SWANA Clubs In London, And How They Give Me A Sense Of Cultural Identity

SWANA Clubs In London, And How They Give Me A Sense Of Cultural Identity
SWANA music being played  in a club with a DJ and traditional string instrument
The Middle of Nowhere Party celebrates the finest SWANA sounds from the capital and beyond. Image: Abdulisms

In the midst of flashing lights and the rhythmic pulse of Arabian melodies, I find relief in the heart of London's SWANA music scene.

The term 'SWANA' represents Southwest Asia and North Africa, a decolonial term challenging Eurocentric labels like 'Middle Eastern' and 'Islamic World.' It represents a vast geopolitical region bridging the continents of Asia and Africa. This includes countries with varied landscapes, cultures and histories. In Southwest Asia, you find nations like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Armenia and Iran, while North Africa has countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Algeria.

As an Iraqi-Armenian Brit, the quest for cultural connection in London is a constant thread in my life. While this diverse metropolis is multicultural, I still have moments of feeling a loss of cultural identity.

A marquee with Hishek Bishek on the front
Hishek Bishek is a monthly Arabic club night, filled with SWANA music. Image: Lara Bazzoui

Navigating the diaspora amid the turmoil of wars and displacement, a constant ache resides in the missed opportunities to be with family. The elusive sense of community one can find in family gatherings is a feeling I often notice I am searching for.

Enter Hishek Bishek, a monthly Arabic club night that has become a treasured haven for me. It's not merely an event; it's a celebration of freedom, diversity, and inclusivity, transcending age and backgrounds. Whether you're 22 and wanting to expand your social circle, or 43 and yearning to reconnect with the roots left behind, Hishek Bishek welcomes all.

Here, London fades away, replaced by a realm where belly dancing and the dabke are met with smiles, not judgement. Music by the Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram triggers a rush of childhood nostalgia, and singing along to Amr Diab's Nour El Ain becomes a collective celebration that extends into the early hours. It's not just a night out; it's a journey where making new friends is as natural as preserving one's heritage.

The SWANA music scene in London is undergoing a transformative surge. Post-pandemic, there's an evident increase in demand for SWANA music. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region achieved the most significant growth in the music market in 2021 — with a 35% increase in sales.

Clubs like Hishek Bishek are not only about celebrating rich SWANA sounds, but creating a space for artists to showcase their own creations. In this evolving landscape, a new wave of cultural enthusiasts is steering the scene towards a mission: preserving heritage while ensuring that every generation can revel in the empowering embrace of their cultural roots.

Model and stylist Riyam Salim — a regular at London's SWANA clubs — tells me: "I grew up in the Middle East, so when I first moved to London, attending events by organisations such as Pride of Arabia made a big difference to me. Discovering that this vibrant community existed in London made me feel the peace of home".

Riyam Salim  on the dance floor
Riyam Salim is a regular at London's SWANA nights. Image: Courtesy of Riyam Salim - Photographed by Abdulisms

Describing the burgeoning scene in London, Salim says: "It's profoundly meaningful to witness the evolution of the SWANA music scene, and equally incredible to observe the surge in regular events. The thriving creative Arab scene that has emerged is not only impressive but a testament to the community's vitality.

"People are coming together with a shared vision, crafting events that resonate authentically and leave a lasting impact."

One event that's firmly etched on my must-attend list is The Middle of Nowhere Party — which celebrates the finest SWANA sounds from London and beyond. Spearheaded by the visionary DJ Nooriyah, it encapsulates the essence of London as a sanctuary, creating spaces for people to connect, enjoy, and unleash self-expression and creativity within the diaspora. Whether you're flying solo or arriving with a group, the atmosphere of these events exudes a welcoming ease.

Photographer Abdulisms has worked with DJ Nooriyah for years, and takes pride in working with artists and audiences he knows, building relationships that extend beyond a typical club photographer's role. He emphasises the importance of internal narratives over external perceptions: "We are the communities we build. And my community is strong. My community is principled. My community is concerned in everything it does and every art it practices with principled, deeply rooted, proud liberation."

A club throning with dancers - with a DJ and a lute player in the midst of it
"I am convinced that attending SWANA events makes me feel part of a community." Image: Abdulisms

While Riyam Salim finds a profound sense of belonging in London's SWANA music scene, Abdulisms doesn't see it as truly representative of home; instead, he describes it as: "a product of exile and diaspora. People who have either been uprooted from their homelands or born out of the belly of empire." People who are still struggling with their identities, he says, are still unpacking what it means to be SWANIAN.

Personally, I grapple with my own cultural identity; a constant struggle that may stem from belonging to three different countries, or simply from existing within the diaspora. The precise reason eludes me, but I am convinced that attending SWANA events makes me feel part of a community.

My sister is my usual partner in crime for these adventures, and the experience shared feels even more empowering. Despite initial nerves, the moment we step in, a deep sense of belonging washes over us. The camaraderie at these events is exhilaratingly refreshing and inspiring. It creates a unique bond that goes beyond the music. An escapism as well as an awakening.

Last Updated 15 February 2024

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