Two Saudi debaters launch country’s first podcast network

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Photo caption 2: The Mstdfr Network has listeners from different Arab countries like UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, but the majority of audience is from Saudi Arabia. (photo courtesy: Mstdfr Twitter account)
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The Mstdfr Network based in Jeddah, aims to be the best platform for independent Middle-Eastern podcasters to share their content and get their voices heard. (photo courtesy: Mstdfr Twitter account)
Updated 21 January 2018
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Two Saudi debaters launch country’s first podcast network

JEDDAH: The first podcast network in the Kingdom has been started by Ammar Al-Sabban and his friend Rami Taibah from Jeddah. Driven by their passion for discussion and debate, the duo started their own podcast show, “Premiere Middle Eastern Podcast Network.”

Arab News interviewed Al-Sabban, co-founder of the Mstdfr podcast network, to learn their story.

In their podcast, Al-Sabban and Taibah spontaneously and freely discuss, debate and diffuse various topics including science, culture, technology, media, challenges facing the new Arab generation, and everything in between.

“I’ve always wanted to have my own radio show,” Al-Sabban told Arab News. “My friend Rami and I once had the chance to work together on a project for a company, and we had many worthy discussions about various topics that we had a common interest in. Once Rami posted an episode of Thamood bin Mahfoudh’s ‘Kalam’ podcast on Facebook where Rami was their guest, and when I listened to it I thought why don’t we make our own podcast?

“Rami liked the idea then that’s where it all started.” Ammar added.

“Mstdfr” is a slang word that has cultural reference in Arabic to one who has a keen interest in studying, reading a lot, and has care for fine details. In English, “Mstdfr” can be something between a nerd and a geek, which is why Al-Sabban and Taibah chose the word to become the name of their podcast.

“Our aim and first idea were to share our discussions in matters that interest us, and to leave something about us for our children in the future so they can learn about our personalities and thoughts when they get to our age,” Al-Sabban said.

He added: “We did not think of Mstdfr as a business to build; we only wanted to share and express our opinions and communicate with the audience. When we received our first sponsorship from Uber for three months, our friends suggested that we start a network, so we used the money to prepare our own place and studio for recording and producing. This is how we became a network, then the other shows started.”

The Mstdfr network now has about 13 weekly podcast shows in different fields and topics where podcasters share their thoughts and passion, such as Business box for business talk; Elm FM for scientific news; Cartoon Cartoon for cartoons, obviously; Couch talk for self-help and life coaching; and others. The most popular one is The Mstdfr Show, which in 2017 was ranked first in Saudi Arabia’s iTunes market in the comedy category. Other shows also rank in the top 10 in their categories.

“Although the podcasting culture is not very popular in the Arab world, and in Saudi Arabia specifically, we receive a lot of good reactions from people. Listeners would tell us that when they start a long trip in the car, they listen to us to fill the time; they feel less lonely when they listen to our podcasts; or Mstdfr had made them new friends. Some request to join our chats and we communicate with them and have them with us — anyone can join our world.”

For the Mstdfr team, the market during the past few years was not yet ready to invest in such a business, so they remained as an almost self-supporting network without making money. But, after three years, the introductory period for the project is nearly over, according to Al-Sabban, and they will start working on making Mstdfr a sustainable business.

Al-Sabban has worked in various jobs as an architect for some years, but in 2013, he decided to quit and work on things he enjoys more. One of his main interests is puppeteering and voice acting, and he was able to build his own puppet character, Afroott, who became a popular figure on social media in Saudi Arabia.

In 2016, Al-Sabban was invited to join the Open Sesame production team and he also works with them as a puppeteer and voice actor.


Hajj is a joyful and moving experience for Taiwanese pilgrims

Updated 50 min 20 sec ago
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Hajj is a joyful and moving experience for Taiwanese pilgrims

  • The most important day for pilgrims will be Aug. 20, the 9th day of Dul Hijjah on the Islamic calendar, when they will gather on the plains of Arafat
  • ‘Seeing the Holy Kaaba for the first time is a profound and moving experience’

JEDDAH: The first time Asiya Yu saw the Holy Kaaba, the black, cube-like structure at the center of Makkah’s majestic Grand Mosque, she could barely hold back the tears. The 68-year-old, whose face radiates spiritualism, is one of 67 pilgrims from Taiwan performing Hajj this year.

“This is not my first time; I came here and performed Hajj 10 years ago,” she said. “I never thought I would come back to this holy land again. I consider myself lucky.

“As far as I recall it was very crowded then,” she said of her first Hajj. “The roads seemed very narrow to me; everything was congested. Now the mosque is spacious and the roads leading to it are wide and open. Everything is much more orderly and organized.”

A mother of five sons and one daughter, Asiya is from Taipei.

“My whole family was there at the airport to see me off. One of my sons lives in Myanmar; he came, too, to bid adieu to me,” she said, with pride in her sparkling eyes.

The most important day for pilgrims will be Aug. 20, the 9th day of Dul Hijjah on the Islamic calendar, when they will gather on the plains of Arafat, about 30 km from Makkah.

“On the day of Arafat, first I will seek Allah’s forgiveness,” said Asiya. “Second, I will pray for my family members and, third, I will pray for all Muslims to enjoy health and peace. I will beseech Allah to guide all believers to the right path — the path of peace.”

Hikmat Ma, another member of the Taiwanese group of pilgrims, is performing her first Hajj.

“Before I came here, I was very nervous,” she said. “I was worried about the rituals and I thought maybe I was not prepared for Hajj. I could not sleep at night, so I prayed TaHajjud (the midnight prayers) and asked for Allah’s help.

“As soon as I landed in this holy land, I felt totally relaxed and all my nervousness disappeared. I performed Umrah and it was very easy. I was worried about getting lost or forgetting how to make dua (prayers) or that maybe I would not be able to read the Qur’an properly. But everything turned out all right.”

Nevertheless, the trip to Saudi Arabia has been an emotional experience.

“When we were on the plane from Taipei, as part of the pilgrimage we were reciting the Talbiyah — Labbaik Allahumma Labbaik (O Allah, here we come at your call) — and I couldn’t control my tears,” said Hikmat.

Seeing the Holy Kaaba for the first time was also a profound and moving experience.

“I felt great,” she said. “I felt like crying but then paid attention to the circumambulation (tawaf). I felt so lucky.”

Hikmat was full praise for the efforts of Saudi authorities to prepare for pilgrims and make them feel welcome.

“I appreciate the Saudi government because they do so much and spend a lot to make everything easy and convenient for us,” she said. “Every step, from the airport to the hotel and everything, I feel I am completely taken care of. This is far beyond our expectations.”

As for her prayers at Arafat, she said: “I will ask for forgiveness and to have the best in this world and the Hereafter. I will pray for my country, my family and friends and for all believers, and also for the Saudi government. Everybody is very happy for us and my friends all requested me to pray for them in the holy places.”

An 18-day Hajj trip from Taiwan costs about 160,000 Taiwanese dollars ($6,000), which includes everything except food, said Hikmat, who retired as an immigration staffer.

Her father died 15 years ago but she still has her mother, who encouraged her to undertake the pilgrimage.

“I used to tell my mother how worried I was about the Hajj and leaving her there,” she said. “She told me not to worry, that Allah would take care of her and that performing Hajj was a blessing and I should be happy.”

Hikmat was particularly pleased to see so many women from all around the world at the Hajj.

“They have sincerity and piety,” she added. “They are very cooperative. I feel we are all one family in Allah’s house regardless of our differences. We are so touched to see all the believers come together to worship Allah.”

The 37 pilgrims from Taiwan, who are between the ages of 40 and 70, represent a big increase in numbers compared with last year, when there were only 24, said Sheng-ping Teng, a Taiwanese diplomat in Riyadh who has come to Jeddah to assist them. Teng is accompanied by his fellow diplomat Samee Chang.

The pilgrims are led by delegation chief Dawood Ma, who is no stranger to Saudi Arabia, having studied at Madinah Islamic University. He speaks Arabic and has performed Hajj several times, and so is familiar with the rituals and the challenges.

“Saudi Arabia has made a great deal of progress in terms of organization,” said Dawood. “Every year it used to take a lot of time at the airports but this year everything was done in just two hours. More than two million pilgrims are here and it is a very difficult task getting them to the right places, but we are very happy with the arrangements and the results.”