Interview with Joey Ayoub
by J.D. Harlock
Earlier this month, our poetry co-editor J.D. Harlock sat down with fellow Lebanese solarpunk Joey Ayoub, widely known in academic circles for The Fire These Times podcast and its assorted projects, for a chat on his thoughts and projects. Ayoub has been based in Geneva, Switzerland since 2020 where he is finishing his PhD in cultural studies from the University of Zurich. He is from Lebanon, and lived in England and Scotland for four years. Some of his affiliations include being a research associate with the Center for Social Sciences Research and Action, a board member for the Domestic Workers’ Advocacy Network, and a member of Sustainability Transitions Research Network and Degrowth Switzerland. He has an impressive list of publications which you can find at his site, and we were thrilled that he was able to take time out of his schedule to share his thoughts and goals with us.
SPM: Tell us a bit about yourself.
JA: My name is Joey Ayoub, and I’m a writer, researcher, editor, and podcaster. I’m originally from Lebanon and of mixed Palestinian, Argentinian, and Italian descent. I’m in Geneva at the moment pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Zurich on hauntings and temporality in “postwar” Lebanese cinema. In addition to my academic work, I’m also an editor at Shado Mag, and I host the podcast The Fire These Times.
SPM: Having grown up in Lebanon around the same time you did, I can say it must’ve been “interesting” (to say the least). What was it like for you growing up in one of the most turbulent eras in Lebanese history?
JA: Up until 2010, I led a relatively uneventful life. I did witness momentous events in Lebanese history, such as the 2005 uprising against the Syrian regime’s presence, the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war, and the 2008 “Beirut conflict,” but I don’t remember ever truly understanding what these were about. 2010 to 2013 were what you might call my “formative years.” At the end of 2010, I started my Bachelor of Science at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in Environmental Health. This would go on until 2013, during which time my world opened up significantly. It’s when I really realized that my exposure to the world had until then been fairly limited. At AUB, I met Palestinians and Syrians as well as Lebanese people of all backgrounds in a way that simply wasn’t possible where I grew up. This, in retrospect, would be the beginning of a more active life.
By 2015, I was very active in a number of initiatives and protest movements. That summer, I helped organize what was then the biggest independent protest movement in recent Lebanese memory, the “You Stink” movement. I mostly helped out as a media liaison officer (as I learned later) and, separately, helped with Global Voices’ coverage of the protests.
Although I helped organize that movement, I also had to leave while its momentum was still going. That’s when I moved to London, where I received my MA in Cultural Studies (with distinction, thank you very much) a year later, in 2016. That single year at the School of Advanced Study (SOAS), University of London, was probably the most active few months I had experienced thus far (and remember, I grew up in Lebanon). I was also involved with the SOAS Palestine Society and the SOAS Syria Society. My Master’s thesis was on the politics of language, and the case study I used was Hebrew and Yiddish in pre-WWII and contemporary Jewish political thought. This is the part where I mention that I am obsessed with languages, which is why I undertook that study. I also did it because, as a Lebanese-Palestinian who grew up in Lebanon, studying the politics of Hebrew and Yiddish wasn’t exactly a common thing. My uncle said I was just being provocative, and I guess he was right, since he seemed very provoked.
SPM: Can you describe your work to us?
JA: My work tackles issues of memory, trauma, migration, the climate crisis, and the need to imagine different futures. The latter underlines a lot of my thinking and links my interest in solarpunk with the degrowth/post-growth movements and various social justice issues. There’s a lot of intersection between my doctoral work and the need for different visions. The topic of a “postwar” fascinates me and has allowed me to link up with Bosnians who have a great deal in common with the Lebanese. That fits in with my base-building and bond-building with various groups of people around the world, so you might find me tackling Syria, Ukraine, Taiwan, or Ethiopia these days. I think it’s especially relevant given how boring and destructive the vast majority of economical and political structures and policies are these days.
SPM: How does The Fire These Times fit in with these ambitions?
JA: The Fire These Times (TFTT) podcast is the continuation of a previous project that I was running called Hummus For Thought (HFT).
HFT was my very first project. I started it in the context of the Arab Spring, and it lasted until last year. It started off as a blog to talk about issues facing Lebanon with a particular focus on the Kafala system (the racist system which governs the lives of migrant domestic workers), LGBTQIA+ rights, and women’s rights. Eventually, it included it was also directed towards Syria and Israel-Palestine as well, with a focus on anti-authoritarian politics.
TFTT came out of a desire to expand beyond Lebanon and focus on bond-building between various groups of people around the world. Topics range from abolitionism to degrowth, and the countries discussed are as diverse as Ukraine, Taiwan, and Ethiopia. The title is inspired by James Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time, and I try to channel him in the episodes.
SPM: How did you develop an interest in these subjects, and why did you think a podcast was the best approach to delving into them?
JA: It depends on the subject, but as far back as I can remember, I’ve always been interested in multiple topics at the same time. My background is that of an activist and writer before becoming an academic, so I suppose the very broad topics of social justice and the need for different imaginaries were always with me in one way or another. In recent years I’ve been trying to refine these interests, and I’ve used the podcast as my preferred media to explore them further. It allows me to pick the topics I want to explore, and it gives me an excuse to focus on various topics at any given time. I like the format of informal conversations as a way of bridging the usual gap between the academy and the wider public.
SPM: As a fellow Lebanese solarpunk, I’m particularly interested in your thoughts on the future of our country.
JA: The main problem is relatively simple: we need to get rid of the regime. Simple, however, doesn’t mean easy. The warlords and oligarchs that have been destroying the country for the past three decades are weaker than they’ve ever been, and this includes the strongest among them, Hezbollah. Regardless of the very serious challenges ahead, I remain hopeful about the potential of Lebanese youth. I know it’s a clichéd thing to say, but I genuinely believe that.
SPM: Any interesting projects on the horizon?
JA: I have a few projects in the context of The Fire These Times, including reviving Hummus For Thought as an affiliated project. This will be mostly audio-based for now, but I’m exploring options to expand to video as well. This basically depends on how much I manage to raise on my Patreon. In addition to the ongoing Ukraine series, which I started a couple of months ago with Ukrainian journalist Romeo Kokriatski, I wish to do a Sudan series soon as well. This would be an exploration of the ongoing uprisings there, their significance and potential, and so on.
I also want to do more projects on the kafala system in Lebanon. I’ve committed myself to keeping my focus on it in one way or another until it is completely abolished.
Instagram: @ibn baldwin and @firethesetimes
Twitter: @joeyayoub and @firethesetimes