Snow

European media has been flooded this week with reports and analyses of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. In Jordan, the event did make the headlines; but there was also the snowstorm.

There seems to be a general obsession with precipitation in Jordan’s Arabic-language media – which, given we’re talking about one of the water-poorest countries in the world, is probably not that surprising. Still, winter storms in the Levantine hinterlands can be quite rough; and Huda, as this particular cold front was named (in Jordan; the Lebanese call it Zina), was one such. High winds, low temperatures, and snow arrived suddenly on Wednesday during the day, and continued well into the night. Social media were awash with comments (e.g. the #عاصفة_هدى, “Huda Storm”, tag on Twitter); and, of course, radio broadcasts – never slow to seize on a trending topic – joined in as well.

What follows are some rough reflections gathered from my following radio broadcasts on Thursday morning.

First, though, a quick word on naming. Huda was not the first named “winter storm” affecting Jordan this winter; there had been Bushra in November, which brought ample rain and low temperatures, though no snow. In December 2013, there was Alexa, with intense snowfall, blizzards, and a host of related problems. While these names might smack of naming conventions for tropical storms, for winter cold fronts affecting Jordan, the practice is somewhat more arbitrary. The weather guru Muhammad Shaker explains that “Huda” was chosen in reference to the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday (12 Rabi’ al-Awwal for Sunni Muslims in the Islamic lunar calendar, which fell on 3 January 2015). It’s also not a very well established practice; again, according to Shaker, Alexa was the first such weather event to be given a distinct name.

Whether singling out and dramatizing “winter storms” in this way – which, in Jordan, aren’t in fact all that unusual during the winter season – is in fact helpful could be up for debate. It does, though, make for some pretty good media fodder.

Broadcasting the Storm

On Thursday morning, after a day and night of heavy snowfall, some radio stations decided to suspend their usual morning broadcasts altogether. Not so the intrepid Muhammad al-Wakeel, Radio Hala’s superstar host who has been solving Jordanians’ problems on air for many years now. With only a couple of hours’ delay on their usual broadcasting schedule, he and his team were up and about.

من هنا يبدأ مشوار حلقة اليوم من #برنامج_الوكيل

A post shared by Radio Hala | راديو هلا (@radiohalajo) on

“So begins today’s installment of the al-Wakeel Programme”

Radio Hala is the official radio station of Jordan’s armed forces, and it has provided a home for al-Wakeel’s morning show since mid-2014 (following a much-publicized move from Radio Rotana). In its current incarnation, the show is called – quite concisely – برنامج الوكيل (“The al-Wakeel Programme”), and is a staple of morning radio programming in Jordan.

So much so that, on Thursday morning, when the programme’s familiar introductory jingle failed to appear in its regular 7AM (or so) time-slot, Radio Hala’s Facebook page already had people asking whether the Programme would be broadcast today at all. I was getting a bit anxious myself – though maybe not as much as the commenter who claimed she’d been “following the broadcast since 5 and waiting”:

By 9 o’clock, though, all was ready.

Arabic caption reads:

Našaama [= “gentlemen” or “heroes”; this very Jordanian word is probably deserving of a future post in itself] from the Armed Forces transport Radio Hala employees to their studios at King Hussein Business Park in preparation for the live broadcast of the al-Wakeel Programme that will begin at 9 AM”

At about 9:20, al-Wakeel entered the studio – still wearing his jacket and fatigues, along with a grey scarf – and the show began in earnest. The live in-studio video feed showed him chain-smoking, drinking water, and talking to the programme’s producers during periods that his voice wasn’t on the air. (When al-Wakeel isn’t dealing with call-ins music is constantly running in the background; the volume goes up when he’s not speaking.)

The announcement came swiftly that the programme today would take the shape of a “field tour.” True enough, by 10 AM, the studio was empty, and Radio Hala’s live camera feed switched to the view through the front windshield of a car driving behind an armored vehicle through Amman’s snow-lined – and, miraculously, nearly empty – streets.

Caption reads: “We have arrived to Jabal Amman

Throughout the drive, al-Wakeel offered a running commentary via phone line: mostly gushing on the “beauty” of the views, referring to the snow but also the deserted streets, which indicated that Ammanis did indeed obey the government’s instructions to stay indoors. There were also regular updates – some offered by officials patched in through phone, others by al-Wakeel himself – on weather conditions and the state of the streets. People were warned several times not to enter tunnels, since quite a few were impassable due to accumulating snow.

At about 10:45 the mini-convoy stopped at the side of the road, and al-Wakeel got out of the car, positioning himself in the middle of the road for a longer phone conversation with a weather forecaster. Since, at that point, there’d been no snowfall for a while, the forecaster warned that the cold front is not yet over – that the weather might get worse again.

Cautiously put; but al-Wakeel immediately seized the opportunity. He addressed his listeners in a deep, clear voice, warning them – much more solemnly – that the storm might start again at any moment. A dramatic statement, and one that’s even more striking seeing that al-Wakeel was still out in the streets at his point. The storm might continue – there is risk – citizens should be warned! But our host is still there, in the field, standing firm-footed behind an APC with a phone in his hand and a red keffiyeh around his neck. And, of course, not letting up a chance for a photo op with the našaama of the Jordanian Police, when one of their own 4WDs passed by to see what all the fuss was about.


Connecting through the Snow

It doesn’t take a snowstorm to draw al-Wakeel out of the studio. Last September, after a summer of Israeli shelling and assaults that left Gaza devastated, the Programme moved to the Strip for three days, broadcasting live from the Jordanian Field Hospital. Still, the Huda front was a perfect pretext for al-Wakeel to show his engagement, his readiness to help the noble people of Jordan in the face of adverse conditions. Even if the road before him had to be cleared with an APC beforehand.

Others, though, chose to perform their “service to the nation” in more sheltered locales. Over at Radio Fann, Hani al-Badri – whom I confess to having a bit of a soft spot for – also delayed his regular morning show (called وسط البلد, “City Centre”) for several hours, though unlike al-Wakeel’s he broadcast it entirely from his studio. Well wrapped up, for sure, as one should be, when a cold Arctic front hits the Levantine hills.

al-Badri’s topics were much the same as al-Wakeel’s: warnings on weather; the state of the roads; reports on electricity cut-offs, in Amman as well the Governorates. There was a similar effusion of praise for the efforts of the army, police, and the Civil Defence in keeping the roads safe and solving citizens’ ongoing problems.

Unlike al-Wakeel, al-Badri couldn’t in any way claim to be a direct participant in these struggles. But, even from inside the studio, he was able to do his bit: transmitting official reports and pronouncements to his listeners, but also allowing them a voice of their own, a way to enter the airwaves and link up with others cooped up in their homes while they waited out the ravages of Huda. Whether the call-in was from a woman warning of poor conditions on a nearby roadway, or a young boy goaded on by his mother to speak up about how he’s been living through the storm; it all proved that other Jordanians were there – listening, and all in the same boat.

Two different styles, then; for two different people. For Jordanian morning call-in shows, it’s the personality of the host that gives the programme its distinctiveness, as much as (or perhaps even more than) the radio station’s stated image or ideological commitment.

But it’s also important to keep in mind that, even though both al-Wakeel’s and al-Badri’s voices eventually did emerge on Thursday, they were both delayed; both affected, very similarly, by the storm. Not even the seeming constants of scheduled radio programmes are a match for Huda’s wrath. And while the hurdles can be overcome, it ultimately takes a special kind of person – an on-air hero, somebody who dares to brave the cold and wind in fatigues and a shmagh, or at least clamber over to the studio and take and present phone calls – to be able to do so.

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