Interview With Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad

I had the honor and pleasure of tag-teaming an interview of Jad Abumrad with Matt Haugen for AAI. The published interview appears below, and was originally posted on July 26, 2013 on AAI’s newsblog. 

Jad Abumrad is a musician, producer, and host and creator of WNYC’s wildly popular radio show and podcast, Radiolab.The show won the George Foster Peabody Award for broadcast excellence in 2010 and Jad was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship—often called the “Genius Grant”—in 2011. After listening to some of Radiolab’s programs on race and identity, and reading a superb interview with him by Discord Music Magazine, we reached out to chat with him about Radiolab, how he understands his identity, the interplay of music and storytelling, and Arabic food.

We began with a simple question: Do you identify as Arab American?

Jad: Yeah, I feel very strongly Lebanese and it’s sort of impossible for me not to. It informs every decision I make and yet informs none of the decisions I make, in some way. It’s just kind of the background of my life. It’s sort of like a fish in the ocean, you know? You don’t even notice the water if you’re a fish, I imagine, it just sort of is your world. My parents are both first generation immigrants…or would that be me? Well they both immigrated to the US shortly before I was born and they’re both from Lebanon, sorta kinda neighboring villages, both Christian Arab. There has always been a sense within my family that religious identity and sectarian identity are dangerous and my parents fully assimilated as scientists. And so for me, more than anything, growing up Lebanese, it was never explicitly a part of my upbringing. I remember more than anything, 1980, watching them watch the TV. And never being fully commented on, but seeing some kind of sadness and drama in the way that they were watching it, and when I got to be in college, I became very interested in Middle Eastern politics. I think like a lot of children of immigrants, I tried to reclaim my identity and I got really interest in Palestinian rights and doing that whole thing in the way that a lot of college kids do. Following that interest out of school I did a lot of radio at WBAI which was centered squarely on Middle Eastern politics, but the thing is that if you’re smart and not interested in simple answers, then you discover quite quickly with Lebanon and with the Middle East in general is that it’s so complicated and there are no longer any easy answers. I think Lebanon is the shining example of that. If I could sort of pick the high-altitude view of it now, I think that my Arab American background—particularly my Lebanese American background—gave me a heightened sensitivity for nuance and for the ways in which seemingly simple truths are never simple and the way in which binary realities are never binary. So that’s something that I hold very deeply and that I carry into every story that we do. To that degree, I think my upbringing is the vehicle for every one of the decisions that I make, you know, programmatically.

AAI: Has your perspective ever influenced a piece you’ve worked on? I know you’ve talked a little bit about it in the Race episode, but does your Lebanese heritage especially connect you to any of these stories?

Jad: I thought a lot about it during those episodes. I mean, you know in the Race episode—the first one that we did—it began almost as a stunt. Like: “Oh, let’s just test my DNA and see what happens.” But, once I had swabbed my cheek and put it in the envelope and sent it off, there’s like a two week period where you wait for the results—or maybe it was a month, I forget—during that time, I remember thinking: “Jeez, this is kinda weird. What does it mean to be from where I’m from?” There’s that sort of definitional weirdness that you get into, which is: what’s a race and what’s a sect and what’s a simple arbitrary cultural divide versus something that’s more etched into your physical being because you and your ancestors lived in that land. It got very confusing, you know? I remember as I was waiting for the results, because so often Arab culture is misidentified as Muslim culture, in a way, and so I thought a lot about that, that this is a moment where I might get an interesting answer to those larger questions of race, at least as it applies to me. I’m not sure I walked away with anything concluded, but it was certainly something that made me reflect on my upbringing and my quote “race”, whatever that means. It came up again, the latest short we did, I don’t know if my Arab-ness had anything to do with that story, but it certainly resonates with my own experience. You know, the history of Lebanon: it’s this country that’s been destroyed over, and over, and over, and over, and over again and hundreds of thousands of people killed during the civil war. So, I carry with me a sensitivity for that trauma: a sensitivity to the people we speak to who carry similar traumas with them. There have been some pieces we’ve recorded where we’ve talked to people who’ve suffered and I think about that through the lens of my own upbringing.

AAI: Do you think that radio and music and how you use those change how you interface with your identity?

Jad: To the degree that I sort of see my identity as not static. The sonic landscape of the show is about flux. It’s about things fading in and out, and comingling, and one thing transforming into another. On the level of craft, I freaking hate a music bed. A bed that just sits there. I can’t stand that. It has to change. It has to move from background to foreground. It has to evolve from something thick to something thin; from something rough to something smooth. That’s just sort of the landscape of the show. It’s all about movement and flux and never being able to put your finger on what you’re listening to, and I feel that way about my identity, you know? It’s hard for me to give you a one sentence description of my family history, because it’s very complicated, and it comes from a land that’s full of complicated people. And so I think I am playing in some neighboring dimension with these ideas when I’m working the sound. I wouldn’t say they’re directly related, but they’re certainly moving in parallel.

AAI: Was there any element of storytelling in your childhood—whether related to Arabic storytelling traditions or not—which drives your inspiration for Radiolab?

Jad: Hm, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know, let me think about that for a second. I didn’t have what you’re describing in my upbringing. I didn’t actually have a lot of storytellers around. I’d love to say I did, but I didn’t. Where does it come from? I don’t know. It was sort of reverse-engineered for me. I came in as a musician and I remember some things on the radio where the story leads you step by step by step by step to this feeling of suspension and of wonder and that was the feeling I loved. I remember hearing this one particular piece—I wanna say it was about Tennessee Williams from the Lost and Found Sound series, this was maybe 20 years ago at this point—and I had been driving to Oberlin and we might have been driving through this part of Ohio which is utterly flat and it was pitch-black dark and I remember hearing this thing on the radio and it’s like the mixture of voices and the kinetic energy of all different cuts going into each other and the story was kind of receding so carefully. Suddenly, it got to this moment where you heard something or somebody said something and you could hear the emotion in their voices and there was this sort of space and silence and music where you could just kind of sit with it. I remember being amazed at the feeling and having an early sense that the story is the architecture that leads you to that moment and it’s all about the moment. And that moment is a musical moment as much as it is anything. It’s like the feeling where the heart sings and the way that the heart sings when it hears a beautiful piece of music. Initially, I was more interested in that moment, in that feeling, and I had a sense that you couldn’t achieve that unless you seduce people and the way that you seduce people is through a story. It’s the path that you create, the bridge that you build, that allows people to come to that moment of wonder. So initially, I started to tell story simply for that reason: as a necessity. Then as you begin to understand how stories work, you become amazed at the story structures themselves and how you can monkey with them and how you can make the beginning the end and the end the beginning. So I got interested in it just as an aspect of this craft that I had fallen into. It never came out of the culture of storytelling that’s very strong in the Arab community, but somehow it was not strong in my family. My family is a bunch of introspective brooders. They communicate a lot with looks and with gestures, but not a lot with words. So that’s where it came out of for me.

AAI: We were curious if you have a favorite Arabic food?

Jad: Oh man, I have so many. My favorite Arabic food—which is only my favorite because it’s so hard to find done well, although I did find this Palestinian place in Bay Ridge called Tanoreen that is the only place outside of Lebanon where I’ve actually tasted it done well—mloukhieh. That’s my favorite because my grandmother in Jounieh, Lebanon, she used to grow the mloukhieh plant—I think it’s a specific plant—she used to have it right outside. The whole process, it’s such a freaking hard dish to make. I mean like you have to pick the plants and then you gotta mash them into this little goopy sauce and then you gotta cut the onions and bake the bread and then do the rice and there’s five other layers that I’m forgetting and you put them all in a specific order. It’s just such a heavy, heavy meal, but it’s delicious and I remember that somehow if I think about Lebanon and as the memories of being in Lebanon have faded for me—because I haven’t been back in a long time—somehow so much of it gets distilled into that dish. If I think about an afternoon where we ate mloukhieh, I can suddenly conjure everything else about Lebanon because somehow that dish draws it all in. So that would be my favorite. Well, that’s my narrative favorite. My actual favorite, just in terms of what taste the best, would probably be mana’eesh. You know, like my dad lives in Nashville now and he found this guy who does these fantastic mana’eesh and every time we go there we just eat far too many. There’s something about that taste I can’t get enough of. And kibbeh, I have a neighbor now who lives right down the street—one of whom is this Lebanese kid—and he makes incredible kibbeh. And now my wife makes it, she makes a ton of Lebanese food like way better than me. So she’s like more the Arab, at least culinarily, than me at this point.

Want to learn more about Jad and Radiolab? Visit their website here. Radiolab is also doing a live tour in cities across the US called Apocalypitcal focusing on the topic of endings. Find more info

One thought on “Interview With Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad

  1. This is great. We rarely get to hear about the personal lives of Jad and Robert on the show–I’m glad you guys conducted this interview! Interesting bit about Arab identity paralleling his story telling but not informing it.

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