Visualising the (Pious) Voice

Based as it is on sound, radio programming tends to focus on people’s voices to a much greater degree than other types of media. But with the rise of Internet streaming and remediation of radio more generally, the visual component has come to play a much greater role than it perhaps used to when ‘radio’ was hardly more than a disembodied voice issuing from a box.

In Jordan, the heavy use of social media such as Facebook and applications such as WhatsApp by radio broadcasters is one way in which this kind of media boundary-crossing comes into play. Another is YouTube, which is effectively becoming a comprehensive digital archive for more than a few Jordanian radio stations and programmes.

But of course, having been designed as a video-sharing platform, YouTube uploads presuppose a visual component as well. The simplest way for radio programmes to resolve this is to simply put up a logo of the station (or the programme, if there is one) to ‘play’ as a still for the duration of the recording. Often, a photograph of the host is added to the graphic as well, especially if they have some degree of local celebrity (such as Muhammad al-Wakeel, or Hani al-Badri, or Jessy Abu Faisal). And the identity- and image-building associations of exploiting visuals in this way can be quite subtle – as, for example, with imagery of broadcasters on ‘Islamic’ stations such as Hayat FM.

Below is a clip from one of Hayat FM’s programmes, the early morning half-hour Aḥlā ṣabāḥ (“Nicest morning” or “A very good morning”), hosted by two female broadcasters, Alaa Abu al-Faylat and Du’a al-Bushayti. The visual element of the clip is limited to a static graphic collage which includes the Hayat FM logo in the upper right-hand corner, the name of the programme in large letters in the middle, and an appropriate “morning-y” photograph as background, with blossoming flowers and a steaming coffee cup. The colour green is dominant, in keeping with the station’s official logo and promotional colour scheme. Finally, there is a photo of one of the broadcasters on the left-hand side – complete with headphones and microphone that emplace her firmly in a radio station studio, but also a full-face veil (niqāb) indicative of an explicitly pious Islamic identity.

Radio tends to be conceived as a medium limited to sound. Listening to Hayat FM’s presenters, one does not necessarily know what they look like. But archiving recordings on YouTube suddenly provides space for visual assertion of the radio station’s Islamic identity as well. This image seems to suggest that Hayat FM’s female presenters – of which there are more than a few – are indeed behaving impeccably according to local understandings of how particularly pious Muslim women should behave (i.e., wearing a full-face veil in public and when communicating with strangers). The religious aspects of on-air talk on Hayat are, in this way, amplified by the visual, when the visual becomes available – as is the case when radio content is “remediated” on a website such as YouTube.

Male presenters – such as the Islamic scholar Ibrahim al-Jarmi, whose image appears in the recording of a recent Fatawa (“Fatwas”) programme above – aren’t exempt from this kind of visual identity assertion, and might also appear in stereotypically “Islamic” clothing in publicity photos used in YouTube clips. In any case, when considering images of presenters generally, there is a marked contrast between the visual material published by Hayat and that used for promotional means by other radio stations. Browsing, for example, through the Twitter feeds of JBC, Radio Hala, or Sawt al-Ghad reveals hardly any “Islamic” or pious imagery as far as images of broadcasters are concerned, in terms of female headdress or otherwise – excepting the occasional excursion into explicitly religious territory, such as when Muhammad al-Wakeel heads to Mecca for the pilgrimage.

A station’s degree of commitment to piety is, then, just as important an aspect of identity and brand-building as the music it plays, the programme lineup it offers, the kind of topics its hosts like to discuss. In the diverse and dynamic media ecology in which radio exists today, visual imagery can be an important aspect of this – and at least in the case of Hayat FM’s Islamic identity, this is deeply intertwined religious rulings and local attitudes towards gender roles. In this day and age, visualising pious voices is not merely a mental exercise for the listener; rather, it’s a central – or perhaps even necessary – component of how radio stations define and present themselves to the public.

Visualising the (Pious) Voice

Quoting God and the Prophet

I’ve recently been hacking at the final chapter of my PhD, which will (hopefully) be an analysis of the use of religious language on what I like to call “Islamic advice programmes” on Jordanian radio. These programmes involve a host, typically a scholar well-educated in the principles of religion and Islamic law, taking calls from listeners on a variety of questions – whether a certain course of action is religiously appropriate, for example, or how to interpret some obscure part in an Islamic religious text. (With the recent rise of the so-called Islamic State, for example, a few listeners called in as to whether their appearance may have been “predicted” by the Prophet Muhammad in one of his sayings (hadith). Judgments on this vary.)

What’s particularly striking to me is how the host-scholars talk about and quote the religious texts in which they’re supposed to be experts. Whenever the Qur’an or a hadith of the Prophet is quoted, it impeccably resembles the written form in terms of grammar and pronunciation – a standard which is rarely kept up in “fresh talk” on Arabic-language radio, even for hosts that do tend more towards the “formal” (or Classical/Modern Standard) pole of the Arabic linguistic spectrum (as opposed to being purely colloquial). Every Islamic scholar worth their salt should, of course, know such lines by heart – or at least be able to pretend well enough that they do. But quotations are also, perhaps unsurprisingly, usually pronounced in a different way than the talk which surrounds them. They are not merely said – not even read in the kind of droning, measured style typical of modern formal Arabic reading (see e.g. here). Rather, they are – more often than not – recited, in a way that sets them clearly apart from ordinary speech. Vowels are elongated, pitch is heightened, and there are relatively long pauses after each line (often lasting half a second or more).

So I rummaged a bit through literature in linguistics to see whether anything much has been written on this issue – that is, the distinct prosody of Standard or Classical Arabic phrases when recited or inserted into mostly colloquial talk. I turned up some quite interesting bits of research, including experiments claiming that native speakers of Arabic are able to distinguish between ‘Western’ (i.e. North African) and ‘Eastern’ (i.e. everything east of Egypt) dialects on the basis of accent and intonation alone, and explorations of patterns of poetic recitation on the Arabian peninsula shared beyond linguistic boundaries. There seems to be quite some work on prosody in Arabic going on, sometimes in quite interesting directions, such as the extent to which phenomena like contrastive emphasis (as in “wrote this article, not him”) might affect (or not) the way Arabic words are pronounced.

There are two issues, though, with this kind of research generally speaking. First, most look at ‘dialectal’ Arabic only. This makes sense for linguistics research that looks to examine ‘natural’ languages – that is, replicating conditions of normal communicative interaction, where formal/Classical Arabic is virtually never used wholesale – but doesn’t provide much to go on for the kind of context on which I’m currently working, where Classical and colloquial language is often used interchangeably. And second, they all tend to see prosody as a feature of linguistic production. That is, they approach dialects as ‘having’ (or maybe ‘exhibiting’) a certain kind of prosodic pattern under certain conditions. Again, this makes sense if you’re trying to describe language as a communicative system. But it tells us very little about how prosody may be manipulated, strategically, for specific ends – such as, for example, setting religious quotations apart from ‘normal’ talk.

It’s not a difficult thing to notice. In the recording below, for example, between 1:46 and 1:54, the Islamic advice host Ibrahim al-Jarmi (on his Fatawa programme, broadcast by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Hayat FM) gives a religious quotation which involves a marked change in pace of speech (mostly, longer vowels) and intonation (heightened pitch) towards the end:

Researching the details of this phenomenon, though, may prove to be slightly more difficult. For one, the classical schemes of research in linguistics don’t do a very good job of capturing these kind of contrasts. Even sociolinguists, when talking about Arabic, tend to focus to a large extent on distinctions between “codes” – formal / Standard / Classical versus colloquial Arabic, for example, or different ‘dialects’ defined as distinct linguistic systems. But for al-Jarmi in the recording above, the “code” remains more or less the same throughout – i.e., ‘formal’ or ‘Classical’ (even as the standards are more strictly applied to actual quotations than to talk that accompanies them). The distinctions, rather, hinge on sociocultural factors in a much broader sense – including the way in which religious texts, in particular, are understood as ‘quotable’ or ‘recitable’ in ways that ‘normal’ speech may not be. (This is not just an Islamic religious issue either; it is also true to an extent of poetry, which in mediated communication in modern Arabic usage is often involved in many of the same prosodic strategies; see e.g. the recitation at the beginning of the programme here, from about 0:38.)

Classical linguistic categories have their place, of course, and can be a powerful tool when trying to analyse the intricacies of human communication. But occasionally, the lens does need to be broadened a bit; otherwise, certain potentially interesting and important phenomena – like the way radio personalities treat Islamic texts – might recede from view.

Quoting God and the Prophet

Swearwords and Racism in Slovenian Football

Yesterday (18 April), the ranks of those who follow (willingly or unwillingly) Slovenian domestic football league news have been ‘shaken’ by the announcement that Ljubljana’s major club, Olimpija, is firing its coach, Marko Nikolić, following a racist slur he’d directed against one of the players on his team, Blessing Eleke, after he’d celebrated a goal perhaps a bit too enthusiastically in a match on 10 April. International football organisations spoke up; Nikolić was suspended for 7 matches, i.e. until the end of the season; all culminating in his sacking, announced by Olimpija’s president at a press conference yesterday. A strong message, it would seem, that racism can’t be tolerated.

There’s absolutely nothing to excuse Nikolić’s behaviour, but what raised my eyebrows just as much were some of the responses to what has been going on in the endlessly exciting arena of Slovenian professional football. Specifically, there’s been article published this morning on the Slovenian state TV’s website, which aggregates a few local sports pundits’ opinion on the Eleke incident – together with another recent one in which Zlatko Zahovič, the sports director of Slovenia’s other major club, Maribor, insulted one of his club’s players, Agim Ibraimi (who just so happens to be a Macedonian Muslim) via text messages. Ibraimi came forward with these and had them published in a local newspaper, but apparently things were smoothed over internally. All forgiven – except that one of the pundits in said article, Andrej Stare, called Zahovič (who is of Serbian descent) for being, essentially, a cultural impostor:

“I wouldn’t take a side here, though there seem to be some hitches in communication, since people from outside the Slovenian athletic-cultural environment use combinations of words and adjectives [SIC] in a different way than our norms would require [them] to. In Serbia, “jebemtimater” [“I fuck your mother”] means “how are you, you look well,” but here among us it’s an inexcusable swearword.”

Obligatory screenshot:

stare quote

Stare is called out, and rightly so, in the article’s comments. Kicking your greetings off with “I fuck your mother” – phonetically almost identical, by the way, in both Slovene and Serbian –  wouldn’t win you many friends in any corner of the former Yugoslav world. But Stare’s statement is just one symptom of a more widespread phenomenon that I’ve written about before: the ease with which discourse in Slovenia slips towards assigning a greater leniency towards swearwords among those South Slavs of non-Slovenian descent – most frequently, Serbs and Bosnians (though others, in the fumbling fuzzy reaches of the ideology, are certainly not exempt).

There are many reasons for why this ideology persists, some of which I explore in the article linked to above. But what I find intriguing about Stare’s comment is that he does not use this ideology to ‘explain’ Nikolić’s behaviour. Nikolić had, similarly, used a swearword to insult Eleke – but in his case, the racist dimension is seemingly amplified enough to block any kind of quasi-culturalist explanations. These are as equally available for Nikolić as they are for Zahovič, given that Nikolić is himself Serbian. But not, it seems, once the publicly fronted line of racism is crossed.

Why is Zahovič different? Well, for one, he’s culturally and nationally much more ambiguous than Nikolić. He was born in Maribor, Slovenia; he has played (and very well) for the Slovenian national team; Slovene is his mother tongue. And yet, still, he is, really, a Serb. ‘Euphemistically,’ a južnjak (‘southerner’). The -ič at the end of his name fools nobody; everyone knows it’s really just a hidden -ić (the ć/č distinction is probably the most highly contentious orthographic shibboleth between Slovene and other South Slavic languages written in the Latin script). That is why, for Stare, Zahovič is so much more pernicious: an impostor, a hidden Balkan-born brute who, no matter how hard he tries to fit in, will always remain from “outside the Slovenian… environment.” Nikolić went against the rules; he has to go. Zahovič, on the other hand… well, that’s just how they talk, isn’t it? What can you do? Shrug it away cynically, and move on, and mutter to yourself, oh but of course a real Slovene would never say something like this. Of course it’s just the crypto-Serbs polluting our nice, pure, polite athletic-cultural environment. Et cetera, et cetera.

Having to deal with stuff like this is tiring, because the prejudices are so deeply rooted and so entangled with a host of other things – linguistic nationalism, migrant xenophobia, anxieties about Yugoslav history, post-socialist politics, and so on and so on – that it’s difficult to diagnose clearly what’s involved. Be that as it may, outbursts of linguistic ethnicism such as Stare’s are deeply, utterly wrong. A person speaking in the name of a state television outlet (Stare works for Slovenian state TV) should really know better.

There’s still a long, long way to go before such issues are resolved. But we shouldn’t lose sight of them. Idiocies like these should be called out; and maybe, by doing so, we can chip away at least a bit at the deep inequalities in public discourse hiding behind the Balkanist ideology of swearing-prone Serbs.

Swearwords and Racism in Slovenian Football

The Blessings of Rain

Rain, storms, flooding. The images coming in from Amman over the past couple of days have been nothing short of apocalyptic. (Naseem Tarawneh at the Black Iris has a nice collection of illustrative videos here.) Amman’s city centre and a huge number of tunnels, roads, and underpasses have been flooded under metre-deep rainwater, causing building collapses and drownings along with unimaginable traffic chaos. Better infrastructure would likely have worked miracles to prevent such catastrophes, and many Jordanians posting comments on the Internet have not been too kind about the authorities’ preparation to deal with the winter season.

Even though such disasters are a regular occurrence in Jordan, local media tend to frame  rainfall (and snowfall) in a very specific way. Precipitation is typically characterised as a “blessing” (ni‘ma, baraka, or ḳayr) from God – which makes sense for what’s been claimed to be the second poorest country in the world in terms of water resources. Rain fills dams and cisterns; it’s an essential part of the cycle which provides water used by Jordanian consumers – citizens, businesses, industry, and agriculture. Radio hosts always accompany forecasts of rain with hopes that it will mean all the best for Jordan, that they will be amṭār ḳayr wa-baraka – “rains of good and blessing” – and only be beneficial to the country as a whole.

So on Thursday, 5 November, when the worst parts of the most recent weather depression began to batter the skies over Amman, the radio host Muhammad al-Wakeel – in a “live” video posted on his Facebook page – filled his talk with references to blessings and God, and asked his 5.5 million Facebook followers to send in contributions from all of Jordan – “so we can be reassured regarding people in all governorates,” and be certain that the rain truly is a blessing and a “mercy” (raḥma) from God:

 

To be fair, there is always a grimmer underside to such pronouncements: the unstated fear that the rain will not just be “good and blessed,” that the water (or snow, or ice) will cause problems and accidents and further damage Jordan’s already overstrained infrastructure. But at the same time, a focus on God as the ultimate agent of rain also allows authorities to resolve responsibility for any catastrophes that do eventually happen. This is also, I think, the gist of a Facebook post written by Naseem Tarawneh as a reaction to the video of an Egyptian man whose children had drowned in a flash flood. Worth quoting from at length:

Rain is an uncontrollable act of God; everything else is on our hands. If you’ve been outside and witnessed the damage, most of it is manmade. It doesn’t take an engineer to arrive at the conclusion that there is something seriously wrong with our infrastructure and our policies. Tunnels and streets that easily flood with only a few hours of consistent rain. Construction sites are a lawless zone, with materials ranging from stone to cement and wood that are typically piled up on adjacent lands or organized in mountains on curbsides – these materials are carried out with the waters. Drivers with absolutely no patience or etiquette help cause as much of the traffic accidents as the rain, if not more.

On and on and on. This is become a tradition. Every year there’s a new weather catastrophe, and every year we see the same images. […]

It’s infuriating, for sure. But the anger and frustration comes from knowing that to policymakers, this is all just passing weather. […]

This man lost his children, not to an act of God, but an act of mismanagement that borders on the criminal. He deserved better. As do we all.

(Source: The Black Iris, “Of all the content being shared…”, Facebook post, 5 November 2015 – link)

So what might at first look like a fairly innocent aspect of using language – mentioning, as if by rote, that God is behind everything, rainfall is a divine blessing and so on – becomes a practice with deep consequences for how we imagine public accountability and responsibility. Every time a Jordanian broadcaster mentions rain as a blessing from God, they aren’t just making a theological claim, but also upholding a way of phrasing that allows the re-framing of what are ultimately infrastructural shortfalls as being something that human beings are powerless to face. Language plays a powerful framing role here; and exposing this role should, at least, inspire debates as to the limits of responsibility claimed by systems of government and administration when their citizens are hurt by climate-linked catastrophes such as this.

The Blessings of Rain

An Interview with a Hero of the Intifada

The recent rounds of violence in the West Bank in the past few weeks – sparked by assaults on the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem by radical Israeli groups in mid-September, and now ongoing with regular deadly crackdowns on Palestinian protesters by the IDF as well as isolated assaults targeting Israelis – has, of course, hardly gone unnoticed on the far side of the Jordan river. Jordan has a large population of ethnic Palestinians, but perhaps more important for regime-friendly media in the Kingdom is the fact that the Jordanian state still claims formal custodianship and administrative control over the Haram al-Sharif (which houses both al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock). When events in the occupied Palestinian territories are mentioned, it’s often difficult to judge whether what is involved is actual compassion for the Palestinian cause – or interest in the Jordanian public’s opinion regarding it – or merely a rhetorical strategy pursued to shore up the Jordanian regime’s legitimacy.

On 11 October, Hala Akhbar – “Hala News,” a recently established ‘news’ offshoot of Radio Hala – published a recording of an interview the star broadcaster Muhammad al-Wakeel had made with Ziyad Abu Hlayyil, a Palestinian man who had challenged Israeli soldiers on the margins of a demonstration in Hebron. Video footage of the event – see the al-Jazeera-sourced clip below – was subsequently shared widely on social media as an example of anti-occupation heroism (in what some observers have already dubbed a new intifada). In the clip, Abu Hlayyil yells and pushes at the soldiers, telling them to not shoot at “the kids,” refusing their orders to move away and giving generally irreverent responses – including “you can’t arrest me” and the (racist) “go back to Ethiopia” (reference to  Beta Israel members of the IDF). He loses his balance and falls to the ground at the end of the clip – though apparently not suffering significant injuries, as he confirms in subsequent interviews.

This act was, ostensibly, why al-Wakeel had invited Abu Hlayyil to speak with him in the first place. But from the very beginning of the interview, it was clear that the story would be subjected to a somewhat different framing than that of a heroic Palestinian man single-handedly resisting occupation forces. This was still the basis of Abu Hlayyil’s “message” – the pitch, if you will, through which his tale was presented as one worthy of attention. But to appear on a show such as al-Wakeel’s, on a radio station run by the Jordanian army, this tale had to be subsumed under a different narrative: one where heroism, sovereignty, and ultimately agency are assigned not to Palestinians, but to their Jordanian “protectors,” embodied in the twin public personas of the Army and the King.

~

 

There are two talk-based techniques in the interview that make this very clear – one more rhetorical, the other reflected in quite minute details of language. First, thanks and praise for the king of Jordan and the Hashemite leadership are constantly on Abu Hlayyil’s lips.  Looking closely just at the beginning of the interview: Abu Hlayyil’s first turn, after al-Wakeel greets him, involves extensive praise for Jordan, its security agencies, and in particular King Abdullah II, as if he were the ultimate agent of anti-Zionist activity in the region:

[0:48-1:57]

ZAH: Good morning to beloved Jordan
Good morning to the Jordanian Hashemite government, and with honour also His Majesty the King Abdullah II, son of Husayn, Guardian of Jerusalem and the noble al-Aqsa [Mosque]
Good morning to the Jordanian tribes, good morning to the “ever-vigilant eyes” of safety and security from the sister[-state] Jordan
And I would like to speak with you, ((sir))

MaW: ((Yes))

ZAH: Also with all respect to my Majesty, Abdullah, His Majesty the King Abdullah II, father of Husayn
Who has risen up in glory and threatened the Zionist forces with – with – with cutting off relations if they continued to desecrate the sanctuary of Jerusalem
Also we should not forget last year, when Netanyahu’s gangs began to prevent all worshipers from entering Jerusalem, and my Majesty ordered that all roads be opened for entry, and especially in the blessed month of Ramadan

MaW: Yes

Similar praise for Jordan and its government recurs several times – e.g. at 2:16, 5:02, 9:06, 14:46 in the Facebook video above – so extensively that it nearly equals Abu Hlayyil’s account of his own experience (the ostensible topic of the interview). Throughout this, it is never clear what exactly Abu Hlayyil is thanking King Abdullah II for. He resorts mainly to vague, formal terms of reference – such as “loyalty of the free [Palestinians?] to the Hashemites,” “heroism,” “protection,” “positioning,” and so on – which defer, or at least put at a slight distance, criticisms one might have of Jordan’s acts in the drama of the occupation. This is, in turn, a crude but effective way of asserting the legitimacy of the Jordanian monarchy: stating its formal role as the protector of Palestine and the Muslim holy sanctuary in Jerusalem, without ever delving into the messy details of what actually substantively fulfilling such a role might imply – but still upholding, in talk, the Jordanian regime’s impeccable political position, its deep dedication to the Palestinian cause.

The second, less evident technique is that of linguistic accommodation. The argument is on slightly shakier grounds here, given that a lot of the particular elements of colloquial Arabic which Abu Hlayyil uses and which are widely stereotypical of (male) Jordanian speech – in particular, using [g] for the Standard Arabic equivalent (q) – are also traditionally present in southern Palestinian dialects, and indeed around Hebron where Abu Hlayyil comes from. There are still some points, though, where I would argue Abu Hlayyil’s deference to a Jordanian style of speech shines through – in particular, the handful of instances where he uses the distinctly ‘Jordanian’ second person plural pronoun form -ku instead of the more standard -kum. This is essentially an echoing of al-Wakeel’s usage – which, in turn, invokes a markedly ‘Jordanian’ speech style. A linguistic concession, then, to the host’s speech, which mirrors the more explicit discursive concession of authority to the Jordanian regime – for which al-Wakeel, let us not forget, also stands in as a communicative proxy, as the primary voice of the radio station of the Armed Forces.

~

For Radio Hala, at least, stories of Palestinian heroes are never just that. The ultimate hero, the ultimate agent, is always Jordanian: the authority of the state, the king, the army, as vocalised by the host, deferred to symbolically and linguistically even when voices from the West Bank are actually given their own space to speak. Interventions such as the Abu Hlayyil interview are, ultimately, less participations of Palestinian voices than they are re-affirmations of a particularly Jordanian state authority – to all, actual and imagined, domestic and foreign, audiences of Jordanian radio.

An Interview with a Hero of the Intifada

Creoles, National Vernaculars, and Colloquial Arabic

There are very few people looking at language on radio in Arabic-speaking contexts, so in attempting to find scholarly parallels I’ve necessarily had to look further afield. Linguistic anthropology, especially, provides a lot of comparative fodder, and one intriguing piece of work in this tradition I’ve come across recently is this article by Paul Garrett, on the use of the local creole language Kwéyòl (or “Antillean Creole French”) on radio in St. Lucia.

In brief, Garrett argues that the use of Kwéyòl as opposed to the official language of St. Lucia, English, provides for a more accessible, colloquial style, as well as being suggestive of a particularly St. Lucian identity. He links the on-air use of conversational Kwéyòl, further, to what he calls strategies of “reappropriation” of language: a basically traditionalist nationalist orientation in which “local” forms of culture, communication, etc. are celebrated. This is contrasted to strategies of “instrumentalisation,” in which Kwéyòl is performed – for instance, in news bulletins – in a way reminiscent of (formal) English.

The goal of instrumentalisation is national uplift via linguistic ‘development,’ in which the intelligentsia takes on the role of educators by providing a full spectrum of communicative roles for the vernacular – including formal contexts such as news broadcasts. By contrast, reappropriation – and the use of Kwéyòl in ‘conversational’ radio talk shows falls into this category – is in part a reaction to such formal uplifting of language. Rather than formalise Kwéyòl, it seeks to preserve an impression of the ‘original,’ everyday, face-to-face contexts in which it would be used, such as discussions at home or in “rumshops.”

Guadeloupe creole 2010-03-30

“Slow down, children at play.” A sign in Guadeloupean Creole, a Caribbean creole variety related to St. Lucian Kwéyòl. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The concern here is that Kwéyòl, if formalised, would become too alienated from everyday life – too like the official, colonial language (for St. Lucia, English; note that the parent language for Kwéyòl is French), and hence too associated with social contexts in which inauthenticity, mistrust, and dissimulation prevail. As Garrett explains it (p. 150; emphasis mine):

[This] reflect[s] an ideologically-based sentiment that is prevalent and widely noted in creolophone Caribbean societies and has strong affinities to reappropriation approaches: the notion that the creole language is intrinsically more honest, direct, and straightforward than the official-standard language... The creole is thought of as being qualitatively and essentially different from the official-standard language in that it does not dissemble, does not obscure the speaker’s meanings and intentions. The creole, and by extension, he or she who speaks it, simply “tells it like it is.” In contrast, anyone speaking the official-standard language – particularly a speaker who could be using the creole but has chosen not to do so – is never entirely to be trusted. His or her words instantiate and uphold the persistent hierarchies, based in no small part on sociolinguistic stratification and “gatekeeping,” that pervade creole societies. Such a speaker’s words always have the potential to carry hidden meanings, to conceal hidden motives, and ultimately to disrupt (or at least taint) local solidarities…

~

Reading all this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Charles Ferguson’s classic article on diglossia. Ferguson’s reflections on the Arabic language situation – that is, a system where a language is believed to be divided into two related yet distinct codes, ‘High’ and ‘Low,’ or ‘Standard’ and ‘Colloquial,’ appropriate to particular communicative contexts – put it in parallel with a number of other comparative cases – including Haiti, where Haitian Creole is spoken (according to Ferguson) as a vernacular code alongside standard French. Haitians, or at least those who can in fact speak and write French, are thus diglossic.

In St. Lucia, the situation is probably more accurately described as bilingual, rather than diglossic, since the French basis of Kwéyòl doesn’t exactly make it possible to (ideologically) argue that Kwéyòl and the ‘High’ official code (in St. Lucia, English) are varieties of the same language. But even in Haiti, the diglossia claim has been contested – primarily because such a high proportion of the population is effectively monolingual in Creole. Whatever the case may be, the attitudes Garrett describes towards the ‘High’ code seem to be broadly shared. In order to speak in a ‘true,’ ‘genuine’ manner to one’s co-locals, one should speak the creole language; the ‘High’ idiom is always potentially tainted as a compromised code of hierarchy and collaboration. Hence why, in St. Lucian radio broadcasting, Kwéyòl is the natural choice for the kind of simulation of spontaneous everyday conversation that talk radio programmes aim for.

Creoles are, in the Caribbean, also national vernaculars; markers of a distinct national identity – Haitian, St. Lucian, Guadeloupean – that further enhance their meanings of solidarity. Contrast this with the Arabic-speaking context, where calls for using the ‘Low’ form in mediatised settings have traditionally been associated with precisely the opposite sort of ideals: collaboration, colonialist conspiracies, the undermining of shared ageless Arab values, and so on. But reading somebody like Niloofar Haeri, with her descriptions of the alienation her Egyptian informants felt towards Standard Arabic, the parallels between the Arabic-speaking and Caribbean creole-speaking contexts become quite striking. There are certain hierarchies – social, educational, regional, political, religious – that use of Standard Arabic inevitably implies, and which makes it highly inappropriate for use in the informality-simulating context of talk radio broadcasts.

“The romance of first winter rain.” Transcription of song lyrics (actual or imaginary / satirical) is one limited, though ubiquitously necessary, context of use of colloquial Arabic in writing, as the above caricature demonstrates. Image via Roya TV’s Twitter account

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The situation is of course a lot more complex than that. The comparison effectively falls apart when we begin to consider the cultural, social, and historical background in more detail. Standard Arabic is not the native language of any social group – unlike colonial languages in creole-speaking societies, which can be traced to very particular social groups, ones whose historical roles have typically been violent and repressive. There are also the religious connotations of formal Arabic as the originary language of Islam, which introduces a whole new set of values into the equation.

Finally, we must beware of – and this is a point I always like to stress – black-boxing the contrasting codes of diglossic language situations into neat frames of ‘Standard’ and ‘Colloquial,’ without actually examining what these labels mean. There is variability at both poles – but especially so the ‘Colloquial,’ given the existence of various dialectal varieties and linguistic forms with different levels of prestige, and different kinds of links with social identities and norms of use. Classifying a stretch of talk, or even a word or sound, as ‘Colloquial’ doesn’t tell us much beyond the fact that it’s ‘not Standard’ – whereas its actual cultural associations could run from ‘prestigious urban,’ to ‘stigmatised rural,’ to ‘prestigious Bedouin,’ to ‘stigmatised Bedouin,’ to ‘devalued refugee,’ to ‘feminine,’ to ‘masculine,’ to ‘female performing forcefulness via use of a masculine-associated token,’ to ‘female performing socio-geographic origin via use of a regionally marked token which just so happens to also have masculinity associations in this particular context’… and so on. If all we can say about a bit of talk is “this is in [Jordanian, Lebanese, Egyptian, whatever] Colloquial,” all such nuances are lost.

Garrett, writing on Kwéyòl, seems much more aware of such issues than most writers on Arabic media I’ve encountered. (There are exceptions: see e.g. Atiqa Hachimi’s work on Maghrebi dialect feature stigmatisation on pan-Arab reality TV programmes, or Alexander Magidow’s highly intriguing presentation on dialect mocking in a Jordanian comedy series.) He actually directly engages with local debates on what Kwéyòl – the ‘Colloquial’ pole – should be: a language transplantable into formal contexts, or an exclusively conversational code. And not taking for granted what a particular linguistic variety is also allows for us to look in much greater nuance at the social and cultural meanings that might lurk in the folds of its variation. This, in particular, is an issue that studies of language in Arabic-speaking media all too often seem to forget.

Creoles, National Vernaculars, and Colloquial Arabic

On “Hypermedia”

A recent issue of the journal Public Culture includes an article by the media scholar Marwan Kraidy, in which he engages – not very successfully in my view – with criticisms of the Syrian regime made by the singer Asala Nasri as an effective challenge to Bashar al-Asad’s legitimacy (and hence a crucial component of the Syrian uprising). Leaving aside the question of how much mediated challenges matter to a regime whose staying power has been closely linked to its military capacities, Kraidy’s analysis is shaky even when it comes to exploring the way media themselves function. His view of contemporary media – so-called “hypermediated space” – focuses mostly on message transmission capacities: that is, how much “information” can be transmitted, how quickly, to what nodes in a mediated network.

Asala’s challenge was supposedly more effective and more relevant simply because her words were (able to be) transmitted more densely and frequently via the Internet. While this may be true, in a very basic way, this kind of argument tells us little about both what is actually said, and what are the principles of the forms of media in which it is said. Both content and form fall by the wayside, hostages to what amounts to a rather crude technological determinism.

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First, a word on “hypermedia” as Kraidy uses the term. Writers such as David Bolter and Richard Grusin have put a cultural spin on the idea of “hyper-mediation” – or the multiplication of references to media forms; for example, using website-derived aesthetics in printed newspapers, or sharing TV news clips online, or indeed reading out Facebook comments on a radio programme – and have looked at the particular meanings and functions such moves have in mediated communication. Not so Kraidy, for whom “hypermedia space” is simply the multiplication of “points of access” to messages, made possible (or merely amplified?) by digital technologies.

Demonstrators during the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, 2005. (Image via Elie Ghobeira / Wikimedia Commons)

For Kraidy, hypermediation is good for things such as civil society engagement and socio-political change, because people are no longer limited to getting their information from a single media source. (Yes, it is that simple.) The problem with this view is that we are still talking about potentials, rather than any discernible effects such media multiplication might have. People can – as they did, according to an earlier article of Kraidy’s, during Lebanon’s 2005 Cedar Revolution, a kind of not-really prelude to the “Arab Spring” – bypass official channels of information in order to share messages, organise, etc., if only there is a hypermediated multiplicity of communication points for them to access. But of course there is no guarantee that they will actually do so. Further, though the “points of access” may be many, they are not all of the same type, and certainly not spread equally across the population. (The “digital divide” may be breaking down in many Arab countries with the advent of cheaper smartphones and mobile data plans, but there is more to accessibility and engagement than just the fact that somebody can access the Internet from their phone.) Facebook, for instance, might enable people to organise a protest effectively, but on the other hand there is no guarantee that this kind of engagement will actually last – as it gives little accountability and makes no provisions for more lasting organisational structures than e.g. face-to-face meetings might. These are important points, but they are lost in an argument which speaks only about “access to information” without delving in more detail about how media actually work.

To my mind, one of the more bizarre arguments to have come out of this approach is what I’ll cheekily term the “Arab Idol Democracy” argument. This is another point that Kraidy makes: that music talent reality shows – such as Arab Idol, its predecessor Super Star, and Star Academy – which allow audiences to “vote” on their favourites to advance to the next round, are amplifying the possibilities for participation and showing that democratic forms of engagement have real effects. Pick up your phone, and you enter a hypermedia space in which you are participating as a good, democratically aware citizen, whose vote will count and have an impact.

st3

“The stars of Star Academy 3.” “Arab” democracy in action.

Apart from being subtly orientalist – ignorant Arabs being educated about democracy by a Western-sourced cultural form – this argument again completely ignores both the form and content of media interaction. “Participation” might count, but it is limited to casting a (premium-rate-charged) tele-vote on a small pool of contestants who do not in turn have any lasting impact or accountability, and disappear from the scene completely once the “season” is over.

There may be a highly cynical comment about the state of participatory democracy in there somewhere. But this isn’t what Kraidy is saying; for him, rather, the effects are real, and (really) beneficial. In the end, I think, his arguments do little but demonstrate the true perils of technological determinism: taking certain laudatory statements – about “increased participation” and suchlike – for granted, and applying them in a superficial manner with only enough actual analysis that they still stick. Even though there is much greater complexity there in practice.

On “Hypermedia”