Stars of the Studio (1): Muhammad al-Wakeel

The morning of 28 September 2014 began much like any other for Muhammad al-Wakeel’s  programme on Radio Hala, the radio station of the Jordanian Armed Forces. There was the standard repertoire of Jordanian patriotic music; comments and greetings from Facebook, read out by al-Wakeel himself, as he does constantly throughout the show to reinforce the sense of connection with his listeners through social media. With Eid al-Adha approaching, there were news related to that: the exact dates of the public holiday, as well as details of the preparations, including prices for sacrificed animals (أضاحي، aDaaHii; usually, sheep) and reports on Jordanians making the greater pilgrimage to Mecca.

Soon after 8 AM, though, the programme’s tone changed abruptly. The lively beats of Jordanian tunes gave way to a sentimental piano piece. al-Wakeel spoke of Eid al-Adha, and how even though many people might find it a time of warmth and celebration there are others with much less – who live in very difficult conditions; as the Programme’s listeners know quite well, from the phone calls that al-Wakeel receives on a daily basis. There was one especially moving story, al-Wakeel said, that he wanted to speak about today, that of a 19-year-old boy down on his luck – without a proper job, with no close family to help him, or even a decent roof over his head.

And who was, at that moment, right there in the studio.

[MaW Drama] 1 - abd al-salam

(Source: al-Wakeel al-Ikhbaarii, 28 September 2014 – link)

The young man’s name, as listeners soon learned, was Abd al-Salam. He had come to Amman from Aqaba on an early morning bus, with 42 Jordanian dinars in his pocket, driven to desperation in finding government bureau or some other agency that could assist him. He was searching for his mother, whom he had never met, and who had given birth to him in prison. He’d been trained to do hotel work, but wasn’t employed in a hotel now. When al-Wakeel asked him whether he had a place to live in Aqaba, his only response was silence.

“Okay,” al-Wakeel said. “See. He doesn’t want to speak about this.”

Abd al-Salam’s voice was shaking. There were sniffles; he’d been crying. His story, in al-Wakeel’s own words, had “shaken” everyone in the studio, and of course the esteemed host was on the case immediately. Contacts were called up, in the police and in the prison administration, searching for the boy’s mother. “It’s fine,” Abu Haytham reassured him. “We will find her.” And perhaps most importantly, at about 9 o’clock, a phone call came in from a manager at a well-known chain hotel in Aqaba, declaring that he’d heard Abd al-Salam’s story and wishes to help him out, and that they have a job for him.

The airwaves fizzled with joy. For a while, all al-Wakeel could utter was praise: for his friends in the government offices; for the generous hotel manager; for everyone on Facebook who’d declared their compassion for poor Abd al-Salam, and their readiness to help him in any way they could. It was a proper grand conclusion to the spectacle: a touching story of loss and longing and deprivation, resolved through heroic intervention. And though Abd al-Salam’s plight was what drew the eyes and ears of listeners, the actual focus of the story – its true hero – was the man who’d brought it all together, and made it happen. Muhammad al-Wakeel.

Medicine in the Ruins

Abd al-Salam’s visit provided a spirited start to the week; but there was more to come. For days before on Radio Hala’s airwaves, announcements and jingles were building up hype for an “unprecedented media event”, a special installment of the Programme that would astound listeners and completely change their thoughts on what a Jordanian morning call-in show could be like.

The big secret? A field trip to Gaza.

[MaW Drama] 2 - gaza - field studio

(Source: al-Wakeel al-Ikhbaarii, 29 September 2014 – link)

For the next three days, the Programme would be broadcasting not from the comfort of its studios in Amman, but from the Jordan Field Hospital in Gaza, a continually-renewed Armed Forces mission that has provided medical aid to residents of the Strip since 2009. The hospital staff welcomed al-Wakeel and his crew with open arms: eager to participate, to make themselves heard, to show off the good work they were doing, as well as demonstrate quite concretely the Hashemite leadership’s generosity in lending aid to the people of Gaza.

Again, a carefully managed performance. And one in which, for all of al-Wakeel’s drama and  posturing, Gazans themselves barely featured. The focus was firmly on the Jordanian cadres – officers, doctors, nurses – and their work, the efforts and heroism of the “intrepid” (baasil) Jordanian armed forces. (Let’s not forget either that al-Wakeel visit took place right after one of the bloodiest summers in Gaza’s history, after constant strikes and bombardment by the Israeli army in July and August left more than 2,000 people dead and much of the Strip reduced to rubble.)

[MaW Drama] 3 - gaza - in hospital

(Source: al-Wakeel al-Ikhbaarii, 29 September 2014 – link)

Certainly, there were Gazan voices present. Hospital patients, for one: al-Wakeel spoke to quite a few of these, and gave them air space to talk at length about their health problems and the way that the Field Hospital has been helping them. But the way in which these mini-interviews were framed made it quite clear who was in the center of the picture. Not the Gazans themselves, or their problems, or their opinions, but rather the Jordanian army, the valiant našaama and našmiyyaat (the homeland’s “heroes”; both male and female) who toiled day and night to treat injuries and diseases in the middle of a land torn apart by war.

The patients had little to offer, in the end, other than blessings and praise – to their doctors, and the hospital workers, and the Hashemite leadership, with all their selfless generosity. Bland voice-boxes, compared to the Jordanian staff, each with their own rank and skills and profession, and personal experience and opinions worthy for al-Wakeel to discuss and engage with whenever he pinned one of them down for an interview.

A clear imbalance, then, in terms of agency – and who in the end really mattered. For al-Wakeel, details of the drama of Gazan life were not nearly as significant as the stories of the Jordanian medical champions who worked to make things better.

The Master of Drama

Everyone knows that there’s suffering in Gaza. It might not be necessary to dwell on others’ misfortunes too much, if your listeners already have a sense of what is going on. Sometimes, though, the arc requires a little more buildup; and this is something that al-Wakeel – and the members of his team who manage his programme as it comes on air – is very well versed in. There’s nothing random about the choice of sappy piano music to accompany Abd al-Salam’s story – just as there isn’t in the following phone call, recorded and published via YouTube (see especially from 7:20 onwards):

“The Story of the Girl Who Brought Muhammad al-Wakeel to Tears.” The title of the video itself makes it very clear. We’re dealing with emotion; with compassion; a tale so tragic and so heart-breaking that it even wet the eyes of the great Abu Haytham. (Imagine!) The “girl” – Sara – contacted the programme in order to seek assistance from the programme for her father, a taxi driver beset by eye problems who had difficulties providing for his family. The man himself came on air later, and after they’d spoken for a while about his troubles al-Wakeel was so overcome with emotion that for almost a minute he could manage nothing but sniffles and whimpers. With, of course, appropriate musical accompaniment.

The more tragic, the more hopeless, the more emotionally stirring a caller’s problem is made to seem – the more spectacular, then, al-Wakeel’s eventual solution. Even it involves something as prosaic as surgery at an eye clinic that is (no coincidence there, either) one of the Programme’s regular sponsors.

During the final hour of the 28 September programme, al-Wakeel received another call from Aqaba. It went on air: a man, declaring he had heard Abd al-Salam’s story, and was moved by it – so much so that he’d decided to offer him a job!

Alas, he’d have to be disappointed. As far as Abd al-Salam went, the script was finished. The arc was done: the boy had a job already, through the hotel manager that had called up earlier. In the end, al-Wakeel didn’t quite know what to do with this living exemplar of Jordanian generosity. A greeting; a blessing, a polite dismissal, and he was sent on his way. Time was short, and there were callers waiting, more anguished souls for the hero of the day to save.

Stars of the Studio (1): Muhammad al-Wakeel

5 thoughts on “Stars of the Studio (1): Muhammad al-Wakeel

  1. […] Qawas rose to it splendidly. Not as much the tone of voice – though he did nail al-Wakeel’s distinctive cadence, with rises at the end of phrases followed by over-extended pauses – as the way in which the star host tends to conduct his on-air interactions: reading out listeners’ names, responding to their greetings posted on social media, and re-phrasing and appropriating the problems from their call-ins to fit into his own personal performance arc. […]


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