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#8: 'It's not okay to break into someone's home, kill them and take that house. Why do I have to explain that?'
Deana Hassanein on dealing with 'stupid men' online, what she learned from reaching burn out, and the songs you should add to your Spotify playlist
Hello lovely readers,
This week we are joined by presenter and producer, Deana Hassanein. In this unabridged chat, Deana shares what she learned from reaching burnout; how she calls out men online; and the MENA names in music that you should be listening to right now. Plus, she gives me the space to get vulnerable about my own motivations for starting SWANA speaks.
Through AAAZT — the UK's first Arab and North African radio show — it’s Deana’s job to highlight phenomenal artists in the MENA region and diaspora. Through Musconceptions (which garnered over 5 million views on social media) she debunked myths about Islam and through her work as a producer at Middle East Eye, she platforms the creatives, culture, and customs of the SWANA region.
Today, we’re trying something a little different format-wise. Below is the complete transcript of my call with Deana, who was a joy to speak with and – seemingly never off duty! — asked me almost as many questions as I asked her.
Let me know what you think of receiving this full-length, unabridged guest interview. Share on social media, and comment here on Substack.
Parisa: Where are you right now?
Deana: I'm just outside of London, in West Sussex. You’re in Scotland, right?
Parisa: Yeah, Edinburgh!
Deana: Cool. I’ve been to Scotland before, I love it. Where are you from originally?
Parisa: So I grew up in North Wales, and my family's from Iran.
Deana: Okay, yeah, it all makes sense. How do I say your name, is it a ‘s’ or a ‘zh’?
Parisa: Pa-ree-sah! I spotted your Instagram bio about pronouncing your name. Do people get yours wrong a lot?
Deana: All the time. So now I have this thing where I overcomplicate everyone else's name.
Parisa: So I’ll fire in with the questions! To start off with, how do you describe your heritage when people ask?
Deana: I always say I'm Egyptian. I’ve done that forever, since I was young. But I was born in England.
Parisa: And this is a really knotted question, but I wonder how you think about yourself in terms of race? I think it's this weird thing for MENA people in the UK, where there’s no official way to categorise ourselves.
Deana: Yeah, this is such a good question. My answer is very simple: I actually don't know. I don't know what race I am. Even Arab as a term is so complicated because you can identify as an Arab simply because you live in an Arab country; there are Afro-Arab populations; or other people who speak Arabic identify as Arab as well, so I think it's complicated. I've never really sat down and thought, what am I?, because I've always been ‘Other’. I know I’m Egyptian. But on the form, there's never been anything for me until recently.
Parisa: Yeah, I totally get that. With the forms, they've added Arab, but not Iranian or Persian. I guess because Iran is almost on the margins as one of the few non-Arabic-speaking countries in the region. There are loads of Iranians in the UK, but there’s still no way to identify yourself. So it’s a sticky issue — I’m still figuring it out.
Deana: Do you care?
Parisa: I do care, yeah. But I think a lot of that has come from the fact that I grew up in Wales, where it's super white, and I was made to think about it from a young age. It’s less like that now, living in cities, where you kind of disappear into this huge body of people from all over. But because I didn’t have a way to define or put a finger on it growing up, I’ve always been searching for a way to do that. When I interviewed Danny Hajjar, he pointed out that MENA people in the US are categorised as white and that meant when Covid happened, there was no data collected on MENA communities. So there’s no sense of how badly that group was affected, which meant they received no funding or resources. So these labels have very real-world implications. But at the same time, should it matter? No. It obviously shouldn’t matter.
Deana: If it matters to you, it matters to you! I didn't mean it as in, ‘why do you care?’ I think I've always felt that I don't care if people acknowledge who I am because I know who I am. When I was younger, I wished I knew more Arabs because I grew up in an area where I was literally the only one; I didn't meet another Arab — apart from my cousins — until I was 18 and went to university. Maybe when I was younger, I cared about where the Arab box was. But now I think, even if there is a box, what difference would that make? I get it with the data collection issues, and maybe I’ve disconnected myself from it so much that I’m not bothered by it. But I can understand why you would care. A lot of my friends who are Moroccan or Algerian, they’re annoyed by the Arab box because they’re not Arab, they come from Amazigh tribes and there’s no box for them.
Parisa: Yeah, that's so interesting. I'm glad you brought up the fact that it maybe isn't such a big thing for you — I would love to feel that way!
Deana: We’re talking a long time of being dead inside — ha! No, I’m just joking. I think it’s because, for me, I’ve never felt it stopped me from doing anything. Maybe it has unconsciously, but I don’t feel it’s ever impacted me.
Parisa: You mentioned that you didn't know any other Arabs growing up. What was your relationship like with your Egyptian heritage when you were younger?
Deana: My mum and dad were very proud of their country, in love with their culture, their heritage, whether through music, films, stories. I was very much soaked in Egyptian culture, I knew so much about it! I was very lucky that my parents were able to take me to Egypt at every opportunity. I'm blessed because I spent a lot of my life in Egypt without ever living there. So I've always been immersed in it. I think the only time I felt disconnected — and even then, disconnection isn’t quite the right word — but the only time I felt I had to dial myself down at school or college was with my CD player. I’d have Amr Diab’s latest album, and I’d be listening to it in school, and I’d lie and say I was listening to Nelly or 50 Cent because I felt people couldn’t relate. It was in the days when if someone was speaking a foreign language on a bus, you could see people’s faces getting annoyed. So I’ve always been super proud and in love with the culture, but when I was younger, I wasn’t always able to share it.
Parisa: Interesting! So maybe the reason I spend more time thinking about this stuff is that I don’t have that strong connection to Iran like you do with Egypt? With the political situation, Iran isn’t the kind of place you can pop over to on a holiday. So perhaps it’s got something to do with belonging as well, trying to find a place to fit. This whole project has been partly about making sense of some of these things!
Deana: Oh my God, I'm so happy that we can have this conversation because I've been on this journey and I forget how I felt before. I'm kind of over it. I know who I am. I've always known who I am, but now I have found my people as well, which was one thing I've loved about working in the media and focusing on the MENA side of things. I’ve met amazing people who had similar upbringings to me. I do remember feeling quite lonely for a long time — I wasn’t really, because I had a lot of friends — but I didn’t feel people understood me. I was the only Muslim girl in my friendship group, so there’s a lot of things culture-wise that clash. As much as I felt I belonged, I never fully belonged. There’s almost a longing for being understood for who you are, every single piece of you, which isn’t the easiest thing to find. So I get it.
Parisa: Absolutely! It’s interesting you mention music as the part of you that you didn't show when you were young because you’ve done a 180 and today your radio work amplifies Arab voices. How did that transition happen from listening in secret to showcasing to the whole world?
Deana: I've always listened to Arabic music, so I've seen how the scene has changed. And I've always seen Arab artists for who they are, rather than being like, “Oh, my God, it's the Arab Drake,” or “Oh my god, it's the Arab Beyonce.” I think there's a problem sometimes where we can't just accept artists for who they are, we have to compare them to western artists in order to show how big they are. I remember the rap scene popping off in Egypt and hearing more Afro-Arab music, and I really loved it. It got to a point where I was looking for a radio station to take me on board, and I was thinking about what kind of music I liked, and after thinking about different genres, in the end, it dawned on me: I absolutely love Arabic music. Looking at my playlists, albums, CDs, everything is Arabic. I wondered why I was fighting it so much when there is a huge community of Arabs who would really appreciate this kind of thing. I thought I’d use it as an experience for learning to produce a show, present a show; I never thought it would reach the community like it did. It made me realise music really does connect people. I know it sounds so cheesy, but for the longest time, I told myself, this is a ‘you thing’: you just listen to the music, you enjoy it for yourself. But then I realised there are a lot of people out there like me. It was one of the most liberating things ever, because I was showing a piece of me that I couldn't show for a long time. Now I wonder, why did I suppress it so much? I guess because I didn't think there was a community that would understand me, but once I realised there is, it just completely changed the game.
Parisa: It’s cool to hear you had that progression and now have this brilliant platform. You can be quite outspoken on social media — in all the best ways — do you ever get pushback on the things you post?
Deana: If I'm being outspoken about women, I get loads of pushback from stupid men, which I don't care about. Because to me, how much effort do you have to go through to get rude to a woman you don’t know? That never bothers me. Something that frustrates me a lot was when I used to post about what's happening in Palestine. I used to try and justify and explain things. Anything that happened in the Middle East, I felt like I had to explain it. That was exhausting. And I just thought, why am I trying to explain common sense? It's not okay to break into someone's home, kill them and take that house. Why do I have to explain that? If I say something that's not correct — as in, I shared information that wasn't true — I’ll absolutely take the criticism. But I will never care about anyone’s opinion or take a post down. You attacking me is not my problem. That's one thing nowadays that everyone's scared about, offending everyone. But I feel like if your intentions are clear, and you’re not out there to offend, it doesn’t matter. I'm not responsible for how people feel, especially not Muslim men that can't deal with outspoken Muslim women.
Parisa: It’s a cool way to be — I am so not there yet! Being a presenter is such a public-facing role. What draws you to having a public profile? Is that something you’ve always wanted?
Deana: I'll be very honest with you, I hate it. Not the presenting side, but everything that comes with it. Nowadays, you can't be recognised as a presenter just based on your talent or your experiences. You need to have a profile, you need to have a popping TikTok and a popping Instagram. You need to be visible all the time. I remember going through a phase where I was just being present online for the sake of being present; I was posting stuff that I don't necessarily like or care about on a daily basis. One of the best things that happened to me is that in 2021, I got really burned out. I couldn't push myself to do anything. And it was so good because it made me start selecting what I want to do. So I'm happy to be in the public eye in terms of producing content that I'm proud of.
Parisa: What were some of the realisations you had when you reached burnout?
Deana: I was like, why am I doing this? I thought, there's so much more to life, and wondered, when I die, what am I going to look back on? On my deathbed, am I gonna look back and wish I spent 75 hours more making TikToks? Or am I going to wish I spent more time with my parents, who are ageing in front of my eyes? Am I gonna wish I spent more time doing things that I love? That's when I realised. Because for two or three years I had tunnel vision. It was just: work, work, work, work. Even when I started being recognised, or when people were reaching out to me and hiring me for things, I felt numb to the situation. Even then, I still didn’t feel good enough, I felt I needed to do more. I don't think that feeling is ever gonna go. But I don't really care about the fame, that is not who I want to be. I just want to produce good content, tell stories that aren't heard, represent the people I never saw growing up. It's just a shame that everything gets very cloudy, and you do forget who you are. But your health matters more, the little things that bring you joy matter more than being visible online.
Parisa: So if you forgot, did you figure out who you are? Do you know now?
Deana: Yeah, I decided I only want to do things that genuinely bring me joy. That doesn't mean I have to have fun through the whole process, it just means that the end goal, or why I'm doing it, is going to bring me joy. Even little things like raising awareness about certain issues brings me joy. It may not be nice to talk about, but it still brings me joy because I feel I’ve done my bit. Or if it's about an amazing artist who's been working so hard and hasn't had recognition yet, I'm happy to put their story to light. I don't want to do all these mini jobs or create all this content that's gonna get me exposure but isn't actually bringing me closer to my goals.
Parisa: That makes sense. What has been the most surreal moment of your career so far?
Deana: Oh, the most surreal moment for me was when Big Hass said he wanted to feature me in his hip-hop magazine. Have you heard of Big Hass?
Parisa: Yes! But maybe pretend I haven't, for the readers.
Deana: Okay, cool. So, Big Hass is basically the best guy ever. He is a radio host, an MC. He also started the first hip-hop radio show in Saudi. He talks about how no one was taking it seriously, and now it's coming up; he's been there from the beginning. Everyone in the Middle East and North African music scene appreciates him, because he does awesome collaborations, bringing awesome artists together. He has a hip-hop magazine called re-volt, and he spotlights artists and events. He DM’d me and was like, “I'd love to feature your radio show in my magazine.” I thought, is this a joke!? Because it is a really big deal. That, for me, was amazing, because I was in a magazine full of unreal artists. In the article, he said I was “our voice in the UK”, and I'm not even joking, I cried. I felt like all my hard work was being recognised. But also like I was part of something, which is always what I want to be. I never want to be just doing something by myself, for myself. I've always said that I want to do good for the sake of good and also help others. So it made me feel I'm really in the community, I'm doing what I set out to do. So that's definitely been the highlight of my career so far.
Parisa: It's a pretty solid highlight! On the music front, which SWANA artists should people be listening to right now?
Deana: Do you have 25 billion days? I'll start off with some amazing female artists: Nayomi, Rita L’oujdia, Ritha Nattah, Perrie, Nadine El Roubi, Layal, Blu Fiefer, Marwa Loud, I know I am forgetting so many people. I also love Mahraganat, artists like Double Zuksh, Eneba, Hassan Shakoosh. And I can’t forger: Cheb Khaled, Saint Levant, Reda Taliani, Marwan Moussa, Afroto, DizzytooSkinny, walahy I can’t even think there are too many so this doesn’t mean these are my top artists, they are just the first to come to my mind haha.
Parisa: What is the biggest thing that you've learned through doing the work you do?
Deana: That you can't be fake in this industry because people see right through you. I haven’t got beef with people, that's not what I mean. I mean that if I didn’t care, and if I was just doing this because nobody else was, that is not gonna fly. Because this industry is tough. I cannot tell you how many hours it takes to pull off a radio show.
Parisa: What made you come to that realisation?
Deana: Because after five months of the radio show, I loved it, but I was very tired. I was also managing my day job — I do a lot of things on the side — so I was working seven days a week, I'm not being dramatic. For the first six months, the radio show was completely free. It was off my own back, I wasn't sponsored. So I was really tired, really drained. And if I didn't love this platform, and this community I was creating, I wouldn't do it. I would have loved to have just stayed in bed and had all those extra hours in the evening, but I was researching, I was also cleaning music. Arab and North African artists, if you're reading this, please make clean versions of your music — they never make it, because they don't get the radio plays. I cannot tell you how long it takes to clean music, it's horrible. But even if I was tired, as soon as I sat in the chair and started the show, this energy would come out of nowhere. So that's when I realised that I know I love this, and I know I want to do this forever. Because as much as I'm really exhausted, I'm still turning up every Sunday.
Parisa: And is there someone from a Southwest Asian, North African diaspora that you're finding really inspiring right now?
Deana: The Saudi-born DJ, Nooriya, she's phenomenal. She went viral for showing what Arabic and Middle Eastern samples were used on famous tracks by people like Jay Z. Then she just started smashing it and created her own events. She went viral again because she did the first SWANA line-up on Boiler Room. Not only is she unapologetically her, she's also bringing in so many amazing SWANA DJs and creating a community.
Parisa: So, my next question is kind of a tough one: what is something you've changed your mind about lately?
Deana: I've changed my mind about what I want to do for work, in terms of being very selective. I've also changed my mind about my health. I'm really trying to take care of what I eat because I get ill a lot, and my skin's always crazy. And I'm pretty sure it's my food. So I’m definitely changing my mind about how I live.
Parisa: I totally get that. I feel like as you get older, you just start to think about it more, like your health, and how you are looking after your body.
Deana: I love eating healthy. But I need to learn to cook, which is something I said I would never do. I didn’t want to cook as a protest against societal expectations. But now I realise I do need to learn because, when you're hungry, and you're on the go, you end up making silly choices. Like I'll eat a packet of crisps and a banana, and that'll be my lunch. And then other times, I'll eat like seven doughnuts. So if I cooked and prepped, then I could just eat better.
Parisa: Is there anything else, apart from cooking, that you said you would never do out of protest?
Deana: Oh yeah, I said I would never be a housewife. But every now and then I think it might be nice to just chill, have some babies and stay at home and raise them. That was something I said I would never do — I thought I'd rather die. But when I burned myself out, I started reassessing what was important. And I do want kids in the future, not urgently. So that’s also something I’ve changed my mind on.
Parisa: You post about your mum a fair bit, what’s the biggest thing you learned from her?
Deana: Be yourself! My mum is so outgoing, so bubbly, when I was young I would love her inside the house, but I remember when we went out in public I’d think, ‘can you contain it please? You’re embarrassing me!’ But she’s just so unapologetically her, she doesn't care about what anyone thinks. She's also the most generous woman in the world, a person everyone goes to for support. So I think I've learned to be kind, brave, and to be myself from my mum.
Parisa: My last question for you is, what is the cultural artefact that's had the biggest influence on you? It could be a book or film, an art installation, literally anything.
Deana: My necklace. You see these blue stones all over Egypt. The one I’m wearing used to be my nan’s, and she always believed if you wore blue, it wards off any sort of negativity and evil eye. So it’s not so much that it inspires me, but it makes me feel really safe.
Parisa: That’s a really beautiful way to look at it! Thanks for answering my questions, Deana.
Deana: I really hope you find whatever you want to find out on your journey of self discovery. I know it can be hard — I felt it when I was in secondary school a little bit. When you went to uni, did you meet more people from different, diverse backgrounds?
Parisa: The odd person, but not many. I think I’m more at that point now.
Deana: It’s nice to feel validated, and helps to know people who understand where you're coming from, to have these conversations. But also, I think we can get hung up on thinking, Oh I’m from Egypt, so I have to be super Egyptian or Oh, I'm from Morocco, so I have to be super Moroccan. But what does that mean? If something holds value to you, it holds value. I don't mean this to be patronising, but don't get hung up on thinking you should feel more connected. If you feel connection, you feel it.
Parisa: Yeah I also think for me, as a writer and in my academic work, a lot of the time I cover the lives of MENA people. Because of the fact I’m engaging with our communities publicly, it almost feels like there’s a certain amount of connection you should have in order to afford the work you do legitimacy. As someone who has that connection, but who has never lived in the region, I do feel the need to pull myself closer to it however I can.
Deana: Is it almost like, because you talk about it, you write about it, you feel as though you need to be an authoritative voice? So you feel you should know the ins and outs of the cultures and what people are thinking so that you feel like you're qualified to talk about something?
Parisa: Yeah, maybe that’s a part of it.
Deana: I used to feel like this. I used to think, am I Arab enough to have my own radio show? Whatever that means! What does it even mean to be ‘Arab enough’, right? Because I know that a lot of people are gonna be like, ‘who is this girl from England?’ She doesn’t live in the Middle East and she's doing this show. But, I love it. I might not know everything, but I care. And me caring about something is enough for me to speak about it. I'm not trying to distribute facts that I don't know, I'm just expressing myself on something I care about. And that's exactly what you're doing. I remember going through a very brief process where I was like: who am I? Am I Arab enough? Why am I not welcomed by British communities in one way, and why am I also not welcomed by our communities? I felt like I was in the middle. So I'm just trying to let you know that whatever it is you're searching for, or whatever you're doing this for, as long as you're drawn to something because you care about it, just focus on that.
Parisa: If the presenting doesn’t work out, you’ve got a job in therapy!
Deana: Haha! Just keep doing what you're doing. I did worry about where I stand for a long time. But now, I'm like, I am who I am. I'm not going to niche down. If you like me, great. If not, I can't fit into a box. Sometimes there are values I completely reject that are so Arab. There are some British things I love, some I don’t. You just find your happy medium. I guess the best part is just meeting everyone along the way.
Parisa: Thank you, Deana!
Deana: Thank you for including me on this. You've been lovely to speak to. Bye, bye!
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