LONDON: The black-market exchange rate of the Lebanese lira against the dollar shot up to an unprecedented 9,500 this week as the country slowly began to re-open after a month and a half of a strict national lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri has yet to form a government after four months of trying, and the Lebanese people are still reeling from the devastating explosion at Beirut Port more than six months ago, the investigation into which has been marred by corruption allegations and delays.
It is no surprise, then, that Lebanese citizens around the world welcome any respite, however brief, from the current grim state of affairs in their home country. This is where Mouin Jaber and Medea Azouri come in, with their “Sarde After Dinner” podcast.
Born from a mix of common interests and passions forged during the protests that began in Lebanon in October 2019, the podcast aims to tackle the important, but often taboo, topics that are on the minds of many Lebanese people, and offer deeper insights from experts into issues that have long plagued the country.
“We decided to do the podcast because there were a lot of things Medea and I were thinking of and talking about, and we noticed no one was talking about them,” Jaber told Arab News. “We noticed that we all have the same outlook but not many speak openly about these topics, such as suicide, sex, prisons and so on.
“There was a big void that wasn’t being filled because of this cognitive dissonance that the media feeds off of, which is hyperbolic statements and big, loud people to hold viewers. There were a lot of things that were left unsaid and we felt that it could all start with a conversation.”
Recorded in the dining room of Azouri’s apartment in Beirut, the weekly podcast, which releases new episodes every Sunday night, quickly started to build a following in part thanks to its notable local and international guests, including blogger-activist Gino Riady, renowned economist Karim Daher, Emirati talk-show host Anas Bukhash and Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef.
The show takes its name from a Lebanese slang term which perhaps best translates in English as “hanging out.” This is reflected by the informal mood of the conversation as well as the welcoming atmosphere, something both hosts said is crucial to the flow of the discussion.
“It’s the time when you finish dinner and you stay at the table and you start talking with people about subjects, and sometimes you don’t speak because you want to listen to the other person,” said Azouri, who is also a columnist for French-language Lebanese daily newspaper L’Orient Le Jour.
Jaber added: “Conversations are more free flowing; you let your guard down after dinner. When you break bread with someone you are at your most vulnerable, so the flow of the conversation isn’t obstructed by this kind of posturing … you let go and the conversation is very honest.”
Azouri said it is often the case that guests come onto the show and are allowed to speak without interruption or input from the hosts because of the significance and weight of what they are saying. She compared it to a “masterclass.”
“Besides politics and Lebanon and the situation right now, we decided to break some taboos,” Azouri said. “We talk about sexuality, but we’re the only media in the Arab world that hosted (former adult-movie star) Mia Khalifa at the time where she was helping Lebanon.
“Also (when political activist and social-justice advocate) Ali Baroudy (appeared, the episode) was not about the political situation but his experience (as a prisoner) in Roumieh prison for five years.”
Guests such as these reflect an important aspect of the show which is, the hosts explain, that they want to talk to people that can help them to learn and understand.
“The only people that we get on ‘Sarde’ are people we are actually interested in, who we want to ask questions and pick their brains,” said Jaber. “And it’s not a dry question-and-answer dynamic because we feel also that we have a say, and we ask the questions and don’t pretend that we know (the answers).”
“When we discover things, the viewers discover them with us,” Medea added.
Given the media landscape in Lebanon, where TV networks and newspapers are aligned with political parties, “Sarde After Dinner” is one of a number of alternative news sources that many people turned to after the protests in the country began.
“We want to reconcile the differences that many people have that were unspoken by many people, and show that it is easy,” said Jaber, who is studying international business law online at the Sorbonne-Assas International Law School.
“And to just make the point that traditional media outlets are never going to give us the full story — it’s always subject to extremely politicized narratives or subject to the highest bidder.”
In addition to fans in Lebanon, Lebanese expatriates in 115 countries listen to the podcast, the majority of whom are in the US, UAE and Saudi Arabia.
“The majority of the messages that we receive from abroad are very touching,” Azouri said. “They are from expats who tell us that we are their link with Lebanon, because there are a lot of people who don’t have (access to) LBC and MTV abroad. We are available free on the internet and social media.”