Sunday, September 07, 2008

The [extremely short] history of Arab sites online

If you were an Arab who lived abroad in the year 2000, unless you had a satellite dish, it was incredibly difficult to keep in touch with things that were happening back home. I used to remember endlessly searching the Internet looking for things about Damascus whenever I was home sick, and I recall having on my computer desktop a picture of Damascus which showed Qasyoun mountain in the background of a sprawling city. To make it a tad more nostalgic, I had the image converted into black-and-white since it wasn't of good quality. To my surprise it is still floating about online and I've attached it on this post for you all to see. This is one of the first pictures of Syria on the Internet by an unknown photographer - enjoy. Another thing which I found hard to do at the time was to find any good Arabic MP3's. Back then I had just discovered Napster but, to my deep dismay, there were precious little good Arabic songs available. The many Arabic music sites now available were nowhere to be seen and the most people could hope for was the - at the time extremely popular - which is now defunct and which could have allowed people to share their favourite songs online or tips on where to find all things Arab on the web. There were also the beginnings of the horrid discussion boards which are now everywher. All these were a way for the online Arab community to stay somehow stay connected in the wilderness of a technological plain called the web and it is with these faint reminders that I was able to temporarily sate my home-sickness.

Arabic music sites did eventually start emerging and one of the earliest I was told about was (the 6 represents the letter ط in the Arabic alphabet) which gave a - by those days' standards - huge music selection but all in Real Media player format unfortunately. I pondered often about this annoying choice since it meant I could not play these songs on my MP3 player and the quality was often terrible. I later reasoned that because the Internet connections were so slow in many parts of the Arabic world, it made sense to have it in a format that people could easily obtain. It also made commercial sense since bandwidth cost more money for hosting providers back then. To see the state of many sites as they were back then, you can use the Wayback archive on the Internet which lets you see websites as they existed since they first started. This is particularly handy for sites which no longer exist or which have been taken down by malicious activity. One of the first sites to offer some MP3-format songs was, a site which used to be my favourite till they started charging people money. It is still around but I find having to login and fiddle with card details extremely annoying. Currently, my favourite site has to be, a site which lists only the Arab musicians worth mentioning and leaves out the ridiculous Rotana, Star academy-esque media monkeys. 

Like many expatriate Syrians my age I had little idea about how rich Arabic music was and the most one could expect with me was a deferential bob of the head as I listened to Umm Kalthoum or Abd el Halim (in short doses of course) but which were categorised as something I 'should' appreciate because they lived in black-and-white. As a nostalgic expatriate I was also expected, and happily obliged, with listening to Fairouz in the mornings. A wonderful time but anything more than that and I lost my frame of reference. To be very honest it hasn't been until the last two years, since beginning my Oud classes 12 months ago and since listening to al Sheikh Imam, that my interest in Arabic music widened and I grew to appreciate the full breadth of Arabic music. I began to realise how little I actually knew about it and how much pleasure could be gained by soaking in the words and the beautiful melodies. I now really do enjoy Abd el Haleem and Omm Kalthoum, as well as Fairouz, but in a way I could not have comprehended all those years ago. Sayid Makawi, Sheikh Imam, digressions with Fahd Balan and Samira Tawfiq. I discovered that Sabah was not just a woman who likes to marry younger men but that her voice was also amazing. I gradually learned to love Sabah Fakhry, and stopped associating him with the fat Syrian bourgeoise expats who only listened to him because he was 'Syrian'. In short, a wonderful new world opened to me and this coincided with the explosion of Arabic music sites which now offered much better quality downloads and for a wider variety of singers. Youtube is also amazing for just clicking away on a plethora of Arabic songs and you can now make sophisticated playlists of the songs you like to play in the background as you work, read or cook.

It is much nicer being an Arab expat online nowadays, home is a click away and the chatter of my fellow exiles is sometimes much more varied and interesting. I feel like an old grandfather, recalling the old days and seeing now how a huge city has been built, but with memories of the meadows or hills which once existed before everybody came and started living there. In some ways I am nostalgic for that special feeling which came when we managed to connect for the first time with other Arabs online, with discovering a great site on the Levant like Al Mashriq, or with finding that song that you absolutely 'had' to listen to and enjoying it on a tinny Real Audio player. On the other hand, I can't imagine going back to those solitary days where the only way you could communicate with back home was buying a phone card and making calls from the booths outside in the street whilst it was freezing cold. It is good to be an Arab online these days.

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