Muhammad al-Shaker, Buried in Bread: Storms and the “Weather Business”

Another trending topic during the days the Huda winter storm hit Jordan was the name Muhammad al-Shaker. Shaker (pronounced SHEH-kur) is a self-professed meteorology enthusiast who started out as a pharmacist; and, in recent years, as founder of the ArabiaWeather / طقس العرب website, and a familiar face for its forecasts and predictions (especially through the web TV channel Ro’ya), he’s become a proper guru as far as weather issues are concerned.

In business-speak, Shaker discovered a niche – accurate, detailed, locale-sensitive weather forecasts presented in Arabic – and managed to fill it splendidly. Though he started with Jordan, now the ArabiaWeather website also offers forecasts for other Arab countries. Public exposure followed, though not always positive. One caustic tweet during Huda – which I’ve sadly lost the link to – had Shaker for a “weather businessman,” “trading” in weather like it was some kind of commercial article, a way of building his image and promoting himself through his regular online performances.

But most of those who pay attention to Shaker’s forecasts seem to be little troubled by the riches he might have gained. His performances – detailed, authoritative, to-the-point, supported with eye-catching interactive graphics – are a much slicker, much more palatable, and to a smartphone-armed public much more accessible version of weather forecasts than official pronouncements. It’s no surprise, then, that when he declared Huda might be a ‘big one’, his words didn’t go unnoticed.

Weather Talk

When the storm hit, Shaker himself provided regular updates to the forecast, broadcast live by Ro’ya and later accessible in online archives. Even winds and snowfall, as battered Amman on Wednesday evening, weren’t enough to stop him. Here’s a clip of him giving a kind of “field” forecast from outside the studio – still worth a watch, I think, even if you don’t understand Arabic:

The tie stays on, of course.

Shaker includes a lot of detail in his forecast here. Time and location of expected snowfall are dissected thoroughly; so are the predicted developments during the night, and in the next few days, as well as warnings for people to stay at home (and explaining why they should do so). The language he uses is quite high-level; on the near side of MSA formality, fluent and confident without being stilted. There are the “explanatory” gestures as well, and the posture. Though Shaker falters a bit in places – e.g. at about 1:38 when the wind picks up – his entire presentation seeks to radiate authority and professionalism. A man, then, who knows his stuff, and whose predictions can be trusted.

Soon enough, every word that came out of Shaker’s mouth came to be watched very closely. His forecasts on Ro’ya continued through Thursday: reports on accumulated snow,  complete with fancy graphics, animations of the cold front moving across Jordan as well as  interactive marking of areas that would be affected.

The Maligned Forecaster

Woe to him, though, that sows undue panic among the people. Throughout Thursday daytime and during the night, Huda gradually eased off, leading some Jordanian internet-nauts to question Shaker’s integrity in “playing it up” as similar to last winter’s Alexa (which at that moment seemed much more severe in comparison). Before the storm hit, Jordanians had been encouraged to stock up on supplies and be prepared not to leave their homes for several days straight. Now, though, despite the warnings that extreme weather would continue (and snow hit the country’s southern regions), it seemed things might be settling down.

Was Shaker to blame? Some seemed to think so. There were voices denouncing him as a meteorological “hobbyist” rather than a proper expert, and even whispers of a smear campaign against him on some authorities’ part. People talked a lot about bread – something citizens might be expected to stock up on, before the storm – and, half-jokingly perhaps, whether Shaker had in fact conspired with bakeries in order to scare people about the storm and push them to spend more than they otherwise might have.

Whenever people see #Muhammad al-Shaker they run to buy bread

Others took the situation with better humor.

Dear Muhammad al-Shaker.

I swear by God that if it doesn’t snow in Tafileh I will not bury you in all the bread that I’ve bought

Still, it seemed that, for this young man who had appeared so confident and professional, the times could turn tough if his predictions proved off the mark.

Redeemed by the Ice Apocalypse

On Friday night, the situation changed again. Shaker had already declared in his Thursday forecasts that by the weekend Jordan would be exposed to the full brunt of the cold front, bringing ice and freezing temperatures, and warned people not to leave their homes.

These warnings, at least, proved timely. The situation on the roads grew quickly worse as temperatures plummeted after sundown. A slew of traffic accidents followed, with at least two casualties. By late evening, when roads in Jordan were announced officially closed due to weather conditions, Shaker’s image seemed to have recovered.

#Muhammad al-Shaker you’ve proven your worth

For somebody like Shaker – disseminating their wisdom from the private sector, without an established apparatus to support them – worth and reputation in the public’s eye might rise and fall on the strength on their predictions. Weather forecasting is a risky business to get involved in; even more so when a storm like Huda hits, when you can expect audiences to hang on your every word, question every claim you make and your qualifications to do so. Though in the end it’s difficult to tell whether it’s the forecaster’s beloved subject – the weather – or their public that’s the more fickle, or predictable.

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Muhammad al-Shaker, Buried in Bread: Storms and the “Weather Business”

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