Photo: Myriam Boulos

When the FIFA World Cup kicks off in Qatar in November 2022, it will be more than the adventures of a soccer ball that the world’s press will be following. Some will be asking awkward questions about the Gulf state’s human-rights record, especially in relation to migrant workers labouring under what’s known as the kafala system.

Kafala (‘sponsorship’ or ‘to take care of’ in Arabic) is, on the surface, a way of getting visas for migrants to Qatar and other Middle Eastern states. But at a deeper level, kafala means that migrants endure multiple indignities. With little or no freedom of movement, they often live and work in hugely dangerous conditions. Sexual abuse – especially against female domestic workers – is common. Local laws do little to protect anyone who complains.

So how can experimental music and online exhibitions do anything to alleviate these problems? Enter Simon Coates, a UK-based arts curator who runs a non-profit organization called Tse Tse Fly Middle East. Like the insect that the project is named after, Tse Tse Fly is meant to deliver a sting to the hindquarters of authorities, making a noise as it does so.

Produced in association with, Tse Tse Fly Middle East’s new album, This Is Kafala, aims to resonate in a world where defending kafala workers is dangerous. Drawing together an international cast of musicians, artists and sound artists – some of them working under pseudonyms to protect themselves – This Is Kafala advances a compelling multimedia argument for workers’ rights. Profits from the sale of the download-only album are destined for non-profit organizations campaigning against kafala.

Coates first became aware of kafala while living in the United Arab Emirates between 2011 and 2017. He had gone there to help create a counter-cultural art and club scene and was, he admits, ‘a bog-standard left-leaning artist, with all the self-righteousness that entails.’ In the UAE he saw things that struck him as ‘odd’.

‘There’s a clear social stratification organized by country of origin. Emiratis are at the top, with anyone from the West just beneath. At the bottom are the Filipinos, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis… people who work the lowly jobs on construction sites and as domestic help, for example.’ Asking questions was unwelcome. ‘People would change the subject, or reply in whispers. Questioning is considered seditious and can lead to prison.’

Coates launched Tse Tse Fly Middle East in 2015 with ‘a remit of highlighting rights and free-speech abuses’. Its methods are old-fashioned grassroots activism translated to a digital platform for the speed and ease of rapid communication.

Mariam Rezaei, a musician and academic who appears on This Is Kafala, first became involved with Tse Tse after contributing to These Are Our Friends, Too (2019), an album made to promote the work of FORWARD, an African-led group that advocates against female genital mutilation. ‘Siren’, her alarum to the Kefala album, is stark. ‘It’s a transformation of my own voice, where the singing is almost completely lost through the manipulation of two turntables and effects units. The resulting sirens propose that not only can a human voice be completely transformed into a soulless, corporate machine, but that the ease with which a person’s identity can be lost is a cause for alarm. The siren calls for change and for demands to be heard.’

The album is united by an urgent sense of activism. Nour Sokhon’s ‘Before She Lost It’ is a bricolage of grinding digital noise and voices; ‘Signals From an Abandoned Railway Station’ by and Ainkaran Sivaaji’s ‘Revagupti’s Escape’ are brooding soundscapes. Checkpoint 303, the international ‘artivist’ collective which uses music and sonic reportage to draw global attention to the Palestinian struggle, is present in the form of ‘Kafa Kafala’.

Getting involved with the Kafala album was a ‘no brainer’ for Checkpoint’s SC MoCha. ‘Tse Tse’s work is perfectly in line with our strong commitment to using sound art to raise awareness about injustice in all its forms.’

Will this do anything? Coates and the contributing artists know that the leaders of the kafala countries are sensitive to adverse publicity. Right now, that’s even more critical. Covid-19 has run riot through communities of migrant workers in the Middle East and local economic slowdowns mean many are no longer receiving wages. ‘If there’s enough visible, tangible indignation around the kafala system, and the rights abuses it represents, the hope is that minds are changed,’ Coates says.

Here’s hoping.