Everybody dance! Hishek Bishek, the Arabic club night open to all

Despite the UK’s large Arab population, there are few clubs that play their music. Enter Hishek Bishek, where you can find high-speed dabke, mahraganat and more

It’s 11pm outside Electrowerkz and a gathering of London’s Arabic community – young and old – are coming together tonight to belly dance and throw shapes to the music they grew up with or are currently fixated on. Gone are the days where the only place you could listen to Arabic music in London was Edgware Road and shisha cafes – Hishek Bishek brings people of all demographics to dance.

It is one of London’s only nights dedicated to playing Middle Eastern and Arabic tunes – from Morocco to Lebanon – where bubblegum pop meets the eclectic and cutting-edge. Resident DJ Super Mike, equipped with laptop, mixer and turntable, is in for a marathon five-hour set, playing everything from well-known independent acts such as 47Soul to Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram, which he describes as having “taken the Arabic music world by storm. Her songs are known to every generation from the early 2000s onwards.” Tonight is no exception, with Ajram’s 2018 hit, Badna Nwalee El Jaw, getting people singing at the top of their lungs in little circles of friends.

It’s a little slow to get going, but the club bangers are in full effect for those in early: popular Egyptian singer Amr Diab gets the first of many airings throughout the night, including his 1996 smash Nour Al Ain. But by 1am, the queue stretches down Islington’s City Road and it’s one in, one out.

Promoted by Marsm, this is the 17th Hishek Bishek, which began at the student bar of Soas, run by students for students who came to London from all over the Arab world. “It started off paying homage to singers from the 70s, 80s and 90s, and listening to what’s new on the underground scenes in the Arab world,” Marsm’s Christina Hazboun explains. “It now brings together so many people of all backgrounds, whether they’re English, Greek, French or Brazilian. You’ll find people of all nationalities at this party.”

Why so many other non-Arab nationalities? “Arabic culture is hip, but most of all, it is accessible. The atmosphere is open, the people are really friendly, the music is varied and it appeals to people with wide tastes. People identify with the different genres despite the language and style of the songs being Arabic – they can absorb it.”

The biggest crowd reactions are for the 90s pop songs and the hi-tempo Egyptian street songs in the mahraganat style from Egypt, plus foot-stomping dabke from the Levantine region also played at a frenetic, deft rhythmic beat. The dabke songs have people holding hands in small groups and stomping their feet to the rhythm, while the Egyptian mahraganat tracks have people moving as though it were a hip-hop night.

On the floor at Hishek Bishek.
On the floor at Hishek Bishek. Photograph: PR

Ahmed, 26, from Cairo arrived in London as a student and said that despite their large numbers, Arabs can feel a little underrepresented in London: “Hishek Bishek fills a gap – I feel like relative to how many of us there seem to be in London, we don’t get decent representation, especially with nights like this.”

About two-thirds of attendees are from the Arab diaspora, with different accents and dialects being spoken – Egyptian and Palestinian being the most heard from conversations – but the rest are native Brits and Europeans. A guy called Johnny heard via word of mouth and knew nothing about Arabic music, which is precisely why he came. “The dancing here is much better!” he enthuses. “I’ve seen some incredible dance moves out there both in terms of group and individual stuff. It’s nothing I would be able to replicate, but it’s really nice seeing an actual passion for dancing, rather than just a two-step.”

Tunes are at breakneck speed and played as two-minute snippets, making the night feeling as if it’s raced by. But throughout there’s a real spirit of Arab togetherness, a tough feat in London with communities spread out across the city.

Hazboun says there is now a core of regulars: “If you haven’t seen certain people for a while, you know that you’ll see them here. There’s no one else in London doing this, despite the large Arabic community here.”

The biggest lesson of tonight is that there’s now a place for Arab nightlife in London. Without it, places for Arabs to meet up, dance and socialise in their own communities would be few and far between – an absurd situation, especially with numbers growing due to immigration and the refugee crises in Iraq and Syria.

“Hishek Bishek draws people in from all backgrounds as well as new faces,” insists Hazboun. “So if anyone who is new here from the Arab world, they know they can come here and meet people and connect. It’s very important to keep the door open to them.”

Five key Hishek Bishek tracks, by DJ Super Mike

Rizan Said: When Vans Turn into Clubs

“Kurdish Syrian producer Rizan Said is also known as the “king of keyboard”. His music incorporates elements of Syrian and Kurdish dabke. Said has been a long-term collaborator with Omar Souleyman and his flair on the keyboard is unmatched. The moment any of his synth and reed songs are played, the crowds join together in rows of dabke, stomping their feet and performing this style of dance that is easy to pick up. It brings everyone together in hypnotic motion.”

The 4 Cats: Tal Intizari (feat Ghassan Rahbani)

“The band was started by Lebanese composer and singer Ghassan Rahbani and is composed of four female singers. They were the Arab world’s first female pop band. The song title means “I’ve been waiting too long for you”; their lyrics are often satirical and parody society.”

Hakim: Beni Wa Benak

“Hakim is Egyptian and started as a folk and sha’bi singer – he is seen as revolutionising force. This song is from his first album released in 1992 and is an all-time favourite about unrequited love, despite the short distance between the beloved and the singer.”

47Soul: Ya Zareef Al-tool (with Hamza Namira)

“London-based 47Soul’s ‘shamstep’ is always a great hit. The music is a mix of heavy synths with traditional dabke beats. The London connection is strongly accentuated by the occasional presence of members of the band at the event.”

Amr Diab: Yetalemo (They Should Learn)

“Any song by Egyptian singer and producer Amr Diab is popular. The acclaimed artist blends Egyptian rhythms with pop, Latin and other genres. Yetalemo is a massive crowd-pleaser.”

• Hishek Bishek is at The Jago, Dalston, London, on 13 March.


Yousif Nur

The GuardianTramp

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