Blizzard Debates

I don’t think I heard the radio host Muhammad al-Wakeel utter the word “Huda” once during his field trip through the snowy streets of Amman. For him it was always al-munkhafaD al-džawwii (المنخفض الجوي، “weather depression”; “area of low air pressure” or “cold front”). Lengthier, certainly, and much drier than a snappy, memorable, carefully chosen (female) name. Still, it did not stop al-Wakeel from dramatizing the event itself in a similar way as did social media commentators and most private media outlets. Already on Saturday night, in expectation of the beginning of a new week – al-Wakeel resumes his regular morning broadcasts every Sunday, after a Friday-Saturday pause – anticipation was being built up for yet another special episode of the Programme:

Caption reads:

Muhammad al-Wakeel returns to air at 10AM tomorrow morning, to examine the positive and negative aspects of the weather depression

And the image text:


The al-Wakeel Programme. Beginning from 10AM

The hype is on.

The Star’s Journey

There was more snowfall on Saturday night, and likely due to road conditions the Programme had to be delayed for another hour. (Note that the image in this link is much the same as the one in the tweet above, only without the TOMORROW in the upper-right corner and the starting time changed to 11AM. Quick and responsive.)

When al-Wakeel’s voice finally appeared, it was through a phone line, rather than from inside the studio. As on Thursday, it seemed al-Wakeel was on a field trip – though Radio Hala’s “high definition broadcaster camera” (a LiveStream service) only showed the snowy environs of the studio, rather than a live feed through the windshield of a moving 4×4. Even this, though, drew about 200 registered viewers; a poor showing indeed on Thursday’s 1000+ – though judging from the live chat feed beside the video stream, these were listeners very much concerned with their beloved host’s well-being while he was out on the streets.

Or, at least, eager to show their concern. As in this comment:

[11 JAN 2015] abuhaythamtakecareofyourself

Abu Haytham my brother take care of yourself

(Abu Haytham is Muhammad al-Wakeel’s nickname – a kunya or teknonym, ie. naming after his child; “Father of Haytham” – by which he is known affectionately to many of his commenters and callers.)

Abu Haytham himself, though, seemed quite content to run the first few hours of his broadcast from inside a military vehicle. When he finally did arrive to the Hala studios, it was like a proper media star: recorded on video the moment he stepped out of the vehicle, waving and smiling his way past, all too aware of his popularity and his importance to fans and followers.

Praise to God; the broadcaster Muhammad al-Wakeel and the al-Wakeel Programme team have arrived to the Radio Hala studios in Amman, in vehicles belonging to the intrepid Jordanian Armed Forces

Balanced Views

The very format of the Sunday broadcast – discussing “positives” and “negatives” of the cold front – set up the snowstorm as a concrete, bordered ‘event’; one that took place, through God’s agency or otherwise, and whose ‘effects’ could now be debated and discussed. It’s a curious way to approach something like weather, though with the constant buzz and discussion built up around Huda perhaps also inevitable. And who better suited for this task than Muhammad al-Wakeel – with his authoritative voice, his lengthy broadcasting credentials, and his dense links to officials giving him an unmatched overview of goings-on in the Hashemite Kingdom.

It began, already, in the army jeep, interspersed between updates on weather conditions and traffic warnings. Positives first, then negatives, al-Wakeel said, though he still couldn’t help but slip in a few critical observations of his own. To offer a balanced perspective, we have to speak of negatives too.

The citizens’ cooperation during the storm was definitely a good thing – obeying the authorities, staying at home when they were told to do so, with only a few people ignoring the warnings (and those duly deserving any fines or punishments the police might have applied). Beautiful views, of course; seeing Jordan all covered in white doesn’t exactly happen every day. The ample precipitation meant that “we wouldn’t be complaining about lack of water during the summer”. Finally, there was the professionalism, the readiness, exhibited by the state apparatus, and also the private sector – e.g. bakeries – in serving ordinary Jordanians.

The negatives? Citizens panicking due to obtaining information from dubious sources; citizens disobeying instructions, leading to traffic accidents (especially while ice was covering the roads); and profiteers who exploited the storm to swindle customers on gas prices.

[11 JAN 2015] alwakeelinuniform12-12PM

(Above: snapshot of al-Wakeel in the studio at about 12:12 on Sunday; for once, in full military uniform)

But all of these hiccups paled in comparison with the government’s efforts to deal with the storm. al-Wakeel called up both his police contact and the Mayor of Amman himself to offer praise, and lauded the ministerial cabinet as well, especially its decisions to temporarily close government offices and postpone scheduled school exams in light of the hazardous weather conditions. Professionalism; preparedness; all very positive things, as far as this particular host was concerned. The people could perhaps have done a better job, but what can you do? Advise, and inform, of course, as is any responsible broadcaster’s duty.

What struck me especially was how concerned al-Wakeel was with classifying any particular point as either positive or negative. The kinds of issues that came under each heading were, indeed, telling; but it was also the act of classification itself, the very fact that al-Wakeel took on the role of arbiter in the matter, that tells something about his position with respect to  listeners. There were other voices – both of the officials al-Wakeel called up directly, and those that came into play more subtly through his mention of their decisions – but, in the end, it essentially came down to a monologue.

So the final word stays with al-Wakeel. Ordinary Jordanians might be called upon not to leave their homes; he rides around in an army jeeps, and transmits updates through the airwaves so they don’t have to. He gives advice, and warnings, to those who would listen. And he curates, sifting through voices and pieces of information and news, presenting a confident – and broadly transmitted – reckoning of the aftermath of the storm.

Blizzard Debates

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