BEIRUT: A podcast can’t change the world, but it can help change perceptions. Stories of Our City is a new non-governmental organization in Beirut hoping to transform stereotypes about the Arab world, one podcast at a time.
Stories of Our City was started up by American citizens Katy Gilbert and Bart Cochran in an effort to contribute to peace and provide a better understanding of the troubled Middle East. The idea took hold when Gilbert realized many of her fellow Americans had distorted views of the Arab world. “People were amazed that I lived there,” said Gilbert, who before relocating to Lebanon, lived in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. “When I would say that Jordan was safer than any major city in the US, people would just be floored.”
To shake off the persistent stereotype that all Arabs are Muslim terrorists, Stories of Our City every Monday uploads a podcast telling the story of an ordinary Arab individual, hoping to nurture a sense of community and common ground with American audiences. The stories are told through ad-hoc conversation, touching on all sorts of subjects from dreams or memories, to fears and hopes.
One woman recounts her childhood at an orphanage in southern Lebanon and her first meeting with her biological mother as a 16-year-old. Another man talks about his work in a tattoo parlor. The idea is for Americans “to think better of the people here in the Middle East,” Gilbert said.
“That they’re normal people with faces and who are not so different that we can’t relate to them.” Better understanding of the “other” as human beings will help rally support for less violent policy making, she added. “A lot of studies have shown that when you place distance between yourself and others, it’s easier to disregard them and rationalize violence.”
Most of the podcasts currently available are about Lebanese, Jordanians or Emiratis, although there are plans to collect stories from across the Arab world. “There are hard stories here but we’re trying to share points of hope as well.” People are more than happy to contribute to the project once they know it’s aimed at transforming popular American opinion about Arabs, Gilbert added.
Listeners not familiar with the Lebanon’s long history of migration may be surprised to hear the varied accents of some of the speakers. European, American, and Arab-accented Lebanese recount stories about childhood memories of washing the dishes or moving, dreams of being artists and of change in society. “My father’s Muslim, my mother’s Christian, and we just don’t know what’s going on,” laughed one storyteller. “We celebrate everything. We have no issues with religion, we’re open to everything.”
In one podcast, Beirut resident Ronnie recalled a conversation he overheard between two boys playing football. “One of them said, ‘you remember during the war when we were playing football?’ The other one asks him, ‘which war?’ That tells you how many wars have happened in this child’s life,” Ronnie said. “We shouldn’t even have any wars, period.”
With over 5,000 downloads since June, the podcasts have met with great success. “We’ve had a great response from the US, it’s been really encouraging,” Gilbert said. She hopes audiences will continue to listen to the podcasts over time to get a better picture of the lives of their contemporaries across the Arab world.
Eventually, Stories of the City hopes to tell the stories of people all over the world, not just in conflict zones. The organization is also encouraging listeners to get involved, either through submitting their own story or by collecting other people’s testimonies.