Dearborn

New podcast ‘Seen Jeem’ features conversations with award-winning Arab American authors, poets

Mohamad Jaafar recalls growing up in Dearborn and the books they had to read in school, books like “Catcher in the Rye,” “Lord of the Flies,” and “The Scarlet Letter.” While considered classic works, it’s a list of books typical of just about any high school English literature curriculum found throughout the country. Considering the significant size of Dearborn’s Arab American community, Jaafar says that the students there would benefit from being exposed to the Arab American poets and authors that are also out there — and doing great work, too.

“Our school curriculum, I mean, from kindergarten to senior year of high school, we never read a single book that centers the experiences of Arab Americans or that is about one Arab American,” says Jaafar.

As producer and editor for Seen Jeem, a new podcast about Arab American writers, Mohamad Jaafar is now part of a team that is producing an entire show dedicated to the topic, available the world over.

“I hope that the guests that come onto our show will serve as inspiration and role models for young writers, for young Arab American people in general. Even for me — I work in communications, I wouldn't describe myself as a writer — but I found inspiration in what they were saying, because I also went into a career that's not STEM-related,” he says.

“Inspiring young talents, young writers, and young Arab American writers — hopefully that translates to more books being produced, more stories being produced, and more content being produced that centers the experience of Arab American writers.”

Mohamad “Moejay” Jaafar, producer/editor of Seen Jeem. (Photos courtesy of Austin Thomason of Michigan Photography)
Seen Jeem debuted earlier this month, with its first episode released on Tuesday, Nov. 9. The episode features a 30-minute conversation with host Ghassan Abou-Zeineddine and award-winning poet Dunya Mikhail. The conversational format of each episode is reflected in the title of the podcast itself; Seen Jeem is Arabic for Q&A.

Ghassan Abou-Zeineddine, Assistant Professor of English, University of Michigan-Dearborn, and host of Seen Jeem. (Photos courtesy of Austin Thomason of Michigan Photography)There will be 15 episodes in its first season, divided among four hosts, a group that includes Abou-Zeineddine, Diana Abouali, Sally Howell, and Matthew Jaber Stiffler. The second episode, a conversation with Howell and New York Times best-selling author Safia Elhillo, was released earlier this week. New episodes will be released each Tuesday.

“How often do you get to spend half an hour, one-on-one, and really go into detail about somebody’s work? The writers are all over the map, in terms of the kind of work they do, the topics they focus on, the genres they work in,” Howell says. “We've got a graphic novelist, a woman who wrote a book in verse; there are just so many different kinds of material. And their work addresses all of the themes, I think, that are of interest and inspiring to young Arab American writers right now.”

Strong partnerships

Sally Howell is director of the Center for Arab American Studies (CAAS) and associate professor of history at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. It’s there where the Seen Jeem podcast has its roots, although not in the format in which it’s now presented. Initially, CAAS had secured funding from the University of Michigan Arts Initiative to produce an open mic-style event on the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus, intended to bolster the creative writing programs happening there. The COVID-19 pandemic thwarted their plans.

Sally Howell, Director, Center for Arab American Studies, and host of Seen Jeem. (Photos courtesy of Austin Thomason of Michigan Photography)
In addition to the open-mic events, CAAS had hoped to invite more established Arab American writers to read from their works and sit for an interview, the recordings of which could then be used in class. With the development of the podcast, what was once intended for the classroom is now available for a much bigger audience.

“One of our goals was to interview these people, to record the interviews, and to have them do readings for our students. We would be creating an archive of these interviews and of their readings that we could use in our teaching in the future, the faculty in Ann Arbor could use them, and the Arab American National Museum could also make use of them in their archives,” Howell says.

“So we just thought, Well, why don't we just continue with that idea and do a podcast where we're doing it in collaboration with the museum.”

The Seen Jeem podcast is produced by CAAS in partnership with the Arab American National Museum and funded by the University of Michigan Arts Initiative and the Ford Community Development Fund. The hosts include staff from either the university or museum: Howell and Abou-Zeineddine are both professors at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, with Howell also being the director of CAAS; Diana Abouali is director of the Arab American National Museum and Matthew Jaber Stiffler is research and content manager there.

Diana Abouali, Director, Arab American National Museum, and host of Seen Jeem. (Photos courtesy of Austin Thomason of Michigan Photography)
The partnership between the Center for Arab American Studies and the Arab American National Museum is a strong one, the two organizations frequently collaborating on projects throughout the years. When CAAS approached the museum about collaborating on a podcast about Arab American writers, it didn’t take much convincing, says Jaber Stiffler.

“We have our Arab American Book Awards that we produce, which is now in its 15th year. Every year we recognize the top writing by and about Arab Americans. And, you know, a lot of these authors we interviewed (for the podcast) are former winners or definitely future winners. We wanted to highlight that the museum has a long history of doing arts-related programming,” he says.

“We also have an artist-in-residency program here that brings lots of writers and visual artists to Dearborn. And so we do see ourselves as a convening space and a touchstone for Arab American arts and culture.”

Matthew Jaber Stiffler, Research & Content Manager, Arab American National Museum, and host of Seen Jeem. (Photos courtesy of Austin Thomason of Michigan Photography)
‘It’s very powerful’

Interviews for the podcast were conducted over the past year, mostly via Zoom. While initial plans called for in-person events, conducting remote interviews allows hosts to reach writers that otherwise might not have been able to make it to Dearborn. And the podcast format itself allows for the conversations to reach a much wider audience.

Asma Baban, Producer & Web Designer for Seen Jeem. (Photos courtesy of Austin Thomason of Michigan Photography)
Editing the conversations down to 30- to 40-minute podcasts has been a challenge for Jaafar, he admits, but an inspiring one. The conversations are so good, he says, that it’s hard to make cuts while still trying to present a podcast that’s concise and easy to digest. Although he says he’s not a writer, he’s no less inspired by what he’s hearing.

“There are so many examples of moments while I’m editing, where I have to take a pause and it’s like, ‘What? That’s so relatable.’ I’m constantly relating to the author’s experience,” Jaafar says. “It’s very powerful.”

Seen Jeem is available on all major podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and Anchor. Visit www.seenjeempodcast.org for the latest episodes, videos, and more.

Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.