Written by Farrah Berrou
When bonding over culture, typical Arabs convene in one of two ways: protests or parties. Stemming from this gap in dialogue, afikra was born. “Afikra”, meaning “a thought” or “by the way” in slang Arabic, was founded by Mikey Muhanna, actuary-by-day and multi-titled-doer-by-night. What began as a casual gathering on a NYC rooftop blossomed into free, monthly events in 7 cities globally in the span of a few years. The salon format allows for 2 non-experts to tackle their own curiosity and share their findings with an intimate group of information-hungry individuals followed by a brief Q&A session. Gradually, the afikra community grew with plans to branch out into more cities while remaining dedicated to exploring the inherently Arab, be it the complex or the random.
When it comes to presenting or attending, the only thing that has to be Arab is the topic. The only prerequisites a speaker must have is that they’re curious and that they’ve attended one afikra salon before presenting. Every month, dozens of speakers work with members of the afikra team on finding academic research on a topic worth exploring. These coaches are all volunteers who have previously given talks themselves. The drive is similar to what fuels this very blog: the desire to breakdown misconceptions related to Arab culture and to encourage questions rather than settling on stereotypes or media faux pas.
Although afikra topics are selected through the speakers’ personal interests, investigate various facets of the multidimensional Middle East (see previous talks here), and remain a mystery until the speakers present to the crowd the night of, Arab film and media have been covered extensively. Despite the region being a known hotbed for creativity and storytelling, if one scratches the surface of basic questions like, “Who is the real Aladdin?”, “How did animation evolve in the Arab world?”, or “Who is Youssef Chahine?”, not much is actually known beyond the question itself.
From the origins of el Sharif to the killer of Asmahan to instructions on how to be the next Haifa Wehbe, over 92 speakers have researched and unearthed the stories behind the obvious and the obscure. The ancient Egyptians believed in two deaths: the physical death and the death of the last living person who uttered one’s name. Legacy lives on through memory and afikra can be seen as oral history 2.0. What was once passed on through generations verbally can continue to happen as long as there is an audience to listen and thus, their impact will live on.
Access to these talks is not restricted to geography either; each salon is streamed on Facebook Live and archived on the afikra website. Events are currently hosted in Washington D.C., NYC, Montreal, London, Beirut, Bahrain, and Dubai. For more information or to sign up to attend an upcoming afikra near you, click here.