Miriam Hakim lives in Houston. Lucky enough to be in an enclave that was cut off by the flooding but didn’t go under, she spent the past week executing a whirlwind of volunteer activities, buying supplies, bringing them to shelters and helping with cleanup after Hurricane Harvey.
But even with all that was going on at home, she still made the effort to catch her flight to Philly. Hakim did not want to miss the YallaPunk fest.
Descending on Fishtown this weekend, YallaPunk features, celebrates and was organized by Americans of Middle Eastern and North African descent. Basically, it’s an Arab-American punk rock festival and conference. It’s drawing participants from all over the country — a testament to the fact that it’s likely the first of it’s kind.
“As far as I know, this is the first thing like this that has been so organized,” said Hakim, who is a vocalist in the punk band Giant Kitty.
The 26-year-old Syrian-American Texas native has participated in smaller gatherings, like the Inauguration Day concert Giant Kitty played with three other groups that each had a member with Muslims in their family, “but YallaPunk is not about religion,” she said. “Or politics. It’s about uplifting Middle Eastern and North African creatives. Right now it feels like even saying ‘I’m Arab’ is a political statement. That’s not right.”
Festival founder Rana Fayez, an Arab immigrant writer living in Philly who deejays on the side, said she wants YallaPunk to stay away from politics as much as possible. However, she admits current events are what spurred her to action.
“In the current political climate there’s a lot of hate,” Fayez said, noting that she’s often afraid to speak Arabic in public. “We need to change the narrative for ourselves as Middle Easterners, as North Africans, as individuals. I’ve seen the healing power of art and the DIY community,” she continued. “I want to harness that power.”
Fayez has experience in using music festivals to heal. She was a journalism major at Virginia Tech in 2007 when a student there went on a shooting rampage, killing 32 and wounding 17.
“I decided I wanted to change the narrative — I wanted people to talk about something else other than the shooting,” Fayez remembered. She’d grown up in the same town where the university was located, so she had connections in the community, and she was also a DJ on college radio — “one of my friends got shot at the radio station that day” — so she knew people in the music world.
So, at age 19, Fayez organized her first music festival. “More than 100 bands played, on eight stages, over three days,” she said. “The fest is still going on to this day.”
She has similar hopes for YallaPunk. “This is our first year, so we’re taking a bit of a loss,” she said. “Me and the artists. But it’s proof of concept.”
Early funding for the festival was mostly crowdsourced, although ticket sales have started to kick in the additional cash, needed to pay for things like space at the two music venues — Johnny Brenda’s and The Barbary. But most things were done DIY, from posters to t-shirts, by the dedicated roster of volunteer organizers, who are spread across the East Coast and the entire U.S.
When Fayez first floated the idea for the festival online this spring, it drew immediate and intense response.
“I remember the first time I talked to Rana,” said Hakim. “it was so beautiful, felt like I’d make this close friend almost immediately.” She described the difficulty of being of Arab descent and also into punk. “Most of my life, I’ve had to choose between behaving in a way that’s presentable to my Arab community and a way that’s acceptable to my punk community. With Yalla Punk I don’t have to choose.
“It was like ‘Oh my God, how did I manage to be alone all this time!’ We don’t have to be alone anymore.’”
Although communication has been only via emails, texts, a Facebook group and a Slack, the people helping organize this weekend’s festival feel like they’ve finally found a community they didn’t know was there.
“In Baltimore punk we have maybe one or two other [Arab] people. In DC I know two or three,” said Lyla Shlon, the frontwoman of Baltimore raw punk band Bidet, who is Lebanese-American. But immediately following becoming affiliated with this fest, she said, “I started meeting a ton of other people — from Saudi, from Syria — tons of countries. It was like, ‘Oh my God, someone else has had a similar experience, someone else gets it.”
YallaPunk isn’t just making connections across cities. The festival has brought together people who were already in Philly, yet didn’t realize there were other Arab-American punk fans in their midst.
Poet and performer Maryan Nagy Captan is a 10-year Philly resident and native of Egypt (she moved here when she was 5) who’ll be leading a workshop at the Crane Arts Building called House and Home as part of the festival’s educational component.
“I found out about YallaPunk through a friend who knows Rana,” Captan said, “and immediately knew I wanted to participate — I don’t know that many Middle Eastern young people in Philadelphia. I don’t know that many in general, but I know they’re out there, and I’m about to meet them!”
As excited as they are to have gathered the MENA punk community together, organizers stress that the festival is open to everyone — and that the more diverse the audience, the better, especially at the educational panels, which are free to attend.
“With the way everything is going now, people need to be educated and see that we’re humans — we’re totally not scary,” said Shlon.
“Even for people who aren’t [Arab], the takeaway from the fest is that diversity makes people stronger,” Hakim said. She’s also excited to “show people that punk isn’t all about white guys getting drunk and complaining about girls not dating them.”
Fayez warns that because it’s the inaugural festival, “what comes out of it is going to as much a surprise to us as it is to you!” But she’s confident in her team of volunteers — and the hundreds of hours they’ve put in — and is looking forward to a successful weekend of music, fun and community building.
YallaPunk takes place Friday, Sept. 1, through Sunday, Sept. 3. The full schedule of bands and workshops is available online. Tickets start at $15 for a single show and max out at $200 for the “ultimate experience” that includes all performances, discussions, t-shirts, swag and more.