Last year at this time, Miriam Hakim was set to attend the inaugural YallaPunk Festival and Conference in Philadelphia. As a co-organizer of the event, which spotlights creatives from Middle Eastern, North African and Southwest Asian descent, she developed and coordinated the conference’s panels, which touched on everything from religion to gender issues to marketing creative works.
Hakim planned and prepped for the fest from home in Houston. But before she could fly to the City of Brotherly Love, an unwelcomed guest arrived for a lingering, painful visit.
“Last year Hurricane Harvey hit the weekend before the festival and I couldn’t even get a flight out! I had to prepare detailed questions and notes for another organizer to host the panels I developed and I even Skyped in for the panels I spoke on while most of Houston was still shut down."
Whatever the forecast, Hakim plans to attend this year’s festival, which begins Friday. She hopes thousands of others who have now heard of YallaPunk will, too. The vocalist for Houston punk band Giant Kitty took on some band booking duties in addition to coordinating conference panels and workshops for 2018. Internationally known electronic act Hello Psychaleppo headlines the event. Experimental musicians City of Djinn (former members of Al-Thawra, the doom/crust-punk band featured in the groundbreaking documentary Taqwacore), Vasillus from Albuquerque and indie soul act Hegazy from New York are some other standouts, Hakim said.
“The word ‘yalla’ means ‘hurry up’ or ‘let’s go’ in Arabic. We wanted the name to be a call to action and to indicate a celebration of people from a Middle Eastern/Southwest Asian and North African — usually abbreviated as MENA or SWANA — background. Not every band involved in the festival is what people might think of as ‘punk,’ but most of the organizers came up through DIY communities and we think it’s pretty punk to have a festival that celebrates these communities without limits or respectability requirements.”
Hakim will provide some Houston presence to the weekend by screening the documentary film Giant Kitty Thinks You Suck by Houston filmmaker Rob Katz. There will be a live recording of The Queer Arabs podcast, which is Houston-based and was developed after some of the early YallaPunk organizing days, Hakim said.
Hakim said the festival drew fest-goers from a dozen states last year, who saw acts like Axis of Evil comedian Aron Kader and Al-Thawra, which played its first live show years. Ramy Youssef from Mr. Robot did a surprise comedy set. Hakim said year one successfully established the event’s initiatives.
“YallaPunk is an organization based out of Philadelphia whose main objective is to build a community for people in the MENA/SWANA diaspora that celebrates our creative pursuits in an affirming and accepting way. We want to build the community we needed when we were younger,“ Hakim said. “It was created as a direct response to negative depictions of Middle Eastern and North African populations. The event is meant to celebrate the creative accomplishments of MENA individuals and serve as a safe, intersectional and inclusive (event) free from sexism, Islamophobia, transphobia, homophobia and bigotry for discourse on social issues. As a community, we will celebrate who we are through music, art, film, poetry and comedy.”
Hakim said she got involved after meeting YallaPunk founder Rana Fayez while Giant Kitty toured the East Coast. She said they hit it off immediately and started merging their contacts from all over the United States.
“It felt like we were building a community we could feel comfortable in, just like the smaller MENA/SWANA and DIY communities we were used to being in but without the expectation that we had to be a certain type of person. She decided she wanted to go bigger and turn this online stuff we were doing into a festival.”
“The thing about coming from an immigrant background is that we’re spread out; that’s sort of the deal, right? There’s an estimated 1.1 million of us in the U.S. and there’s pockets of us all over; each pocket might be somewhat close knit but part of the point of the fest is to connect us together,” she added.
The festival tries to accentuate the positive, but Hakim said there’s no avoiding it began as a response to “the unfortunately worsening trend of vilifying MENA/SWANA people in the United States and more broadly in the western world.”
“Our existence is politicized in this current climate whether we like it or not; however, we want everyone at the festival to feel safe personally and politically. Our main political stance is to celebrate our existence as the diverse community that we are. The fact that we affirm MENA/SWANA people and are in particular affirming of different sexualities as well as gender identities and histories is political.
“The first year was a reaction,” she continued. “This year we’re trying to turn that into building and reinforcing that community.
“Houston and Texas in general has a ton of MENA/SWANA people; however, not a lot of people outside Texas know that,” Hakim added. “Since I and some other Houston folks like the hosts of the Queer Arabs have been involved in YallaPunk basically since the beginning, the other organizers have gotten to hear a lot about our local community.
“Honestly, I think just being visible and supportive does a lot. There are a lot of MENA/SWANA people involved in music, art and comedy in Houston anyway. ImposterBoys are one of my favorite up and coming local bands right now and one of their front people even has Arabic on her guitar! We played a show together during Ramadan and she and I had both fasted that day, I can’t tell you how much that meant to me get to play that show with them both because of how great they are as musicians and because we got to share that cultural moment.”
Hakim said there are plans to have affiliate YallaPunk programming in Houston. She feels there’s a current running through Houston’s arts community that would support YallaPunk locally.
“I don’t necessarily think there has to be a named effort to boost our community everywhere, community building can happen by example. I’m inspired by spaces around Houston I’ve seen which have intentionally focused on booking acts with women and nonbinary people in them and booking acts with people of color in them; they never mention that’s what they were doing, but there is an understanding that you aren’t going to ever see an all-white or all-male show there. Those are the kinds of events I’d like to see.”
If YallaPunk becomes a movement, it's key to recall that the effort began from very personal places. Hakim would like to help create an easier path for others to follow from her experience.
“Since I’m half-Syrian and grew up in Texas, I felt torn between different expectations of what I should be. Even little things — like the food we ate at home, the music we listened to or the clothes I was allowed to wear — made me feel like I had to choose between my various identities and only show the aspects of myself which were ‘acceptable’ to whatever circle I was around at the time,” she said. “I got tired of explaining myself, my values, and my background. Total assimilation never quite works or feels right.
“As I got older, I started meeting other people from a MENA/SWANA background who were interested in feminism and punk rock and, like me, didn’t fit neatly in any of the boxes we thought we had to. We mostly connected online since a lot of us are so spread out and Rana had this great idea to start YallaPunk. By that point, I had already co-organized the ‘We Belong: Houstonians of Muslim Descent Dissent’ show with Shan Pasha from Ruiners. I had a taste of what it felt like to be in such a totally affirming space and course I wanted to be part of creating something like that on a larger scale and providing that feeling for other people.”