Reclaiming the narrative in the Arabian Gulf

Sharifah Alhinai

SOAS alumna Sharifah Alhinai (LLB Law and MSc International Politics) set up Sekka Magazine in 2017 as a free online platform dedicated to documenting the stories of the Arabian Gulf Region.

Sharifah talks about the inspiration behind the magazine and her time at SOAS:

What was the idea behind setting up Sekka?

“My sister and I founded Sekka in 2017 after we observed a shortage in the number of Khaleeji (Gulf Arab) voices in the international media.  The Arabian Gulf Region is one of the most reported regions in the world, yet much of the articles and stories written about it, and coverage on it, is authored by people who are outside it, many of whom have spent little or no time in it to truly understand it and grasp its nuances.  This has been a historical pattern, unfortunately.  Another pattern has been the focus on the political, religious, and economic matters of the area, marginalizing the stories on its rich culture and its incredible people.

“At Sekka, we’re reclaiming the narrative of the region.  The people who tell stories on our platform are primarily natives of the region or people who have spent a significant part of their lives here and truly understand it.  We specifically steer away from stories that revolve around religion and politics (which the media is saturated with), in order to provide the world with a different perspective of the region.”

What type of stories does Sekka publish?

“At Sekka, we focus on telling arts, culture, and travel stories that primarily centre on the Arabian Gulf Region.  For example, we’ve done a story on the African influence on Khaleeji music and we’ve written about Wakkan Village in Oman, which witnesses the blossoming of apricot blossoms every year unbeknownst to many, who travel all the way to South Korea or Japan to witness something similar that we already have at home.  One article followed the flower men of Saudi Arabia as they harvested thousands of roses in Ta’if to produce fragrant and reputable rosewater and perfumes last spring.

“We also shed light on the region’s incredible game changers, such as the Saudi construction worker smashing stereotypes about Saudis, or the historical Bahraini pearl merchant family who’s reinventing pearl jewellery in Bahrain, a country that has been at the centre of the natural pearl trade for centuries, and was even visited by Jacques Cartier to purchase pearls.  We also publish creative works, and we have recently opened up the platform to opinion writers to share their perspective on issues that are of importance to society.

“We publish stories in both English and Arabic, and our reason for that is three-fold: to provide more opportunity for potential storytellers, to reach as many readers as we can, and to increase the digital content coming out from the Arab World, which currently forms less than five per cent of the total digital content out there.”

What is the theme of this month’s relaunch issue?

“Our relaunch issue will revolve around the concept of Aib or ‘shame’ in Khaleeji society.  Essentially, we’ll be discussing some topics that are considered ‘taboo’ or unacceptable in society and we’ll be uncovering why that’s the case.  We’ll also be examining how the perception of some taboos has changed over time.  I don’t want to reveal too much, honestly, because I would love for the readers to see and read everything for the first time.  But we have interesting stories lined up and we’ve opened the platform to opinion writers on a bigger scale to express their views on this.  So, we’ll be hearing from a number of Khaleejis and Gulf residents (including experts in their fields) about this.  The issue will be available on our website from the 31st of January.”

You studied Law and International Politics at SOAS, what led you towards a career in journalism?

“Right after I finished my MSc in International Politics from SOAS, I decided to take a short break in my hometown Abu Dhabi.  A few months in, the idea of Sekka was born and I jumped right into it.  It’s been my full-time job since.

“Looking back at my life, though, I have always had an interest in journalism.  I have always loved writing and storytelling, and had envisioned a career in publishing for myself in some way, shape, or form.  When I was in elementary school, I started a magazine called ‘Girl Zone’, which I sold to my classmates.  In high school, I also co-founded a newspaper, managed and written by the students of my school, which was later turned into a publications class.  Throughout university, I’ve written on the side.  So, Sekka’s been on the natural trajectory for me.”

Did your time at SOAS contribute towards your current interests?

“Definitely.  It taught me the importance and power of narrative and who provides it, which is at the core of our work at Sekka.  At Sekka, we firmly believe that who tells the story matters, since a story changes depending on its narrator.  In the end, no one can tell your story and the story of your region or country, and its people, better than you can.”

You have a large number of women contributors to Sekka.  Has this been particularly important to you?

“Our platform is open to both male and female contributors.  However, the number of female contributors approaching us, be they writers, artists, photographers, or videographers, has been significantly higher than the number of males, and that’s noticeable on our platform.  In fact, the vast majority of the stories we’ve published so far have been written by women.  We’re honoured to be the platform they’ve chosen to publish their stories but sometimes I wonder where the men are!

“People in the region have been hungry for a platform like this; a platform that would accept their work, especially if they are first-time writers, because the reality we face here is that a lot of the established publications wouldn’t even consider publishing your work if you haven’t been published before.  And this is extremely discouraging.  A young writer may already have their doubts or lack some confidence about their work, and so they become even more discouraged when they don’t hear back from editors they approach.  We don’t let that happen at Sekka.  We have published the work of both established writers as well as those who are new to this field.  We are proud that Sekka may be a stepping stone to many women and men in this field.  We have a dedicated team of editors who ensure that not only is the work of these storytellers edited for grammar or spell checks, but that they are provided with proper tips on enhancing their written work.”

What are your plans for the future?

“We’ve just done a soft relaunch of our website and did a little bit of rebranding, which we’re very excited about.  Our plans for the future are to continue publishing more content about and by the people of the region, in written, video, photographic, and audio format.  To be in the media industry in the Gulf Region requires continuous evolvement.  People are always adopting the latest form of technology and news consumption and if we want to remain relevant we have to always be ahead.  We also aim to expand our team of talented storytellers.”

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