civilizations and motivate nations to have their own print, their own role, and their true standing.

13. Yasmine: Drawing on your answer, I will move on to the third one: Ghazi al-Gosaibi.

Lubna: Ghazi al-Gosaibi is the godfather. He is a great figure whom I remember every day of my life since we first communicated when I was 14-years-old after he commented on one my articles in Al Jazirah newspaper. His value is on my mind until today, and I want, one way or another, to trace its effect in life. What I like the most in Dr. Ghazi’s journey is its encyclopedic nature and its diversity. He was not just a distinguished diplomat or a rich poet or an eloquent speaker. He was a group of ‘invaders’ all together in one man named Ghazi al-Gosaibi.

14. Yasmine: Fourth, a headline and a date: Friday night, 9 pm.

Lubna: Nine o’clock every Friday night, before my father – may God forgive him and have mercy on him – passed away, was a date with passion, a date with inspiration and enlightenment. These sessions have shaped my intellect and helped shape my outlook towards life.

Sometimes I felt like the luckiest girl in the world with this father who gave me all components and words, and also – honestly, words fail me when it comes to my father. But all I can say is, I thank this man who believed in me and gave me the most precious thing a father can give to his child, which is to greatly trust and believe in him or her. Thank you my father, Essam AlKhamis for giving me the most precious gift of destiny. And I wish you were alive today to witness how I treaded this path and made sure you are proud of me and happy. May God forgive you and have mercy on you, and may we meet in heaven, God willing.

15. Yasmine: What do you expect in the near future?

Lubna: What’s next? That’s honestly a tough one, Yasmine.

My time in Dubai and the city itself have taught me to be ambitious but to also avoid laying out minute details in advance when planning where I go from here because I usually excel and surpass what I initially wanted to do. I see this around me every day in buildings, in ambitions, in ideas, etc.

What I believe in, and what I as a human being must do, is to strive, read, and develop myself and my tools. One day, people will see me and my dreams will find me. Until then, all I can do is work on myself.

If you ask me about technicalities, what dreams I must work on day by day, I aim – God willing – to do my master’s degree in acoustics at Columbia University. I wish for that to happen. And I work hard to become part of that established university.

I also hope the Abajora Podcast expands through sponsors and partners who can be part of this project, and that it becomes a platform, a phenomenon, and a major cultural entity in the Arab world. Abajora is not a product so much as a culture I aim to disseminate in the Arab world; its goal and value is enlightenment, to switch on a lamp in every house, on every phone, and in every car to enrich Arabic content.

(Reporting by Emmy Abdul Alim; Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh; Translated by Rana Elbowety; Editing by Reem Wafai and Emmy Abdul Alim

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Emmy Abdul Alim and Yasmine Saleh