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Mija Podcast Brings Egyptian Immigrant Family Stories to Life

June 6, 2021
Lory Martinez. Photo courtesy of Podcast Movement.

Mija Podcast is the first of its kind, delivering dramatized non-fiction stories about daughters of immigrants and their countries’ stories as told through their family members, young and old, created by Studio Ochenta. Led by Lory Martinez,  Studio Ochenta is a Paris-based audio production studio that is dedicated to telling stories in different languages across the podcast medium. Mija’s most recent season, “Binti”, tells the story of Rana Abdelhamid, New York-based community organizer and founder of nonprofit Malikah, and her family from Alexandria.

Who are you and what do you do?

Lory Martinez: I’m Lory Martinez, the founder of Studio Ochenta and the creative director behind Mija podcast, which is a show about exploring the family histories of immigrant families. The third season is called Binti podcast and it explores an Egyptian British American family.

Zeina AbouelMakarem: I’m Zeina, I joined Ochenta in March when I started working on Mija on the translation and marketing, and I’m the assistant producer.

How did Mija come to be?

Martinez: Mija means my daughter in Spanish and it started with my own immigration story. I told the story of my Colombian American family in the first season, how they came from Colombia across generations, to New York, and it explores a lot of questions about identity, preservation of culture and celebrating who we are as Latinos in the U.S. It was the first time that there was representation like that in podcast form for a Colombian American family. When the first season was very successful, I decided to use the platform of “my daughter” to allow other daughters of immigrants to tell their stories.

Each season is a capsule standalone season of one family where eight episodes encompass a family, and you hear the story of the grandparents, the parents, and the two children.

We did the second season on a Chinese Vietnamese family who came to France, and the storyteller had this story of immigration that she wanted to share, so we transformed it into a drama.

Tell me about Mija’s most recent season, focused on Egypt.

Martinez: We took another daughter of immigrants’ story, adapted it into this format of eight episodes and tried to make it so it showed Egypt and its relationship to Britain and the US, and how a Muslim girl could feel across those three cultures and across time. We start it in the house with everyone during Ramadan in 2021.

Across the season you meet every one of the family members in the time from their youth until today. In the second episode, for example, you’ll hear the story of the grandfather. He grew up in the 30s in Egypt, and we hear the history of Egypt through his story. It was important for it to be authentic so everyone on the team, except my fiction producer and I, is Egyptian. We have Zeina joining us to help us talk about all these cultural nuances to make sure that it was respectful in the way that it was portrayed in audio.

Rana, who was a storyteller and who put that story together, is Egyptian American. We consulted with an Egyptian British storyteller as well, and being able to have all of these people on the team who could authenticate the story and make it feel real and like a celebration rather than criticism was essential.

Mija podcast has always been about bringing forward all the positive things about our cultures that, when you’re a child of immigrants, you might not necessarily appreciate at first. At least my generation, we were taught not to not to celebrate it and to rather assimilate. We decided to turn that into “let’s not assimilate, let’s show how beautiful it is that we have these cultures.” Mija Three is the best version of that because we transport the listener into this world of Egypt that you never hear about, because there are other countries in the Arab world that are represented more.

Mija intersects fiction and reality in a really interesting way, why did you choose to produce it this way?

Martinez: I would say it’s realistic fiction. The reason that this show is a drama is that when I first created the Mija podcast, I went and interviewed all the members of my family. I recorded them, I asked them how they came to America, and I realized that they were spinning tales, not because they were lying to me, but because you tell your story in a way that shines you even in a good light. I didn’t want to limit their stories by fact-checking and making it into a documentary, so I thought, they’re already exaggerating with details, let me pull it up a notch and make it into a novella.

I turned up all of the little details and exaggerated them a lot so that it became more of an emotional roller coaster, so that was applied to every series. So even though the eight people that are represented in the season are real people, it’s the super-versions of themselves; what they could dream of having as their ending, and it’s a cool thing because then you get to tell your family members “I think of you as a superhero.”

What impact do you think that the podcast has? What impact do you want it to have?

Martinez: The first season was the first time that the Colombian story was heard in that way, because in the U.S. the Columbian immigrant population is a smaller one. So it was an honor to be able to be that person that brings that representation to that specific country, and talk about the things that my family finds beautiful.

For the second season, we were able to bring a vision of the Parisian girl, where no one ever thinks that there are Asian Parisians, and there’s a vision of the Paris girl that doesn’t represent what the actual multicultural nature of France is, so it was cool to show a different more realistic version.

For season three, something that I’d never seen was the Muslim girl being represented this way and the story of the hijab also being told in a way that is empowering and very personal. In the Western world, a lot of the time when we perceive Muslim women, we have a very particular vision of them and I wanted to change that, because that’s not my experience of my Muslim friends and I wanted to let them be able to see themselves in this story.

This kind of personal story doesn’t necessarily get reflected so much in the media. We always see the worst things but we never see this beautiful moment of choosing a hijab with your mom, these little things of generational culture. And thanks to Zeina’s translations, we were able to make it in the Arabic that is spoken in Egypt.

Zeina, what has your experience been like working on this project?

AbouelMakarem: When I was first started working on the show, I was very excited to start translating everything and I thought it would take me less time, but it took me a long time to get everything the same way. I wanted to add statements and sayings or meanings, so I actually changed some of the meanings to adopt more to our cultural references.

When I tried to find things to add to our marketing or how to promote the show on our social media, I tried to find references on bukhoor, for example, because the story is actually led mostly by hassad, and in Egypt it’s huge. You find that on the cars people put shoes so you can stop looking at their car, and they put verses on their cars and they wear necklaces. I tried to use all of these little nuances and it was a very fun process.

What’s exciting is whenever I talk to someone about the show and they hear that it’s a story of an immigrant family, they think it’s going to be very serious and sad but when they hear it they realize it rather explores and celebrates culture.

How did Rana’s story relate to yours as an Egyptian?

AbouelMakarem: I thought it was very interesting to work on a different story that had a similar background as mine.

The fact that it was Egyptian made it very special. Normally, someone would be worried that they would translate something wrong, but I felt like “I’m Egyptian and I know what I’m doing”, I know that I can find this or that saying. My identity is a lot different than Rana’s, she’s a daughter of immigrants and she’s hijabi and I’m not, but somehow I felt very connected to her and to their stories and it made me think, “Wow, we’re all the same in Egypt, regardless of where you live and where you end up living, we’re all the same, and we use the same techniques of hassad.” It was very interesting to hear from Lory that whenever we spoke together and I mentioned something she’d say “that’s also in my culture.”

I remember a meeting with Lory and she told me, “look, you’re the only Egyptian person on the production team, the only Arab, I want you to be proud that you’re Egyptian.” I think that changed everything else that I did onward after she told me that and empowered me to use my authenticity and all my knowledge.

What’s your favorite episode or moment from the Egypt season?

AbouelMakarem: The one with Omar, I like it because it’s different and speaks about men in Egypt and how they’re told not to be certain things and not to follow their dreams, if they wants to be artsy that’s not allowed, “you’re a guy, you’re not supposed to do that. You’re not supposed to fall in love with this person.” I won’t spoil it and I’m going to let you listen to it, but I really liked that episode.

Martinez: I love the first episode because you get to hear all the characters, and sound designing it was really cool. The way that we designed the sound for the show is by creating almost an album and each person has their own theme music. So when you hear the first episode, you hear everyone’s little theme and you get to see the entire album, the composition of it is really cool. The process of finding the music for each person was interesting too because we had to look at each generation and ask “What music would Giddo Marzouk listen to in 1940?”

Lory Martinez. Photo courtesy of Podcast Movement.

Do you see Mija taking a life of its own, like a book, a movie, TV show?

Martinez: I do. It would be my dream if we could make Mija on TV, showing people that there are similarities across all three seasons that you wouldn’t notice across cultures until you listen to all three and see how similar we are in this world. I think the messaging of the show is very powerful so if it could ever be turned into anything else, I would be so honored to be that person that helps it. At the moment, podcasts are the platform that we’ve decided to use to raise the voices across the cultures. One day, maybe it’ll be something else. If you know anyone, you can email us.

If the readers of this article were to go listen to the podcast right now, what’s one thing you want them to take away from it?

Martinez: Be proud of who you are. Not only daughter of immigrants, but any person who has ever felt like they are unsure of whether their identity is valued in this world. If you’ve ever felt that way, this show is going to show you that sometimes we may feel this way, but the actual reality is that you should be proud of who you are.

AbouelMakarem: I want them to be able to visualize themselves in the characters, to be able to understand that we’re all the same, we all have very similar cultural details, and we can all relate. There are always small things that link cultures together. I would want people to be able to see themselves in these characters and be proud of where they come from and their culture.

You can keep up with Mija Podcast and Ochenta Studio at ochentastudio.com.

This article is part of our ongoing initiative, Spotlight Sundays where we hope to celebrate different Egyptians from the community.

If you’d like to be featured or have any other inquiries, please email us at: [email protected]

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