Britsh-Egyptian podcaster Abla El-Sharnouby's 'Altered Fates' takes on lightbulb moments and East-West curiosities
Abla El-Sharnouby feels lucky. Born and raised in London to liberal Egyptian parents, she credits her mother for sharing her wisdom – sayings, phrases, advice – that acted as “little life signposts” that enabled Abla to navigate difficult moments and decisions.
This, she says, is one of the factors that inspired her to launch her own podcast series called Altered Fates – a show about turning points, the “lightbulb” moments that propel our lives in new and exciting directions. It launched last year and is now in its second season.
A music publisher by day who runs her own business, Abla created Altered Fates as a side hustle, driven by a desire to share people’s stories of determination, creativity and motivation in embracing change. “I’ve always had a huge interest in the mechanics of human behaviour. My mum taught me to pay attention and to question things we do,” Abla says of her inquisitive nature.
"It’s important to help people understand that something may be very distant from them culturally but it’s all about our shared humanity"
Her mother is the late Fawzia Salama, a renowned journalist and media personality who turned to broadcast presenting later in life and passed away in 2014, aged 75, of pancreatic cancer. She would encourage Abla towards a similar path, telling her daughter she is a storyteller – something Abla initially dismissed. “It’s only after she wasn’t there that I had the space to see she wasn’t trying to turn me into herself, she was encouraging me to use the skills I have.”
“I think everybody has something amazing to offer, a unique thing to share with the world, and part of what Altered Fates is about is speaking to people who have managed to realise that.”
The second season, which was released last month, sees Abla continue her philosophical conversations with people of diverse backgrounds and experiences – from musicians to comedians to a psychic medium. She begins every episode by asking her guests a question: do you believe in fate? Her own cultural heritage informs her curiosity about what fate means to people. “In Middle Eastern sensibility there is an interwoven idea that there is fate, that things have been written. That’s something I subconsciously believe and I like talking to my guests about it.”
Growing up in London, she recognises it is a nuanced and even at times uncomfortable conversation to have. “Western culture is very different from Middle Eastern, and concepts like fate can be unpalatable to the scientific and fact-based approach here,” she says.
Yet, her guests’ answers have surprised her. “There seems to be a more spiritual element to people’s lives in the West. It’s not religious, but it’s about self-knowledge.”
She describes a moment in episode four, in which she speaks to Geo Jordan, a writer and producer, who replies to the question by saying one’s intuition guides them towards their fate. “I thought that was amazing, like an internal navigation system.”
In a conversation with Dave Okumu in episode three, the Mercury Music Prize-nominated singer-songwriter’s response was closer to her own ideology, and equally insightful: “I’ve let go of the arrogance that I’m in charge of the universe… I’m surrendering to something far greater.”
Part of the show’s power is Abla’s ability to draw out and relate to the ideas and experiences that her guests share. A common talking point is often heritage and reflections on cultural background. “I think our value systems come from our home life growing up,” she says.
Many of Abla’s guests are people of colour, who describe their unique cultural experiences as shaping their choices and personal progress. “There are a lot of parallels between people who are bicultural or second-generation British people who are from other places,” she explains, adding that balancing her dual Arab and British cultures, is “a cornerstone to my happiness”, which her guests echo.
Abla bonds with British-Moroccan actor Nabil Elouahabi in episode five over parental expectations and the space they were respectively afforded to explore their interests and identities in the UK.
In episode one, she discusses the wisdom of mothers as strong role models with Indian comedian Sindhu Vee, who says: “The big learning for me from my mother is the realisation and the deep belief that anyone can change.”
This exchange of connecting ideas in Altered Fates can be a lightbulb moment in itself for listeners. “Those traditions of our native countries are shared values, but they’re just expressed in different ways,” says Abla. “It’s important to help people understand that something may be very distant from them culturally but it’s all about our shared humanity.”
Abla returns to her mother as an example of someone who embraced change during her versatile career as a journalist, novelist, editor and presenter. She had her own turning point late in life, shifting into broadcasting in her sixties.
Fawzia was a co-presenter on Kalam Nawaem, a chat show on the channel MBC presented by a panel of women which was regarded as progressive for its dauntless discussions of controversial subjects that pushed social boundaries in the Arab world, such as gender inequality, sexual harassment, terrorism and divorce.
“What stood [my mum] in good stead is that she had been one of the few female executives in a very male-dominated world,” says Abla, “so she had gotten used to communicating in an equitable way. She wanted to shine a light on these issues that were quite taboo in the Middle East, and to make people feel seen and heard.”
Abla is embracing the “storyteller” role her mother encouraged her towards with Altered Fates – and though she has big shoes to fill, she welcomes the challenge. “If I could carry on her legacy in even a small way, I would be honoured.” Her mother’s wisdom continues to inspire Abla in her life and work. “My mum always used to talk about having 24 carats of luck – everyone gets them but they’re just in different places, in different areas. There’s something very fated about that.”
Season 1 and 2 of Altered Fates are available to stream on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Acast
Dalia Dawood is a British-Iraqi freelance journalist and editor based in London and a lecturer of journalism and publishing at the London College of Communication.
Follow her on Twitter: @dda_wood