Mourning the Custodian

By Sunday, 25 January, pundits and journalists had already milked the Saudi king Abdullah’s death for about all its worth. There were obituaries, and eulogies, and op-eds. Western corporate media were swift to provide  assessments of his life and legacy – accompanied, of course, by the obligatory fretting about oil prices. There were more critical voices too, calls for a more nuanced assessment of the legacy of a man who many of his Euro-American political colleagues insisted on praising as a modernizer and reformer (though, really, he was anything but).

512px-King_Abdullah_bin_Abdul_al-Saud_January_2007

(King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud in 2007. Via Wikimedia Commons)

Abdullah was not, in fact, just the “King of Saudi Arabia.” His official royal style was خادم الحرميْن الشريفيْن، “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” (ie. Mecca’s Masjid al-Haram and Medina’s Mosque of the Prophet) – a legacy of his predecessor, King Fahd, who attempted to shore up his Islamic credentials by declaring himself a bearer of religious and not just worldly power. A dubious claim, in the eyes of many – including within Saudi Arabia itself – but it still imposes a very pressing formal requirement to refer to the Saudi regnant with this title whenever his name is mentioned in Arabic.

Like other Arab regnants, the Royal Hashemite Court expressed its “deepest and utmost sorrow” at the Custodian’s passing, and declared that it would enter a 40-day mourning period beginning from Friday (23 January). Official mourning in Jordan more generally – media blackout, flags at half mast, and so on – would last for three days, ie. Friday to Sunday.

Radio Hala, at least, took it all very seriously indeed.

Radio Hala programmes suspended on Sunday… in mourning for the passing of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz

Image text reads:

MOURNING

Truly we are God’s, and to Him we return

(This latter is a Qur’an quote – part of verse 156 of the Sura of the Cow, quoted / recited / posted often at mentions of death)

And – indeed. Instead of the familiar voice of Muhammad al-Wakeel and bagpipe-friendly  nationalist tunes, on Sunday morning Hala’s airwaves were overtaken by the supremely pious sounds of Qur’an recitation – much the same as on Radio Jordan, the Jordanian government’s official (official official) radio station.

A bit of skipping around the airwaves, though, soon showed this was more the exception than the rule. Hani al-Badri’s programme on Radio Fann was unaffected. On JBC, Mahmoud al-Hawyan did linger for a sentence or two longer on the news of Abdullah’s death than he did on other headlines – his comments had all the standard ‘solidarity bases’ covered: “he was a great man,” “all Jordanians mourn his passing,” “Muslims and Christians alike” – but in the end it was just one piece of news among others. King Abdullah was honored – as befits him – but eventually set aside. There were flowery-worded rants to make, and callers to soothe and assist. Even the Custodian could not compete with imperatives of the morning call-in show.

Nashama FM – my impression of it is a kind of “Hala Junior”, indeed quite literally as its broadcasts include a programme hosted by Muhammad al-Wakeel’s son – straddled the fence a bit more, with much of its morning slot being taken over by a host speaking over music about Abdullah’s legacy and what might happen now his brother Salman had succeeded him. (All good things, of course.) Perhaps most glaringly, Hayat FM – the prototype of an “Islamic format” radio station – showed no trace of being in mourning at all. Its live programmes went on as usual, punctuated by religious addresses, sermons, and calls to prayer; and its news bulletins were much more concerned with the most recent round of police brutality in Egypt than with the Custodian’s passing. Yet even within the confines of its own format – that of Arabic-language stations providing live programming and call-ins, and playing (pretty much exclusively) Arabic music – Hala was the exception, and just about the only channel that followed official guidelines on media suspension.

The reason? I would point to two factors. First, the more obvious – and cynical – one: Hala was simply following the official political line of “solidarity and support” with Saudi Arabia, which given its status as the premier ally of the United States in the region could hardly be otherwise.

But there may be something subtler at play here as well. Recall that Radio Hala is the official station of the Jordanian Armed Forces: the voice of the Arab Army – and, by extension, also this army’s supreme leader, the commander-in-chief, His Majesty Abdullah II of Jordan himself. The king is, as is well known, a first-rate military man, and the Armed Forces one of the most prominent organs acting in his name outside the walls of his palace.

Hala is not just a station that happens to have been founded by the Armed Forces (like Radio Fann, or Bliss), but an integral part of the army itself; its ‘voice,’ if you will – though one that’s rather varied and nuanced in its expression, and certainly not a straightforward mouthpiece. Still, it’s subject to obligations that other stations whose links to the state apparatus are not as explicit might be able to dodge. With the Court in mourning, there’s no choice for it but to fall into pious silence too.

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Mourning the Custodian

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