Will the year of Arab excellence continue into 2023?

Illustration MENA artit
7 min read
03 February, 2023

The year 2022 was undeniably the year of Arab excellence. Around the world, Arab talents turned ripples into waves, from our stages to our screens to our football fields.

Many of us know this reckoning is long overdue, but it is nevertheless a joy to see the world indulging in our rich cultural production. And despite what it might look like, Arab culture is having not so much of an ‘emergence’ on the global stage, but a hopeful watershed moment of visibility instead. 

Arab ingenuity has always existed within mainstream globalised cultural production, but more within its woodworks or under its rugs, with whitewashed talents and uncredited creatives.

So as we look back on a year filled with increased acknowledgement and global popularity of Arab talent, we might also benefit from asking what we have to look forward to in 2023, supporting its continuation. 

"Arab culture is having not so much of an ‘emergence’ on the global stage, but a hopeful watershed moment of visibility instead"

With her huge LA Times feature, Palestinian-Chilean singer Elyanna perhaps topped the cherry on the cake of Arab music’s achievements this year, appearing with the headline, “Can Arabic-language pop conquer America?”

No doubt she’s set to carry the torch into 2023 with a spot on Coachella’s 2023 line-up, the first Arab singer to ever do so. And on TikTok, fellow Palestinian Saint Levant blew up with Very Few Friends, picking up a wave of fan girls across the globe and receiving two million streams on YouTube in less than a month. 

Elsewhere, rappers like Wegz, Marwan Pablo, Felukah and the Palestinian boys of BLTNM voiced themselves in their mother tongue to hugely successful degrees.

Egyptians had an especially strong year, with Felukah also appearing as one of three artists in the Qatar World Cup Coca-Cola global Believing is Magic campaign.

While Wegz topped the charts as the highest-streamed artist in the Middle East alongside Egyptian Marwan Pablo.  

And even Nancy Ajram came back onto our radars for a mini-Renaissance, collaborating with Marshmello for Sah Sah with 48 million views on YouTube and becoming the first Arabic song to make it to the Top Ten iTunes charts. ​​YouTube also launched a video and podcast series Hekayat YouTube in Arabic late last year, focusing on stories from the SWANA region this coming year.

Live Story

And of course who could forget Nooriyah’s Boiler Room set, with an iconic appearance from Baba, already raking in over half a million views on YouTube in less than a month?

Excitingly, Spotify has now expanded its Arabic music catalogue this month by adding more than 10,000 Arabic songs, including Rotana Music’s full catalogue. And Rolling Stone started its year by naming the late Umm Kulthum as one of its greatest 200 singers of all time. 

"Rappers like Wegz, Marwan Pablo, Felukah and the Palestinian boys of BLTNM voiced themselves in their mother tongue to hugely successful degrees"

Our screens were overflowing with habibis and hummus last year and thankfully, this looks set to continue into the year ahead.

Netflix especially brought it home, starting with The Swimmers, which had its own set of controversies but nevertheless went on to become the most popular film on Netflix globally following its December release.

A historic achievement for the real-life Syrian refugee subjects of the film, Yusra and Sara Mardini, who swam to safety in 2016 during Syria’s civil war, and the film’s Egyptian director Sally El Hosaini.

Live Story

Fans of major 2022 breakout Mo Amer will be very excited about Netflix’s Mo being renewed for a second season in 2023.

The Palestinian-American comedy tells the story of the eponymous protagonist’s dance with immigration and customs enforcement, juggling Muslim-Arab family customs with Western norms, and that famous ‘immigrant hustle’. 

Live Story

Darin J. Sallam made news last year with Farha, which caused contention as trolls took to the reviews to lower its rating following its depiction of the 1948 Nakba. Nevertheless, it persevered, being acquired by Netflix and acting as Jordan’s entry to the Oscars’ Best International Feature category for 2023.

Elsewhere, Moonknight shone as an exemplary moment of mainstream Arab culture, featuring Ramy’s own May Calamawy, and Hamza Yassin became the first Sudanese-Brit to win Strictly Come Dancing.

Other new releases this year like The Exchange on Netflix will tell the story of two women who enter the Kuwait Stock Exchange in the late 1980s on the brink of Saddam Hussein’s invasion. And we eagerly await Rami Malek’s return to the big screen for Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.

Even our theatres saw more Arab presence last year, with women taking centre stage (pardon the pun). In London, The Royal Court staged Jasmine Naziha Jones’s stirring and absurd depiction of Iraq’s many modern conflicts doubled with a British upbringing in the darkly funny Baghdaddy.

And Palestinian-Irish Hannah Khalil became the first playwright ever to have two shows on both stages of Shakespeare’s Globe simultaneously, as she presented us with Hakawatis; a feminist retelling of The 1,001 Nights.

An honourable mention goes to Aaron Kilercioglu and Bilal Hasna’s For A Palestinian, which received rave reviews at both its Camden People’s Theatre and Bristol Old Vic runs.

Live Story

In the art world, Palestine made headlines again. For the first time ever, a Palestinian art institution was accepted to present a ‘collateral event’ exhibition at the world-renowned Venice biennale, From Palestine with Art.

Other Arab artists showed up across the art world too, with Egyptian multimedia artist Mohamed Abla winning a Goethe medal, one of Germany’s most prestigious awards, and UAE’s Hassun El-Zafar presenting an exhibition at Southbank’s biennial, Unlimited.

In 2023, we can look forward to the return of the iconic Arab arts festival Shubbak in London, with its tenth edition line-up to be announced. 

"The Qatar World Cup brought it home for Arabs everywhere in perhaps every way but taking the actual trophy"

Of course, it was the football field which saw the greatest Arab achievements of 2022. The Qatar World Cup brought it home for Arabs everywhere in perhaps every way but in taking the actual trophy.

From incredible performances by Arab teams like Saudi’s 2-1 win over Argentina and Tunisia’s 1-0 win over France to wide-spread Palestinian support from legends like this, and a victorious Messi donning a Bisht, meant the overall Arab spirit was strong resistance to Western media’s consistent racist reportage of the event.

And perhaps the most special moment of the year, Morocco’s historic victories over Belgium, Spain and Portugal and rise to the sem-final saw major cities everywhere erupt waves of the Moroccan flag and chants of ‘Dima Maghreb!’ from both Arabs and non-Arabs alike.

Off-pitch, let’s not forget Tunisian player Ons Jabeur’s historic play at the Wimbledon women's final. 

Live Story

Above all, it’s been incredible to see Palestine consistently topping the charts, taking centre stage and positively dominating headlines, even from something like Bella Hadid – who vocalises her native Palestine’s resistance via social media and in the press – being named Model of the Year.

As news breaks that the waving of the Palestinian flag is now illegal in parts of the occupied territories, no doubt due to its heavy presence and its accompanying air of resistance during the World Cup, it’s important now more than ever to keep it flying, which includes through the continued support of Palestinian arts and culture.

Live Story

In 2023, we look forward to welcoming more support of Arab and SWANA creators and talents from sport to screen to stage and beyond.

So stay tuned... it looks like it’s going to be a good year. 

Dalia Al-Dujaili is the Digital Editor of Azeema, Founder of The Road to Nowhere, a columnist at This Orient, and a freelance journalist with bylines in the Guardian, Huck, Cosmopolitan Middle East, Trippin', Notion and more. She also works with organisations such as Counterpoints Arts and Migrant Rights Network. 

Follow her on Instagram: @dalia.aldu